As disappointing as this season has been for the Cleveland Indians—Jose Ramirez’s continued daze and confusion at the dish, the rotation completely falling apart mentally and physically, the Minnesota Twins hitting well over twelve homers a game—none of those things could have realistically been accounted for this past offseason. Position player depth, on the other hand, was a foreseeable problem this past offseason that was only haphazardly addressed, and while improved depth may not have boosted them enough to compete in the AL Central, it at least would have made them more entertaining for all of us to watch. Now, recent Indians teams may have felt like stars-and-scrubs rosters, but consider the following table:
|Year||Position player WAR||Top 3 Players||WAR of remaining six positions|
|2016||24.4||Lindor, Kipnis, Ramirez||9.5|
|2017||26.8||Ramirez, Lindor, Santana||11.6|
|2018||28.2||Ramirez, Lindor, Brantley||9.1|
|2019*||2.5||Santana, Lindor, Perez||-2.5|
*through June 11
That final column deserves some explanation, bear with me. The idea is, by removing the three most productive position players, you’re left with the WAR of the non-stars. If you assume that the top three players participate in most of their team’s games, then the rest of the players on the team are distributed over the remaining six positions (or five in the NL). Now, many people consider an average, 162 game season to be worth ~2 WAR, so an AL team that fills its remaining six positions with average MLB production would have that last column equalling 12. This, of course, is not an exact science, but more of a broad benchmark for how deep a team is.
2017’s roster actually was reasonably deep, but while 2016 and 2018 seem fairly top-heavy, 2019 makes those seasons look downright proportional. -2.5 WAR! A major league team should be able to fill the bottom of its roster with players whose WAR is at least zero—that’s literally the definition of a replacement player. Six of the nine positions should not possess combined negative value on a team that was attempting to compete for a playoff spot. It bears repeating that the Indians shed a significant amount of payroll, and with an extremely team-friendly free agent market, this problem was completely avoidable. On the bright side, the Indians so-called effort at filling the bottom of the roster has led to an opportunity for players who otherwise would/should be in the minor leagues, and in some cases, it’s actually worked out. Oscar Mercado has been a joy to watch. Jordon Luplow has outhit his expectations, as has Roberto Perez.
One member of the bottom of the Indians roster, the titular Mike Freeman, has been exactly what was expected of him, that is, a replacement-level player. That’s right, Freeman’s 2019 has been worth 0.0 WAR. But, his path to mediocrity is more interesting than what initially meets the eye. In 2008, FanGraphs writer Dave Cameron described a typical replacement player as someone you could call up in a pinch from Triple-A or sign on the open market for the league minimum. This player isn’t a very good hitter, but he’s a decent fielder who can play multiple positions. This is fairly intuitive! Fielding isn’t all that different in the major leagues; the grounders, the throws, they’re essentially the same as minor league plays. Hitting, meanwhile, is monumentally more difficult in MLB. The difference in quality between the average Triple-A pitcher and a top-of-the-rotation starter in MLB is massive. There are no relievers with wicked stuff and pinpoint command in the minor leagues. You’d, therefore, expect a replacement player to be somewhat prepared defensively, and hopefully not cost his team too much offensively.
One could stop there, squint at Mike Freeman, and deem that he fits the bill. But, while he plays every infield position, he doesn’t exactly field them gracefully. By traditional measurements like errors, Freeman rates poorly; by advanced metrics like UZR or DRS, Freeman also rates poorly. The eye test rates the Indians’ utility infielder the worst of all. There have been countless plays in which Freeman simply looks lost, and in ways that don’t show up in the stats. Not covering a base here, a particularly bad error there, not exactly what you’d hope for from a utility infielder or necessarily expect from a replacement player.
Given that I’ve already divulged that Freeman is exactly replacement level and also a bad fielder, I gather you’ve deduced that it’s offensive prowess that has kept him afloat in the Majors. It’s true, Mike Freeman in 2019 has been an above-average major league hitter, which is odd enough considering his track record: he’s consistently put up rock-solid Triple-A numbers, but in his limited big league action prior to 2019, he’s been truly terrible. Amazingly, in 2019, none of his skills have changed—he still has very little contact or power-hitting ability. What has changed is Freeman’s approach, and it’s been a roaring success.
More precisely, what has changed is that Mike Freeman stopped swinging. Or, even more precisely, Freeman swings at remarkably few pitches; 33 percent of pitches to be exact. By comparison, the average MLB hitter offers at 46.6 percent of pitches. White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson swings at 58 percent of them; folk hero Willians Astudillo swings at 63 percent! Among the 403 players with 50 or more plate appearances this season, only four have laid off a greater percentage of pitches. It’s this approach that’s led to the success of Mike Freeman, or dare I say, Mike Freepass. Among that same group, Freeman is also fifth in walk percentage, at 17.4 percent, driving his on-base percentage up above .380 and allowing him to be a playable option in the Indians lineup.
Freeman isn’t just laying off any old pitch willy-nilly, though—he appears to be attempting to swing at only his pitch, with very little deviation. This season, he’s only chased a hair over 16 percent of pitches out of the zone, about half of his tendency from years past. On the other hand, he’s swung at over 50 percent of the pitches he has seen in the strike zone. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to swing at strikes and at balls, but not all strikes are created equally. A ball right down the middle should ideally be swung at every time, while swinging at a fastball on the outside corner with a 2-0 count would be ill-advised. Take a look at this heatmap of Freeman’s swings from 2016-2018; the redder the area, the more frequently he swung.
He appears to be swinging at a lot of what we in the business call “pitchers’ pitches.” Obviously, specific cases call for swinging at pitches on the low-outside corner, but ideally, you wouldn’t want that area to be so orange-red. Now, take a gander at the heatmap from 2019:
Look at that medium-rare meatball in the middle. That’s what you want to see. It doesn’t take a baseball expert to know that if you swing at mostly pitches right down the middle and take pitches that aren’t, you will likely have more success on those swings. Unfortunately, as I said earlier, Mike Freeman has become disciplined, but that doesn’t mean he’s particularly skilled at hitting. Despite being supremely selective, the Indians replacement-level utility infielder is batting just .234; his slugging percentage is .340. In a sense, it’s damning that Freeman is able to have such an amazing approach at the plate and still produce such uninspiring batted ball numbers. Nonetheless, Mike Freepass’s selectivity is commendable, and perhaps his approach will rub off on some other Indians hitters, ideally those with more raw talent. Maybe then, this Indians squad won’t be so damn top-heavy. In the meantime, opposing pitchers will have to endure some hot takes by Mike Freeman.