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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Better Know a Red #15 - Ryan Freel

In part 15 of our 25-part series, Better Know a Red, we turn our attention to the Reds' fiery play-anywhere guy, Ryan Freel. Freel was drafted by, but did not sign with the Cardinals in 1994, but was redrafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 10th round of the 1995 amateur draft out of Tallahassee Community College, Tennessee. Unlike a lot of the Reds' hitters, Freel did not rise quickly to the majors. After being signed at age 19, he reached AAA at age 22 but then missed nearly all of the '99 and '00 seasons, apparently with injuries. He finally reached Toronto during a brief stint in 2001, but then left the team as a minor league free agent. He signed with Tampa Bay for the 2002 season and spent the entire year in AAA before leaving for the open market once again.

On November 18th, 2003, at age 27, Freel signed as a minor league free agent with the Cincinnati Reds. He was promoted mid-way through the 2003 season and almost instantly became a fixture off of the Reds' bench. Capable of effectively playing all outfield positions as well as second and third base, he brings tremendous flexibility to the team. He also has excellent speed, steals bases at a good clip, and over the past two years has shown a great knack for getting on base via singles and walks. He's the first classic leadoff-type guy the Reds have had since Bip Roberts. Unfortunately, his flexibility has also proven to be a curse, as the team has been unwilling to give him ownership of a position, preferring to use him as a one-size-fits-all plug whenever injuries and other problems arise. Nevertheless, the Reds are counting on Freel to be a frequent member of the starting lineup in 2006, batting lead-off when he plays and serving as the spark plug to this powerful offense.

For additional biographical information (with a humorous slant), please see Freel's entry in Red Hot Mama's Human League.

Historical Statistics (for explanations of the statistics used in this write-up, please see the Baseball Statistics Quicksheet in the sidebar menu):
Year/Team PA PA/K PA/BB PA/HR SB/% OBP SLG OPS GPA EqA VORP
2003/CIN-AAA 238 7.44 11.33 79.33 25/81% 0.336 0.377 0.713 0.245 0.239 -3.7
2003/CIN 151 11.62 16.78 37.75 9/69% 0.344 0.431 0.775 0.263 0.263 5.6
2004/CIN 584 6.64 8.72 194.67 37/79% 0.375 0.368 0.743 0.261 0.268 19.1
2005/CIN-AA 21 4.20 7.00 --- 0/0% 0.286 0.176 0.462 0.173 --- ---
2005/CIN 428 7.25 8.39 107.00 36/78% 0.371 0.371 0.742 0.260 0.272 15.2
Freel has two offensive weapons. First, he has good speed and is an intelligent baserunner. He has stolen between 34-37 bases each of the last three years, all the while maintaining a stolen base percentage above 78%. The cutoff at which stolen bases become unprofitable is ~72%, therefore Freel's production has been a great positive. Baseball Prospectus does complain about him being overly aggressive with his steals, and I will admit that I'd prefer he be more selective about stealing third base. But it's hard to find much fault with his overall numbers.

Second, over the past two years, Freel has substantially increased his walk rate which, in turn, has pushed his OBP into the 0.370+ range. When coupled with his speed, this makes him a tremendous threat at the top of the order. He showed flashes of this sort of OBP in the minors (0.380 at AAA-Syracruse in 2000, 0.372 at AA & AAA in 1998), but it's very pleasing to see him maintain this level of performance in the majors. I wonder if Chris Chambliss deserves any credit for this. He is not one who will hit for much power; he tends to chop the ball onto the ground, which helps him use his speed to get on base (37% of plate outcomes were ground balls vs. 14% fly balls to the outfield). When he does get a ball in the gap, however, he can use his speed to get around to second without the ball even getting by the fielder.

'03 to '05 Splits:
Year/Team PA PA/K PA/BB PA/HR OBP SLG OPS GPA
vs Left 313 7.6 6.8 44.7 0.387 0.415 0.802 0.278
vs Right 849 7.1 10.5 212.3 0.364 0.365 0.729 0.255
Home 585 8.0 9.0 195.0 0.361 0.346 0.707 0.249
Away 509 6.3 8.6 127.3 0.379 0.385 0.764 0.267
Freel is a much better hitter against left-handers. He walks at a much higher rate and shows much better power (though homers are still rare), leading to an 0.800+ OPS over the past three years against southpaws. Nevertheless, he remains effective against right-handers, still retaining a 0.364 OBP against them. I would not be concerned about putting him in against any but the most dominant right-handed pitchers. Like many ground-ball hitters, Freel has not been as good overall in Great American Ballpark as he has been away from home. Nevertheless, this split has flip-flopped each of the last two years, so I think we're seeing some random variation here as well.

Fielding:
Pos. Year Level DI's Dewan+- (plays) Dial ZR (runs) Pinto (runs) Davenport (runs) DP% (+/-)
2B 2003 AAA ? --- --- --- 25 ---
2B 2005 MLB 383 18 9 -0.325 7 -6

Pos. Year Level DI's Dewan+- (plays/yr) Dial ZR (runs/yr) Pinto (runs/27ot) Davenport (runs/yr) Bunt (+/-score)
3B 2004 MLB 392 --- --- --- 7 ---
3B 2005 MLB 69 59 47 --- --- 11

Pos. Year Level DI's Dewan+- (plays) Dial ZR (runs) Pinto (runs) Davenport (runs) DewanHold (% held)
LF 2005 MLB 164 -74 -10 --- 8 5
CF 2003 MLB 165 --- --- --- 0 ---
CF 2005 MLB 101 13 -22 --- --- -11
RF 2004 MLB 265 ---
--- 5 ---
RF 2005 MLB 70 -39 12 --- 0 9

Despite his offensive merits, Freel's primary value to the Reds is his tremendous defensive flexibility. He plays a LOT of positions, and in general plays them very well. The difficulty with this type of player usage from my perspective is that it's difficult to get a decent sampling of defensive innings on him at any given position. Furthermore, since most of the fielding stats I have available are limited to 2005, it's easy to read too much into a particular number.

Nevertheless, I'll draw a few conclusions:
  • Freel seems to be best on the infield. All statistics except for Pinto's probabilistic range model indicate that Ryan has been a plus defender at both second base and third base in each year for which I have data. His only potential downfall my be in turning the double play, where he was involved in 6% fewer double-plays than expected last year given his opportunities.
  • His outfield performance looks to be a bit more average, which for the Reds isn't bad at all. Some statistics rate him as above-average, while others rate him as well below average. All of these numbers are based on a fairly small number of defensive innings, which probably explains why they are so inconsistent. Based on what I've seen from him when watching games over the past few years, Freel seems to have the speed to generate excellent range, but tends to get fooled on balls hit out there now and then. I'd bet that if he were played out there for a full season, he could become a very good outfielder. His arm seems to be roughly average (I write this on an evening in which Freel threw out a guy at the plate from center field).
Projections:
Year/Team PA PA/K PA/BB PA/HR SB/% OBP SLG OPS GPA EqA VORP
PECOTA75 479 7.26 9.58 95.80 33/77% 0.357 0.369 0.726 0.253 0.261 10.9
PECOTA 470 7.12 10.00 117.50 31/78% 0.344 0.351 0.695 0.243 0.251 6.2
PECOTA25 395 6.81 10.97 131.67 24/80% 0.320 0.318 0.638 0.224 0.232 -5.0
ZiPS 470 7.23 8.55 117.50 32/74$ 0.364 0.366 0.730 0.255 --- ---
The projections all predict a fair decline for Freel this year, although ZiPS is kinder than PECOTA. The latter predicts a drop in his OBP from the 0.370's into the 0.320-0.357 range. While he would still retain some value, particularly with his speed, such a decline in OBP removes one of his two primary weapons. The primary cause is the prediction that his walk rates will decline back to numbers more similar to those from his '03 season. I see no reason why this should happen. Freel increased (albeit slightly) his walk rate last year and has had two consecutive seasons with an OBP over 0.370, both years with ample playing time. I fully expect him to repeat this performance this year; at 30 years old, Freel still should at the very least have a year or two left at this level of production.

Part of the problem with PECOTA may be that Freel doesn't have a lot of highly comparable players. While his overall similarity score of 54 is reasonably high, his most comparable players in PECOTA are Keith Miller and Bobby Adams, neither of which had a season in the 0.370 range, much less two consecutive such seasons. Therefore I think these projections just don't have him gauged well. If Freel has a third 0.370+ OBP season this year -- and I expect that he will -- I think we'll start to see a bit more respect for the guy from the analysis packages.

The biggest question I see in Freel's future with the Reds is not his performance, but rather (as always) his playing time opportunities. With Griffey being out most of this early season, Freel's gotten a lot of innings out in center field -- perhaps too many, as his offense has declined dramatically the last couple of weeks. However, once Griffey returns, Freel will seem to be back to taking playing time where he can get it. Second base is no longer available unless Phillips continues to struggle, and occasional starts there and at third will be hard to come by, especially after Aurilia returns. Narron's pretty good at juggling his lineup to keep his chief bench players sharp, but Freel may have to wait until the next injury to get another decent streak of playing time.

References:
Baseball Archive, The
Baseball Cube, The
Baseball Prospectus
Baseball Prospectus '06 Annual
Baseball Reference
Baseball Think Factory
CBS Sportsline
Fan Graphs
Fielding Bible
Hardball Times '06 Annual