Braves' Freeman on pace for another standout season
JUL 04, 2014 9:47a ET
ATLANTA -- Looking back over the 2013 National League MVP voting and the season that essentially guaranteed first baseman Freddie Freeman would be extended the largest contract in Atlanta Braves history, it's somewhat easy to forget that while his first-half numbers were All-Star quality, he hit another gear after the break. That can get lost in the shuffle when evaluating overall single-season numbers, but over the past two seasons, as the 24-year-old has grown into one of the league's more complete hitters, he's been a second-half player.
That might be important in the context of the '14 campaign as well, because while he's ever-so-slightly off the pace he set for himself while vying for an MVP award, this is easily the best numbers he's ever posted prior to the All-Star break. And it's all flying a bit under the radar -- even for a guy that could find himself playing in his second straight All-Star game later this month.
Last season, Freddie Freeman hit .308/.386/.468 with nine home runs for 140 weighted runs created, the 23rd-best offensive mark in baseball, during the first half. It was yet another step in the right direction for him as he cemented his placement in the No. 3 spot in manager Fredi Gonzalez's lineup. His plate discipline improved, his situational hitting numbers were among the best in the game and though his isolated power dropped, he started making more meaningful contact, spraying baseballs all over the field for extra-base hits.
The talk at the time was the 19.7 million hugs he promised supporters as part of his Final Vote campaign, but that was all just a build-up toward second-half Freeman, who finished ahead of all but a few dominant offensive players during the stretch run toward the franchise's 12th NL East title. Those numbers he put up were the prelude to the "they have nothing to get me out"-type of confidence he enjoyed earlier this season: .335/.408/.544 with 14 homers for 162 weighted runs created. Only Mike Trout, Jayson Werth, Matt Holliday and eventual MVP winners Miguel Cabrera and Andrew McCutchen enjoyed a better run from mid-July to early October.
If he enjoys a similar leap following this year's Midsummer's Classic, he might just single-handedly pull the Braves' offense out of baseball's scoring cellar.
"As a hitter, you have to mature just by the reps and the at-bats and the years in the league," Gonzalez said of Freeman. "But he had that month of May or the beginning of June a little bit I guess (when Freeman struggled at times), he was still hitting the ball hard. He just wasn't getting anything to drop in. And now, like any good hitter, he's starting to heat up again."
Freeman, to date, owns better numbers than he did at this time in 2013. The average isn't quite up to par, but he's getting on base just as much, he's striking out less and he's hitting for far more power (13 homers, .497 slugging). His weighted runs created (wRC+) is nine points higher and he's already surpassed his '13 first-half wins above replacement total.
In short, Freeman has been a slightly better version of the player we saw a year ago.
"He's a big piece for us. We all know that," Braves outfielder Justin Upton said. "We know that when he's struggling we have to pick up the pieces. When he's going, we all go. He's important for us, and if he can continue to swing the bat well it puts us in a good situation to win. ... Everybody has tough streaks and he happened to have a longer one than usual this year, but he's as consistent as you can get as far preparation and getting yourself ready for a game. We knew it wouldn't be long before he was back anchoring the middle of our lineup."
On the other hand, from an outside perspective, Freeman's '14 first-half production would seem to be a step back. He hasn't played the hero quite as often for an Atlanta offense that could use some saving from time to time. He's not driving in near as many runs, especially not in crucial two-out spots, and his offense has suffered a similar fate -- dropping from 11th to 29th in scoring year over year.
The reasoning for this drop-off is multifaceted and much of it is out of Freeman's hands, but it probably starts with the first baseman's diminished production in high-leverage situations: his "clutch gene," as it (unfortunately) is commonly referred to, just hasn't come through near as often.
While last year Miguel Cabrera was the only player that out-hit Freeman with runners in scoring position -- Freeman hit a ridiculous .443/.541/.695 in 170 plate appearances with teammates in scoring position; as it were, opposing pitchers very rarely had anything to get him out in such situations -- he's regressed back toward the mean in 2014. This is natural, but the effect on his RBI and game-winner totals is self-evident. Freeman has actually been at his worst with runners in scoring position this season (136 wRC+), hitting just .275 with two home runs in 86 plate appearances.
Hitting worse in high-leverage spots typically affects the bottom line somewhere.
He's also seeing fewer and fewer pitches inside the strike zone. This, again, is a natural progression for a guy coming off an MVP-challenging season and entering his peak years: pitchers simply want to avoid damage. Only 40.8 percent of pitches he's seen this season have come inside the zone. His plate discipline has improved -- he's swinging at far fewer pitches outside the zone (and fewer pitches overall) and when the bat comes off his shoulders he's making contact at a career-best rate -- which is partially why is OBP in those big spots remains very respectable (.395). Still, it's all the more difficult to deliver runs when pitchers are avoiding Freeman more than ever before.
There are other extraneous factors such as the relative lack of production at the top of the lineup for most of the season, the drop in Freeman's batting average on balls in play and the fact that he hasn't been quite the fastball hitter he was a season ago. Nothing here exists in a vacuum. All of this has contributed, in one way or another, to Freeman's RBI drop and the Braves' scoring drought overall.
That doesn't mean he's taken a step back since signing a mega-deal, though.
If anything, he's ahead of the pace.
Of course, that is contingent upon him being a second-half player once again, but even if he holds the current pace, a season ending with .290/.385/.497 with 25 homers isn't the worst of scenarios. In terms of the '14 batting leaderboard, that would have left him in the exact same position: top-10 in weighted runs created. It's difficult to argue with that type of consistency.
Freeman may very well be on his way to his second straight All-Star campaign (he ranks third among NL first baseman in WAR) and while he hasn't been the one-man remedy for the Braves' offense this season, it stands to reason that if he continues on this path of improvement at the plate, the run production will eventually follow out of the No. 3 spot.
"I don't ask him to do anything more," Gonzalez said. "Just go ahead and keep putting up the numbers you put up every year and at the end of his career that's a pretty good darn career."