Three-hundred and sixty players had at least 200 plate appearances in the 2019 season. That is to say those players had a significant role in their team’s season; not huge, but big enough to make a difference. Among those 360 players was Mike Freeman of the Cleveland Indians. As a 32-year-old utility player, expectations for Freeman were organizational depth and not much more. Instead, Freeman created more value, 1.0 fWAR, than 40% of players with at least 200 plate appearances (215/360).
It certainly says more about me (in a negative way) than it does about Freeman, but consider this not so random subsample of players Freeman was better than: Jay Bruce, Robinson Cano, Chris Davis, Khris Davis, Ian Desmond, Dee Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Justin Upton, and Joey Votto. It would be a gross oversimplification to state that the $18.8 million average annual salary of that subsample was wasted because Freeman provided more value on a minor league contract (which wound up being some prorated amount of the Major League minimum of $545,000), but it makes you appreciate the way fortune broke in Freeman and the Tribe’s favor — even when good favor was not abundant elsewhere for the team.
And in many ways Freeman’s 2019 was definitely a product of good fortune. This is perhaps most obvious in his BABIP, which clocked in at a hefty .388. That luck on balls in play (league-average BABIP being .298) certainly helped inflate his slash to .277/.362/.390, although those numbers are very close to his minor league career numbers (.291/.363/.387). The difference between MLB and the minors, of course, is a wide gulf, but even if some luck was responsible for Freeman’s numbers in 2019, you have to credit his skill as well.
For instance, Freeman’s command of the zone barely changed between MLB and the minors: with the Indians he walked 10.3% of the time (well above league average of 8.5%), whereas in the minors he had a career walk rate of 9.7%. And even though his strikeout rate jumped from 16% in the minors to 25% with Cleveland, he kept his swinging strike rate (9.7%) and swings at pitches outside the zone (27.7%) well below league average (11.2 and 31.6%, respectively). All of this led to a league-average run creation rate (99 wRC+) and a full win better than replacement for a guy who was pretty much signed for organizational filler.
He wound up being so much more and he did literally everything he could to help the team (see above). There’s even a decent case to be made that Cleveland might have salvaged a win or two from the beginning of the season had Freeman been with the team rather than Eric Stamets or Max Moroff.
It seems a foregone conclusion that Freeman will enter 2020 as the utility man in Cleveland again. He’ll once more make the league minimum, as the team still has one year of control remaining. He’s due for regression, as everyone is, with FanGraphs projections (Depth Charts and Steamer) in particular agreement that his offense will suffer (projected .241/.309/.341 for both systems). But even if he’s not better than 40% of players with a similar number of plate appearances, he’s a pretty good bet to be a good guy to have on the team.