Renfroe Epitomizes Pop-Up Phenomenon
Every draft class brings with it a preseason Top 100 here at Baseball America, and every area scout has his own preseason follow list.
And every year, some player pops up to blow such lists to bits.
The industry term is "pop-up guy," with various definitions. For some a pop-up guy is someone like John VanBenschoten, who in 2001 went from potential single-digit pick to the eighth overall selection with the Pirates. For others, a pop-up guy is someone who goes from relatively off the radar to getting crosschecked by scouts for a possible single-digit round selection. In both cases, scouts don't mind being surprised by talent.
In the Southeast in 2010, the surprise is Hunter Renfroe, a catcher, outfielder and sometime pitcher at private Copiah Academy in Gallman, Miss. He had attended at least one showcase but wasn't a veteran of the circuit, so he didn't enter the year high on anyone's follow list.
Twenty home runs later—three short of ex-big leaguer Dave Clark's 30-year-old state single-season record—Renfroe was the definitive example of a pop-up player. Scouts and college recruiters agree that the 6-foot-1, 185-pounder has excellent raw tools that include obvious bat speed and raw power, as well as plus arm strength. Behind the plate, Renfroe has produced throws to second base clocking in under 1.9 seconds, and he's thrown in the low 90s in short pitching stints. At the plate, an eight-game homer streak helped make him the national home runs leader until a recent hot streak by Ethan Bennett of Knoxville (Tenn.) Farragut High, who has 22.
Hard To Peg
Renfroe is a pop-up guy in another way. He's raw, and his track record of success is short, precisely because he hasn't been to showcases and hasn't faced premium competition. Interested area scouts are trying to get him crosschecked, to try to draft him in the first 10 rounds, but that has been a challenge as opposing coaches often intentionally walk him multiple times thanks to his dominance.
In one doubleheader, Renfroe was walked intentionally eight times in a row. He says a scout approached the opposing coach late in the game asking him to pitch to Renfroe for the benefit of the scouts on hand, with the game already out of hand. "I heard him say, 'I'll buy you a steak dinner,' " Renfroe said. "But they still didn't pitch to me."
Where Renfroe will be pitched to next spring remains up in the air. Renfroe's defense behind the plate lags far behind, clouding his draft prospects, and scouts and college coaches aren't sure where he'd play defensively as a college freshman either. He's committed to Meridian (Miss.) CC, but he's a pop-up guy for colleges, too. Two Southeastern Conference schools have come calling, trying to land him even though recruiters acknowledge he may be too raw to contribute in the SEC as a freshman.
Renfroe has noticed the attention. "Scouts started showing up about 10 games in," he said in a phone interview before practice last week. "Last year I hit 14 home runs, and I've played on a summer team (the Mississippi Worth Bandits) with the same guys since we were seven. I guess going to a small school like Copiah, it's hard to get that much exposure."
Renfroe says he's had more interest from pro clubs than from colleges, even though he has a 3.1 GPA and 19 ACT score, which should qualify him academically for Division I. "I've always been a Mississippi State fan," he says, "even though my parents prefer Ole Miss. I was hoping there'd be more colleges (recruiting me). Right now the only ones I've really heard from are LSU, Southern Miss and State."
Perhaps 15 years ago, when clubs had less information and before showcases took off, Renfroe might have had a chance to go off the board in the first five rounds. As it is, most teams today don't draft players that high without some lengthy track record, some sort of scouting history with the player. Renfroe, like many pop-up guys before him, has become a wild card, both for the draft and for college recruiters.
"Who knows what will happen," one recruiter said, "but he's got to go down as one of the legendary pop-up guys that I can remember."
It's hard to divine who else would go on that pop-up list, though White Sox lefthander Matt Thornton qualifies. He was drafted out of high school in 1995, but was known as much for playing basketball as for baseball. The 6-foot-6 lefthander at Division II Grand Valley (Mich.) State benefitted from all the attention Michigan State's Mark Mulder, prep home run champion Drew Henson and Michigan's J.J. Putz attracted to the state in 1998, and his low-to-mid-90s fastball and plus slider pushed him all the way into the first round despite the fact that he pitched just 20 innings as a junior.
Thornton put in six seasons in the minors before breaking through to the big leagues in 2004, and he's never looked back. A less-happy tale that pops up in my mind is that of outfielder/righthander Curtis Dupart out of Woodinville, Wash. He entered the 2006 season as a sleeper pitching prospect with intriguing raw power, but a hot streak at the plate—and crosscheckers who doubled up on seeing him after coming to the Evergreen State for first-rounders Tim Lincecum and Travis Snider—shot him up draft boards. It also attracted the attention of national power baseball programs, and he eventually settled on Georgia Tech. But after two ineffective seasons, Dupart transferred closer to home, to Idaho's NAIA monolith Lewis-Clark State, and he's no longer even on the roster there.
It's too early to say whether Renfroe will pan out like Thornton, or if he'll flame out under the glare of more intense scouting scrutiny. Under the old draft-and-follow system, scouts likely would be content to take another year to evaluate him at Meridian, and a season or two at Meridian may yet be his next stop. But pop-up guys like Renfroe are as much a part of draft lore as first-round picks and throngs of scouts.