Braves: Re-examining Freddie Freeman’s case for the Hall of Fame

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At just 31-years-old and currently amid an incredible prime, forecasting something as far down the road as the Hall of Fame seems a bit senseless. However, Freddie Freeman’s 2020 performance perhaps warrants an updated discussion. Tied for the most FanGraphs WAR during the regular season, the first baseman could become the first Brave to win an MVP award since Chipper Jones back in 1999. And though a 60-game campaign puts only a slight dent into the final numbers needed to achieve such a feat, Freeman’s big 2020 at least raises the question…

When it’s all said and done, will Freddie Freeman be a Hall of Famer?

I don’t know the answer to that question, and neither does anyone else. However, it’s rather obvious which way Freeman is trending. Short-season or not, per wRC+ he was the best hitter in baseball this year (among batters that played at least 50 games), and since his first full season in the majors (2011), he’s tied for tenth-best in that particular stat. Therefore, when you think about Freeman’s career so far: one of the ten-best hitters in the sport throughout the entirety of his career, including a 2020 season in which he was the absolute best (as shown above), his Hall of Fame case just doesn’t seem too difficult to make. 

 

Freeman’s current standing

With 2.9 Baseball-Reference WAR this season, Freeman is now up to 38.5 WAR for his career, good for 50th all-time among all first baseman (per JAWS Leaderboard). In terms of active first baseman, only Albert Pujols (100.6 / 2nd), Miguel Cabrera (69.3 / 12th), Joey Votto (61.8 / 16th), and Paul Goldschmidt (44.9 / 38th) rank ahead of Freeman, though all but Goldschmidt has played more seasons than the Braves first baseman. 

When it comes to his peak seasons, or his WAR7 (the sum of his seven-best WAR seasons), here’s where the shortened 2020 campaign hurts Freeman. With a 31.9 WAR7, he barely leads Anthony Rizzo for 43rd, despite pacing the Cubs first baseman by 4.2 WAR overall. Given Freeman was on pace for a career-year in WAR this season, striding for 7.8 WAR if his numbers held firm for 162 games, he could instead be at a 36.7 WAR7, good for 29th and less than 3 WAR behind Goldschmidt’s 40.3. 

That WAR7 looks at performance over a seven-year span, which may seem like quite an arbitrary cut-off, but it’s a significant metric when measuring a player’s HoF case in that it’s needed to compute JAWS, which has long been the industry’s go-to for determining a player’s HoF worthiness (developed by FanGraphs‘ Jay Jaffe). Freeman’s JAWS definitely could use some help, coming in at 35.2 (47th) — 14 places behind Goldy’s.

However, when looking at Freeman’s most comparable colleagues, or fellow players that have manned first base in at least 90% of their games, while also totaling at least 1,000 games-played since 2010, we’re talking about one of the three best players at his position over the last decade. 

 

First Base OPS Leaders (since 2010)

  1. Joey Votto – .939
  2. Paul Goldschmidt – .914
  3. Freddie Freeman – .892
  4. Anthony Rizzo – .857
  5. Adrian Gonzalez – .828
  6. Brandon Belt – .810
  7. Eric Hosmer – .771
  8. Justin Smoak – .740

 

Within that group of eight above, since 2010, Freeman ranks first in doubles (342) and RBI (858), second in AVG (.295), hits (1,524), runs (849), triples (23), games (1,406), and third in home runs (240), walks (691), OBP (.383) and SLG% (.509). Basically, he is inside the top-three in every standard statistic there is, and considering he’s also the youngest player in that group, he has a solid shot at moving into first.

But being one of the best doesn’t necessarily get you into the Hall. And though calling Freeman the best hitting first baseman in Braves history is no longer simply an opinion (he already passed Fred Tenney on the franchise’s all-time offensive WAR leaderboard), he still has a lot of work to do before his HoF worthiness is enough. 

 

What Freeman needs to do

We could save a lot of words here and just say that Freeman simply needs to keep playing really well, but I’m afraid that might not even be enough. He already has been playing really well for the last ten seasons and has even earned a reputation for being one of the most consistent players in the majors. But with no MVP awards to show for (though that should change next month), and having played for a team just three years into its current run of contention, Freeman must build off of what he’s been doing over the last five seasons and somehow do more.

Fortunately, as Jay Jaffe noted in his piece this week, Freeman’s 2020 season indicates that perhaps he’s able…

“From a statistical standpoint, a few things about his 2020 performance stand out. He set career bests when it came to selectivity and contact, swinging at just 28.2% of pitches outside the zone (32.9% last year), connecting with 81.9% of the pitches he swung at (77.9% last year), and whiffing on just 8.5% (11.6% last year); those 2019 numbers are quite representative of his career rates. That selectivity and contact produced a career-high 17.2% walk rate and a career-low 14.1% strikeout rate. He also produced the lowest groundball rate of his career (31.1%), and the second-lowest groundball-to-fly ball ratio (0.85). His overall average exit velocity of 92.4 mph was well beyond 2019 (89.8) as well as his previous Statcast high (91.3 mph in 2016).”

 

Basically, anything relating to his performance, in terms of bat-to-ball results, Freeman exponentially improved this season, which is even more impressive than simply posting the best stats of his career. This hopefully means that Freeman’s big 2020 season isn’t just a one-time thing and that this is more of a baseline for him because this type of improvement is what’s needed for his HoF case. 

 

The verdict 

The average HoF first baseman produced 66.9 WAR for their career, a whopping 28.4 WAR above the aforementioned 38.5 currently accrued by Freeman thus far. Sure, WAR isn’t everything, but for a 31-year-old just now entering the fifth postseason of his career (mostly featuring quick exits) and has yet to bring home that oh so important MVP award, Freeman needs all the WAR he can get. 

If we take his last five seasons and average them, as a 4.7-WAR player Freeman needs at least another six seasons just to hit the threshold for average WAR produced by Hall of Famers at his position. Your opinion may differ, but I find it highly unlikely that Freeman is a 5-WAR player during his age 36-37 seasons, so that means he needs to make up the difference right now while he still can. And he very well could’ve made up some ground if 2020 would’ve featured a full season. Using the WAR total from above of which he was on pace for this year (7.8 WAR), theoretically, a full 2020 would’ve bumped his five-year average up to 5.7 WAR, essentially knocking off a season from his chase. For guys like Freeman, players right on the cusp of crossing that line from potential Hall of Very Good to Hall of Famers, the smaller season just added more work.

But is it still possible? Can Freeman do what it takes to make the Hall of Fame? 

The WAR totals will differ slightly from what I’ve used in this particular write-up, but over at FanGraphs, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection has Freeman playing until 2028 (or through his age-38 season) and tallying 19.6 more WAR to give him a career total of 58.1. Unfortunately, that just isn’t going to get it done.

And though projections aren’t always correct, Jaffe presented the odds that Freeman surpasses ZiPS projections, giving the Braves’ first baseman a 45% chance at reaching 60 WAR, a 37% chance at reaching 65, and a 27% chance at getting to 70, with somewhere in between the latter two odds being what’s needed to reach the HoF average threshold. 

I’m not sure whether or not I’d call roughly 35% odds a very good estimate of Freeman’s overall chances at reaching the HoF. Those odds just seem rather low for a player that has been so consistently great for this long. But I do agree with Jaffe that Freeman does need several more big seasons WAR-wise. And if ZiPS is at least right in that his career will end after the 2028 campaign (eight more seasons), I’d go as far to say that Freeman probably needs to surpass 5 WAR in no less than five of them, perhaps fewer if he can win a couple of MVP awards or have some huge moments in the postseason.

Of course, one of those MVPs looks like it’ll come in 2020, as long as the love for the young Fernando Tatis Jr. doesn’t overshadow what Freeman was able to do this season, despite having to deal with a scary COVID situation leading up to Opening Day. But one thing’s for sure, the 60-game season hurt Freeman’s HoF case more than initially thought, for this was exactly the type of year he needed to jump-start the conversation. Hopefully, this is just the beginning, and maybe Freeman can make up the ground he lost.

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