(This is the first of series of short profiles that will be interspersed with the usual, longer examinations of players that you see here. They’ll be quick takes on players where there’s too little data for the High Cut method to get its teeth into and tell us what they might have done. But for whatever reason, they’re still interesting enough that it’s worth taking a look at them.)
In the early mid-1980s the Milwaukee Brewers had the strongest minor league farm systems around, or so it was thought. That turned to not be the case, as prospects like Steve Stanicek, Dale Sveum, and Billy Jo Robidoux had peculiarly low ceilings. Of all their hyped players at the time, only Gary Sheffield lived up to his billing.
Even at the time, though, one player exemplified the Brewers’ minor leagues by having the most eye-popping numbers of all while simultaneously not being anywhere near as good as he looked. This was LaVel Freeman.
A superficial look at Freeman’s numbers can fool you into thinking he was a potential star. He actually was a serious prospect at first, having been drafted 26th over all, in the first round of the 1983 draft. To be more precise he went in the January draft, which was kind of a stepchild of the main draft phased out not long after this, in which lesser players tended to be picked. Even so, Ellis Burks went six picks before him, and there were four other future major-leaguers (not counting Freeman) in the round, though admittedly none of them were above replacement value.
Somewhat unusually for a high pick out of college, Freeman went to rookie ball and hit well, but then he scuffled around in A-ball the next year. Both of those are early signs of trouble: good college prospects skip Rookie ball altogether, and they usually do well after promotion to the next level. He did show enough on his second try at the A level, in 1985, to be given the next season what is generally acknowledged as a prospect’s biggest test: Double-A. It’s possible to put up really nice numbers below AA and not have major league ability, but once you get two steps away from the Show the typical scouting thinking is that you have to have talent to thrive.
At 23, Freeman was getting a bit long in the tooth, but he put up some nice-looking numbers in El Paso that year: .322/.393/.483. For a reason that will become clear shortly, the Brewers kept him in the Texas League for another year (another bad sign) and this is where the Legend of LaVel Freeman begins.
The Texas League has been around since 1902, and as it plays a relatively short schedule and only two players have ever had 200 hits in a season. Freeman’s ’87 is one of them: 208 hits with 24 homers (ten more than his next best), good for 96 RBI and 117 runs scored. Going into the last game of the season he had a chance to hit .400, needing a 4 for 4, but as the Diablos had already clinched a playoff spot he sat it out to rest up instead. Even so his final numbers were astonishing: .395/.467/.627.
You’d think that would be good for something, especially as the major-league Brewers were hanging around the fringes of the pennant race in September of 1987, but Freeman didn’t get the call. He did go to spring training in ’88 and ’89, but didn’t make the team then either. His sole stint in the majors was a few days during April of 1989 as an injury replacement.
The obvious question is: how on Earth does somebody hit .395 with some walks and power and never even get a sniff at the big club, let alone become a star in the major leagues? In Freeman’s case, it’s two-fold. One I mentioned earlier, his age. He was 24 when he put up his huge numbers, and still in AA. Good position players have made it to the majors by then, and while there are some who don’t get a chance until they’re 25 or 26, they’re the exception. A 24-year old player who hasn’t made it to AAA yet is going to get the side eye from his organization.
More important, though, was offensive context. At the time the Texas League put up big numbers. Parks were small, and at altitude: the city of El Paso is 3800 feet up. Take a look at the batting averages that led the TL for the three years before Freeman’s accomplishment: .340, .332, 342. That’s not .395, but it’s it’s in the suburbs. Further, he played in Denver in the American Association in 1988, which also inflated numbers (an effect that would become much better known starting in 1993 as “the Colorado Rockies Effect”), and while Freeman did hit .300 there he didn’t even approach his 1987 numbers when he would have if he’d actually been anywhere near a .395 hitter.
This is pretty apparent to the sabermetrics-savvy reader of 2017, but it was less clear in the 80s. What did in Freeman was that his organization had learned the lesson the hard way. By 1987 the Brewers were getting toward the tail end of a run of prospects who’d done (apparently) very well in the minors only to flop in Milwaukee. The previously mentioned Stanicek hit .343/.448/.583 in El Paso and .352/.396/.616 in Denver. Billy Jo Robidoux pounded the Texas League for .342/.443/.577. Glenn Braggs his .360/.443/.615 for their AAA affiliate Vancouver (they switched to Denver the next year) in 1986. Randy Ready nearly duplicated Freeman’s numbers in El Paso in 1982, at .375/.474/.592 and then hit .329/.463/.499 in AAA. Between the four of them they had one good major league season (Ready’s 1987, which was injury-shortened and came after he was traded to San Diego).
So there were all these fantastic minor league numbers flying about and the Brewers had been burned repeatedly. By the time Freeman rang up his amazing season, the Brewers were getting really suspicious of any supposed super-prospect they had playing at AA or AAA. They may have overreacted a little, but the general idea was right. Few really understood park effects at the time, and especially did not understand how extreme minor leagues could take the phenomenon. The Brewers farm system of the 80s rubbed everyone’s nose in it.