I was recently filling out my fake ballots for Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, and Player of the Year for the Internet Baseball Awards at Baseball Prospectus. I do not recall ever having a harder time filling out fake award ballots. The Cy Young awards for each league were especially brutal. The best pitchers in each league were so similar that differentiating them was practically a fool’s errand. DRA helped a lot!
Anyway, I started filling out my NL Player of the Year ballot with some idea of whom I wanted at the top. Without checking the stats, I was expecting to put Kris Bryant first, Corey Seager second, and Nolan Arenado third. After checking FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference, I felt good about that start, though reasonable people could disagree with my choices after Bryant.
What surprised me when pulling up stats of the best position players in the NL is how Freddie Freeman completely flew under my radar. I’m guessing he flew under a lot of people’s radar because the Braves were terrible. Even as a Mets fan I missed him because I always declined to watch them play the Braves (and Phillies). Why watch a terrible team play baseball when MLB.tv provides better options?
I was skeptical that we would ever see 2013 Freddie Freeman again. That year he hit .319/.396/.501 for a 150 wRC+ and 5.7 WAR, per Baseball Reference. The biggest culprit in projecting his regression was his .371 BABIP. Going into 2013 he had a career BABIP of .315. He did indeed regress some in 2014 with a 140 wRC+, and he regressed more in 2015 with a 132 wRC+. Even at the time, it would have been fair to blame 2015 on injury, and now it looks like that was definitely the case.
In 2016, Freeman hit .302/.400/.569. His 152 wRC+ is more or less the same as his 2013, most likely because the level of offense in the league has increased since then. Freeman’s 6.5 bWAR was tied for second in the NL with Nolan Arenado. I’m guessing if you asked any hardcore baseball fan to guess who tied with Arenado for second-highest bWAR in the NL, he or she would make a lot of guesses and probably never guess Freeman.
Similarly to 2013, Freeman had a high DRS. Now I’m not sure what scouts have to say about his defense, but I’m guessing doing things like this probably helps get extra outs.
Also similar to 2013, Freeman had a high BABIP of .370. He learned to walk a little more in recent years, but the biggest reason for his great offensive season was his spike in power. He had a .267 ISO, which was way higher than his career .181 ISO going into the season. His HR/FB ratio was high at 19.9 percent, far greater than his career rate of 14.3 percent, but he was also hitting the ball harder. His 43.5 percent hard-hit rate was the highest of his career by a significant margin. Only David Ortiz had a higher hard-hit rate. If we look further at his batted-ball distributions for 2016, he smartly focused on keeping the ball off the ground. Doing that usually leads to more power.
Freeman’s strikeout rate went up in 2016 as well. Normally when a hitter successfully sells out contact for power, it comes at the cost of OBP. Looking at his plate discipline numbers, he was clearly more aggressive at the plate. Yet amazingly, Freeman turned in a career-high .400 OBP. Yes, a .370 BABIP helps with that, but Freeman has always been a high BABIP guy. In addition to that elevated BABIP, he likely accomplished his great OBP by not striking out too too much, hitting the ball hard, and taking lots of walks.
It is an interestingly unique combination. Let’s take a look at how Freeman compares to similar players in 2016. I focused on players who walked at least 10.5 percent of the time and struck out at 22 percent of the time. Admittedly it is a bit of an arbitrary cutoff, but I had to draw the line somewhere.
Freeman and Kris Bryant are far and away the best producers of this group, and Freeman has the highest hard-hit rate. They were remarkably similar by the stats shown in this table, save for Freeman’s much higher BABIP.
Generally speaking, other players on this list either strike out too much, don’t have Freeman’s power, or have way lower BABIPs. He is a better pure hitter than other power bats in this group, which contributes to the high BABIP. Those with better hit tools who strike out less don’t have Freeman’s power. In other words, it is hard frequently go down on strikes and be a very productive hitter, even if you’re good at taking a walk, without sufficiently advanced power and hit tools to back you up.
It is hard to imagine that Freeman will have something close to a .267 ISO again. ZiPS projects a .215 ISO for 2017, which would still be the second-highest of his career. He is projected to regress from a .402 wOBA down to a .370 wOBA, likely because a .370 BABIP is really hard to duplicate. I would still take the over on that wOBA, though not by too much.
Freeman was up for arbitration after his breakout 2013 season. Believing that they had a star on their hands, the Braves decided to offer him an eight-year, $135 million deal to buy out his arbitration years and five years of free agency. I am not criticizing him one bit for taking the deal, but if he had not, he would have been a free agent right now as a 27-year-old coming off a 6.5 WAR season. He would have been the best free agent available by a mile.
Neil Weinberg, one of my former managing editors here at BtBS, recently wrote an article discussing players who would have been free agents right now had it not been for extensions they had previously signed. He estimated that Freeman could have gotten something in the neighborhood of eight years and $250 million. That might sound high to a lot of you, but he is young and would have a tremendous amount of leverage in such a weak market.
I am sure that Freeman was a big bright spot in a dark, dismal season for Braves fans. Unfortunately, Freeman’s career year could not have come at a worse time. The Braves are tanking, and Freeman’s 6.5 WAR hurt their draft stock more than you would think. The Twins’ 59 wins easily gave them the first pick and nobody else was close. Now look at the cluster of teams beyond that.
The Braves played only 161 games as a result of not needing to make up the game the Marlins canceled because of the tragic death of José Fernández. That resulted in the Braves having one less defeat than the Rays, Reds, and Padres, despite having the same number of victories. The slightly improved win percentage is why the Braves are behind those three teams in the draft order.
Had Freeman performed like he did or worse in 2014 and 2015, the Braves likely would have had the second overall pick in the upcoming draft. Instead, they snagged the fifth pick. That is not exactly bad, but for those of you unfamiliar with the draft, it is a more significant drop in the possible return for talent than you might think. Regardless, the Braves have a great farm system and will not exactly be hurting from the drop in draft order.
While the Braves still won’t be contenders in 2017, they are not far off. Given Freeman’s age and impressive 2016 performance, he could be the star of the next great Braves run.
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Luis Torres is a Contributing Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.