Back when I played fantasy baseball, I used to get attached to particular players, whom I’d try (within reason) to acquire year after year. This was probably the worst possible way to play fantasy baseball. A good fantasy player (or major-league general manager, for that matter) thinks only about value and doesn’t care where it comes from. It doesn’t make sense to be sentimental: players who are valuable (or at least undervalued) one year can be worthless or (overvalued) the next, and paying for past performance instead of projection is a reliable way to make mistakes. Getting too attached to particular players was an especially lousy strategy in a league like mine, which was filled with friends who knew whom I’d taken a shine to. There was a period of a year or two when it was well known that I would have traded my own grandmother (or worse, someone much better at baseball) to get Dave Bush. (Yes, Dave Bush. Also Conor Jackson. The time commitment wasn’t the only reason I gave up the game.)
Not only did I have a tendency to get attached to particular players, but I was also a sucker for players who could do more than one thing: relievers who could slide into a rotation slot on a day when someone else wasn’t starting, bench players who could fill in at several positions when others had offdays. And I was biased toward players who walked a lot. Not because walks helped my fantasy team—until I convinced the other owners to add on-base percentage as a category, it hardly helped at all—but because I’d recently read Moneyball. And lastly, I liked injured players. I could always convince myself that someone who’d been hurt before was a bargain and a bounceback waiting to happen instead of a chronic injury case. Basically, any success I had in fantasy I had because I was obsessive about setting my lineup and because I was looking at some stats other owners weren’t aware of. Otherwise, I was the worst.
All of which is to say that for a few years in the middle of last decade, Ryan Freel was my fantasy Kryptonite. If I didn’t get Freel in the draft, I could be counted on to trade (or try to trade) someone far better than Freel for him. At the height of his fantasy powers, Freel was eligible at second, third, left, right, and center—in the Yahoo! interface, the parenthetical list of positions he could play barely fit in the space allotted after his name. Best of all, he was good enough that you could start him without sacrificing much, which wasn’t the case for most multi-position players. And he was always coming off an injury.
Freel got good at the perfect time to capture the mind of an incipient sabermetrician like me. Moneyball came out on May 13th, 2003, a few weeks after Freel played his first game for the Reds, and while he wasn’t the plodding, powerful, station-to-station type most closely associated with the Oakland A’s, he walked much more than most utility types. That made him the rare small, scrappy, white guy whose hustle even a statistically inclined fan could praise unironically. His obvious effort made him a popular teammate, though it also banged up his body. When he wasn’t stealing or taking an extra base, he was recovering from a diving catch or on his way to one—you can watch a few of them here.
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.
Freel’s heyday didn’t last long: he didn’t get regular playing time until his age-28 season, and all the injuries made his peak more of a precipice. The Reds traded Freel and a pair of prospects for Ramon Hernandez in December of 2008, which turned out be perfect timing: his 2009 season, in which he split time between three teams and was worth -0.5 WARP, was his last. He sustained a concussion—two years earlier, he’d claimed to have had “nine or 10 concussions” in his career—on a pickoff throw, and he had hamstring problems for the umpteenth time. When he was on the field, it was clear that he’d lost both his legs and his contact ability. He hit .193, striking out much more often than he ever had before, and he stole one base. He still played five positions.
Freel couldn’t get a major-league offer before the 2010 season, so he went to spring training with the Atlantic League’s Somerset Patriots. He left before the season started, citing family obligations, but he said he’d be back. Sparky Lyle, who managed the Patriots from 1998 through 2012, said Freel would’ve made it back to the big leagues if he could’ve proved he was healthy.
“Who couldn’t use a guy like that?” Lyle asked. I’d wondered the same thing every spring since 2004.
Freel never played again. He went home to Jacksonville, Florida, where he coached youth players. Around the same time Freel stopped being good at baseball, I stopped playing fantasy.
Freel reportedly shot and killed himself on Saturday. He’s survived by his wife and three young daughters. There’s a widespread belief that the suicide rate is highest during the holidays—that all the happiness and good cheer going on around us makes depression even harder to handle. This is a myth: December actually has the lowest suicide rate of any month. So we don’t know why he did what he did when he did it. Maybe it had something to do with all the concussions, or maybe his drinking problems, which he seemed to have conquered at the end of his career, resurfaced in retirement. Regardless of the reasons, the news is sad, maybe even more so because it comes so close to Christmas. Freel was just 36, younger than many of the players now preparing to report to spring training. In his last big-league trip to spring training, Freel reported first.
About 10 days ago, after the Reds picked up Jason Donald in their trade for Shin-Soo Choo, the rumor made the rounds, courtesy of Ken Rosenthal, that Cincinnati was still in the market for a utility man. (They soon signed Jack Hannahan.) Daniel Rathman, who was writing a Rumor Roundup on the Reds, asked me, “Wait, isn’t that what Jason Donald is? Does Dusty [Baker] require multiple utility men?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe he just misses Ryan Freel.”
He wouldn’t be the only one. I’ve talked to four people about Ryan Freel today: Sam Miller, and three high-school friends from my old fantasy league. Two of the old fantasy friends noted that Freel had been a favorite of theirs; the third remembered how the rest of us had felt. Affection for him wasn’t limited to our league: Sam said, “I had a couple years where I couldn’t love anybody more than Freel.” When players we watched, rooted for, and yes, owned in fantasy leagues pass away, it feels personal, even if our relationship with them wasn’t. Freel’s death feels more personal than most.
The last entry for Freel in a Baseball Prospectus annual came in 2010, and it was only nine words long. “Ryan Freel is the last refuge of the incompetent,” we wrote, a reference to Foundation that seems especially poignant in light of the way he went out. If we were both still playing, I'm sure I'd still be trying to trade for him today.