One first baseman has quietly put together an MVP-caliber season that stands above the rest. It is not the playoff bound Anthony Rizzo, Adrian Gonzalez, or Hanley Ramirez. It is not the power and speed package of Paul Goldschmidt. It is not even the on-base machine Joey Votto or the Cooperstown-bound Miguel Cabrera. No, the best player at the premier offensive position in Major League Baseball this season is Freddie Freeman.
Superstar Freddie Freeman
The Early Years
Freddie Freeman debuted with the Atlanta Braves in 2010 and played his first full season in 2011. Freeman instantly made his impact felt with 21 home runs and 32 doubles as a rookie. He finished second in the 2011 Rookie of the Year voting to teammate Craig Kimbrel. Freeman was off to a fast start, and it was clear a star was in the making.
Freeman’s breakout season came in 2013. He posted a triple-slash of .319/.396/.501, along with an OPS+ of 147. Freeman was named to the National League All-Star team while helping to lead the braves to their first NL East division title since 2005. The Braves rewarded his efforts with an eight-year, $135 million contract extension. The contract is the largest in Atlanta’s history, but some context needs to be added. The deal is quite team friendly when compared with other MLB first basemen. Freeman’s salary for 2016 ranks as the 10th largest among first baseman. His salary will go up in 2017 and 2018, but will still only rank as the eighth and then sixth largest contract, respectively. This will be key as the Braves look to sign key free agents moving forward.
The Middle Years
Freeman was voted an All-Star for the second consecutive season in 2014, but that is where the highlights stopped. Freeman’s batting average and power numbers took a slight step back while the Braves staggered to a 79-83 finish without making the playoffs. The end of 2014 saw the Braves fire Frank Wren and begin an organizational rebuild. It soon became evident that many current players would be traded or released before the 2015 season.
Trade rumors began to swirl around Freeman during 2014-2015. After all, he was the most talented player remaining on Atlanta’s roster. The Braves decided not to trade Freeman before the 2015 season. Unfortunately, 2015 was much more identifiable with 2014 than 2013. Freeman battled injuries throughout the year and appeared in a career-low 118 games, hitting just 18 home runs and driving in just 66 runners. The Braves also struggled mightily in the second half of the season and finished with a disappointing 67-95 record.
The Superstar Year
Trade speculation began to heat up once again leading into the 2016 season. The Braves were coming off two abysmal offensive seasons and were neck-deep in a rebuild effort. All names were considered in trade talks, but the Braves held onto their talented first baseman.
The season started with a bang, quite literally, for Freeman. He hit a solo home run on Opening Day against Max Scherzer, providing another glimpse of his game-changing power. However, that bang did not last long. On April 24, Freeman was hitting just .177 with a .258 slugging percentage, one home run, and just five RBI. Many began to wonder if the Braves made a mistake in holding on to Freeman. Was 2013 destined to be the high-water mark for Freeman’s career? Could he really turn it around?
The answers to those questions quickly surfaced. Freeman found his stroke beginning in June, when he posted a triple-slash of .346/.426/.654 and an OPS of 1.080. He added five home runs, 14 RBI, and 13 runs. For the second half of 2016, Freeman has posted a line of .336/.445/.656 and an OPS of 1.101, and 25 of Freeman’s 33 home runs have been hit since the end of May.
Freeman vs. the Field
Sure, Freeman’s numbers on the year are impressive, but how does he compare to his counterparts? After all, there are a number of perennial All-Stars at first base. Freeman’s .307 batting average ranks third among all first basemen, behind Cabrera and Votto. He is tied with Votto for second place in runs scored with 99, four behind Goldschmidt for the league lead. Freeman is tied with Rizzo for the lead in doubles (43), and ranks second in triples (6), fifth in homers (33), and second in OPS (.983), while leading all first baseman in slugging percentage (.576) and extra base hits (82). Freeman also fares favorably with sabermetric stats. He leads all first basemen in runs created (129.2), and is second in runs created per 27 outs (8.40) and isolated power (.268). To top it all off, Freeman leads all first basemen with a 6.5 WAR. He is currently the only first baseman with a WAR above six.
Freddie Freeman would undoubtedly win the MVP award this year if he played on a better team. Put Freeman in a bigger market with a competitive team like the Chicago Cubs, Washington Nationals, or Los Angeles Dodgers, and he would run away with the award. His name would garner huge headlines and massive stories in every pertinent publication. The issue is that Freeman plays in the forgotten paradise of Atlanta, where the Braves have been eliminated from the playoffs and are 27.5 games out of first place.
The good news is that the Braves rebuild is working. More talent is on the way through the farm system and the team should be primed to compete in a few short years. Fans can only hope that Freeman will produce more seasons like 2016 once the team is competitive.