Freddie Freeman is Great

Posted: 04/23/2017 by levcohen in Baseball

There are a lot of reasons that some great players get overlooked. A starting pitcher may be overshadowed by another ace on the same team; a star might do things that don’t pop out in the conventional box score; a great hitter might play in a tiny market. Sometimes, guys get overlooked simply because they play for bad teams. Who’s the most overlooked player in baseball right now? Well, I’m glad you asked. Because I want to talk about Freddie Freeman.

It’s not like Freddie Freeman is an unknown player among casual baseball fans. After making his debut at 20-years-old in 2010, he entered 2011 as a consensus top-20 prospect and an everyday starter at first base for what was a very good team (from 2010 to 2013, the Braves won 91, 89, 94, and 96 games, making the playoffs three times). And he was immediately a good player. In his first two full seasons, he slashed .282/.346/.448 and .259/.340/.456. He hit 21 homers the first year and 23 the next. His wRC+ went from 120 to 115. Not spectacular, but pretty darn impressive from someone who turned 23-years-old at the end of the 2012 season. Then, in 2013, the breakout came. Freeman finished top-10 in wRC+ (150). He slashed .319/.396/.501. He hit 23 homers and drove in 109 runs. And he made his first career all-star game. Google searches for him surged right around the all-star announcement. He finished fifth in the MVP voting. At the end of 2013, Freeman was widely considered a rising star who was hitting in the three-hole for a consistently excellent team.

But his career (and fame) didn’t take off in 2014. Yes, he was an all-star again and yes, he played in all 162 games. But as the Braves entered a rebuild, Freeman’s name receded from debates over the best young first baseman in MLB, a discussion quickly dominated by Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto. In 2014, Freeman was a solid player. He slashed .288/.386/.461 with a 140 wRC+ and 18 homers. But it was a step down from 2013 at a time when many thought he’d enter the discussion for best player in baseball, especially after he signed an eight-year, $135 million extension in February of 2014. In 2015, Freeman’s numbers declined again as he was plagued by a wrist injury that limited him to 118 games. He was still a well above-average hitter, but Goldschmidt was the one putting up astronomical numbers (.321/.435/.570) and finishing second in the MVP race. And the Braves won 67 games in 2015 with no end to their slow rebuild in sight. They scored just 573 runs for the second consecutive season. After an injury-plagued season that was also Freeman’s worst since 2012, it makes sense that Freddie Freeman was largely ignored nationally heading into last season as he prepared to hit third for another terrible team.

Last year, Freeman had a breakout season. But it was a breakout season that came for a 68-win team. Freeman was also really bad early on last season. In his first 61 starts (262 plate appearances), Freeman slashed .242/.336/.414 with nine homers. His wRC+ was 96, his strikeout rate 26%. Throw in his below-average defense and Freeman was inarguably a liability for the first two months and change last season. He was a line drive hitter who was whiffing and popping it up more than he was hitting line drives. And then, he decided that he would be fine with the strikeouts if it also meant more power. From June 13th on last season, Freeman slashed .340/.439/.666. His 25 homers in that time were more than he had ever hit in a full season. His strikeout rate was still high and his .340 average down the stretch was surely aided by an unsustainable .414 BABIP, but he had developed into the MVP-level hitter everyone had expected him to be in 2014. realized the type of season he was having last year because I had him on my fantasy team, but I can understand why his breakout went overlooked. It would have been easy to write him off after his extended slump to start the season. He also didn’t get much help for his teammates. Nobody else hit more than 14 homers or scored more than 85 runs (Freeman scored 101). Freddie ended the season with 83 extra base hits, but many of those were wasted.

Entering this season, Freeman was probably considered to be in the second tier of first basemen, alongside guys like Brandon Belt (the guy he was most often compared to as a prospect because the two were very similar prospects coming up at the same time) and Wil Myers but behind Votto, Goldschmidt, Miguel Cabrera, and Anthony Rizzo. But through 73 plate appearances this season, Freeman has been even better than he was down the stretch last season. He’s slashing .400/.507/.850. He’s walked as many times as he’s struck out. He’s already hit seven homers. He’s been the best hitter in baseball, or maybe second best behind Bryce Harper. Obviously, his numbers will fall off a great deal, and I’m not going to give you his combined numbers from June 13th on last season through yesterday because that feels too cherry-picky. But I will give you Freeman’s numbers over the last calendar year, because that’s a pretty big sample size and not as cherry-picky. Those numbers are: 7.9 WAR, fourth in baseball behind Mike Trout, Kris Bryant, and Corey Seager. 171 wRC+, second behind Trout. .623 SLG, first in baseball. .300 ISO power, third behind Khris Davis and David Ortiz. Remember, this was a guy who could do everything but hit for elite power early on in his career. Now, it seems that he can do everything and especially hit for power. Trout’s unassailably the best position player in baseball, but if Freeman’s power surge is legit, he’s absolutely in the tier immediately behind Trout, right there with Bryant, Harper, Manny Machado, Mookie Betts, and Francisco Lindor.

The weird, amazing thing about Freeman is that he hasn’t sacrificed anything for his power. He strikes out a lot, but barely more than he’s ever struck out. And while most players start pulling the ball more in order to hit more for power, Freeman actually had the least pull-happy season of his career last year, hitting a career-high 29.8% of balls in play to the opposite field against just 36.6% that he pulled. Instead, he just hit the ball in the air a lot more, hitting easily the most fly balls of his career. But rather than sacrificing his line drives, Freeman just hit the ball on the ground a lot less last season, with a 30.3% ground ball rate that was wayyy lower than any previous mark. In fact, Freeman still had the highest line drive rate in baseball last year (ironically, Belt was second). The next guy on that list who hit 30+ homers was Miguel Cabrera (17th in line drive rate). Freeman has always been able to smoke a baseball. Now, he just smokes them in the air more often than on the ground. That’s unequivocally a good thing.

There’s one red flag. Last season, Freeman started swinging and missing a lot more. He had always struck out a lot, but the difference last year was that he was missing pitches in the zone. In fact, he swung and missed at 17.5% of the pitches he swung at in the zone. That mark was third-worst in baseball, behind only Melvin Upton and Khris Davis and slightly ahead of Corey Dickerson and Chris Carter. That’s not a good group to be associated with. But I think Freeman should be fine even if he continues to whiff at some good pitches, because he has much better plate discipline than those other four guys and because those whiffs haven’t seemed to cost him any line drives. If the only drop-off that Freeman experiences is a slightly worse contact rate, the contact rate in the zone is obviously something that Freeman, his fantasy owners, and the Braves will be happy to sacrifice. If anything, this will be more of a concern for Freeman when he hits 33 or 34-years-old and begins losing bat speed. For now, as Freeman remains firmly in his prime at 27-years-old, Freddie will continue to be one of the best hitters in baseball. Let’s just give him some more love, because the poor guy needs it. After all, he has seven homers but just nine RBI this season. Poor, poor multi-millionaire superstar.

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