The Atlanta Braves are on the cusp of a major postseason upset. That’s due in no small part to first baseman Freddie Freeman, who entered the season as one of the game’s best hitters but has reached a new level in 2020 — even after overcoming COVID-19 this past summer. In fact, few hitters have ever improved as deep into a career as Freeman has.
Freeman homered in the first two games of the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and went 2-for-5 with two RBIs in Game 4, to help the Braves take a 3-1 lead. It’s the kind of hitting the Braves need to overcome the Dodgers, who entered the NLCS as the favorite to win the World Series. (The Dodgers’ chances to win have fallen from 54 percent to 14 percent in our model; the Braves, who entered the series with the lowest World Series odds of the remaining teams, increased their odds from 12 percent to 39 percent, as of Friday afternoon.)
The good news for the Braves is that the already great Freeman has managed to improve his hitting skills more than most major league players in this shortened season, particularly his power and contact rate. Freeman, long a good fastball hitter, can hit fastballs at an elite level, as the Dodgers and starting pitcher Walker Buehler learned in Game 1.
This year, Freeman had the fourth-best batting average versus fastballs,1 and the sixth-best average against fastballs that traveled 95 mph or faster.2 And rather than see his bat slow down as he enters his 30s — which is generally around the time hitters reach the downslope of the aging curve — Freeman has been about four times more efficient against fastballs this season compared to last season. He posted a career-best batting average against the pitch (.478), though he faced about one-third as many fastballs in the shortened 2020 season as he averaged in the nine seasons prior, and he covers nearly the entire strike zone with above-average hitting.
Entering this season, one of the few pitch types Freeman hit unevenly, from a runs-created standpoint, was the split-fingered fastball. Though his performance against the pitch fell below league average in five of his first 10 seasons, he’s above the average this year. Dodgers pitcher Tony Gonsolin threw Freeman a low-and-inside splitter in Game 2, and Freeman was able to bring his hands in and crush the ball for a two-run home run, giving the Braves an early 2-0 lead.
So what changed? Freeman stands at 6 feet, 5 inches, but he’s always had a compact, whip-like swing. Indeed, Freeman doesn’t appear to have changed his swing much at all from his first hit in the majors. That swing has produced consistent results for more than a decade: Since his first full season in 2011, Freeman ranks ninth among position players in wins above replacement.3 Instead, Freeman is simply hitting the ball harder. His year-over-year average exit velocity gain of 2.7 mph ranks 16th out of 485 qualifying major league hitters this season. He’s also lifting more batted balls into the air, enabling him to hit for more power. His year-over-year ground-ball rate of decline of 6.7 percentage points ranks 28th in the majors. Freeman also ranks 30th in year-over-year slugging gains. All three improvements rank among the top decile of qualifying players.4
The quality of batted balls he’s lifted into the air were bettered by only two players, according to OPS, this season: José Abreu of the White Sox and teammate Marcell Ozuna.
Freeman has also added contact ability. He’s cut his swinging-strike rate by 3.1 percentage points in the regular season, tied for the 14th-best improvement in the majors. Freeman’s strikeout rate was a career-low 14.1 percent this season, and it’s been even lower in the postseason (7.3 percent through four games of the NLCS). Freeman is crushing pitches he swings at in part because he’s been more selective. His swing rate on pitches out of the strike zone is a career-low 24.1 percent.
It’s also possible that Freeman is simply healthier this year after having surgery last fall to remove bone spurs in his elbow. Freeman told MLB.com that this year was “the first time in nine years I haven’t had any pain in the offseason.” His increased exit velocity and decreased ground-ball rate could also mean that Freeman has improved his ability to hit the ball more out in front of the plate, which is where peak bat speed and power are found.
In all, Freeman has simply been better, and at a point in his career when players rarely improve. While it’s challenging in some ways to evaluate a shortened season, some skills like walk rate, strikeout rate, contact rate and groundball rate stabilize with 250 or fewer plate appearances. (Freeman made 262 regular-season plate appearances this year). Ideally we’d like a larger sample to compare stats like OPS, but it’s possible that Freeman has made historically rare improvement this season. Since 1900, only nine qualified major league hitters have improved their OPS more than Freeman has from their 10th to 11th major league seasons — and none of those hitters had a better 10th career season to improve upon. And while this season was just 60 games, it was the second-best 60-game stretch of non-overlapping games of Freeman’s career within a season, in terms of WAR.
Having enjoyed an MVP-caliber regular season, his torrid hitting has continued into the postseason when the Braves need it most. And to finish off the Dodgers, the Braves need Freeman to keep playing as well as he ever has.
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