David Freese Has Sacrificed Power For Getting On-Base

PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 06: David Freese
PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 06: David Freese /

Analysis: David Freese has sacrificed most of his power for a new approach focusing on getting on-base at a higher clip, which has its pros and cons.

The Pirates have gone toward an on-base heavy approach in recent years and they have fallen behind in terms of isolated power (slugging percentage-batting average) and home run rate, especially as home runs keep increasing at such a high rate.  From 2012-14 the Pirates were better than the league average non pitchers, but in 2015 that changed, and that gap has increased without the power bats of Pedro Alvarez (non tendered after 2015) and Jung Ho Kang (visa issues).  They did have some surprise power last year in Sean Rodriguez and Gregory Polanco, but the rest of the players were either the same as they have been, or a tad worse.  Here is the breakdown of that:

One of the players who was essentially the same was David Freese, who hit 13 home runs after a 2014 of 10 and a 2015 of 14.  He also had an ISO of .142 after seasons of .123 and .163, so Freese performed essentially in between his 2014 and 2015 seasons, and about where his career is.

This season, though, Freese has seen a major decrease in power.  His home run rate has gone from 2.6 percent in 2016 to 2.3 percent in 2017, and this is in a league in which the league non pitcher home run rate has gone from 3.1 percent to 3.4 percent.  Freese was never a major power threat, but he’s even less of one now compared to last year with an increase league wide in power.  His current .118 isolated power is the lowest he has had since 2010, when he played 70 games.

A decrease in power would be a huge negative if everything remained equal, but it hasn’t.  Freese has seen his walk rate climb from 9.1 percent last season to 13.8 percent this season, and he has decreased his strikeout rate from 28.9 percent to 20.1 percent.  Freese has been able to do this by swinging at pitches outside of the zone 24.8 percent of the time, his lowest since 2010, and having a swinging strike rate of 8.3 percent.  A decrease in those two areas will easily cut down the strikeout rate and increase the walk rate, which has allowed Freese to get on-base at a clip of .390, which is the highest on the Pirates and is the same rate as 2016 National League MVP Kris Bryant.

In this blog post by Tom Tango, he describes a way in which to evaluate hitters based on their ability to work the count.  We can then reconstruct this with any batter rather easily.  Below is the breakdown of counts that Freese has ended his plate appearances in, subtracting out intentional walks, with 2016 being on top of the chart and 2017 below it:


Here is Freese’s run value chart based on the work shown by Tango:


Adding up the run values, Freese had -3.509 working the count runs in 2016, and so far this season Freese is at 0.685 working the count runs.  So in 2017, unsurprisingly given the other data, Freese has been better and more productive at working the count.  In fact, despite the large decrease in power, his ability to get on base has allowed Freese to increase his wOBA from .334 to .342.

However, was the tradeoff worth it, Especially given that Freese is hitting in the middle of the order?  So far this season, Freese has an others batted in percentage of 12.719 percent compared to the 12.575 percent last season.  Freese has actually been driving in more of the runners that have been on-base for him this year compared to last, but it’s essentially the same.  But the problem is where he is batting in the lineup, especially for a team that is scoring 4.22 runs per game, a season after they were scoring 4.50 runs per game, and this is with the average runs per game increasing from 4.48 runs per game to 4.65 runs per game.

Next: Pirates Take 3-4 From Detroit

David Freese has batted third, fourth or fifth, with a team outside of Josh Bell and Andrew McCucthen able to produce runs, 97.4 percent of the time compared to the 68.1 percent he did last season.  Full breakdown of Freese’s spot in the order the last two seasons:


With his ability to get on-base at a much higher clip, despite the large dip in power, David Freese has been a more valuable offensive player.  The problem is that the Pirates are having a negative trend in power and run scoring, despite runs coming at a higher clip throughout the league.  Getting on-base is great, but without having a guy to drive in those runs with power, the Pirates have seen their run scoring decrease to the fourth worst in all of baseball.  With men in scoring position, Freese has a .468 on-base, but a .316 slugging and a .039 isolated power.  He’s been great this season, but not the way the Pirates need him to be with the lineup construction.  Perhaps batting him second in the order, and dropping Starling Marte to the five hole following Josh Bell will allow his talents and his new approach to help the Pirates score more runs.

*Numbers from fangraphs, baseball prospectus, baseball-reference and entering the day August 10