Say hello to Hunter Renfroe, the best defensive right fielder in baseball

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Tomase: Better than Betts? Why Renfroe is MLB's best defensive RF originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Maybe it's because he's known as a burly home run hitter. Maybe it's because he rose to prominence on the West Coast in the National League. Or maybe it's because he shares a name with a football player. Whatever the reason, it's OK to admit you had no idea Hunter Renfroe was such a good outfielder.

Six weeks into this surprising Boston Red Sox season, it's possible no development is more unexpected than Renfroe channeling Mookie Betts, Dwight Evans, and Harry Freaking Hooper while playing a flawless right field.

We shouldn't be shocked, because Renfroe was a National League Gold Glove finalist in 2019 when he was credited with 19 defensive runs saved. But knowing that fact and watching him on a nightly basis are two different animals, and man is he making some plays.

On Wednesday night, Renfroe uncorked one of the best throws you'll ever see after backing up Alex Verdugo in center -- itself a great, heads-up play -- and gunning down Matt Chapman on what looked like a sure triple. It had shades of Mookie's signature heave in Tampa a couple of years ago.

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He followed that up in Thursday's 8-1 victory over Oakland by starting a 9-6-2 putout from the right field fence with a relay that hit shortstop Jonathan Arauz in the chest and allowed him to cut down the lumbering Sean Murphy at the plate.

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For good measure, he also unleashed a laser to home that froze Mitch Moreland wisely at third base, and then he chased down Mark Canha's drive with an over-the-shoulder grab for the game's final out that resembled vintage Dewey.

Those plays only added to Renfroe's resume. He entered the game easily leading all right fielders in defensive runs saved with seven, and he probably preserved three more runs on Thursday night. He has never won a Gold Glove, but at this pace, that's going to change.

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"I saw the stat about defensive runs saved already in right field," said manager Alex Cora. "We've seen some good ones play here, but this guy, he puts in work. You've got to see him in batting practice, he's always shagging, creating angles, pretty similar to Jackie when he was here, in center field. He was all out, trying to see the angles and what he can do -- 'Do I catch it like this or like that?' -- he does some crazy stuff, too, but he enjoys playing right field, and it's a pleasure to watch him."

"Jackie" would be Jackie Bradley Jr., one of the most gifted outfielders ever to wear a Red Sox uniform. Bradley made it look easy in ways that don't apply to Renfroe -- the 230-pounder is built like an H-back and rumbles around the outfield like John Riggins -- but the fact that Cora would make that comparison in the first place is telling.

It's also worth noting that Renfroe has statistically outplayed Betts this season, and Red Sox fans probably didn't see that coming. Betts has played a dozen games in center field for the Los Angeles Dodgers, so the comparison isn't exactly apples to apples, but he has been credited with just two defensive runs saved.

Better than Betts?

Renfroe's defensive runs saved (T-1st in MLB)

8

Betts' defensive runs saved

2

Variation

Double

Renfroe's throw on Wednesday had teammates recalling one that Betts made in Tampa in 2019, when he nailed Avisail Garcia at third from the right field corner, a chuck of over 300 feet.

"That was awesome, man," said Xander Bogaerts. "I think Mookie made one in Tampa a couple of years back, it kind of reminded me a little of that throw, from how far and how accurate. Obviously JBJ made some great players out there, but that was pretty much one that Mookie came into my mind when I saw that play."

Second baseman Michael Chavis has been amazed at Renfroe's accuracy. His relay to Arauz needed to be on the money to cut down Murphy, and it was.

"There's a decent amount of guys that have really good arms like that, but I haven't seen him really miss," Chavis said. "I feel like every single time he lets the ball go, you just have to close your eyes and stick a glove up. The dude is unbelievable."

Renfroe went 2 for 4 on Thursday to raise his average to .229 with four homers and 17 RBIs, so he hasn't done a ton yet offensively. But his defense is making a difference, and that fits the mold of this overachieving club, which will take winning plays wherever it can find them.

Case in point: Thursday's final out. The Red Sox weren't in danger of losing, and Renfroe could've easily fielded Canha's two-out blast off the wall for a double. Instead he tore back like Evans robbing Joe Morgan in the 1975 World Series, corralling the ball with his back to home plate to ice the victory.

"Not too many outfielders go after that ball in a game like that, right?" Cora said. "And he's hustling all the way. The last play was amazing. He's playing right field and it's pretty amazing. It's eye-opening."