Our recurring list of the twenty-five greatest Cardinals of the last twenty-five years will run daily leading up to Opening Day 2021. On Wednesday, we published the honorable mentions, and yesterday, we looked at our #25 player, Todd Stottlemyre.
That David Freese went on to have as long and productive of a Major League career as he did borders on miraculous. Although a good enough high school player to command a scholarship offer from the University of Missouri, he quit the sport to enroll at the school as a non-athlete, decided a year later that he missed baseball so dropped out and enrolled in his local community college, went to play Sun Belt Conference baseball at the University of South Alabama, and was drafted in the ninth round of the 2006 MLB Draft as a 23 year-old. For perspective, Miguel Cabrera, who is just ten days older than Freese, was already a two-time All-Star (who would become a three-time All-Star a month later) who had received MVP votes three times by the time Freese, commanding a $6,000 bonus from the San Diego Padres, was drafted. And yet Freese, despite this inauspicious beginning to his professional baseball career, went on to earn nearly $35 million in Major League Baseball and remained a superb hitter as an integral role player on the Los Angeles Dodgers as a 36 year-old. And that is a summation of the miracle of David Freese.
Well, if not for that other thing.
If the Cardinals decided they wanted to introduce their top twenty-five players of the last twenty-five years at Busch Stadium once it is safe to have fans in the building (and if you’re reading this, Cardinals–call me), there are maybe two players who would receive a more raucous ovation than Freese. His story is one so neatly packaged that sometimes I wonder if I’m making it up in my own head. I wonder if he feels the same way.
Despite the overwhelming adoration towards David Freese in St. Louis that has persisted for nearly a decade, the trade which brought him into the Cardinals organization was by and large mourned at the time. This wasn’t Freese’s fault, of course–he just happened to be the faceless prospect exchanged for Jim Edmonds, a bona fide franchise legend. It didn’t matter at the time that Edmonds was 37 and coming off an injury-riddled down season for a sub-.500 team that clearly needed to get younger–he was still, in the hearts of Cardinals fans, the MVP candidate who helped the Cardinals salvage their 2004 pennant and who was just a year removed from helping lead the Cardinals to their first World Series title in twenty-four years. And David Freese was the third base prospect made expendable by the Padres by the presence of Kevin Kouzmanoff and Chase Headley, a throw-in who probably wouldn’t make a dent at the big-league level.
Freese was a productive hitter with the Lake Elsinore Storm in 2007, but as a twenty-four year-old in high-A, he didn’t seem especially promising in the long term. But after his first season in the Cardinals organization, during which he hit 26 home runs with a .361 on-base percentage with the AAA Memphis Redbirds, Freese looked like a potential late bloomer. In 2009, he cracked the Opening Day roster, notching an RBI in his first career plate appearance. But a series of mostly unrelated injuries took their toll over the next two seasons. Freese was good when healthy, but he was often hobbled by injuries.
In 2011, at which point Freese had become firmly entrenched as the team’s starting third baseman, he got off to a hot start, with a .356 batting average and .865 OPS through his first twenty-five games. But once again, the seemingly arbitrary nature of his injury history took its toll, as Freese broke his hand on a hit-by-pitch and missed nearly two months. He recovered and upon returning to the lineup, he remained a strong performer, with relative health throughout the remainder of the regular season–he finished the season with a career-best 123 wRC+, the best defensive metrics of his career, and despite the relatively advanced age for a breakout player of 28, David Freese seemed to be coming into his own. As it turned out, he wasn’t just reaching his own career apex–he was challenging the apex of any Cardinal ever.
David Freese had a decent series in the first postseason games of his career–his .833 OPS was a tick above his season mark, and despite just two hits in the first three games of his 2011 NLDS series against the Philadelphia Phillies, he notched both of the Cardinals’ biggest hits in a must-win Game 4–a two-RBI double to give the Cardinals a one-run lead in the bottom of the fourth, and a two-run home run to triple the Cardinals’ precocious lead in the bottom of the sixth. For a brief period of time, Game 4 of the 2011 NLDS was The David Freese Game, but his postseason legacy expanded in the next series against the Milwaukee Brewers. In a series in which both Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday were dominant, even beyond their normal statures, it was Freese who was the team’s best hitter, with three home runs and a 1.691 OPS en route to a richly-deserved NLCS MVP award. In the sixth and final game of the series, Freese hit a three-run home run to solidify a four-run lead in the top of the first, in what would be the greatest moment of Freese’s life in Game Sixes for eleven days.
By any objective measure, David Freese wasn’t quite as great in the World Series. You could make an argument that Lance Berkman, Allen Craig, Albert Pujols, or Chris Carpenter were the team’s deserving World Series MVP (I wouldn’t personally, but it isn’t a strictly contrarian take to have). And through the first five games of the series, Freese sported an adequate but hardly exceptional .826 OPS. A truly mystifying fifth-inning error in which Freese dropped a lazy pop-up off the bat of Texas Rangers superstar Josh Hamilton would have severely damaged Freese’s NLCS legacy had the legacy not instead been expanded to a point of folk hero status. In the bottom of the ninth inning, with the Cardinals down two runs and Freese down to his final strike against fireballing reliever Neftali Feliz, the pride of nearby Wildwood’s Lafayette High School poked an opposite field line drive just over the head of Nelson Cruz, arriving at third base with the game tied.
Assigning a numerical value to Freese’s heroics is mostly missing the point, though if it has to be done, by Championship Probability Added, it was the most significant play in Cardinals history since Enos Slaughter’s “Mad Dash Home” in Game 7 of the 1946 World Series. It is inconceivable that Freese could fully grasp the extent to which, in a matter of seconds, he went from a reasonably well-liked local kid done right in St. Louis to one of the franchise’s most iconic players, and his dumbfounded facial expression supports that hypothesis. I’m sure if a camera had been on me at that moment, my facial expression would have been just as baffled, and I was merely watching the game on TV.
Only three plays since Freese’s ninth-inning triple have even approached it in terms of significance to improving the Cardinals’ World Series chances. One such play came in the very next inning, with Lance Berkman’s game-tying single. The next two came courtesy of David Freese, in his very next two at-bats–in the bottom of the 11th, when Freese smashed a 3-2 pitch from Mark Lowe into the center field greenery now affectionately nicknamed “Freese’s Lawn”, and in the first inning of the next night’s game, when for the second night in a row, with the Cardinals down two runs with Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman on base and with two strikes on the count, Freese cleared the bases with an extra-base hit to tie the game. Freese would walk twice more, once intentionally to walk the bases loaded, before being replaced by a defensive substitute.
October 27 and 28 of 2011 is by far the thing for which David Freese will be best known forever. But it was by no means the end of his Cardinals career. His postseason heroics weren’t replicable, but Freese was able to parlay them into the best regular season of his career in 2012, with twenty home runs, an improved walk rate, steady defense, and his lone career All-Star Game appearance. He even had some postseason heroics, albeit in a much more understated way–with runners on the corners and the Cardinals down two while down to their final out in Game 5 of their NLDS series against the Washington Nationals, Freese gritted out a bases-loaded walk and eventually scored the winning run.
2013 was rough for Freese. His power and his walks declined, and his once-competent third base defense was increasingly erratic. The organization’s other third base candidate, Matt Carpenter, was having an MVP-caliber season moonlighting as a second baseman, but with consensus top-100 prospect Kolten Wong waiting in the wings at second base, it was readily apparent that the Cardinals had too many players for too few positions. So when the Cardinals were able to move David Freese and marginalized reliever Fernando Salas to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in exchange for Peter Bourjos, a defensive wizard center fielder displaced by the rise of Mike Trout expected to usurp Jon Jay’s starting position, and Randal Grichuk, a promising prospect who eventually was the one to usurp Jon Jay’s starting position, it made perfect baseball sense for both teams.
David Freese, post-Cardinals, never again reached the performance levels of 2012 and certainly not of the 2011 postseason, but he carved out a nice career as a reliable third baseman, first baseman, or bench bat for the Angels, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Los Angeles Dodgers. He was able to retire on his own terms, after a strong 2019 season, and in hindsight, it was probably for the best for Freese personally to get out of St. Louis. Freese dealt with depression and alcohol abuse prior to his postseason heroics, and the increased spotlight on him does not seem to have helped his overall well-being.
David Freese accomplished every St. Louis kid’s lifelong dream of not only playing for the St. Louis Cardinals but of coming through in the big game and winning a championship. He had a long and lucrative career as a Major League Baseball player. And now, he seems to have achieved his greatest feat yet–building a happy and healthy life in Austin, Texas with his wife and two young children. No Cardinals fan could ever want any less for him.