Going Deep: David Freese Saved His Best for Last

Free agency can be a rough place these days. Nobody has been affected more in the last couple of years than the aging veteran hitter. Rightly or wrongly, front offices are handing out fewer dollars and years to declining hitters, preferring to give opportunities to younger players who can be sent down to the minors. This is even more true for rebuilding teams, of which there are many, as there is little incentive to pay a declining veteran millions of dollars when you can see if one of your younger players catches lightning in a bottle and turns into something at a fraction of the cost.

David Freese was the exception to this. Since 2013, he has hovered around league average in terms of wRC+ and WAR. Never topping a wRC+ of over 108 or WAR totals over 2.5, Freese was likely heading toward a fate similar to those of some other aging veterans as he entered a possible contract year with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2018. He hit well, putting up a nice bounce-back .282/.336/.444 line, which was good enough for a 111 wRC+ and made him a good August waiver-deadline candidate. The Los Angeles Dodgers went that route when they acquired him on August 31 for a 20-year-old still in the Dominican Rookie League, Jesus Valdez.

Freese was one of the best hitters in baseball down the stretch for the Dodgers, and it continued in the postseason, where he lived up to his clutch reputation with OPS marks above 1.000 in each of the Dodgers’ three playoff series. That run from Freese was convincing enough that the Dodgers made it a priority to get him re-signed for 2019, making it official not long after their World Series loss by declining his player option and re-signing him to a more team-friendly deal—not unlike the pact Brett Gardner and the New York Yankees made early in the offseason.

The Dodgers were likely expecting Freese to fill the same role he did in 2018: hit lefties, provide flexibility and give them a veteran clubhouse presence, something they’ve clearly have over the years, with players such as Chase Utley and Howie Kendrick playing those roles in recent seasons. Freese did that for the Dodgers in 2019, and he did it well. Since becoming a Dodger, Freese has been near the top of some impressive leaderboards, such as wRC+,

Top Hitters by wRC+ 9/1/2018-10/1/2019

I get it; it’s only 98 games, but Freese was one of the best hitters from September 1, 2018, to the end of the 2019 season. And yes, I realize it’s a cherry-picked time frame and that he rode a whopping .414 BABIP in that span, but Freese put up high BABIPs before, such as 2016’s .372. The difference in 2019 was not just that he was placed in positions to succeed, but he also made noticeable strides that make you wonder what he could have been if he had made those adjustments a half-decade earlier. This was quite the transformation, and it happened almost overnight at an age when hitters aren’t usually expected to get better.

Freese announced his retirement earlier this month after the Dodgers’ Division Series loss to the Washington Nationals. I was wondering how teams would value him in today’s free-agency landscape, but we won’t find out. Never the flashiest player, Freese exited the game quietly, but in his final season, he saved his best for last. He killed it in a depth role, hit as well as he ever had, and then quietly retired. It’s quite the way to go out for a player who had a flair for the dramatics.

 

The Setup

 

While Freese hit his best over a whole season in 2019, a look back at his career as he enters retirement should bring up the seven-game stretch in October 2011 where he hit at his absolute best, and in the biggest moments—with Game 6 of the 2011 World Series being the most notable. Freese’s path there was anything but conventional. As a senior in high school, he turned down the University of Missouri and nearly quit the sport altogether because of depression, which led to other issues down the line, including alcoholism. He rediscovered his love for the game during the summer after his freshman year and attended St. Louis Community College-Meramec, where he was an NJCAA second-team All-American. He then moved on to the University of South Alabama and became one of the most feared hitters in the Sun Belt Conference. He was eventually named Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year during his senior season in 2006 and was named by the American Baseball Coaches Association as the top third baseman in Division I, ahead of future first-round picks Evan Longoria and Pedro Alvarez.

Selected in the ninth round by the San Diego Padres in 2006, Freese lived up to his reputation as a hitter, slashing .317/.395/.569 in his first tour of the minor leagues in 2006. That continued in 2007 as he hit .302/.400/.489 in High-A ball, where he was still older than the average player by about a year. But still, those results are impressive no matter the league. With the Padres having both Chase Headley and Kevin Kouzmanoff looking ready to take over for the big league club in 2008, Freese was expendable and shipped off to his hometown Cardinals straight up for a 38-year-old Jim Edmonds.

Edmonds only played 26 games for the Padres, in which he hit .178/.265/.233 and was released May 9, 2008. He then signed with the Chicago Cubs, where he posted a .937 OPS in 85 games and made San Diego look silly in the process, as those 2008 Padres finished with 99 losses, which was the start of a stretch in which the team went 12 years with just one winning season.

That’s not to say Freese would have saved the Padres, but the Cardinals’ new prospect earned a promotion to Triple-A in 2008, where, guess what? He continued to rake with a .910 OPS for Memphis that year. He made his MLB debut in 2009, and in a 17-game cameo, he impressed with an .837 OPS. In 2010, Freese began the season as the Cardinals’ starting third baseman, but he dealt with ankle injuries that resulted in two surgeries that ended his season and limited him to 70 games and a .765 OPS.

While his 2011 slash line of .297/.350/.441, isn’t the most impressive, Freese started the season on fire and made crucial adjustments down the stretch. He credits then-Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire for the power he found that season, a key skill that would come into play later that year.

 

Hometown Hero

 

Freese is rightly remembered for his 2011 World Series heroics, but what gets lost is how good he was outside that series. His four-RBI performance in Game 4 of the Division Series against the Philadelphia Phillies saved the Cardinals’ season and pushed the series to a fifth game. The next series against the Milwaukee Brewers was the starting point of something special for Freese. He hit three home runs, drove in nine, scored seven runs in the six-game set, and was named series MVP. Through Game 3 of the 2011 World Series, Freese had a 13-game postseason hitting streak, which set a Cardinals record.

Game 6 of the 2011 World Series is often referred to as one of the best baseball games of all time, or at least of this century. It may end up being the best contest I ever see in my lifetime, and that is OK with me. We all know the story: The Cardinals were trailing by two in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and Freese at the plate. Down to their final strike, Freese ripped one off Rangers star closer Neftali Feliz that was just out of the reach of right fielder Nelson Cruz:

via Gfycat

I wonder if Cruz still has nightmares about that ball barely sailing over his glove. He was slowed by a hamstring injury, which created one of the biggest what-if scenarios in recent history. Would a fully healthy Cruz have caught that ball? Remember, he isn’t exactly known for his glove, and even in 2011, he had negative-five defensive runs saved. Or what if the Rangers had left Endy Chavez in the game? Chavez, perhaps best known for a historic defensive play, pinch hit in the top half of the ninth and then was pulled in the bottom half of the inning with the Rangers seemingly preferring to have an outfield defensive combination of David Murphy in left, Josh Hamilton in center, and Cruz in right.

It is worth pointing out that the 2011 series wasn’t the best example of managerial prowess, with both Rangers skipper Ron Washington and Cardinals veteran Tony La Russa making questionable moves throughout. The 2011 series may very well be the last one where we see so few sabermetric ideas put into action, but that is beside the point. Would Chavez have made the play? We will never know the answer, and that is part of the reason we love sports so much (and why it drives so many of us crazy). Freese’s two-out, two-strike triple is one of the biggest moments in baseball history in terms of win probability added, and championship win probability added, as mentioned in this 2015 piece from Grantland.

That game’s win expectancy chart is still a sight to behold:

Freese’s triple was the biggest hit in terms of win probability added of any in the World Series that did not give its team the lead, which, considering the details, isn’t much of a shock. That triple alone was enough to cement him in postseason lore, but what Freese did in the bottom half of the 11th inning was the icing on the cake. The Cardinals almost lost the series in the 10th, as Hamilton homered in the top of the frame to give Texas the lead back, making it 9-7. That would have been a great story had the Rangers held on, as Hamilton was the face of the franchise and went through a lot to get to that point..

Instead, the Cardinals rallied in the bottom of the inning. With two outs and two strikes, Lance Berkman was the hero of the frame, singling home Jon Jay to tie the game. What happened in the bottom of the 11th wouldn’t have occurred if it weren’t for some clutch hitting elsewhere in the Cardinals lineup. Freese led off the bottom of the 11th against Mark Lowe, which—let’s just say that there are other pitchers a team would rather have out there in that spot. Anyway, on a 3-2 count, Freese got a 90 mph fastball that he deposited into the center field batter’s eye to send St. Louis into a frenzy, and more importantly, sent the team to a Game 7:

via Gfycat

That night, Freese became only the second Cardinal (the player he was traded for, Edmonds, being the other) to hit a walk-off home run in extra innings. Additionally, he became just the fifth player ever to hit an extra-inning home run to stave off elimination, joining Carlton Fisk in 1975, Kirby Puckett in 1991, Aaron Boone in 2003, and David Ortiz in 2004.

Game 7 the next night was not nearly as dramatic, and it was all but over early, thanks again to Freese, who hit a two-run double in the bottom of the first that tied the game and took all the momentum from the Rangers, who provided very little threat the rest of the night. The Cardinals won the game 6-2 and their 11th World Series title, and Freese was named series MVP. His 21 postseason RBI that year is an MLB record, and Freese became only the sixth player to win LCS and World Series MVP honors in the same year.

Riding that high of that postseason performance, Freese did not slow down in 2012. He made his only All-Star appearance, and it was the only season in which he finished with more than three wins above replacement, as he established himself as one of the most feared hitters in a Cardinals lineup that was one win away from a second straight World Series appearance. Freese could not replicate his ferocious 2011 postseason in 2012, though. He only OPS’ed a hair above .600 in the seven-game classic against the San Francisco Giants, a team that was midway through its dynasty. Marco Scutaro played the Freese role for San Francisco, tying an NLCS record with 14 hits in the series. Freese’s slump in that series and the emergence of a new, young, Cardinals star was the beginning of the end for his hometown run.

 

The Road to L.A.

 

With Freese starting the 2013 season injured and slumping, Matt Carpenter saw his playing time increase to an everyday role, and he was not going to let that role go anytime soon. The Cardinals also had one of their top prospects ready for the big leagues in Kolten Wong, and with Freese aged 30, he became expendable. His final game with his hometown team came in the Cardinals’ 2013 World Series loss to the Boston Red Sox, and he was traded to the then-Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for a package of young outfielders in Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk. In his two seasons in Anaheim, Freese was never much more than a baseline player, averaging just under 2.4 fWAR in those seasons for teams that never could get over the hump.

His first trip through free agency in 2015 saw him sign late in the offseason. He only landed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates midway through March 2016, as he looked less and less like the hitter he was, which makes the final act of his career even more spectacular. He landed a nice payday at his advanced age, with the Pirates keeping him around on a two-year, $11 million extension with a team option for 2019. The use of limited payroll space on an aging player such as Freese is probably one reason the Pirates moved on from former general manager Neil Huntington (although not the biggest reason, by far). Still, the Pirates valued his leadership and clubhouse presence enough to make the deal worth it in their eyes.

An unfortunate situation involving the Pirates’ preferred third base option, Jung-Ho Kang, pushed Freese to an increased role in 2017. His performance went down with the rest of the Pirates’ ship that season, as Freese’s .371 slugging percentage was the seventh-lowest among qualified hitters and the worst mark of his career. With Freese turning 35 early in the 2018 season, his future after that year was still up in the air. The Pirates were playing well, and Freese was enjoying a bounce-back season, putting up his best offensive campaign since his lone All-Star year in 2012. While the good fortune and postseason hopes for the Pirates didn’t last, Freese played well enough for the team to open some eyes and get to October. As the type of player who I feel has more value to contenders on August 31 than on July 31, Freese was moved to the Dodgers at the August trade deadline—fortunate that the deadline still existed, as I wonder if his late-career transformation would’ve happened without a move to the Dodgers.

 

Best for Last

 

Freese, not expected to be much more than a platoon/bench option, saw his bat explode upon arriving with the Dodgers. Thriving in this new role, Freese was an important part of the Dodgers’ 2018 postseason run, coming up with many big hits during it.

Throughout his career, Freese has been mostly a ground-ball hitter. Part of why he struggled so much during the back half of his career before he became a Dodger was he put the ball on the ground way too much. During his time as a Pirate, Freese had one of the highest ground-ball rates among all hitters:

Highest Hitter GB% 2016-2017, min. 800 PAs Combined

Obviously, it’s difficult to maintain any real success when a hitter puts that many balls on the ground. Just look at some of the names in that table: Nori Aoki and Yunel Escobar are no longer in baseball, Howie Kendrick has since enjoyed his own transformation as a hitter, and Eric Hosmer is one of the biggest highly paid disappointments in baseball. The irony for Freese, though, is that when he got the ball in the air in this time span, he got great results:

Best SLG on Fly Balls, 2016-2017

Some notable names behind Freese on this table are Cruz, Mike Trout, Freddie Freeman, and Trevor Story. With such good results when he gets the ball in the air, there became a noticeable area where Freese could improve his game, even at his advanced age. He began cutting down on his ground balls in 2018, but at 52%, it was still noticeably higher than the 43% league average. In 2019, Freese cut it down even further, getting it closer to the league average and the lowest it’s been in a single season for him in his entire career:

That being said, it’s easy to guess that Freese’s launch angle improved in 2019. Indeed it did, as evidenced by the graph below:

This graph may not do Freese justice, as even though he was one of the biggest launch-angle improvers on average, doing that just moved him closer to the pack, as the average launch angle for hitters in this group is close to 13 degrees. Overall, Freese’s 3.8 positive launch-angle change was one of the 30 biggest improvements. While I don’t think that raising his launch angle to just below league average is explanation enough for Freese’s 2019 turnaround, getting the ball off the ground was just the start.

Hitters strive for consistent quality contact, and for Freese, he reached that in 2019. His hard-hit rate spiked, which combined with him getting more balls of the ground, is a pretty good combination for success:

Like his improvements in ground-ball rate, last season was the beginning of this trend, with his just taking off in 2019. To go along with those changes, a high hard-hit rate usually is good news for barrel rate as well. Here are the hitters with the highest rate of barrels per batted-ball Event (BBE) in 2019:

BRL/BBE Leaders 2019

Freese is up there with some of the game’s most feared hitters, including 2019’s home run champion, Pete Alonso. Looking at which hitters had the biggest improvement in their rate of barrels per BBE, Freese shows up among the biggest improvers there as well:

BRL/BBE Biggest Gainers 2019

While this group is less impressive than the last one, what makes Freese stand out over guys such as Rougned Odor, or Renato Nunez is that there’s more to Freese’s game than just being able to run into one every once in a while. For instance, Freese walked at the highest rate of his career in 2019. His 12.4% walk rate in 2019 is basically a full percentage point greater than his previous career high, set in 2017. There is also one particular oddity that makes Freese stand out, that being his ability to take the ball the other way.

For whatever reason in 2019, Freese took the ball the opposite way at a nearly 40% rate—39.8% actually—which was the highest among hitters with as many plate appearances as Freese had, besting the runner-up, Jon Jay, by nearly a full percentage point. Doing that hasn’t caused his contact quality to fall off, as we saw earlier. Instead, Freese was at his best when going the other way. In terms of slugging, ISO, or wOBA on balls hit the other way, Freese is near the top of every leaderboard. Here are those three statistics merged into one table and sorted by slugging percentage:

SLG on Balls Hit Oppo, 2019

Only four other hitters outslugged Freese when going to the opposite field. With results like those, it made a lot of sense for him to alter his approach to emphasize taking the ball the other way, so he could pull of homers like this:

And then this impressive oppo-taco shot against Jon Lester:

Even in the twilight of his career, and coming off some down seasons, Freese had maybe one of the most unlikely comeback performances of the season, and he retired at the top of his game.

 

Conclusion

 

While the back of the baseball card may not be the most impressive, Freese left his mark on the game forever. It wasn’t the easiest road to becoming a hometown and World Series hero for Freese, as depression nearly caused him to walk away from the game, and alcoholism threatened his career multiple times afterward. Freese appears to have come through those hardships and produced a solid career, which ended on his own terms, and maybe at the peak of his performance.

Freese will rightly be remembered for his postseason heroics, with his big performance in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series being his finest moment.

While his later seasons with the Angels and Pirates were mostly unspectacular in comparison, Freese developed a reputation as a clubhouse leader and a valued veteran presence, along with becoming one of the most respected names in the game. Knowing that his run was ending after battling so many injuries over his career, Freese was able to go out on a high note, and by some metrics, was one of the best hitters in baseball in 2019—albeit in a small sample of games, as he was relegated to mostly a bench role for the powerhouse Dodgers. While this new role meant less playing time, it didn’t mean Freese couldn’t improve. After showing signs of life during his final season in Pittsburgh and in his limited looks in his first months as a Dodger, he put it all together in 2019, by getting the ball off the ground more, making some of the highest-quality contact among all hitters, and playing to his strengths as an opposite-field hitter.

At an age when hitters don’t usually get better, and in an era in which veterans are getting pushed out quicker than ever, Freese did what so many players can’t, which is to go out when they wish. Freese likely could have kept going for another year or two, and the Dodgers would probably have been happy to have him back in 2020, but Freese bowed out on his own terms, and I greatly respect that. Postseason heroics aside, Freese is likely to be remembered as a great teammate and competitor, a player who gave it his all and never let the moment get too big for him, and a player I’ve always had great respect for, and likely always will.

Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Matt Wallach

Matt studied accounting at the University at Albany and graduated in May 2019. He is a lifelong fan of the New York Yankees and can always be found talking baseball on Twitter @Wallach18

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