I’m a baseball romantic; my record is pretty clear on that. Anyone can pick a superstar as their favorite player, but I (like many of you) gravitate towards the lesser sung players, the players who make us think that even with our human foibles we can find success. They keep plugging away and maybe we see ourselves in them. We are not the best at what we do either, but if we keep working maybe we will hit our equivalent of a home run in life.
It was the baseball romantic side of me that wanted to write about David Freitas. A 15th round draft pick, he has bounced from organization to organization, slowly winding his way up through the minor league levels. He made his Major League debut at age 28 with the Atlanta Braves in 2017. He doesn’t play in the outfield, spending much of the game just hanging out. He plays catcher, the most brutal, physically intense position in baseball. For 9 years he has been pummeled with errant pitches and misguided bats, chased balls to the backstop, and absorbed runners trying to score. He has spent his summers crouched behind the plate wearing a hot, heavy chest protector and helmet. This guy really loves to play baseball.
Baseball, as it is wont to do, has dealt him some indignities along the way. Just last year, he was sent down to AAA on his birthday, on Father’s Day, and on the Mariner’s Family Day (and one other time). He was drafted by the Nationals out of the University of Hawaii in 2010 and spent some time with Bryce Harper in the minor leagues. While playing for the Nationals’ Class-A affiliate Hagerstown Suns, his hometown newspaper in Elk Grove, CA ran an interview with him in which nearly half the questions gushed about how great it must be to play with Bryce Harper.
And then, there was the grand slide.
In AAA in 2017, former Phillies prospect and current Mariner prospect J.P. Crawford hit an inside-the-park grand slam. Crawford was bristling from criticism about his slow first half in AAA and wasn’t satisfied with a 3-run triple. So he sprinted home. The ball beat him easily. He paused, then slid right through Freitas’s legs.
To add insult to injury, last season the Iron Pigs decided to commemorate Crawford’s exciting play with a bobblehead, as baseball teams do. This one, naturally, came complete with a cardboard Freitas crouched in front of a sliding Crawford. Having a sense of humor is important while navigating the ups and downs of baseball, and Freitas’s wife Kacee and son Owen certainly found the humor in it:
— IronPigs (@IronPigs) June 12, 2018
We sent a @jp_crawford "Grand Slide" bobblehead to @kaceefreitas, whose husband David was the catcher on that play.
Get your own Grand Slide bobblehead tonight: https://t.co/Mghmk9TPMR pic.twitter.com/8Az1p9n1uC
Despite all this, Freitas is still hanging around. This is great news for the Mariners because as Casey Stengel once quipped, “You have to have a catcher because if you don’t you’re likely to have a lot of passed balls.” Plucked from the waiver wire following the 2017 season for that very reason, Freitas shared the role of backup catcher with Chris Herrmann and Mike Marjama in 2018. With Herrmann now a member of the Oakland Athletics and Marjama retired, Freitas has captured the role for the moment.
The Mariners acquired bat-first Omar Narvaez as their starting catcher. Narváez is a weak defender, particularly in the areas of framing and blocking. Freitas can step in to provide a little more security in those areas for pitchers that may need it. Last season, Freitas ranked 20th in blocking runs saved in MLB. Listed at 6’3” and 225 pounds, he’s not particularly nimble behind the plate, but uses his size to his advantage in getting in front of errant pitches.
His framing ranks 41st in MLB with 0.3 framing runs saved. His AAA numbers last season were much better in that regard, saving 2.7 runs. Freitas is known for having a decent arm, yet ranked near the bottom of the MLB catching pile for stolen bases above average. He ranked 43rd out of 117 catchers last year for adjusted fielding runs above average (includes framing, throwing, and blocking) with 1.0. This is another metric that shows him doing better in AAA with a 2.1. It’s reasonable to think that his framing can improve a bit as he adjusts to major league pitching. He caught a similar number of innings at each level last season, 249 in AAA and 274 in the major leagues. Freitas also receives praise for his ability to call a game and handle pitchers. Scott Servais remarked early last season that he’s cerebral behind the plate.
Over the last two seasons, Freitas has slashed .218/.271/.318 in 123 major league plate appearances. He took to the atmosphere at Cheney Stadium quite well last season, slashing .349/.428/.527 in 167 plate appearances. The difference can be explained by a nearly 3 point difference in walk percentage (10.2% in AAA vs. 7.5% in MLB) and 7.4 % difference in K% (16.2 in AAA vs. 23.6 in MLB). The BABIP gods not only smiled upon him, but doused him in BABIP holy water, bestowing a number of .409 at Cheney Stadium. They must have gotten stuck in traffic on the way north to Seattle though because his .284 BABIP at Safeco is a bit closer to a normal number (it’s actually a tad lower than the average of .296). His 2018 Triple-A wRC+ of 153 is the second highest of his professional career, after a startling 197 wRC+ in 8 games with the Orioles Triple-A affiliate in 2014.
Freitas bounced between Tacoma and Seattle last season, and given his limited MLB plate appearances it’s safe to say he hasn’t had a chance to settle in to big league pitching. His longest stint with the Mariners was at the beginning of the season while Mike Zunino was out with an oblique injury. He appeared in 19 games between March 30th and May 27th in which he slashed .217/.321/.304. (Fun fact: In his second stint with the Mariners over 15 plate appearances he slashed .214/.214/.214. Not good, but a fun piece of trivia if you’re into that sort of thing.)
It’s important to note that Freitas is solidly a backup catcher. After 9 years chasing his major league dream, he’s not going to suddenly swing a starting-worthy bat. However, a few things make me think that he can be a serviceable backup bat. His historical BB% has fluctuated, but last season’s 7.5% is just about the lowest it’s been in his career. Likewise, his 23.6 K% in the major leagues is higher than any of his minor league seasons (it’s typically been under 20%). He’s had 123 plate appearances in the major leagues, and I’d guess with more chances at major league pitching he can make some adjustments and bring his walks and strikeouts closer to his historical numbers. He turns 30 during Spring Training, so whatever adjustments he’s able to make may be mitigated a bit by that old jerk Father Time.
Freitas just exceeded his rookie limits during the 2018 season. He is not arbitration eligible until 2021 and won’t become a free agent until 2025. This is great news for the Mariners if they want to hang on to a backup catcher for a few years and not worry about that position. There’s little doubt Freitas will stick around. He told the Elk Grove Citizen in 2016, “I think I’ll play until I can’t. I think that the way my career has been I’ll catch as long as I can, but when I’m done catching I’m going to try to be a first baseman.” (Freitas played first base for the Mariners for 2 innings last season.)
The Mariners have signed veteran catcher Jose Lobaton to a minor league deal. They are likely looking around for another catcher to add to the 40-man roster as the catching situation is a little less stable than it was last year with the presence of Mike Zunino. The Mariners burned one of Freitas’s option years last season, but he should still have two minor-league options left, giving the team the flexibility to move him between Seattle and Tacoma.
I’d like to think that Seattle is where Freitas finds baseball stability after his years of wandering. When that “rebuilding” word gets thrown around, fans start bracing themselves for an ugly baseball season. But if you’re reading this, you’ll probably watch anyway. Because you love watching baseball. And if you’re looking for a sentimental favorite, I recommend Freitas, a guy who is full of love for his family and his job, who is a little silly but also has some sick dance moves, who will show up and do his job with the same cheerful industry he’s had since his first year in pro ball.
2019 may not be as bad as we worried it would be when the rebuilding word was introduced. Among the intrigues of the season, I’ll be rooting for a journeyman catcher to find his major league bat and be as okay of a hitter as you could reasonably expect. There’s a wonderful sort of baseball romance in that. It isn’t hard to root for a guy who loves to play baseball as much as David Freitas.