Three years ago, scouts and college coaches who evaluate talent in Mississippi had a hard time figuring out Hunter Renfroe.
A righthanded-hitting catcher at Copiah Academy in Gallman, Renfroe was laying waste to the state's private-school competition, setting a state home run record and touching 97 mph with his fastball. At 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, he was a bundle of raw tools with everything scouts look for in a draft prospect. He showcased at least three above-average tools with his power, arm and speed, and that's usually enough to make a player a high pick.
Working against Renfroe was his lack of a track record against quality high school pitching. Scouts hadn't seen much of him on the summer showcase circuit, and he saw precious little velocity against mostly small Mississippi high schools. So Renfroe fell to the 31st round of the 2010 draft, where the Red Sox took him. The team made a run at signing him, but instead he headed to Mississippi State, which made him a late scholarship offer.
In 2010, Renfroe ranked as the state's No. 4 prospect just behind shortstop JaCoby Jones of Richton High, the state player of the year. Jones was in some ways Renfroe's opposite, a product of the showcase circuit. Jones had been an All-American out of Richton, a town of just over 1,000, and had been heavily recruited. He had agent Scott Boras advising him out of high school, fell to the draft's 19th round (Astros) and went to Louisiana State.
Three years later, Renfroe has developed into a contender for Southeastern Conference player of the year, hitting 15 home runs, and looks like a surefire first-round pick, earning comparisons to the likes of Tom Brunansky and Tim Salmon. Jones has teased scouts for most of his three seasons at LSU; for example, he wowed scouts while winning the Cape Cod League home run derby but has just 13 career homers for the Tigers.
Both Jones and Renfroe fit the profile of the most successful big leaguers from Mississippi, a state where high school draftees have had a hard time breaking into the big leagues. The top big leaguers out of the Magnolia Sate all have been college or junior-college products, from Rafael Palmeiro, Will Clark and Jonathan Papelbon (Mississippi State) to Zack Cozart, Lance Lynn and Seth Smith (Mississippi) to Desmond Jennings (Itawamba JC), Matt Lawton (Gulf Coast CC) and Roy Oswalt (Holmes CC).
The last player drafted and signed out of a Mississippi high school to have a significant big league career is Bill Hall, a sixth-rounder in 1998. The best career by a prep draftee out of the state belongs to Charlie Hayes, who was solid rather than spectacular. That track record is one reason minor league stolen-base king Billy Hamilton had to wait until the Reds popped him in the second round in 2009 despite being that draft's fastest player.
Clubs and their area scouts are well aware of the poor track record for Mississippi high school picks, though it hasn't totally stopped them from spending heavily on such players. In 2009, the Red Sox gave infielder David Renfroe $1.4 million. The Angels popped Ryan Bolden 40th overall in 2010 and signed him for $829,800. In the 2012 draft, the state produced two high-dollar prep players in outfielders Anthony Alford (Blue Jays, $750,000) and D.J. Davis (Blue Jays, $1.75 million).
This year's prep class in the state lacks a marquee talent, but the first five rounds could be full of players with Mississippi ties. The top juco picks in the entire draft could both be from Mississippi in East Central JC shortstop Tim Anderson and Northwest Mississippi JC lefthander Cody Reed. (Another top juco prospect, Faulkner (Ala.) State outfielder Colin Bray, was the Mississippi prep athlete of the year in 2011.) And Renfroe heads a host of Bulldogs who should be picked, while Ole Miss could produce a first-rounder in righthander Bobby Wahl.
High School Struggles
If the state can be such a hotbed for baseball, why do its high school prospects have such a dismal track record? Scouts and college coaches offer several explanations.
• Poverty: Mississippi had the nation's highest poverty rate according to the 2010 Census, with 22 percent of its population living below the poverty line. The national average was 15.3 percent. That has multiple implications to baseball, such as scouts sneering at the level of competition that Renfroe faced in his prep career. It also makes it difficult for players from poor families to participate in baseball's expensive showcase and travel-ball circuit.
"Most Mississippi kids have never heard of East Cobb," says Cooper Farris, the retired coach at Gulf Coast CC and manager of Wareham in the Cape Cod League every summer. "They don't know much about travel ball or select teams."
• King Football: The sport attracts the top athletes of all colors and creeds, and Mississippi has the most developed junior-college football system in the country. Its 13 juco football programs are the most of any state outside of California.
"There is more opportunity to play football than there is baseball, because even low-income kids can still get to the SEC--which is what most of them dream of--by first going to junior college," says Samford recruiting coordinator Tony David, a Mississippi native who has coached and recruited in Mississippi and Alabama for 17 years.
The state's juco schools have had successes in baseball but have lost ground to football over the years, and scouts tend to downplay the level of competition. That led to both Anderson (a product of Tuscaloosa, Ala.) and Reed going through the 2012 draft without being drafted. Now both could go inside the first 50 picks.
• Rural population: Only Vermont, Wyoming, Montana and Maine have more rural populations than Mississippi (defined by the Census as the percentage of a state's population living in town or small cities of 50,000 or less). That leads to small towns and small high schools with less competition--both for spots on the team and against other teams--and it leads to small-town heroes who haven't experienced failure until they get to pro ball.
"There are more 5-A schools in the Houston area than there are in the entire state of Mississippi," Farris said. "There, the high school team might have 10 or 12 good players on it. Here it's more like two or three."
Some of those small-town roots can help. Hamilton loved to play so much, he'd play in local adult-league games anytime, anywhere, helping him develop strong instincts.
"Some of these guys, that's all they know is playing baseball," Farris says, "and I mean play. They have fun playing."
Several scouts also believe the small town nature of the state leads to less sophistication among Mississippi products. As one scout put it, "Frankly the success stories are that white kids from Mississippi need to go to college and grow up . . . Most of the black kids in Mississippi have had to endure some obstacles, have had to overcome something. That is not the case with a lot of the small-town heroes who have not faced much competition. Pro ball is hard enough to be dealing with failure for the first time, but that's what a lot of them have to go through."
Another scout compared prep products from Mississippi to products of the Dominican Republic in terms of the difficulty they have making the transition from a slow-paced, rural state to the bus rides and grinder mentality of the low minors.
Scouts have less trepidation about college products such as Renfroe, who as Farris said "didn't know any better than to work hard. He's not spoiled like some of these kids you see. Some of these guys haven't carried their own bat bag since they were 10."
Farris loves the state and wants to see more of its players succeed, which is why he's excited by the likes of Renfroe and Reed, who's out of Horn Lake, Miss., just south of Memphis.
"I just came from a workout with some 2014 players," he said in mid-May, "and those boys can hit. We've had some good ballplayers out of here. I hope we can have some more."