Freddie Freeman is the best he’s ever been — and nobody seems to care.
It’s easy to see why Freeman has been overshadowed by the emergence of young phenoms Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna, and the late-career resurgence of Nick Markakis. Those stories are exciting and unexpected, and easily capture the imagination of fans who are already enamored with the rapid rise of the Braves this season. Meanwhile, Freeman is a known quantity, generally recognized as being one of the better players in the league. Make no mistake though, Freddie Freeman is still the most important member of this Braves team, and he’s very quietly playing better than he ever has before.
It’s pretty fair to say that Freeman’s 2017 campaign was a disappointment. Not because of anything he did or failed to do, but because an MVP caliber start was derailed by a wild fastball from Aaron Loup on May 17th. Freeman missed 2 months of the season as a result, and wasn’t the same upon his return. Despite finishing the year with 4.5 fWAR and a 152 wRC+, Freeman spoke of his disappointment in the offseason and made references to a weakened wrist that never fully healed. Coming into 2018, everyone expected Freeman to once again be the best player on a rebuilding Braves team, but instead he’s found himself in the background of a team that currently, unexpectedly finds themselves with the best record in the National League.
This season, Freeman is slashing .325/.435/.567 with a 169 wRC+, all of which would be career highs if the season ended today. Freeman is benefiting from a strengthened lineup around him including a rejuvenated Nick Markakis, who is forcing pitchers to attack Freeman more aggressively than ever before. He’s seeing first pitch strikes and meatballs at the highest rates of his career (10.8 % and 7.7% respectively). For the first time in his post-breakout career, he has another hitter behind him that pitchers are afraid off. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he often comes up with Albies or Acuna already on base, especially in the first and second inning where the Braves lead MLB in runs scored.
To figure out how Freeman got to this point, let’s take a look at his wRC+ since the start of his breakout 2016 season. You can see a dip around mid-2017 that coincides with his broken wrist. The injury came with a severe dip in his ability to drive the ball. This has started to recover in the early stages of 2018, as the integrity of his wrist seems to be a non-issue going forward.
Freeman has steadily rebuild his Hard hit % back to his pre-injury levels, and his renewed ability to drive the ball is producing consistent results once again. For a hitter with a launch angle as pronounced as Freddie Freeman, those extra few ticks of power are the difference between a long fly out to the warning track and a souvenir deposit to the outfield bleachers.
None of the above is new for Freeman, who’s made a name for himself over the past two years in part due to his power explosion. The more interesting thing that Freeman is doing now is changing his plate presence in a significant way. In an era of league-wide spikes in strikeouts, Freeman is striking out at a career-low clip.
This is perhaps the most drastic change we’ve seen in Freeman’s profile. His meteoric rise in offensive output almost perfectly coincides with a steady drop in his K%. As a result, even when he is not driving the ball and making the most of his power, Freeman is now getting on base at the highest rate of his career, right on time to take his place in the middle of a renewed Braves lineup that can take advantage of his near .500 OBP.
Then there is the possibility that we’re not yet seeing the absolute best of Freeman this season. If you plot a player’s wOBA against his xwOBA you can get a good sense of how his results are comparing to his expected results based on quality of contact. In the plot below, you’ll see all MLB hitters with at least 50 PAs in 2018, with Freeman highlighted in red. The points above the line are players whose wOBA is lagging behind their xwOBA, indicating the possibility of positive regression while the points below the line are players whose outcomes are exceeding their expected outcomes, indicating the possibility of future negative regression.
By wOBA, Freeman is already in elite company, as the group of three points just to the right of his represent Kris Bryant, Mike Trout, and Manny Machado. While his outcomes lag slightly behind those three, his xwOBA indicates that he deserves to be in that group of elites. Just for fun, the extreme point in the top right is the Red Sox’ Mookie Betts.
There are a host of other fun facts about Freeman that put his impressive 2018 into further context.
The only player in baseball who has been on base more times this season than Freeman is Mike Trout.
Mike Trout is the only major leaguer who’s been on base more times (84) than Freddie Freeman (83). Aaron Judge (83) is the only other player who’s been on base more than 78 times.
— David O’Brien (@DOBrienAJC) May 17, 2018
Freddie Freeman has not hit an infield fly since 2016. 9/7/2016 against the Nationals to be exact. Only Joey Votto has a lower infield fly ball % since the start of the 2016 season.
He is one of only 5 players in baseball who is shifted against on more than 80% of his plate appearances, yet he leads the league in wOBA against the shift. The Cubs went so far as to try this shift against Freeman on Wednesday, and he proceeded to barrell a line drive between Kris Bryant and Javy Baez for an RBI single.
Freddie Freeman is once again making a case to be considered among the elite hitters in baseball. He’s been the best and most consistent player on some very bad Braves teams while suffering through this rebuild that is finally starting to pay dividends. All of a sudden, the Braves have a lot of very good hitters, and while Albies and Acuna may be more exciting and Markakis may be more surprising, don’t forget that Freeman is still the best player on this team. As the season goes on and more young Braves players make their debut alongside the impressive youngsters already on the team, it would be easy to conclude that the new generation of Baby Braves is the reason for the Braves’ success. Don’t be fooled though, the elder statesman of this team is still a key figure, and if the Braves continue this early success into the postseason, Frederick Charles Freeman will be a major reason why.