The Atlanta Braves had their doubts about Freddie Freeman playing on Opening Day. Freeman played, then he played in the next 59 games.
After a COVID-19 scare, Freddie Freeman not only beat the sickness, but he also beat baseballs with reckless abandon.
Talking about the 2020 season comes with the caveat that Freeman only played 60 games compared to the usual 162, but he still mashed. He had a career-high batting average (by 22 points), on-base percentage (by 59 points), slugging percentage (by 54 points), OPS (by 113 points), OPS+ (by 39 points), and wRC+(by 37 points). Small sample size or not, Freeman was elite, and he should win National League MVP.
Well, he was lucky, right?
Freeman’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was 25 points higher than his career average, but it was not the highest of his career. To look at what changed in Freeman’s approach, we need advanced ball-tracking data.
According to Statcast, Freeman had his career-highs in barrel percentage and exit velocity. Both metrics place Freeman in the top 10 percent of baseball. Freeman tied his career-high for average launch angle, registering 17.2 degrees.
However, the real story comes from Freeman’s expected stats. He was in the 100th percentile in expected batting average, expected slugging, wOBA, xwOBA, and xwoBAcon. wOBA is the weighted on-base average, xwOBA is the expected version of wOBA, and xwoBAcon is the expected weighted on-base average on contact.
The expected numbers said Freeman would be one of the best hitters in baseball, and he was.
Diving deeper into the numbers, Freeman tattooed fastballs. He posted a .431 batting average with a .813 slugging percentage. He raised his exit velocity from 90.5 miles per hour to 94.1 on fastballs, helping his expected batting average to jump by 70 points from 2019. His expected slugging percentage on fastballs jumped by nearly 200 points from 2019 to 2020. He also whiffed less on fastballs, trimming about four points off his 2019 whiff rate.
Freeman’s jump in on-base percentage can be attributed to his improved plate discipline. He had the lowest swing percentage of his career. Becoming more selective, Freeman set career-highs in contact percentage both in the zone and on chase pitches.
When Freeman made contact, he hit a career-high percentage of line drives. Line drives are generally the most preferable kind of batted ball because they result in more bases than ground balls while being harder to record outs on than fly balls. Freeman hit line drives on 40.1 percent of batted balls, the highest percentage of batted balls in any category of his career. He also worked the opposite field more, breaking the 30 percent barrier for the first time in his career.
Those are impressive numbers, but where does he stack all-time?
Freeman became the 19th primary first basemen to have a season with an OPS+ of 186 or better. The list is almost entirely composed of Hall of Famers, MVPs, or perennial All-Stars with the only exceptions being those that pre-date MVP and All-Star selection. Freddie Freeman was the first new inductee to the 186-club since Albert Pujols in 2008 (and 2009).
Sample size matters and every other member of the club played at least 24 more games than Freeman, but it was still impressive nonetheless.
Freeman led the NL in fWAR, becoming the only first baseman to lead a league in fWAR since Joey Votto in 2010. He led the majors in wRC+ with runners in scoring position, contributing to his major league-leading win probability added (from FanGraphs). He also led the NL in extra-base hits and runs, and he continued his streak of leading the NL in times on base.
What does the future hold?
Heading into the off-season after a strong showing in the NLCS (.360/.448/.720/1.168), Freeman has one year remaining on his contract. The Braves are likely to extend Freeman and keep him as a Brave for life. Freeman recently turned 31, and while the mid-to-late 30s were not kind to Albert Pujols or Miguel Cabrera, Freeman may be entering his prime.
In 2021, Freddie Freeman is unlikely to match his 1.100 OPS from 2020, but he should add his name to the list of players with 1.000 OPS seasons in a full season next year. Freeman could have a slash line around .300/400/.600 which would place him among the best hitters in MLB. He exceeded all expectations after his 2019 season, and he should be poised to do it again in 2021.
Over the next few seasons, expect Freeman to be a perennial All-Star. His Hall of Fame candidacy, while shaky now, has the potential to grow in the coming seasons.
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