In early February of this year, after a mostly quiet offseason, the Atlanta Braves surprised the baseball world by signing their young first baseman Freddie Freeman to an eight-year, $135 million contract. It was the largest contract, both in terms of number of years and dollars, in franchise history.
The news was a complete surprise to many Braves fans, who did not think their team capable of making that kind of financial commitment to their players.
The deal was also a surprise to many pundits, who did not yet believe Freeman to be in the select company of players worthy of such a mega-deal. FanGraphs.com writer Dave Cameron began his analysis of the deal like this:
Even a couple of days after the news broke about the Braves locking up Freddie Freeman to a $135 million contract, there remains a lot of residual skepticism about this price for a non-star player who was still three years from free agency.
The deal seems extravagant because the Braves are paying more for what they believe and hope Freddie Freeman will become rather than what he has already done. While one might agree that Freeman may currently be a “non-star” player, the idea behind this contract is that Freeman is simply “not yet a star” player, but soon will be.
Baseball is accustomed to nine-figure multiyear deals to established players like Albert Pujols, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez. These are players who have a proven track record of performance, and teams are willing to pay for those historical numbers. While all contracts are a gamble, this type of deal was once considered a safer bet to make.
This approach seems to be fading from some teams’ roster-building playbook. Instead of paying for the years when a player is in decline after they have already put up big numbers, the Braves decided to pay Freeman for the years when he is supposed to be in his prime and getting better each year.
So what makes the Braves think that Freeman will improve? What made them gamble that he will grow into his contract and become that star player?
Perhaps we could use Freddie Freeman’s own words as a starting point. He had this to say to Braves reporter David O’Brien earlier this month:
Some of Freeman’s value, and self-perceived invincibility, comes from his ability to hit the ball to all parts of the field. Most batters have a tendency to hit the ball more frequently in a certain area. Therefore many teams will employ shifts on those batters, especially in the infield. With Freeman, there is no overwhelming cluster of hits or outs noticeable enough to play him or pitch him a certain way. This spray chart from BrooksBaseball.net shows his generosity to all parts of the park.
His hits and outs are spread around the infield and outfield, making him a batter who will hit the ball where it’s thrown. Even his home runs are spread out to all fields.
This affinity to use the entire field can also be seen in his ability to cover nearly the entire hitting zone with above-league-average production. While his ability to hit in all areas of the strike zone has been present throughout his career, Freeman has learned how to get hits in the area of the zone where pitchers previously went to get him out.
In the four heat maps below, the two charts on the left represent the frequency of pitches that Freeman sees. The two charts on the right are Freeman’s batting average in each area of the zone. The top two charts represent all his major league service time prior to 2012, while the two charts on the bottom represent 2013 through present day.
While pitchers are still trying to get Freeman out by pitching him low and inside (as illustrated by the charts on the left), his improvement in hitting in that zone can be seen from his pre-2013 zone averages (top right) to his 2013-to-present zone averages (bottom right).
He added 100 points or more to his career batting averages in each of the low and inside zone areas last year. That turned an area where pitchers could go outside of the strike zone to get Freeman out into an area of strength.
Prior to last season Freddie Freeman had little to no weaknesses inside the strike zone. What he essentially did last season was expand that area of control into the area that used to be his primary weakness. He was even able to increase his coverage of the plate to the lower outside part of the zone.
A heat map—tweeted last night by ESPN Stats & Info—of Freeman’s hitting this season shows he is continuing to dominate the lower part of the zone.
This is why Freeman is able to say that pitchers have nothing that can get him out right now.
His improvement from 2012 to 2013, specifically in addressing his weak spots, is a big reason why the Braves felt confident in giving Freeman that big contract. This is also an indication that Freeman will be able to make adjustments in the future as his hot zones and cold zones move around.
That ability to improve his plate coverage and turn a weakness into an asset should help the team, and the fans, feel secure in knowing that the best is yet to come from Freddie Freeman. He is an offensive force in the making.