The Pirates signed David Freese last Friday to a one-year, three million dollar contract. Despite his age (Freese will turn 33 near the beginning of the season), Freese managed two very average seasons with the Angels. It is surprising that his market was so deflated, but I suppose an aging* third baseman with a little bit of an injury history was never destined to make much money in a market that was not demanding third basemen.
*Every player is aging though
But why did the Buccos get him at such a low price....it's only three million dollars! Dustin Ackley settled for $3.2 million and Ackley's fWAR last year was -0.6 ------ Freese's was 2.2. Freese has not had a wRC+ below 100 in his career and his only defensive blemish was a 2013 season with the Cardinals that appears to be more blip than trend. Heck, Freese made more money in his last year of arbitration than his most recent free agency. Freese is an average third baseman so one would stand to reason he'd be worth more than what he received.
But I digress.
One thing going against him, besides age, is that he has been much closer to average offensively for the past three years than he was previously. From 2009 to 2012, Freese hit .296 / .363 / .446 for a 125 wRC+, including an 8.4 percent walk rate and 21.3 percent strikeout rate. From 2013-2015, Freese hit .260 / .328 / .394 for a 107 wRC+, including a 7.7 percent walk rate and 22.4 percent strikeout rate.
That's a big change in overall offensive production, but there is little reason to see why other than luck. In that time period, his batted ball distribution hardly changed. He did not pull the ball any more or less, and he actually hit the ball harder in the latter period compared to the former. His plate discipline and contact rates have not changed much either. His BABIP is what fell down - his BABIP in the former period was .359; his BABIP in the latter period was .321.
Using Alex Chamberlain's xBABIP equation to find an expected BABIP based on various factors, there will hopefully be an indication of which BABIP is more "true". The former period had an xBABIP of .332; the latter period had an expected BABIP of .333. Whew. Big difference. Based on these numbers, it appears his more recent BABIP is more "true", which indicates Freese's more recent overall performance is also more true.
Freese's .310 BABIP last year was the lowest of his career; the most likely culprit was a lower line drive rate. Freese hit mostly more grounders and a few more fly balls. Though grounders have a higher BABIP, line drives would obviously have an even higher BABIP. Freese typically produces roughly average or better line drive rates, so a rebound in this area is reasonable. However, Freese had the highest line drive rate of his career coupled with the highest hard-hit rate of his career last year and still ended up with only a .330 BABIP.
Despite the lower BABIP more reflective of true talent, Freese has still produced offensively. Overall, he is a slightly above average hitter: his walk and strikeout rates leave a little to be desired, but when he makes contact he can still produce. His glove is good enough at third (or at least UZR thinks so). The projections don't see a rebound of any sort, ZiPS projecting a 98 wRC+ and Steamer a 104 wRC+, but the overall value is still at 1.6 fWAR per 600 plate appearances.
With the going rate of wins on the free agent market around $8 million or so, the Pirates got a huge bargain and any advantage they can find in a competitive division should serve them well.