If the Atlanta Braves are right about Freddie Freeman—and they better be after committing $135 million to him over the next eight years—the 24-year-old first baseman is on the cusp of becoming a household name and true superstar in 2014.
With pitchers and catchers reporting to work over the next few weeks, Freeman's deal with the Braves will be one of the biggest talking points around the industry. By committing so much to such a young player, Atlanta anointed Freeman the face of their franchise and banked on his stardom through his youth and prime.
There's little question about Freeman's talent. Last year, during his age-23 season, Freeman posted a .319/.396/.501 slash line, crushed 23 home runs and finished fifth in the National League MVP vote. Since arriving to the big leagues as a 20-year-old in 2010, Freeman has 68 career home runs. Over the last 20 years, only one first baseman—Prince Fielder—hit more through his age-23 campaign.
When looking at his career numbers, splits and pedigree, it won't take much for Freeman to justify the cash outlay from Atlanta's front office. Last year, Freeman was worth $23.9 million to the Braves, per FanGraphs' value calculations. If he can come close to providing that kind of value on a yearly basis, an eight-year, $135 million deal will be a bargain.
While Freeman's ability to perform at a high level is evident, he'll have to take a leap in order to become a true superstar in the sport. Part of that leap will come with exposure. If the Braves continue to win 90-plus games on a yearly basis, trips to play in October will raise Freeman's profile.
Yet, big October hits can only take a player like Freeman so far in the national eye.
In order to be thought of in the same vein as the best players in baseball, Freeman will have to continue to improve and play to the baseball acumen of both new- and old-school thinkers around the sport.
With a nod to the non-sabermetric crowd, let's get this out of the way first: Freeman hit .443 with runners in scoring position last season. That's very, very unlikely to happen again. In fact, just a year earlier, he hit just .219 in those same situations.
If Freeman is judged on RBI totals on a year-by-year basis, his star won't be properly rated. Despite the over 200-point jump in batting average in "clutch" situations, Freeman only had 15 more RBI in 2013 compared to 2012 (109-94). Why? In 2012, Freeman came to bat 193 times with RISP. Last year, that number dipped to 170.
MLB Depth Charts projects Freeman to hit third in Atlanta's lineup in 2014, directly behind Jason Heyward and Justin Upton. In theory, ample opportunity should present itself for another 100-plus RBI campaign, but if Freeman drives in 99, it's not a knock on his star status.
Grantland's Jonah Keri broke Freeman's new deal down here. In his analysis, he offered a glimpse into the player Freeman can become. Per Keri's column: "We’ll certainly see some regression on his stats with runners in scoring position, there’s enough here to suggest we could be looking at a consistently near-.300 hitter with power and a good batting eye going forward."
Freeman can continue his path to stardom by furthering his year-by-year improvements in walk percentage, strikeout percentage and line-drive rate. Since becoming a full-time player in 2011, Freeman has walked more, struck out less and hit a higher percentage of balls for line drives in every year, per FanGraphs.
Those areas are hallmarks of good hitters. With that type of approach at the plate and solid, hard contact when Freeman unleashes his excellent left-handed swing, it's no wonder he finished in the top five of two excellent offensive measures last season: OPS+ and wRC+.
OPS+ (adjusted on-base plus slugging) takes into account league and park effects to determine how impressive OPS marks were against the league average. In 2013, Freeman's 144 OPS+ ranked fifth among first basemen, trailing only Chris Davis, Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto and Edwin Encarnacion.
If wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) is foreign to you, start listening to Reds first baseman Joey Votto. The former National League MVP called the metric his "favorite stat" in a radio spot with ESPN 1530 Cincinnati host Lance McAlister.
Similar to OPS+, wRC+ measures how many more runs a player creates for his team compared to the average in a given year. The following chart shows the top-10 leaders in this category last season.
|2013 wRC+ Leaders|
As you can see, Freeman is in good company. His RBI totals, RISP and "clutch" numbers appeal to causal fans. The advanced stats and trends paint an excellent picture for his future. Atlanta's success will give him ample opportunity to play meaningful baseball.
Last, but certainly not least, is Freeman's position, both on the diamond and in the hierarchy of Atlanta's organization.
Over the course of baseball history, first basemen have been revered. For some reason, the position lends itself to stardom and glamour. From Lou Gehrig to Willie McCovey to Don Mattingly to Mark McGwire to Albert Pujols, first basemen stand out among the stars of each generation. If Freeman's ascension continues in 2014, his position will help the cause—as will his new status as Atlanta's franchise player.
Few organizations in baseball have been more synonymous with a few marquee names than Atlanta over the last 30 years. From Dale Murphy to Greg Maddux to John Smoltz to Tom Glavine to Chipper Jones to Brian McCann, the Braves have been a hub for long-tenured stars to represent the franchise and grow into household names around the sport.
Now, it's Freddie Freeman's turn.
Often, $100 million deals are awarded to superstars. In this case, Freeman signed the contract on the path to stardom. If he continues on the career path he's traversed since 2010, the Braves will have one of baseball's most talented players on their roster very, very soon.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.