Freddie Freeman, Fastballs, and the Hall of Fameon October 5, 2020 at 5:30 pm

Freddie Freeman, Fastballs, and the Hall of Fame

If Major League Baseball awarded MVP honors for the Wild Card Series, then Max Fried, Ian Anderson and the rest of a Braves pitching staff that held the Reds scoreless for 22 consecutive innings would have rightly claimed it, but Freddie Freeman played a significant role in the Braves’ advancement as well. In the bottom of the 13th inning of Game 1, more than four and a half hours into a scoreless standoff that set a postseason record, the 31-year-old first baseman’s single up the middle brought home Cristian Pache, his latest big hit in a season that for all of its brevity has been full of them.

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Since the ballots have been cast, that hit won’t affect the voting, of course, but Freeman’s regular season performance has given him a shot at becoming the first first baseman to win an MVP award since Joey Votto in 2010. His performance was all the more amazing given that he tested positive for COVID-19 in early July, and feared for his own life as he battled high fevers. Thankfully, he not only recovered and regained his strength but did so in time to be in the Braves’ lineup on Opening Day. Remarkably, he played in all 60 games, one of 14 players to do so (not counting Starling Marte, who squeezed in 61 while being traded from the Diamondbacks to the Marlins). Freeman hit a sizzling .341/.462/.640, placing second in the National League in all three slash stats and wRC+ (187) behind Juan Soto, who played 13 fewer games due to his own COVID-19 battle.

Big hits? Freeman batted .423/.583/.885 in 72 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, good for a major league-best 264 wRC+ in that capacity. While he finished second in the NL behind teammate Marcell Ozuna in RBI (56 to 53), he led the majors in Win Probability Added (3.17), more than a full win ahead of the 10th-ranked Ozuna.

Additionally, Freeman’s 3.4 WAR led the NL, something no first baseman had done in either league since Votto in 2010, with Albert Pujols (2006 and ’08) and Jason Giambi (2001) the only others to do so in this millennium. Here it’s worth noting that I’m specifically referring to FanGraphs’ version of WAR; thanks in part to the wider spread of values produced by Defensive Runs Saved, Pujols — who in his day was an elite defender — led the NL in Baseball-Reference’s version annually from 2005-10, with Votto doing so in ’17 (Giambi did so in ’01, via a rare positive showing via Total Zone defense). The point stands, in that for a first baseman to lead the league in any version of the stat, he has to go on a rampage offensively in order to overcome its positional adjustments. For Freeman to do so, even in a shortened season, is impressive.

It’s worth noting that via our 60-game span-finder, Freeman had numerous overlapping stretches in 2016 during which he was at least this valuable by WAR, and likewise, stretches in both 2016 and ’17 when he hit at least this well by wRC+. This isn’t a total fluke; he’s just stayed hot all season, with a finishing kick that may help him nab the MVP hardware.

How did Freeman do it? COVID-19 aside, he may have been in better physical shape. Recall that after the Braves were ousted from the Division Series last year, he underwent surgery to remove a bone spur in his right elbow, a problem that was a likely culprit for a September fade that dropped him out of MVP discussions. During the surgery, Dr. David Altchek found that Freeman had not one but two bone spurs as well as three fragments. Afterwards, Freeman said, “It’s the first time in nine years I haven’t had any pain in the offseason,” so it’s conceivable that for as good as he’s been during his career, the elbow had prevented him from being even better.

From a statistical standpoint, a few things about his 2020 performance stand out. He set career bests when it came to selectivity and contact, swinging at just 28.2% of pitches outside the zone (32.9% last year), connecting with 81.9% of the pitches he swung at (77.9% last year), and whiffing on just 8.5% (11.6% last year); those 2019 numbers are quite representative of his career rates. That selectivity and contact produced a career-high 17.2% walk rate and a career-low 14.1% strikeout rate. He also produced the lowest groundball rate of his career (31.1%), and the second-lowest groundball-to-fly ball ratio (0.85). His overall average exit velocity of 92.4 mph was well beyond 2019 (89.8) as well as his previous Statcast high (91.3 mph in 2016).

One thing that elevated Freeman beyond his usual level of excellence was his utter annihilation of fastballs. Via Statcast, he hit .427 with an .805 slugging percentage and .495 xwOBA against all fastballs (four-seamers, sinkers, and cutters grouped together), ranking second behind Salvador Perez — who saw just over half as many fastballs — in the first two categories and first in the last of those:

Freeman averaged a 94.1 mph exit velo on those fastballs, up from 90.5 mph in 2019 and a Statcast high of 92.8 mph in ’16. The story is similar if we limit the picture to four-seam fastballs:

For comparison, here’s Freeman’s body of work against four-seamers in the Statcast era, including his 3.3-mph gain in exit velo relative to 2019:

All of this may well be related to the smaller sample sizes from this abbreviated season, but it’s happened nonetheless, and it suggests improved bat speed. Freeman’s performance against other pitch classes is within the ranges he’s established during the Statcast era. Against breaking balls, for example, his .246 batting average is his third highest (down four points on last year), and his .363 xwOBA his second-highest (up 10 points on last year). Against offspeed pitches, his .182 batting average and .303 slugging percentage were both his lowest of the span, but his .395 xwOBA was his second-highest (up 111 points from last year), suggesting that he may have simply had some bad luck on those pitches, which amount to just 47 plate appearances and 24 batted ball events.

Location-wise, Freeman set personal Statcast-era highs with his performance in the upper third of the strike zone (zones 1, 2, and 3), posting a .417 batting average, .792 slugging percentage, 90.7 mph average exit velo, and .415 xwOBA, but we’re talking about just 89 pitches and 24 batted ball events in that sample. Historically, he has struggled with pitches in that area, albeit with a whole lot of year-to-year variance, including batting averages ranging from .145 to .304, slugging percentages from .261 to .543, and xwOBAs from .169 to .378, with the extremes coming on sample sizes of 69 batted ball events for the lower numbers (2015) and 46 for the higher ones (’16), so I’d caution against drawing conclusions on that finding; meanwhile, year-to-year comparisons regarding low pitches, inside pitches, and outside pitches fell within his established ranges and were less noteworthy. More robust is that on 409 pitches ending 108 at-bats in the Shadow area of Statcast’s Attack Zones breakdown — borderline pitches, in other words — he hit .343 and slugged .648, both era highs, though his 91.1 mph average exit velocity and .386 xwOBA were a bit below career bests.

Some of this uptick in performance may owe to a slightly more open stance that Pitcher List’s Dan Richards spotted in mid-2019, an improvement that could have been obscured somewhat by the late-season elbow woes (he hit .264/.365/.389 for a 95 wRC+ in September). It would be nice if we had a full, injury-free season to tell us if Freeman has unlocked a new level of performance, but as with so much else in life, we make do with what we have.

Even before Freeman embarked upon this stellar campaign, he was the subject of frequent questions with regards to JAWS and the Hall of Fame, one of which came up in my September 22 chat and got the wheels turning. Initially, I had planned to include Goldschmidt, Votto, and Anthony Rizzo, all of whose teams qualified for the expanded postseason, as part of a broader piece, but those guys — whose teams all made first-round exits — will have to await another day.

Via Baseball-Reference, Freeman produced “only” 2.9 WAR this year, second in the NL but half a win behind league leader Mookie Betts. That takes him to 38.5 career WAR, with a peak score (best seven seasons) of 31.9, and a JAWS of 35.2. By comparison, the average Hall of Fame first baseman produced 66.9 career WAR, 42.7 peak WAR, and 54.8 JAWS. That leaves Freeman, who just completed his age-30 season, with a considerable ways to go; he’s just 47th among first basemen in JAWS right now, ahead of frequent Era Committee candidate Steve Garvey (38.1/28.8/33.4) as well as the similarly-aged Rizzo (34.3/31.6/32.9) but behind a metric ton of guys who played through their late 30s or even into their 40s but whom Freeman will likely surpass in the coming years.

Towards that end, I called upon Dan Szymborski to provide a rest-of-career ZiPS projection for Freeman, and he obliged:

Setting aside the WAR for a moment, those don’t look particularly like Hall of Fame numbers, at least for a first baseman. There are enshrinees — I’ll stick with BBWAA-elected ones here — with fewer hits, such as Frank Thomas (2,468), Jim Thome (2,328), Jeff Bagwell (2,314), and Willie McCovey (2,211), but all had much higher home run totals (612 for Thome, 521 for both McCovey and Thomas, and 449 for Bagwell) and better rate stats. All four slugged above .500 for their careers, with all but McCovey topping .400 in on-base percentage as well. Thomas finished with a 156 OPS+, Bagwell 149, Thome and McCovey both 147. At a position where Steve Garvey (2,599 hits, 272 homers, 117 OPS+) and Fred McGriff (2,490 hits, 493 homers, and a 134 OPS+) both ran their course on the writers’ ballot without reaching 45%, and Todd Helton (2,519 hits, 369 homers, 133 OPS+) is off to a slow start (29.2% in his second year of eligibility), that doesn’t bode well.

Projections are not destiny, as I’m prone to say, and Hall of Famers generally don’t get to Cooperstown merely by following their median projections for the final decade of their careers. They exceed expectations, often for years at a time, because that’s what the best players do. Via ZiPS, Freeman has a 49% chance of reaching 2,500 hits, and a 32% chance of reaching 3,000 hits, the latter of which would pretty much guarantee his election. Meanwhile, he’s got a 51% chance at 400 homers, and a 35% chance at 450, though just a 5% chance at 500, a milestone that has become less predictive of Hall of Fame berths in the wake of the steroid era anyway.

Those traditional milestones may be important to Freeman’s case, because on the advanced statistical front, he’ll likely fall short of the JAWS standard unless he produces a few more seasons in line with his best ones. The good news is that Freeman’s 31.9 peak WAR leaves plenty of room for improvement, because he’s got some comparatively middling seasons within; his best seven seasons in descending order of WAR, are 6.3, 5.6, 5.3, 4.7, 4.0, and 3.0 twice. Those last two would be replaced by his 2021 and ’22 ZiPS projections, taking his peak score to 35.2 (the same, incidentally, as that of David Ortiz), and lifting his JAWS as based on the career total above to 46.7. That’s still good for only 25th all-time, ahead of only six of the 21 enshrined first basemen but only one BBWAA-elected one, namely Tony Perez.

Freeman almost certainly has to get into the five-win range multiple times to improve his chances in terms of WAR and JAWS, and yes, it’s a bummer that he was robbed of an opportunity to do so while swinging such a hot bat this year, but in that regard he can stand in line with all of the candidates who missed time due to military service or strikes. Such context is always necessary to add to an evaluation of a player’s Hall of Fame case, but if Freeman doesn’t approach this level again, he’s not getting in anyway. Of the 12 first basemen with exactly three seasons of 5.0 WAR or better, only Thome, Harmon Killebrew, and Orlando Cepeda are in the Hall, the first two thanks largely to their home run totals (Killebrew had 586); Thome exceeds the JAWS standard (57.2 vs. 54.8) and wasn’t far off the peak standard (41.5 vs. 42.7). Among eligible first basemen outside the Hall, Mark McGwire has the most seasons of at least 5.0 WAR, with eight, though it’s not WAR but PED connections that have kept him outside. Keith Hernandez has six such seasons; Helton, Dolph Camilli, and John Olerud five; McGriff, Jack Fornier, Jason Giambi, Don Mattingly, Rafael Palmeiro, and Bill White four. Among active first basemen, Votto has six, Miguel Cabrera five, and Goldschmidt four, though to be fair, they’re all older than Freeman.

So again, Freeman probably needs some big seasons in the WAR department. Odds-wise, he has a 45% chance of getting to 60 WAR according to ZiPS, with a 37% chance of getting to 65, a 27% chance of getting to 70, and a 19% chance of getting to 75. Particularly to get to 65 or higher, it would be virtually impossible for Freeman not to increase his peak score in the process of boosting his WAR. Eyeballing it, I’d guess that based on his odds of reaching traditional milestones — primarily his hit total — Freeman probably has somewhere around a 35-40% chance at a Hall of Fame berth, but based on his odds of reaching the JAWS standard, it’s more like 25-30% (70.0/40.0/55.0 would do it). Those aren’t particularly favorable odds, but they’re not long-shots either; in fact, they’re right in the range of batting averages and on-base percentages. The longer Freeman can keep posting those .300 AVG, .400 OBP seasons, the more likely it is he’ll outdo the projections above and improve his chances of making it to Cooperstown.

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