Freddie Freeman Is Now an Elite Slugger

Up until last year, Freddie Freeman was an example of just how good a hitter a player could be without top-shelf power. From 2013 to 2015, he was the only player in MLB to run a 140 or better wRC+ while posting an ISO below .200. He put up the same wRC+ as David Ortiz despite being out-homered by Big Papi 102 to 59, as his .351 BABIP helped him offset the relatively lower number of balls leaving the park. With a bunch of line drives and enough walks to keep the OBP up, Freeman became about as good a hitter as one can be while hitting 20 homers a year.

Last year, though, Freeman found his power stroke, launching 34 home runs and running a .267 ISO, eighth-best in baseball. While he sacrificed a little bit of contact to get there, raising his strikeout rate to 25% in the process, he continued to torch the baseball even when it didn’t leave the field, allowing him to run a .370 BABIP that kept his BA and OBP up even while the strikeouts increased a little bit. His 152 wRC+ was the best of his career and tied him with Miguel Cabrera for the sixth-highest mark of any hitter in 2016. And after the first couple of weeks of 2017, that looks less like a career year and more like what we should start to expect from Freeman going forward.

With another big day yesterday, Freeman has taken the top spot away from Eric Thames on the 2017 wRC+ leaderboard, and what he’s done the last seven days is nothing short of remarkable; he’s 11 for 17 with three doubles, three home runs, seven walks, and two strikeouts. His slash line over the last week: .647/.750/1.353. Yeah.

While every conversation about the best hitter in baseball ends with “but Mike Trout“, Freeman is firmly inserting himself into the mix of the best of the rest. Here are the best hitters in MLB over the last 365 days, for instance.

Best Hitters Over Last 365 Days
Rank Player PA wRC+ OFF
1 Mike Trout 691 180 74.8
2 Freddie Freeman 707 168 60.0
3 Joey Votto 686 162 49.7
4 David Ortiz 581 160 32.6
5 Miguel Cabrera 688 155 35.7

From April 19th to April 19th, Freeman is the only guy even without shouting distance of Mike Trout, as he’s hit .322/.414/.615 over that stretch. That line puts him seventh in BA, third in OBP, and first in SLG. And if you just focus on balls in play, not even Trout has been better on contacted balls than Freeman over the last year; his 223 wRC+ on contact is better than Trout’s 214 mark, and ahead of J.D. Martinez, Nelson Cruz, and Kris Bryant, the only other three hitters over 200 during that span.

The guy who was recently an example of how you didn’t need elite power to be a great hitter is now an even greater hitter with legitimately elite power.

And there’s nothing in his batted ball profile to suggest the power is going back to where it was a few years ago. Freeman’s 95.3 mph average exit velocity is second only to Miguel Cabrera this year, and he’s fifth on exit velocity on balls in the air, so he’s not just inflating that by hitting high-EV grounders that don’t do a lot of damage. As Tony noted in his first base write-up over the winter, Freeman’s 2016 batted ball profile suggested that his breakout wasn’t a fluke.

Freddie Freeman is emerging as the best offensive first baseman in the NL. Like Votto, Freeman is an absolute line-drive machine, cranking them out on an annual basis. His traditional numbers were held down a bit by his pitcher-friendly home park, but his combination of fly balls, liners and walks is a lethal one. I would expect the fly-ball rate to regress downward a bit, while his new home park gives him a bit back in return. He’s not an extreme grounder-puller, so he gets away with relatively light grounder authority. He’s a hit-before-power guy with lots of power, squarely in the prime of his career.

For years, Votto was the natural comparison for Freeman, as both were liner-first 1Bs who were elite hitters despite not putting up huge home run totals. But the current version of Freeman looks a lot more like 2010 Votto than the more recent versions, when he launched a career-high 37 home runs and put up a 172 wRC+. That’s what you can do when you add top-shelf power to a lot of walks and an average-ish strikeout rate.

We shouldn’t expect Freeman to run a 172 wRC+ this year — that’s above even Trout’s career average — like Votto did in 2010, but the additional power Freeman has gained doesn’t look to be going away any time soon, and Freeman was a power spike away from being in the very top (non-Trout) tier of hitters in the game. With this kind of ability to do damage on contact, and enough strike zone control to keep his walks up and his strikeouts down, Freeman is putting himself in the conversation for best hitter in the National League.

Once-again-healthy Bryce Harper is, of course, also mashing up in Washington, Votto is still around, and Paul Goldschmidt is still very good, so Freeman isn’t clearly the big bat in the NL anymore. But this new Freeman — the guy who does all the things the old Freeman did but now also hits twice as many homers — is in that conversation. And while the Braves still have some other issues with their roster before they’re ready to win, their belief in Freeman as a franchise player has certainly paid off.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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6 years ago

There is one stat line that Freeman has put us so far this year that blows my mind. In the first 24 plate appearances in SunTrust Park, Freeman has made 6 outs. The new confines seem to be agreeing with him.