If you haven’t heard, Freddie Freeman is good at baseball. He’s currently second among first basemen by WAR and wRC+, behind only Matt Carpenter in each case. Since 2016, he’s recorded a 150 wRC+, good for sixth-best in baseball over that span. Nor is his more recent success unprecedented. Freeman ranks 29th in career WAR for active hitters, with only five players having produced a greater WAR figure than him (30.0) in fewer plate appearances (4,793): Josh Donaldson (35.6 and 3,757), Paul Goldschmidt (34.8 and 4,521), Mike Trout (62.6 and 4,547), Giancarlo Stanton (37.7 and 4,613), and Buster Posey (39.1 and 4,658). (All numbers current as of Wednesday.)
This news isn’t exactly earth-shattering for anyone who frequents the pages of FanGraphs. We have known this since Freeman’s breakout season in 2013. Despite that, however, it seems like there’s an increase in Freddie Freeman appreciation recently. Some of this is likely due to the fact that the Braves are — somewhat unexpectedly — fighting for a playoff spot. The Home Run Derby also helped his nationwide notability, even if he didn’t perform particularly well. Google seems to confirm the newfound recognition, as Freddie Freeman searches are up notably the past two years.
As noted, though, Freeman has been an extraordinary talent for a while now. He hits for average and power, is a good fielder (he ranks third in UZR for first basemen since 2013), and is a good runner for a first baseman (fourth-most baserunning runs since 2015). However, to add to all these skills, there is one thing that Freeman does better than anyone else in baseball, and it’s this one thing that helps put him in position to succeed.
Plate discipline is a notoriously difficult thing to define analytically. There are several plate-discipline numbers available here at FanGraphs, but one of the most popular and most referenced statistics is chase rate, or the percentage of pitches outside of the zone at which a batter offers. It isn’t a perfect measure, as batters do have to expand the zone in two-strike counts to account for possible umpire errors on close pitches. Moreover, if you are someone like Trout or Freeman, chasing a pitch an inch outside the zone might yield a better outcome on average than it does for, say, Alcides Escobar swinging at a pitch an inch inside the zone.
With that in mind, it’s useful also to consider zone swing percentage. Just as it’s generally best for hitters to avoid swinging at balls, they should also recognize and attack strikes. Like chase rate, zone swing isn’t perfect. Not all strikes are created equal. Some are “pitchers’ pitches.” And there remains the question of the batter himself: Mike Trout will still probably produce more against a pitch on the edge that Escobar will on a pitch down the middle.
Whatever the limitations of chase rate and zone swing rate, combining the two can give us a pretty decent portrait of a hitter. Unsurprisingly, there’s a pretty strong relationship between the two figures. Hitters who chase pitches out of the zone, also tend to attack pitches in the zone at higher rates. The correlation between chase rates and zone swing rates for qualified hitters sits around 0.55 for 2018 and has continued to hover around that number through the past few years.
Nor is this surprising when you consider it in practice. If you’re Javier Baez, who chases the second-most balls out of the zone in baseball at 49.1%, you’re likely a free-swinger and will especially be swinging on anything in the zone (80.4%). If you’re Joe Mauer and chase less than a fifth of the time — fourth-best in baseball — you likely won’t attack too many pitches even if they are strikes (50.3% zone swing rate).
This is where Freeman shines, though. In 2018, Freeman has chased 34.3% of pitches out of the zone, a little bit higher than the league average of 30.7%. Given the data, we’d expect that Freeman would swing at approximately 70% of pitches in the zone, plus or minus 9.5 percentage points. Instead, Freeman attacks the zone at an 84.4% rate, 14.4 points higher than we’d expect. This is the largest positive differential among qualified hitters by 2.5 points — ahead of Khris Davis. For reference sake, the plate-discipline king Joey Votto swings at 67.3% of pitches in the zone, versus an expected 61.1%.
Freeman’s dominance in this aspect of plate discipline is not a one-year phenomenon. Going back to 2016, Freeman has swung at more pitches in the zone than expected by nearly 14 points, again the highest in baseball. Since Freeman debuted in 2010, he has the second-highest positive differential between zone swing percentage and expected zone swing percentage, trailing only Brandon Belt.
This simultaneously selective and aggressive approach has served Freeman well, and the numbers bear it out. By results-based plate-discipline numbers, Freeman walks 11.2% of the time and strikes out 20.9%. These are good numbers, but they are especially strong when one considers his offensive output. Of active players with a career wRC+ of 130 or better, only Andrew McCutchen, Carpenter, Donaldson, and Votto have a higher walk percentage and lower strikeout percentage. In addition, Freeman’s production on contact — .353 wOBA on contact, 12th-best in baseball — shows how his attacking of pitches in the zone can work to his benefit.
Freeman has been an elite hitter for the past six seasons. He doesn’t do it by topping leaderboards with eye-popping exit velocities (89 mph) or incredible launch angles (13.7 degrees). However, the thing he does better than anyone else is mastering a selectively aggressive approach at the plate that sees him heavily attacking and punishing strikes while still laying off balls at a reasonable rate. While Votto may be the plate-discipline king, Freeman’s approach is one that should allow him to challenge for Votto’s throne.
Stephen Loftus is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. In his spare time he usually can be found playing the pipe organ or working on his rambling sabermetric thoughts.