A couple of weeks ago, lost amid the chaos of the waiver trades and the Wild Card chase (side note: the second slot is objectively a force for good) the Pirates decided to commit to one of their more successful 2016 pieces. David Freese came to the team as an inexpensive rental, on a one-year, $3 million deal. As of August 22nd, though, he'll stay in Pittsburgh through 2018, along with many of the club's core players.
Freese had played pretty well before this year, earning about two fWAR in both 2014 and 2015 for the Angels. He's sustained that pace in 2016, with 1.8 fWAR for a disappointing Pirates squad. But his overall production doesn't really interest me, and unless you're a Pirates fan and/or a member of the Freese family, you probably don't care too much about it either. Instead, I'd like us to narrow down on one esoteric facet of his campaign to date.
Leaderboards are fun. What's more fun? A leaderboard with a big gap, where the guy in first soars above and beyond the competition. This is one of those:
- David Freese, 350
- Michael Saunders, 269
- Christian Yelich, 264
- Jonathan Villar, 251
- Miguel Cabrera, 245
Here, you see the highest opposite-field wRC+s this season, among qualified hitters. There's Freese...and there's everyone else. The gap between first and second place is greater than the gap between second and 25th place. In simpler terms, no one has driven the ball the other way quite like Freese.
Considering the quirkiness of small samples, let's take a more in-depth look at this phenomenon. Freese hasn't gone to right that often, tallying a mere 70 opposite-field balls this season. Couldn't he have just blooped some hits and gotten lucky? Does anything suggest he's deserved this?
Good question! I'll answer it with another, funner leaderboard which includes the highest hard contact rates on opposite field balls this season:
- David Freese, 54.3 percent
- Christian Yelich, 46.9 percent
- Miguel Cabrera, 40.7 percent
- DJ LeMahieu, 40.3 percent
- Freddie Freeman, 40.2 percent
Once again, Freese blows the competition out of the water. Yelich manages to close the gap a bit, but Freese remains in a world of his own; he's beaten the third-place hitter by a wider margin than the third-place hitter has beaten the 60th-place hitter.
It is worth mentioning that Freese has always excelled going the other way. From 2010 to 2015, only seven other qualifiers had a higher opposite-field wRC+ than Freese's 188; just four players topped his hard-contact rate. This level of play, though, sets a new standard for him, suggesting that he's altered his approach at the plate somehow. And to some extent, that does appear to be the case. For one, Freese has been a little more selective on outside pitches:
"Outside Pitches" defined as those in sections 3, 6, 9, 12, and 14 of the Baseball Savant PITCHf/x strike zone.
With more patience on the pitches away from him — the easiest ones to drive to the opposite field — Freese sets himself up better to receive something he can hit. Plus, more of his opposite-field balls in play have come on those outside pitches:
Opposite-field defined as balls in play at an angle greater than or equal to 17 degrees.
If a right-handed batter hits an inside pitch to right field, he probably won't do it very hard. While Freese has always tried to go the opposite way solely on outer-ish pitches, he's focused much more exclusively on those offerings this season.
Aside from these areas, nothing major seems to have sparked the change. Back when he played for the Cardinals, Freese started to focus on his opposite-field stroke in batting practice; perhaps he's again devoted himself to that strategy. Whatever the cause, the effects are clear. Even if he does regress toward his career norm, he'll remain a prolific hitter to the opposite field. In the event that he does keep this up, he'll earn the title of best opposite-field hitter.
I don't think I'll cause much controversy when I say that, for the Pirates, 2016 has been a flop. They've already lost four more games than they did a year ago, an alarming numbers of the pitchers on staff have melted down (and one was traded away), and their MVP center fielder has shown his age (in a bad way). When slogging through mediocre campaigns like this one, fans try to focus on the positives that surface, be they the phenomenal play that a first baseman and pitcher pulled off, the remarkable turnaround of a recent addition, or the obscure split in which a hitter has dominated. Freese, long known for one opposite-field hit in particular, has now decided to rack up a whole lot more of them.
All statistics as of Tuesday, September 6th.
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