Freddie Freeman should feel special on this fine day in February, as the word is he's the first $100 million player in Atlanta Braves history.
Good for him, but even better for the Braves. They just locked up a young, talented player who's on the rise for money that's really not all that absurd by today's standards.
First of all, the news itself. As the Braves happily announced on Twitter:
According to MLB Network's Peter Gammons and MLB.com's Mark Bowman, Freeman's deal is worth $135 million. Per MLBTradeRumors.com's transaction tracker, the largest contract in Braves history had been Chipper Jones' $90 million deal from 2000. Freeman's tops that by $45 million.
Freeman's deal also puts him in the same high-rent district as first basemen like Adrian Gonzalez ($154 million) and Ryan Howard ($125 million). Knowing that, maybe you're thinking the Braves got a little overzealous at the negotiating table.
But nah. Not really.
Here's one thing: It sounds like a lot, but Freeman's deal is worth only $16.875 million per year. In a day and age that just gave a guy who has never thrown a pitch in MLB over $20 million per year, less than $17 million per year for an established first baseman isn't crazy. And if Freeman's AAV isn't crazy now, you can imagine how not crazy it's going to be in eight years.
Here's another thing: The 2014 season will only be Freeman's age-24 season, and so far nobody's said anything about an opt-out in his extension.
That means the Braves have locked up eight prime years, and it's worth noting that five of them would have been free-agent years. Freeman was set to hit the market after his age-26 season in 2016, a year younger than Prince Fielder was when he hit the market. Freeman could have made a killing.
That's provided he continues on the path he put himself on in 2013, of course, and that leads us to still another thing: He should.
Here are some numbers (via FanGraphs) to jar your memory of what Freeman did in 2013, complete with his 2011-2012 numbers for some helpful context:
|Freddie Freeman, 2011-2013|
The column on the far right paints a picture of a player taking the proverbial next step, and this player was worth an awful lot to the Braves. FanGraphs WAR-based value system put his value at $23.9 million, quite an improvement over the $11.6 million he had been worth in 2011 and 2012. Combined.
Obviously, if Freeman continues to be worth over $20 million on an annual basis, Atlanta's roughly $17 million-per-year investment in him will be a steal. That's a matter of him continuing to take advantage of the things that made his 2013 a success, and that's absolutely possible.
As you can tell by the ISO figures, Freeman's success in 2013 wasn't a matter of his power increasing. Rather, it was a matter of his average and his on-base percentage increasing, and we can narrow down how this happened.
For one, Freeman's OBP was helped by the fact that his BB% went from a solid 10.3 in 2012 to an even more solid 10.5 in 2013. He was able to have a good batting eye in 2012 despite battling bad vision, so maybe we shouldn't be surprised that he had en even better batting eye in 2013 after his vision issues were taken care of.
As for Freeman's batting average, it was helped by two things. One was a modest decrease in strikeouts, as his K% went from 21.6 in 2011-2012 to 19.2. Fewer strikeouts, obviously, means more balls in play.
And regarding those balls in play, this happened:
- Freeman's 2011-2012 BABIP: .317
- Freeman's 2013 BABIP: .371
In other words, Freeman enjoyed faaaaarrrrrr more good fortune on batted balls in 2013 than he had been. This is especially true when you compare 2013 to 2012, a year in which his BABIP was just .295.
It's tempting to chalk Freeman's big 2013 season up to good luck, but it actually makes more sense to chalk what happened in 2012 up to bad luck. One thing that he did in both 2012 and 2013 was hit line drives at an impressive rate, but he just didn't have as many fall in 2012:
|Freddie Freeman's Line-Drive Habit|
|Split||LD%||BABIP on LDs|
The league BABIP on line drives in 2012 was .682. Freeman was under that. In 2013, he was safely over the league's .683 mark.
And it wasn't just luck at work there. Freeman's short, quick stroke is perfect for line drives, and he put it to use in 2013 by scalding every type of pitch. Here's some telling data from Brooks Baseball:
|Freddie Freeman's Line-Drive Progression|
|Year||Hard LD/BIP||Breaking LD/BIP||Offspeed LD/BIP|
If Freeman was hitting only hard stuff, breaking stuff or offspeed stuff hard, pitchers would have an invitation to make an easy adjustment. But since he was crushing everything, well, they'll just have to tread carefully when he's at the plate.
Adding to the difficulty of containing Freeman is something that Grantland's Jonah Keri noticed:
While a slow-footed first baseman might seem like an ideal candidate for defensive shifts, which tend to suppress batting average on balls in play, it turns out they’re not necessarily a great idea against Freeman. In 2013, he lashed 33 percent of his hits on pitches on the outer half of the plate to the opposite field. That’s not quite Tony Gwynnesque, but it’s still better than the league average of 30.5 percent.
So regarding Freeman's bat, it's like this: As nice as it would be to see him transform into a 40-homer monster, his offensive game is in a good place. His abilities to draw walks and hit ropes make him a candidate to be a .300/.390 hitter on an annual basis. And as long as he's doing that, he doesn't need to be anything more than the 20-25 home run guy he is now to be a star hitter.
Looking past Freeman's bat, we should also acknowledge that his defense is getting better. If we narrow it down to a few select stats:
|Freddie Freeman's Defensive Progression|
|Year||Scoops||Plays Out of Zone||Range Runs > Average||UZR||DRS|
Freeman was a passable defensive first baseman in 2011 and 2012. But in 2013, he showed off more range, made more scoops around the bag, and was generally better than your average first baseman in the eyes of both UZR and DRS.
Just like he did offensively, Freeman took the next step defensively. Assuming he continues to make progress, he could soon find himself among the game's elite defensive first basemen. Combine that with what he'll do at the plate, and it's more than a fair bet that he has plenty more high-WAR seasons in him.
Is it just one good year we're drawing conclusions from? Sure, but I'd be careful about using that as an argument against Freeman's new deal. This, after all, isn't a case of some random, low-ceiling scrub breaking out.
No, this is a case of a former top prospect who was already established as a good, solid player becoming a star-caliber player. And since he hasn't even embarked on his age-24 season yet, the Braves are safe in figuring that Freeman's best days have only just begun. They've made him an expensive player, but they've done so before he started getting too expensive.
The Braves were going to give out their first $100 million contract eventually. In Freeman here and now, they've picked a good player to give it to and a good time to give it to him.
Note: All stats courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.
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