As is the case every year — since he started his first full season with the Braves in 2011 — there hasn’t been enough appreciation handed out for just how great Freddie Freeman has been this season. Even here at SportsTalkATL, we’ve been taking him for granted, with our archives featuring just a handful of pieces on the star, and most of them are regarding his availability to start the 2020 season (due to his elbow surgery) or a small report I wrote up regarding his COVID scare.
Hey, I’m as guilty as the next Braves fan, but for some reason, we always tend to overlook Freddie. And it’s odd, especially given the fact that for ten-straight seasons now (eleven if you count his debut-year in 2010), the guy has been about as consistent as can be. It’s like we head into each season expecting him to perform like one of the top first basemen in baseball… and then he does just that — except we probably don’t acknowledge it quite as much as we should.
However, considering Freeman is once again ranked among the top-five first baseman in the majors, in terms of current fWAR this season — with 1.5 WAR — today we’re going to show a little love to the soon to be 31-year-old.
Moving up the all-time ranks
Before we get to Freeman’s 2020 season, we first have a little update regarding his status among all-time Braves franchise greats. Going by Baseball-Reference WAR (bWAR), Freeman’s tied with centerfielder Wally Berger for seventh-place in career WAR by a Braves’ position-player, with 36.9 bWAR. Next on the list, at no. 6, is first baseman Fred Tenney, with 39.8 WAR — a mark Freeman should easily hit at some point during the 2021 season. Then there’s third baseman Dale Murphy (47.3 WAR) at no. 5 and Andruw Jones (61 WAR) fourth.
When looking at the Braves’ all-time position-player leaderboard, and considering Freeman’s rather unscathed history regarding injuries (plus the fact that he’s a pure hitter playing a position that should allow him to stay on the field as he ages), there’s a chance he follows Chipper Jones’ path as an older player and remains a productive hitter on into 40, meaning there are probably a few more players left for him to pass going forward. Suppose he really can manage to play until 40. That gives Freeman almost another decade — nine seasons to be exact, not counting the remainder of 2020 — to accrue more WAR (though probably featuring a bit of a decline after the next few seasons).
However, with roughly 45% of the 2020 regular season schedule left to play (less than 30 games) — he’s on pace to finish with right around 2 WAR this year, giving him a career total of 38.9 bWAR heading into 2021 — there’s not a whole lot he can do this season. But assuming the world returns to normal in the somewhat near future, and there are no more major COVID outbreaks, giving us a traditional full-162 in future seasons going forward, Freeman’s current 3.4-bWAR/season average could certainly go a long way.
Braves All-Time Hitter WAR
|PLAYER||CAREER bWAR||FREEMAN’S GAP|
*Column 3 is how much WAR is needed if Freeman enters 2021 with 38.9 career WAR (a 2-WAR 2020 season)
Murphy looks passable at Freeman’s current pace in the next 2.5 seasons, while surpassing Jones (Andruw) would likely be the final realistic hurdle at 6.5 seasons. Getting into the top-three and passing Chipper just doesn’t seem feasible at this point unless he starts posting Trout-like numbers from here on out. But regardless of where he ends up on the all-time WAR leaderboard, Freeman has already managed to become the best Brave to ever play first base, so I think he’ll settle for ending his career as one of the franchise’s five-best hitters overall.
You know, it really is a shame that this season was shortened to just 60 games. And I know that’s a rather obvious statement, but fewer games this year is even more unfortunate for Freeman’s sake. Through 36 games, he’s putting up some of his best numbers yet (small-sample sizes nonetheless).
Having tallied 153 plate appearances in 2020, Freeman’s .317 AVG, .438 OBP, 159 wRC+, and 91.6 mph average exit-velocity are all career-highs at this point, not to mention career-bests in K rate (15.7%), walk rate (17%), Hard% (47.1%) and contact rate (79.7%) as well.
And though he has always hit fastballs well, this season, opposing pitchers would be crazy to throw Freeman one, for he’s mashing the heater like never before. Going into Friday’s game versus the Nationals, the Braves’ first baseman is slugging .722 with a .431 AVG versus the fastball. Of his 17 extra-base hits in 2020, 14 have come against fastballs, including three of his five homers.
Freeman’s plate discipline in 2020 is at an all-time high as well. I mentioned his overall contact-rate is currently the highest of his career, but Freeman’s achieving that all while swinging the bat less than he ever has (46.8%). Combine that with him chasing pitches out of the zone at an all-time low rate too (24.9%), and what you have is an outstanding player absolutely locked in at the plate.
And it doesn’t look like Freeman’s slowing down anytime soon. He has recorded a hit in 16-straight games now, including seven multi-hit performances since the streak started on August 14. That two weeks of raking has resulted in a .390/.507/.593 slash-line, to go along with eight extra-base hits and ten RBIs. Pretty impressive, given Freeman was hitting just .254 in the 20 games before that 16-game stretch.
Although perhaps the best accomplishment to date and one that could potentially top off yet another strong season: Thursday Freeman was nominated for the annual Roberto Clemente Award — an accolade that has been earned by not only several of the top performers in MLB but guys that are considered extraordinary human beings.
Freeman will have to wait until the World Series to find out if he’s the winner, but I’d say he has just as good a shot as anyone (here’s a link to view all of 2020’s nominees).
So here we go again. The Braves’ most consistent player and team-leader is playing exactly like we thought he would when players started reporting to Spring Training. None of this is a surprise. It never is. But maybe that’s why we always take Freeman for granted. Either way, 2020 looks like another great season for the Braves’ franchise player.
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