Ryan Freel, utilityman for the Reds, committed suicide last Saturday.
From 2003-2006, his prime seasons, Freel hit .274 with a .368 OBP–he walked in almost 11 percent of his plate appearances, and he was hit by 33 pitches. Over that span, he averaged 46 steals and 90 runs scored per 162 games. Of course, he never came close to playing 162 games in a season, both because he was a supersub and because he couldn’t stay healthy. The most Ryan Freel season was 2005, when he suffered day-to-day back soreness in May, left foot inflammation that disabled him in June, and his second knee surgery in as many seasons in August. Despite that, he was worth nearly three wins in 103 games and 431 plate appearances, posting a TAv just below league average and more than doubling the totals of his closest teammates in both Baserunning Runs (5.7) and Fielding Runs Above Average (10.7).
We haven’t come up with a perfect way to quantify the value of positional flexibility, which saves roster spots and allows GMs greater freedom in constructing their teams. But it usually takes more than one player to do what Freel did, and even when one player wears as many hats as he did, he rarely wears them all so well. “Flexibility in the field,” as we wrote about Willie Bloomquist in last year’s annual book, often “boils down to an ability to be bad at a multitude of positions.” Look at a list of last year’s utility players. You won’t find any Freels.
I had the opportunity to watch Freel for the better part of four seasons. It was always a joy.