As spring training was drawing to a close in Fort Myers last year, Rob Refsnyder was informed that he would not be breaking camp with the Red Sox.
Refsynder, who signed a minor-league deal with Boston over the winter that included an invite to major-league camp, would instead be reporting to Triple-A Worcester for the start of the 2022 season. Before the big-league club headed to New York for their opening series against the Yankees, though, the 31-year-old journeyman approached Red Sox hitting coach Peter Fatse.
Due to the nature of a lockout-abbreviated camp, Fatse had not been able to spend much time working with Boston’s non-roster invitees in the batting cages of the Fenway South complex. With seemingly nothing to lose, Refsnyder went up to Fatse in hopes of working with him just once before joining the WooSox in Jacksonville.
“I was like you know what, Fatse, everyone speaks so highly of him,” Refsnyder recalled to The Athletic’s Jen McCaffrey. “I didn’t get that much time with him, especially as a minor-league signing, so he was available and I went up to him and said, ‘Hey, I’d love to work with you before I leave.'”
That decision would prove to pay off for Refsnyder. On April 4, he and Fatse worked through a self-described “life-changing” hitting session.
Refsnyder, who to that point in his career had played in parts of six major-league seasons for the Yankees, Blue Jays, Rays, Rangers, and Twins, had always had difficulties against right-handed pitching. Those struggles could be attributed to the fact that the right-handed hitter had trouble staying inside the ball due to his swing mechanics.
As outlined by McCaffrey, Refsynder had “been hyper-focused on his upper-half movements, but less so on his lower half, which forced him to open up too much on his swing. It was something he was aware of but always struggled to fix.”
During that April 4 hitting session, however, something clicked while Refsnyder was working with Fatse, which allowed him to unlock a new component of his swing.
“Fatse really dumbed it down for me,” Refsnyder said. “He really helped me understand how the lower half should work. It’s super simple stuff, but I was like, ‘Damn.’”
As part of the session, Refsnyder picked up on the notion that if he kept his back heel planted on the ground, his lower half would stay more stable throughout his swing. That, in part, would allow him to get the ball in the air more frequently as opposed to hitting soft singles.
“I would just jump out of my swing and the barrel would drop under plane, and then come up really fast and create top spin,” said Refsnyder. “I think I’ve always been able to control the strike zone OK but I couldn’t do anything with the ball. Fatse unlocked that for me.”
Fatse, for his part, has worked with countless Red Sox hitters since joining the organization as an assistant hitting coach in October 2021. When speaking with McCaffrey, though, the Western Mass. native was able to remember that particular day with Refsnyder rather quickly.
“It was honestly probably more talking than hitting,” Fatse said. “I basically put together almost like a four-part iMovie of the drills and said, ‘Boom, do this, this, this and go.’ Let that be your fallback whenever you feel you need something, go back to this. These things are your staples in terms of your routine.
“The thing that stands out about that time to me,” he added, “it was the physical element of the swing, but it was the mental, like, ‘You’re going to help us. We need you to be locked and loaded when it’s your time,’ and to his credit, if it helped him, great, but he was ready to go when it was his time. He set the league on fire in Triple-A.”
With a condensed, four-minute video of his session with Fatse saved on his phone as a helpful reference, Refsnyder made his WooSox debut on April 5. While coordinating with hitting coach Rich Gedman and assistant hitting coach Mike Montville, he set the International League on fire by hitting safely in 10 of his first 11 games. He was then called up by the Red Sox when the club was dealing with a COVID outbreak in late April.
Upon returning to Worcester, Refsnyder picked up where he left off. By early June, he was batting a stout .306/.429/.524 with 14 doubles, six home runs, 28 RBIs, and 31 runs scored in 42 games. Around that same time, injuries began to pile up for the Red Sox. And so Refsnyder had his contract selected from Triple-A on June 8.
From that point forward, Refsnyder did not return to Worcester and instead put together the best year of his big-league career. In the process of registering a career-high 177 plate appearances over 57 games, Refsnyder slashed .307/.384/.497 with 11 doubles, six home runs, 21 RBIs, 25 runs scored, one stolen base, 15 walks, and 46 strikeouts. He also hit .308 as a pinch-hitter and posted a respectable .792 OPS off right-handed pitching.
On the other side of the ball, Refsnyder saw playing time at all three outfield positions for the Red Sox last year. The 6-foot, 205-pounder started 16 games in right, 13 in center, and two in left while ranking in the 90th percentile of all big-leaguers in arm strength (averaged 91.3 mph on his throws), per Baseball Savant.
In November, the Red Sox avoided arbitration with Refsnyder by signing him to a $1.2 million deal for the 2023 season. It might not seem that noteworthy on the surface, but it actually marked the first time in Refsnyder’s career that he had agreed to a guaranteed contract.
“This offseason, my wife and I celebrated our first guaranteed contract,” Refsnyder said in a recent interview with Red Sox Productions. “I always got to a point where I was like, ‘I wonder what this is going to feel like? If it’s going to feel any different.’ It’s almost like even more of a driving factor. It’s like, ‘Wow, a team has put a little bit of confidence in you. You better work your [expletive] off. You better live up to it or do the best you can trying to.”
Refsnyder, who turns 32 later this month, figures to serve as a fourth outfielder who fares well against lefties for Boston this season behind the likes of Masataka Yoshida, Adam Duvall, and Alex Verdugo. He will surely be looking to build off the momentum he gained in 2022 by taking another step forward this year.
Looking back, though, Refsnyder is in a much better place than he was 11 months ago. After being informed that he would not make the Red Sox’ Opening Day roster, Refsnyder told McCaffrey that he was at a crossroads and was even contemplating retirement.
Now, thanks in part to a memorable session in the cages with his hitting coach last April, Refsnyder is on track to head north with the Red Sox this time around.
“That session with Fatse really changed my life, to be honest,” said Refsnyder. “I still have it on my phone and it’s my favorite video when I’m not going well to look up.”
(Picture of Rob Refsnyder: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)