A lot of things happen when you’re guaranteed a hundred thirty-five million dollars. That’s a guess on my part, since I’ve never been in that particular situation, and I can’t speak to what many of those things might be. I presume an overwhelming number of old acquaintances try to re-establish contact. One thing I know for sure is that people talk about you a lot. Lots of people out there talking about Freddie Freeman at the moment, on the heels of his contract extension and also on the heels of literally nothing else happening. Freeman’s eight years are the subject of much dialogue.
Some of the talk is new, and some of the talk is old. There’s just a whole lot of talk, in sum, because even with baseball’s rampant inflation, people are still getting used to the idea of nine-figure contracts and especially nine-figure contracts to non-superstars. People want to know how good Freeman actually is. People want to know how good Freeman will become. And, relatedly, people want to talk about Freeman’s power upside, since he’s a first baseman and first basemen are supposed to hit for more power than Freeman has to date.
Two things to make clear right away:
(1) Freeman’s getting $135 million, but he’s not actually getting paid like an amazing player. Figure that roughly $110 million of that will cover Freeman’s first five years of would-be free agency. That comes out to an average of $22 million per season, beginning in 2017. That feels like superstar money, and it used to be superstar money, but if things continue as they have, Freeman will be getting the market rate of simply an above-average player. Perhaps the Braves need to be a little more efficient than the next contender, but we all have to get used to what money actually means these days, and what it’ll mean down the road. $22 million won’t be that much, really. I mean, it will be, but not in baseball.
(2) “First basemen need to hit for power” is bad analysis. It’s not analysis. First basemen need to be valuable. There are lots of ways to be valuable, and while power’s nice, it’s far from a necessity. People used to think that corner outfielders needed to be able to hit for power. As a consequence, said corner outfielders played some pretty bad defense. Now teams are coming around on filling their outfields with athletes, possibly sacrificing some power but adding overall value. Value is all that matters anywhere.
Anyway, we can talk about Freeman and his skillset and his future. We can talk about his power, because power is a good thing if you’ve got it. Freeman hit 18 homers when he was 18 years old. At that point it was easy to project power upside. He hit 19 homers when he was 20, and it was still easy to project power upside. He hit 21 homers when he was 21 and a full-time player in the bigs, and that was encouraging. Then he hit 23 homers when he was 22. Then he hit 23 homers when he was 23. By no means is Freeman any kind of slap hitter. However, he’s not really showing power gains, and while he’s still plenty young — shockingly young, perhaps — it’s gotten less and less easy to see a true slugger down the road.
Freeman owns a career .181 isolated slugging percentage, which is good and short of fantastic. He topped out at .196 a season ago, as there haven’t been enough glimpses of this:
And last year Freeman came in with a WAR right near 5. So, he was a great player, even while being a first baseman with 23 dingers. What’s the recent history of great first basemen? What have their power profiles looked like?
I went back to 1969, as I like to do, and identified all everyday first baseman player-seasons. This yielded a sample of 955. There were 257 seasons worth at least 4 WAR, or five or six a year, so I chose 4 WAR as a cutoff. I found that in 172 of those seasons, or 67%, the first baseman posted an ISO at least 50% better than the league average. For reference, Freeman last year was at +24%. The year before, +27%. The year before that, +13%.
The higher-power great seasons averaged 5.7 WAR, and an ISO at 185% the league average. The lower-power great seasons averaged 5.0 WAR, and an ISO at 125% the league average. Entirely unsurprisingly, the lower-power great seasons compensated with a reduced strikeout rate, with a higher BABIP, and with better defensive numbers. Power’s a great tool. You basically need some of it to be an excellent first baseman, but you don’t necessarily need a ton of it.
What can we say about Freeman’s future power? Obviously, he’s hit plenty of home runs, and some of them have gone great distances, and he’s young. The flip side is that Freeman’s power hasn’t really progressed in years. I identified 37 players with at least 1,000 plate appearances in the majors through age 23, and an ISO between .160 – .190. Three of those players are Freeman, Jason Heyward, and Anthony Rizzo. The remaining 34 averaged a .176 ISO early on. All 34 have collected at least 1,000 plate appearances between 24 – 31. During that window, they averaged a .185 ISO. Of the 34 players, 18 saw ISO improvements.
Among them is Gary Sheffield. Yet Sheffield showed fearsome power at 23. Same goes for Aramis Ramirez. And Gary Carter, and Jim Rice, and others. Dale Murphy is something of an interesting case. But a lot of the improved players showed signs of improvements. Pablo Sandoval, so far, hasn’t turned into a slugger. Ryan Zimmerman’s reached 30 homers just once. Billy Butler hasn’t hit for more power as he’s aged. Nick Markakis has slipped. Harold Baines hit 25 homers at 23 and then only once beat that in the rest of his career. It’s far from a given that Freeman will routinely start hitting for major power later on, and he might just settle in as a guy you count on for 20-25 dingers.
Which wouldn’t make him a great first baseman, in the classic sense. In the classic sense, it would make him a disposable first baseman, and really, maybe Freeman will just end up more good, or really good. Great might be too strong, depending on your personal tastes. But Freeman comes with a potential power alternative. The value Freeman doesn’t achieve in the power category, he might make up for somewhere else.
Last year, Freeman posted a .371 BABIP. Way too high, for a slow first baseman. That’s obviously a number you have to regress going forward as you figure out your own Freeman expectations. But it’s an issue of what you regress to. You very well might not want to regress all the way back to the league average.
For one thing, Freeman’s career mark is .334. For another thing, as much as I try to avoid using line-drive rate, in this case I have to acknowledge it. Freeman’s liners suggest a high quality of contact. Other, more advanced information also suggests a high quality of contact. Freeman, very simply, has just stung the ball.
Freeman became a big-league regular in 2011. Since then, he’s one of just 15 players to have a line-drive rate at least one standard deviation above the average, and a pop-up rate at least one standard deviation below the average. Those players have averaged a .340 BABIP. Also, just seven of those players, including Freeman, have posted an above-average rate of homers per fly ball. This puts Freeman in the company of Matt Kemp, Joey Votto, Howie Kendrick, Alex Avila, Jason Kubel, and Jason Kipnis. Just short of making it is Freeman’s teammate, Chris Johnson.
Also, Freeman sprays the ball everywhere, making him beyond difficult to shift. Last year he hit at least .400 to his pull side, up the middle, and the other way. The last three years, he’s one of just 24 players to have line-drive rates of at least 20% to all three fields. Those players have averaged a .320 BABIP. Just six players, including Freeman, have line-drive rates of at least 23% to all three fields. Freeman won’t keep turning 37% of his balls in play into hits, but there’s reason to believe he could end up at, say, 33% or 34%, if it’s true that he hits a greater rate of line drives while seldom popping the ball up.
In this way, Freeman could offset his good but not incredible power, should that part of his game continue. He’s already a pretty good defensive first baseman. He already draws a good amount of walks. He’s worked on cutting down his strikeouts, and if he can sustain a high batting average on balls in play, then he’ll sustain a high batting average, and then he’ll sustain a high wRC+. There are so many different ways to be productive, and Freeman’s been following the most fundamental one — he’s seen the ball and he’s hit the ball hard. He hasn’t put a ton of air under it, but all hits are valuable.
Freeman was a productive hitter in the majors at 21, he was an average player overall at 22, and he was a terrific player at 23. The Braves have signed him for years 24 through 31, and questions do remain about how good Freeman could really be. He doesn’t seem to possess elite power, so odds are against his becoming an elite player. He might not even really be a great player, depending. But what Freeman’s already done while young correlates well with future success, and even if his power doesn’t blossom, it’s above-average, and the same can be said for the rest of his quality of contact. So the Braves have a good hitter for most of the years he should be a good hitter. He doesn’t even need to improve to be worth what he’s getting, and there remains considerable room for improvement.
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.