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The defensive consistency of David Freese

While one season skews his numbers a bit, across his career David Freese has been a reliable third baseman.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

David Freese is not a player we heard a lot about last year. He went about the game rather quietly, without fireworks or high-leverage mistakes. I think that’s why few people have noticed how stable his defense has become, and how solid it’s always been. While defensive metrics can be difficult to interpret year-to-year, David Freese’s career at third appears to have been more stable than some stats suggest.

If you Google David Freese, one of the articles you will stumble upon is titled “David Freese Not As Totally Awful As He Probably Is.” Written while Freese was with the Angels in 2014, it’s an honest picture of the roller coaster that his career has been:

In 2011, he was a hero. From 2012 to 2013, he went from very good to very bad. This season he went from very bad to kinda alright, sort of.

The David Freese coaster progressed like so:

Newbie —> Superstar —> Very Good —> Very Bad —> Kinda Alright —> Average?

David Freese was the World Series MVP in 2011; that year, his Def, according to FanGraphs, was 3.7. Let’s call that his “superstar” level. In 2012 he was still a “very good” player, and his defense improved to the highest it’s ever been, 4.1. Then it got really bad. In 2013, the Cardinals made it to the World Series with a third baseman supposedly worth -14.9 runs on defense, which ranked 20th out of 21 qualifiers.

That offseason, the Cardinals traded Freese to the Angels specifically because St. Louis had an overflow of infielders with better gloves. Specifically, the move allowed Kolten Wong to play second base while Matt Carpenter shifted to his natural position at third. Here’s what CBS Sports’ Mike Axisa had to say about Freese:

Over the last three years, the defensively limited Freese has put up a -13 DRS and -11.4 UZR, which is disaster territory. … Even if he rebounds to his 2011-12 defensive levels, he's still an average fielder at best at the hot corner.

In 2014, David Freese started 119 games for the Angels and ended 69 of them sitting on the bench because of his defensive ability. At the beginning of 2015, there was still a debate about whether to keep David Freese in games for all nine innings. As MLB.com’s Alden Gonzalez noted at the time:

Freese has the second-worst [UZR] among qualified third basemen over the last two years, at minus-15.9.

Did Freese suddenly turn into Miguel Cabrera? Or is it simply that defensive metrics are prone to these anomalies?

Take a look at his Def scores since 2010:

Year Def
2010 -0.2
2011 3.7
2012 4.1
2013 -14.9
2014 1.2
2015 1.2
2016 0.9

Did aliens appear and magically suck away David Freese’s talent? Did the Toon Squad assemble to win it back before the 2014 season?

In reality, his 2013 season might not have been that awful after all. Check out his Inside Edge fielding profile, which measures “how often a player has made a defense play of a particular difficulty,” and 2013 is remarkably similar to 2016 even though there’s a 15-point swing in his overall defensive score:

Year Even (40-60%) Likely (60-90%) Routine (90-100%)
2013 60.0% 72.4% 96.5%
2014 41.7% 66.7% 96.9%
2015 66.7% 61.5% 98.0%
2016 60.0% 83.3% 95.6%

Just like in 2013, David Freese made about 96 percent of “routine” plays at third base. He has significantly improved in the “likely” category by making more of those plays, which he maintains if you factor in his innings at first base as well. The “even” category is also consistent with his 2013 numbers. He is, simply put, league-average. There was a significant dip in the amount of “likely” plays made in 2014 and 2015, but Freese’s UZR and Def scores were so much higher during those seasons.

David Freese was never as bad as some of the stats made it seem, which we know because he made the same amount of “routine” and “even” plays in 2013 that he did in 2016. His 2013 UZR & Def scores were a fluke — remove them from the record, and Freese is viewed as an average defensive third baseman, as he should be.

. . .

Audrey Stark is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow her on Twitter @highstarksunday.