More balls in the air = more results
Rewind back to August 31, 2018. Long-time veteran David Freese is being employed by the Pittsburgh Pirates. The past few seasons he’s been hanging around league-average as a hitter, limited defensively at the corner infield positions. He’s serviceable, but his value is replaceable. It wouldn’t have been surprising to see Freese retire after the 2018 season, or maybe hang around on a low-end free agency deal. Yet whatever way you looked at it, his days on a big league roster looked limited.
On then on the final day of the August trade deadline, he was dealt to the Dodgers for a 20-year-old who was playing games in the Dominican Summer League. Freese had himself a one-month tryout for a postseason roster spot. His 111 wRC+ at the time of the trade wowed nobody, but what he did have going for him was a platoon advantage, considering his past success against left-handers.
From September 1st until the end of the regular season, there were 304 hitters with as many plate appearances as David Freese: 47. Only Christian Yelich and Tommy Pham posted a higher wRC+ than Freese’s mark of 210. Admittedly, he was protected in a platoon (33 of 47 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers, 260 wRC+ against) and it was a very small sample size. Nonetheless, he had performed well in his role and was swinging a very hot bat.
Freese would end up with 26 plate appearances in the postseason because of this. He slashed an unbelievable .364/.423/.773 in the month of October, with four of his eight hits going for extra bases. The only hitter with as many plate appearances last October with a higher OPS was George Springer.
Freese’s successful stint with the Dodgers earned him a spot on the 2019 roster, as he was inked to a one-year, $4.5 million deal. The expectations for him were to just pinch-hit, pop in the lineup against lefties from time to time, and fill some innings at first and third.
So far, Freese has done that and plenty more. The list of hitters more productive than Freese on a plate appearance by plate appearance basis is limited: Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger, Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, George Springer. Looking at xwOBA, it’s the same story, perhaps also showing this isn’t some fluke. Out of 321 hitters with at least 100 plate appearances, only 19 have a higher xwOBA.
Through 213 plate appearances with the Dodgers, Freese has been a monster at the plate. To make these matters more interesting, he’s also producing against right-handers. From the beginning of the 2015 season until his final plate appearance with the Pirates, Freese hit righties for a 105 wRC+, showing limited power against them with a .144 ISO. Push the parameter to since 2017 and he hit them for a 98 wRC+ and .131 ISO. With the Dodgers, he’s hit them for a 179 wRC+ with a .321 ISO. This obviously paired well with his 182 wRC+ against lefties.
Freese’s changes look apparent. From the beginning of 2015 to the end of August 2018, Freese hit 57 percent of his batted balls on the ground. With the Dodgers, his ground ball-rate against righties has fallen to 41.5 percent. It’s the same against lefties too. In the same two time constraints, he dropped his ground ball-rate from 57.9 percent to 42.9 percent.
Freese has long been a player that could have a major benefit from hitting the ball in the air more. Dating back to when his career started, he’s ranked in the bottom five percent of qualified hitters in GB/FB ratio. Meanwhile, his 238 wRC+ on fly balls ranked in the top five percent. His HR/FB rate ranked in the top 15 percent and his hard-hit rate on fly balls ranked in 12th out of 864 qualified hitters. Him hitting the ball on the ground so much was a true shame because he always possessed the raw power.
It’s no surprise that when he started lifting the ball, better results showed.
In a loaded Dodgers lineup, the chances at David Freese making a huge impact are minimal, barring injury. For now, he’ll still be specified to his role and that’s okay. If he maintains this performance to at least some degree, he’ll be one of the more valuable bench pieces in all of baseball.