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Can David Freese Be A Fantasy Darling Once More?

David Freese, a fantasy darling from a year ago, failed to replicate his breakout season in both real-life and fantasy terms. On the diamond, he declined offensively and defensively and dropped from a four-win player in 2012 to roughly replacement-level in 2013. And more importantly for fantasy baseball purposes, he essentially took a face-first plunge into the ocean this year with an anchor firmly tied to his waist, as he was barely a top-30 option at third base.

When guys like D.J. LeMahieu, Mike Aviles and merely 350 plate appearances of Aramis Ramirez proved more valuable, it’s abundantly clear that the fantasy production was sub-par. What makes his disappointing performance sting even more for fantasy owners is that he was drafted (on average) ahead of guys like Kyle Seager, Pedro Alvarez, Manny Machado and Matt Carpenter.

Value is paramount in fantasy baseball, and while David Freese wasn’t the worst value of the season — hello, Starlin Castro, Matt Kemp and B.J. Upton — he certainly performed well below expectations this season. His power dropped, his average barely eclipsed .260 and his overall counting statistics were underwhelming. Fantasy owners thought they were getting a high-average third baseman with 20+ homer power, and they received a crappy average and nine home runs. Brutal.

So, let’s not only figure out what happened, but also attempt to determine what this disappointing 2013 season means for David Freese going forward. Because, realistically, if this was merely a blip on the radar, he could be an intriguing sleeper on draft day this upcoming spring.

Without making this too simplistic, Freese’s disappointing fantasy season can be pinpointed by two specific declines, ones that were already addressed in the previous paragraphs: his batting average and power. His batting average dropped 31 points from a year ago, and his BABIP correspondingly declined 32 points. The batted ball profile didn’t change, the walk and strikeout rates didn’t do much differently, and he actually made more contact with the baseball in 2013. Thus, I’m willing to ascribe much of his decline in batting average from .293 to .262 to a simple BABIP drop.

The problem, though, is his BABIP drop still resulted in an above-average .320 BABIP. The question then becomes, should we really feel comfortable banking on a batting average rebound that appears to be reliant upon a .350+ BABIP?

On one hand, Freese sustained a .350+ BABIP over his first two years in the majors, which was 930 plate appearances. He also possesses the kind of batted ball profile one would expect to result in a high BABIP — one which relies on line drives and ground balls, rather than fly balls. With that in mind, it’s perhaps too hasty to simply dismiss another .340 or .350 BABIP in 2014, as it certainly appears to be something that’s not unreasonable to expect.

A rebounding batting average, however, is not sufficient for the 30-year-old third baseman to become a must-draft commodity in standard leagues. He doesn’t offer any stolen bases and doesn’t bat high enough in the Cardinals’ batting order to be a consistent run or RBI threat. To be a productive fantasy third baseman, he must offer home-run power. More specifically, he must offer at least 15-20 home runs to be relevant in the power category.

As this graph illustrates, his ISO dropped below the league-average line this year.

9549_3B_season_full_6_20130930

That below-average ISO is significant because it’s a reflection of the limitations of his power potential because of his approach. His swing isn’t conducive to consistent power because the vast majority of his balls in play come on the ground. In fact, his GB/FB ratio was amongst the highest in the league this past season.

# Player Team GB/FB HR
1 Norichika Aoki Brewers 2.76 8
2 Jean Segura Brewers 2.52 12
3 Elvis Andrus Rangers 2.51 4
4 Howie Kendrick Angels 2.41 13
5 Denard Span Nationals 2.38 4
6 Michael Bourn Indians 2.37 6
7 Chris Denorfia Padres 2.33 10
8 David Freese Cardinals 2.30 9
9 Michael Young Phillies 2.25 8
10 Gerardo Parra DBacks 2.23 10

I included the number of home runs for each player to illustrate the fact that this ground-ball approach doesn’t regularly result in high power numbers. Furthermore, each of the players (aside from Parra) with double-digit homers on that list had a HR/FB% north of 10.0%, so a high portion of the rare fly balls hit have to go over the fence to result in the home run numbers that we desire from Freese — and the difficult part is heĀ already had a HR/FB% above 10.0% and didn’t even reach double-digit homers.

That doesn’t seem to indicate a high likelihood of a 20-homer renaissance in 2014.

At third base in fantasy baseball, owners should covet power, and ground-ball hitters who must rely on HR/FB% to post acceptable power numbers should not be high on the draft board. Freese could be an option in deeper leagues for those who believe his batting average will bounce back in 2014, but again, he doesn’t appear a lock to provide lofty numbers in any other category. If his average rebounds and he hits 15 homers, he could be a fringe top-15 option — and if that’s what we’re talking about as the potential high-water mark, perhaps that says more than enough.