Freddie Freeman Might As Well Play Third Base

It’s difficult to overstate how much Freddie Freeman means to the Braves. He is, at present, the face of the franchise, and rather than trade Freeman, his general manager would sooner give his right arm. It’s not just that Freeman’s the best player on the Braves — Freeman is the Braves, for all intents and purposes. Although he isn’t Mike Trout, he’s the Braves’ Mike Trout, and the Angels aren’t going to trade Mike Trout. They’re going to cherish him, feature him, build around him, promote the hell out of him. The Braves have been going through a difficult stage. Freeman’s helped to keep them marketable.

Freeman’s great. He’s gotten some amount of MVP support in three separate years. He’s long been firmly entrenched as the Braves’ everyday first baseman, and there was never really any question about that. That is, until now. As soon as Freeman got injured, the team dealt for Matt Adams. Adams started to hit well almost immediately. Now it looks like a healthy Freeman could play third base in order to keep Adams in the lineup. What’s even weirder is, I think it makes sense?

Here’s a little video of third-base Freeman taking grounders and making throws. Freeman last played third base for five games in the Gulf Coast League in 2007. This tweet says Freeman wants to play third. We can also let Freeman speak for himself:

Freddie Freeman is serious about playing third base, saying that he originally suggested shifting to the hot corner to the Atlanta Braves a few weeks ago.

“I mentioned it and said I’d be willing to move over to third base to accommodate Matt, who’s been pretty spectacular for us,” Freeman said. “It really happened yesterday when I was walking to the field.

“I said I’m completely on board with it, want to do it,” he said. “We got to keep Matt’s bat in the lineup, and I’ll do anything to win. So this is what we came to.”

It’s all fairly startling. Any midseason position switch is unusual, and it’s almost unheard of to have this taking place with someone as established as Freeman is. Because of Freeman’s standing, he could, if he wanted, put his foot down and insist on staying at his position. He’s more or less earned that right as the best player on the club. But this goes beyond Freeman being open-minded. This was seemingly Freeman’s idea. That’s an important point, and we’ll come back to it.

One thing we all need to acknowledge is there aren’t really stakes, here. Although the Braves aren’t horrible, they’re also not good. They’re nowhere close to first place in their division, and they’re even less close to occupying a wild-card spot. This year’s Braves aren’t going anywhere, so this isn’t going to make or break the season. The idea is to just be more competitive. Give the fans a little something extra. Go for 78 wins, instead of 75.

Is there an enhanced injury risk? My gut says, yeah, a little bit, just because, for Freeman, third base is less familiar. But there’s also a lesser chance of rolling an ankle on the bag, and third basemen don’t have to deal with so many baserunners. So maybe the injury risk is the same, or lower. It’s not a meaningful factor to me.

And what if Freeman suffers for taking on too much? This is where I think it’s relevant that Freeman came up with this idea himself. He’s volunteered to learn a new position, and although we can’t say for sure, I don’t know why we’d think this would have a negative effect on Freeman’s hitting. Freeman, before, was already splitting his time between offensive work and defensive work. Now he’s just changing sides of the infield, and although third base has its own idiosyncrasies he’ll need to absorb, it’s not like he’s a mailman becoming an astronaut.

It’s funny to be in a situation where we’re talking about Freddie Freeman moving to make room for Matt Adams. Just over a month ago, the Braves got Adams from the Cardinals, and it cost them practically nothing. Adams has hit, yes, but then, according to the numbers at Baseball Prospectus, the Braves version of Matt Adams has faced the third-easiest schedule of opposing pitchers in the game. It follows that Adams has been more successful because the average pitcher he’s seen is less successful, and we all know that Adams has overachieved. He’s going to regress, and his market value hasn’t gone that much up.

But still, Matt Adams isn’t a bad baseball player. He projects as something around an average baseball player. If you’re talking about moving Freeman to third, then the bulk of this comes down to Adams versus the other third-base possibilities. Let’s say Adams is average, or perhaps a hair worse. Rio Ruiz projects around replacement level. Johan Camargo projects around replacement level. Adonis Garcia, Jace Peterson, Danny Santana — they all project around replacement level. It’s not surprising the Braves have cycled through a bunch of replacement-level options; that’s the whole idea. Adams is a better player than each of them, so then all that’s left is wondering what this could mean for Freeman’s value.

Just looking at the general positional adjustments that feed into WAR, over the course of a full season there’s a 15-run difference between third base and first. That’s a good place to start. Freeman seems like he’s probably a +5-run first baseman, so a fair estimate would be that he’d be a -10-run third baseman. Could be better, could be worse, but that’s a simple expectation.

Here is a defensive highlight from last August:

Freeman makes a good throw, and you can hear the commentary — “Freeman’s got a cannon.” When Freeman was a draft prospect, reports said he had a plus arm. That was a while ago, but the video clip wasn’t a while ago, and Freeman does seem to have a good arm for a first baseman. Which makes it more conceivable he could work out at third. As further evidence, let’s make use of the Fan Scouting Report results. In this table, I’ve collected Freeman’s ratings from the last three years. I’ve also included the ratings for the average first baseman and the average third baseman.

Fan Scouting Report, 2014 – 2016
Player(s) Instincts First Step Speed Hands Release Arm Strength Arm Accuracy Overall
Freddie Freeman 57 33 28 69 59 60 60 53
MLB 1B 47 38 35 50 44 45 45 43
MLB 3B 56 53 48 53 54 59 54 54

The Fan Scouting Report is far from perfect, and it’s subject to its own biases, but you see that Freeman has ended up with a higher overall rating than the average first baseman. He’s been right there with the average third baseman. He’s much slower, with a worse first step, but the hands are good, and the arm could and should play. Perhaps Freeman would be more like a -5-run third baseman. Range might be less important than ever in this era of ever-present defensive shifts.

This kind of move is unusual. It’s rare for a player to try to move up the defensive spectrum. Several people have recalled Miguel Cabrera moving to third base for the Tigers, upon their signing Prince Fielder, and that is somewhat relevant. On the other hand, Cabrera already had plenty of prior third-base experience. A few years ago, the Angels briefly toyed with moving Mark Trumbo to third base. That didn’t last. He started eight games, and committed four errors. Trumbo and Freeman are far from being one and the same, but there’s not much in the way of true precedent. Freeman wants to try something that’s almost never done.

I just don’t think there’s too much to lose. The Braves aren’t going to make the World Series, no matter what. For Freeman and the Braves, this could unlock a new option, and it’s not like they have any superior third basemen hanging around. This certainly feels better than jamming Adams into an outfield corner, as the Cardinals tried. And it’s always worth remembering this could be temporary. It might not even ever happen at all, if someone comes calling with an offer of a quality prospect. Adams could get traded. Or, of course, Adams could get hurt. Or he could regress so severely the Braves don’t worry about losing his bat from the lineup so much anymore. Freeman’s not rejoining the team tomorrow, and you know what they say about baseball and predictions.

But as astonishing as this seems, I don’t see why the Braves wouldn’t just agree to let Freeman try third. I don’t think there’s a great deal of risk. I’m not sure how much there is to gain, either, but better to play Adams than to play those other guys. Those other guys aren’t likely to do anything good.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

Move Colon to the outfield.

tramps like us
5 years ago
Reply to  JS7

Great idea! He can cover the entire square footage while never moving, then put the other two OF in the infield.