Three Cuts: Can Braves' Freddie Freeman challenge for MVP?
To call Freddie Freeman the rock of the Braves' offense would be an understatement of monumental proportions.
Since 2012, he's led the team in RBI four times, in WAR among position players three times, and in doubles and home runs twice, and he's played in 147 or more games a whopping five times. In fact, since 2011, his first full year in the majors, he's played in 350 more games than any other Atlanta player.
So, yeah, the first baseman is the foundation of this offense, and Freeman is coming off perhaps his most impressive season to date. He fought back from a 2 for 25 start and lingering questions about his wrist to hit .302/.400/.569 and finish sixth in National League MVP voting.
But can he deliver a similarly torrid pace for the entire season?
The answer could see Freeman vie for a piece of hardware Atlanta hasn't claimed for its own since Chipper Jones in 1999 and it may be just one award he vies for in '17.
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1. Can Freeman duplicate 2016's finish and contend for NL MVP?
With his average sitting at .286 at the All-Star break, Freeman proceeded to hit .323 in the second half, punctuated by a .367 final month of the season.
Just once in his career had he ever had a better month (.380 in September/October of '13), and it came as he put the cap on a year with career-bests in home runs (34), doubles (43) and triples (six) and per FanGraphs, he posted his best WAR ever at 6.1.
Those wins above replacement were the third-best in the NL, just behind league MVP Kris Bryant of the Cubs (8.4) and the Dodgers' Corey Seager (7.5), the NL Rookie of the Year.
The question though, is whether Freeman was simply playing out of his mind or of this is the new definition of normal for him?
On the side of this being the new standard -- or at least a level of production he can replicate -- is the Matt Kemp Effect. Freeman had a .340/.461/.680 slash line in 54 games after Kemp was acquired compared to .297/.372/.535 in the time between April 14 (when the slumping slugger got a day off in D.C.) and the outfielder's arrival.
It's also not like hasn't produced at that level before, with his '16 very much in line with the '13 season when he had 150 wRC+ (two less than last year). But he had a severely elevated BABIP in '16 of .371, which was the second-highest of his career and a nearly 50-point jump from the pervious year, and he had a .267 ISO. By comparison, that figure sat at .196 in '13.
The only player in baseball last season that had a better ISO and wRC+ than Freeman? The Red Sox's David Ortiz.
Even with a full season of Kemp providing lineup protection, posting numbers at that same level may be asking too much. But Freeman is a strong lock to surpass the Steamer projections of .275/.378/.491 with 26 homers and 86 RBI, and if he can help the Braves stay at or around .500, he -- at the least -- could surpass his career-best fifth-place finish in '13's MVP race.
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2. Is there such a thing as too much Freddie?
This is an interesting debate when it comes to Freeman. Last year at spring training, then-manager Fredi Gonzalez discussed a plan to keep his first baseman from the Ironman mentality of playing each and every day, something he did in 2014 and from '11-14, he had played in no fewer than 147 games.
That, of course, came as Freeman played in a career-low 118 games in '15 as he dealt with a nagging wrist injury, one that he did not undergo surgery for. Concerns remained, and they came back amid that rocky start to '16.
But after sitting out that aforementioned game in D.C., Freeman missed just two more dates -- one of which came after the birth of his son, Frederick Charles Freeman II in September -- and, as we've discussed, played at a career-high level. Asked about his approach to off days last season, Freeman said "my goal every year is to play 162."
The wrist is no longer a worry, but is it in the best interest of Freeman and the Braves for him to make a run at playing 162 year-in and year-out? Granted, he plays a position that isn't as physically demanding as others and with 10 road interleague games, there is the potential to move him to designated hitter to take away the fielding workload.
When discussing the workhorses in the Braves outfield -- Kemp, Ender Inciarte and Nick Markakis -- at MLB's Winter Meetings in December, manager Brian Snitker noted his reluctance to sit any of them, frankly because they don't want a day off.
From that end, Freeman is a threat to vie for 162 games again, and if he's producing like he did in '16, that should be expected. But after proving he's healthy and as dangerous as ever last year, longevity and top-level performance should be the main focuses for Freeman.
If that means missing out on 162 games to reduce fatigue, it may be in the best interest of player and franchise.
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3. Is this the year the defense finally gets its due?
Once in his career has Freeman been a Gold Glove finalist. That was in 2012, when he lost out to the Nationals' Adam LaRoche, and when he had a minus-13.0 defensive WAR, which was actually the second worst of Freeman's career. He also saved three runs that season, a number he has equaled or surpasses three times since.
He gets no love in dWAR, but what first baseman does? Of the top 17 players at the position last year, everyone one of them posted a negative figure in that department and only six were better than Freeman.
But Freeman had nine DRS in '16 and an 4.0 UZR/150, that coming after that number sat at 6.1 in '15 and only the Cubs' Anthony Rizzo (11) and Giants' Brandon Belt (nine) saved more runs in '16 and Belt's 34 plays Out of Zone plays made were the only figure better than Freeman's 33.
When it comes to scoop plays since 2012, only the Royals' Eric Hosmer (224), Diamondbacks' Paul Goldschmidt (201) and Dodgers' Adrian Gonzalez (194) have totals better than Freeman (188) and all of them already have Gold Gloves.
The point is, Freeman has emerged, in nearly every measurable way, as one of the best defensive first basemen in the game, and it's been about more than his showing off his flexibility by doing the splits on stretch plays. In a statement that could be the tag line for Freeman's 2017 season: the statistical evidence is there, now, about that hardware ...