Some could argue that it's hard to "break out" when you win a World Series MVP en route to aiding your team in winning another title, but David Freese definitely qualifies as a candidate to break out in 2012. There are a lot of things to consider with Freese. He never appeared on any high prospect lists, and he was extremely late coming into the major leagues, but there is something to be said about a guy who gets it done at every level. A career .915 OPS in the minors, with a consistent ability to hit for average, draw walks, and hit for a good amount of power is something that stands out no matter where a prospect is ranked. Freese is nothing special defensively, but he's average at a pretty important position: third base. An average fielding third baseman who has multiple offensive skills is going to be highly valuable in the bigs. So what's the problem? Why is Freese even eligible as a breakout candidate going into 2012 if he's got all of these tools and is going to be 29 years old by opening day?
Well, he was moved around a lot in the minors to start. Freese was drafted by the Padres in the 9th round of the 2006 MLB draft, and he bounced around a lot in the minors. The Padres had Chase Headley and Kevin Kouzmanoff in the organization, and after practicing at catcher with the Padres (despite not appearing at the position in any games) he was traded to the Cardinals for Center Fielder Jim Edmonds. My oh my, how Cardinal fans probably hated that trade at the time. Anyway, Freese moved into the Cardinals' system, and after Troy Glaus went down with an injury prior to Opening Day 2009, Freese got the call up and made his debut, coming off the bench and hitting a go-ahead sac fly against the Pirates. For some reason, Brian Barden and Joe Thurston won starting time at third, and he was assigned to AAA Memphis.
Then the injuries started. Freese had ankle surgery shortly after being demoted. Then in 2010 after winning the job at third, he suffered another ankle injury, which required two surgeries and ended his season after 70 games. In 2011, the terrible luck continued as he was hit by a pitch that fractured his left hand, forcing him to miss two months. So this is where Freese stands. He is in an awkward position. He's got a World Series MVP, but has not really done much in Major League Baseball. He has yet to record 400 PA, but he has all the ability in the world. This leads me to believe that Freese is going to break out in 2012.
Real Life Value to the Cardinals
David Freese is a great guy to look at for the study of well-hit balls. To explain why, here are some of his career rates:
7.0% BB/ 21.1% K/ .131 ISO/ .356 BABIP/ 12.1% HR/FB
Now, those rates suggest a few things. Firstly, he's not going to walk a ton in the majors, but he's going to walk enough to suffice. His patience is good enough to make it so he's not an easy out for wild pitchers. He doesn't swing and miss a lot (only 9.6% on an average), and he only swings on pitches out of the zone 27% of the time. Secondly, the .131 ISO isn't fantastic, but it's decently close to average. Considering that Freese has limited playing time and has had problems with injuries, I'd say a .131 ISO is a good sign. The last thing to look at here is the astronomical BABIP. David Freese isn't a speed guy, so why is he getting so many hits on balls put into play? Well, let's look at his career BIP splits:
22.9% LD/ 50.5% GB/ 26.6% FB
Well that explains a bit of the less-than-awesome ISO and the extremely high BABIP rates. Freese hits a ton of line drives and ground balls. Normally this is a less-than-great offensive outcome, but Freese has one advantage that I draw from my research with Inside Edge: he hits the ball hard A LOT. Freese had a well hit percentage north of 35% (where the average is 27%). More astounding is the fact that he hits so many balls hard while hitting so many ground balls. Most ground ball hitters do not record a lot of well hit balls, and a .131 ISO as a result of that is certainly unexpected. What this suggests is that Freese is what I would call a "doubles hitter." He doesn't hit the ball in the air a lot, but he consistently makes good contact, doesn't swing and miss a lot, but won't hit a lot of home runs. Knowing a bit more about his offensive approach, let's look at what Freese did in limited time in 2011:
363 PA/ .297 BA/ .350 OBP/ .441 SLG/ 6.6% BB/ 20.7% K/ .144 ISO/ 122 wRC+/ 2.7 fWAR
I bet nobody thought Freese was as good in 2011 as he was. Before getting hurt, he actually was hitting .320 and was on a torrid offensive pace. I have been skeptical of Freese in the past, mainly because of when he broke into the bigs and his lack of playing time, but there's no reason not to like him. He displays average defense, average base running, and good offense for a weak modern 3rd base position. With his current offensive skillset and more time to display it (injury free of course), this is what I would expect out of Freese in 2012:
640 PA/ .310 BA/ .374 OBP/ .471 SLG/ .845 OPS (131 OPS+)/ 4.3 fWAR
Having David Freese in fantasy is like balancing an egg on a spoon. Everything goes well, then you trip and fall and the egg breaks, putting it on the DL for a couple months or a year. That's the biggest problem with Freese going forward: his injury history is brutal. Despite that, let's look at what Freese gave to the traditional 5x5 system in 2011 in 363 plate appearances:
.297 BA/ 41 runs/ 10 HR/ 55 RBI/ 1 SB
Not bad. Over a full season, that's roughly a .300 BA with 80 runs, 100 RBI, and a couple of steals (although you don't draft him for those). Freese did a lot of damage early in the year when he was really hot and healthy, and he was really good late in the season after he was given some time to come back and play. He capped it all off with an epic performance in the World Series. However, health isn't the only issue with Freese going into next year. The players around him are what I would consider highly volatile from a fantasy projection standpoint. For now, we'll assume Pujols comes back, but Holliday is dealt with some pretty significant wrist issues in the playoffs, and Lance Berkman sure is not likely to produce like he did in 2011 (or is he? You'll have to wait and see when I predict his future). In short: David Freese has a lot of fantasy upside for 2012, but also could fail for reasons outside of his ability level.
With all of that being said, Freese's offensive ability is good enough and the talent around him is good enough for me to expect him to have a very good 2012 fantasy campaign. In a traditional 5x5, you could see something like this from Freese:
.310 BA/ 82 Runs/ 21 HR/ 106 RBI/ 1 SB
That's a really, really good fantasy third baseman. With the position being as brittle as it currently is, this would be the ideal guy to "steal" late in a fantasy draft. Depending on your league and what Yahoo! decides to do with rankings, Freese might end up being a little more highly slotted in the draft than one would expect. Because of his injury risk and lack of sustained past success, I expect him to be a guy that is acceptable to take around the 10th round in a 12 team league (this is hard to predict because I don't know if rankers will see the upside in Freese that I do). However, with a weak third base position where the elite guys will be gone in the first couple of rounds (Longoria, Zimmerman, etc), Freese is a great guy to target. If you can't get him in the draft, do your best to trade for him, because he's got upside like nobody else.
David Freese will break out in 2012.