Renfroe Returns To Ripken

Mississippi State raw talent picks familiar over Cape Cod

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By the league's most recent count, 939 alumni of the Cape Cod League had appeared in the big leagues. In 2011 alone there were 250 Cape League alumni on major league rosters. Long viewed as scouts' top summer destination, the Cape is hands-down the place to play for the best ballplayers coast to coast. Simply put: it's hard to imagine a more desirable place for amateur players to spend their summer months.

Just don't tell that to Hunter Renfroe.

The Mississippi State sophomore is one of college baseball's rare packages of light tower-power at the plate and mid-to-upper-90s stuff from the mound. Last summer Renfroe played for the Bethesda (Md.) Big Train of the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League, hitting .305 and leading the league with eight home runs.

This summer Renfroe declined an invitation to play in the Cape, opting to play with Bethesda for another season instead. As Renfroe explained it, the decision ultimately came down to where he was most comfortable.

"I feel like everybody here wants to have fun," Renfroe said. "People aren't all high-strung about everything, people just like to relax. And it's kind of like a home atmosphere. We've got great host-parents and that's kind of what drove me back here."

And while the Ripken League may not be Cape Cod, Renfroe doesn't take the competition lightly, pointing out a strong Southeastern Conference presence in the league. Nevertheless, Renfroe was dominating for the Big Train, batting .385 with a league-best six home runs in his first 19 games.

"Up here they challenge you with pitching," he said. "It's kind of like, 'If you're good enough to be here then I'm going to challenge you with my stuff and see who's better.'"

Renfroe could be one of the ones challenging hitters himself thanks to a powerful arm capable of producing mid-to-upper 90s heat. However, Renfroe didn't see any time on the mound with Mississippi State this spring. On a roster that included great pitching depth, the 6-foot-2, 211-pound righthander from Crystal Springs, Miss., spent much of the season splitting time between center and left field.

That concentration paid off defensively, as Mississippi State head coach John Cohen raved about his improvement in 2012. "As a defensive outfielder he has come light years," Cohen said. "His arm is just a weapon from the outfield. I don't know if I've ever seen an outfielder with as many assists in a college baseball season as he had (11) . . . I don't see everyone in the country, but if there's a stronger outfield arm in the country than his I would be surprised."

Mississippi State's lineup was injury-plagued in 2012, while it had 14 pitchers by Cohen's count who had hit 91 mph on a radar gun (including Renfroe in the fall). "He pitched in the fall and he just thought it was really difficult to play the outfield, catch a little bit and pitch, and he really wanted to focus in on the hitting and the defensive part," Cohen said.

While Cohen says whether Renfroe pitches in the future or not is Renfroe's decision, it's likely also to come down to the Bulldogs' roster construction. They need more offense in 2013, including from Renfroe, whose raw approach limited him to a .252/.328/.374 line, though his 16 doubles tied for the team lead. He ranked second on the club with 51 strikeouts against just 21 walks. His four homers tied for third, and he's surpassed that total with wood in the Ripken League.

"The way I approach baseball in this league is a lot different," Renfroe said. "I'm a lot more swing-oriented in my approach. It's just kind of 'swing and see what happens.' At Mississippi State it's more like you put the ball where you think it needs to be. It's more sacrifice flies, hit-and-runs, where up here you don't have to worry about that. There's more leeway for you to do what you want to do."

Renfroe is still a raw talent. Playing in the SEC requires not only athleticism, but refined baseball skills as well. Those are the type of skills that he will be working on as he heads into his junior season with the Bulldogs. Cohen emphasized the rapid improvement that he has seen already in Renfroe's plate discipline, which is the key to his future development.

"I thought as the year went on he did a much better job against the breaking ball, taking marginal breaking balls out of the zone and not chasing," Cohen said. "When Hunter Renfroe figures out pitch selection he's going to be a great, great hitter. I think that's the one thing that can stop you from greatness and he's right on the cusp of figuring that out with his game."

— John Sandberg

Cape Cod Helium Watch: Phillip Ervin

HARWICH, Mass. Phillip Ervin wasted no time making a name for himself at Samford, hitting .371/.440/.516 in 2011 to earn freshman All-America honors. He did not disappoint in his encore this spring, hitting .327 with a team-high 18 doubles along with 10 homers and 52 RBIs to help lead the Bulldogs to regionals for the first time in school history.

Ervin has carried his momentum over into this summer in the Cape Cod League. Through just 15 games, the Harwich Mariners center fielder has mashed a league-leading eight home runs, a number that has already eclipsed the season-ending totals of both the 2011 and 2010 CCBL home run champions.

"He's off to a hot start and is just playing relaxed," explains Harwich manager Steve Englert. "He's up there having fun."

Ervin's early home run binge has been one of the most exciting storylines in college baseball this summer.

In a June 28 victory over the Orleans Firebirds that put the Mariners in sole possession of first place, Ervin found himself behind in the count 1-and-2 against righthander Austin Kubtiza (Rice), who had mowed down hitters through the first three innings. Kubitza tried to get him with a challenge fastball on the inner half, but Ervin turned on it and sent a screaming line drive over the left-center wall. Scouts and fans alike shook their heads as Ervin rounded the bases. It marked his third straight game with a home run.

At 5-foot-10, 195 pounds, Ervin doesn't possess a typical power hitter's frame, instead utilizing lightning-quick hands, good bat control and patience at the plate. While opposing pitchers continue to attack him with offspeed pitches, Ervin has shown confidence in his ability to hit deep in counts and a willingness to wait for the pitcher to make a mistake.

"I'm feeling really good," Ervin said. "I'm seeing more pitches and doing a better job with recognition. I used to be a free swinger and swing at anything that was close. I don't chase as many pitches anymore."

While his strikeout percentages have remained low throughout his college career, Ervin's improved approach has certainly been evident this summer. He is driving the ball up the middle with force and consistently squares up pitches, something many amateurs struggle with initially when switching from metal bats to wood for the summer. Of course, Ervin showed he could handle wood last summer in the Northwoods League, where he hit .305/.392/.523 with six homers and ranked as the No. 9 prospect in the circuit.

"After using wood last summer in the Northwoods League, I tried to use it often in cages and batting practice at school this spring," Ervin said. "It's made me more confident coming into the Cape this summer."

And that added confidence has certainly paid dividends thus far. As of July 2, Ervin had posted an impressive .364/.462/.873 slash line to go along with his league-leading eight home runs and 16 RBIs. He has been the centerpiece of the first-place Mariners' lineup.

"It's funny: I actually don't consider myself a home run hitter," Ervin said. "I strive to be a good contact hitter first. I just want to perform, play and I'll hope the home runs keep coming."

While it's his offensive outburst that has garnered the attention of scouts thus far, Ervin's performance in center field has been notable as well. He is an above-average runner with good instincts and a strong, accurate arm. He's displayed adequate route running and good range, giving him the potential for five average to above-average tools.

Ervin was on scouts' radars in high school, when he was a three-sport star at Leroy (Ala.) High. But as he has focused exclusively on baseball, his skill set has improved, and so has his prospect status. Still, Ervin hasn't let his success change his approach.

"He's staying level-headed," Englert said. "He's got the right makeup and mentality to deal with the success that he's having. He's really off to a good start and we expect him to continue doing well for us."

—Peter Wardell