Freddie Freeman's first two years in the Major Leagues were remarkably similar. He finished his rookie season of 2011 with an OPS of .795. He then finished his second full season with an OPS of .796. Since Freeman was a first baseman which is supposed to be an offensive position, the two finishes seemed to indicate the kind of player Freeman was and it was not quite good enough. For example, he was the thirteenth best first baseman in 2012. But then 2013 happened and Freeman's OPS jumped a hundred points to .897 and suddenly he was the fifth best first baseman in baseball. Which is the real Freeman?
The two projection systems checked for this piece--Oliver and Steamer--both predict Freeman to be better than he was the first two years but not as good as he was in 2013. Do you buy that? Should we buy that? Projections are simply computer calculations based on historical data used to project future performance. Success of those projections are certainly better than flipping a coin, but certainly not in the 100% category of a biblical prophet.
So what should we expect from Freddie Freeman then? I literally poured over his numbers and devoured them like Christmas dinner and came up enthusiastic. There are two outstanding things that jumped out at me. The first was his age. Entering his fourth full time season, Freeman is only 24 years old. The second is that Freddie Freeman is a line drive machine.
The age thing really surprised me and it probably should not have if I was paying attention. I really had no idea he was that young. His next three to five years should be peak and he is learning on the job and adjusting well as he goes. Some recent studies have questioned the regression cycles that have long maintained that after the age of 28 or 29, regression is inevitable. The new studies seem to suggest that the age of regression starts younger. So perhaps Freeman is as good as he is going to get. But if that means his 2013 numbers, we'll take it.
Anyway, the line drive thing. If you have looked at batted ball data, line drives are the bomb. The Major League average BABIP on line drives was .664 in 2013. In other words, if you hit a hundred line drives over the course of a season, sixty-six of those will fall in safely. The problem is, very few hitters hit a hundred line drives over the course of a season.
Freddie Freeman hit 132 line drives in 2013! The average player in the Majors hits between eighteen and nineteen percent of his batted balls as line drives. Freeman's line drive percentages over the last three years? Try 23%, 26% and 26.7%. His prodigious line drive percentage rivals Votto's.
What has happened to those line drives over his past three seasons have been the major factor in his overall BABIP and thus his batting average. Remember I said that the average BABIP on line drives is .664. In 2011, when Freeman batted .285, his line drive BABIP was an incredible .795--way over average. In 2012, when his batting average fell to .259, his BABIP on line drives went down to just above league average to .667. In 2013, it rose again to .765. A remarkable 100 of Freeman's 2013 hits came on line drives in 2013!
Those numbers can be looked at two ways. First, you could figure that 2012 was a more realistic line drive BABIP since it was league average. But then again, two of his three seasons have been amazingly higher than league average and the fact that his spray chart shows his line drives going all over the field, lead me to think that the two high years are his norm and not 2012.
Freeman's fluctuating total BABIPs over the three years are probably one of the things that dampens his projections a bit. They were respectively: .339, .295 and .371. His BABIPs on ground balls and fly balls have been stable so the difference has been the line drives. If his spray charts were more mundane, I would tend to go with a dampened projection as well. But I don't think that will be the case.
The other thing to notice about Freeman is his consistent power numbers. His home run per fly ball rate has only risen slightly in three years. They were: 14.0%, 14.8% and 15% respectively. Thus, his home run total has been like a metronome with seasons of 21, 23 and 23. His overall OPS then would seem to continue with similar slugging and ISO numbers. Oliver projections, which does a five year projection, has his home run total pegged at 23 every year of the five years, which is somewhat comical.
It would seem natural that his power numbers would go up as he matures as a hitter. If that is the case, even if his line drive BABIP, that we talked about so much already, falls to league average, his slugging percentage should rise to make up the difference. I do not see any reason why he cannot raise his home run total to 30 in the coming years.
What else is there to like about Freeman? Well, there is also his splits, which improved greatly in 2013. His OPS against left-handed pitching in 2011 and 2012 were rugged with 2012 being slightly higher at just above .700. But that went up to a respectable .764 in 2013 and if he can maintain that or get even better against southpaws, then he will continue to improve as a hitter.
Another thing that I noticed was his success in 2013 in high leverage situations and with men in scoring position. Freeman was pretty abysmal in both of those situations in his first two full years. Last year, he was fantastic in both and perhaps that is another indication of his growth and maturity as a hitter.
One of the largest amount of negative feedback this site has ever seen was last year when I mentioned that Freeman was not much of a fielder at first base. Braves fans accused me of all kinds of boorish behaviors. Heh. The truth is that he has scored negatively at first base on both Fangraphs.com and on Baseball-reference.com. The two sites have not agreed at the level of that negativity. Fangraphs has been much harder on him than B-R.
But both sites showed great improvement in 2013. B-R has come to use BIS defensive runs above average for their WAR calculations and Freeman had a +7 in BIS for 2013. Fangraphs still has him at a -3, but that is a vast improvement over where they rated him before.
In either case, the bottom line is that he is improving his defense and either he is as good as Braves' fans suggest, or he is on his way to getting there. That much is sure at least. The bottom line on his fielding is that along with his hitting, Freddie Freeman has improved his net worth to the Braves and looks to continue doing so.
My only real worry about Freddie Freeman is the offense around him. In successive years, the Braves have lost Chipper Jones and now Brian McCann. The lineup does not look improved thus far in this off season and unless guys like Heyward, Uggla and the two Upton brothers get over their funks of recent years, Freeman might struggle to get pitches to hit. That combined with his relative impatience at the plate (he swung at 35% of pitches out of the strike zone in 2013) might hurt him.
But overall, I am bullish on Freddie Freeman. I think he has arrived as a star in the league and will continue to improve in the coming three or four years. I am falling on the Fabulous Freddie Freeman category and am calling his 2012 the fluke. We shall see in the coming years how correct I am...or not.