Last year over on CAC, Ben took a look at Freddie Freeman and asked if he was the best first baseman in baseball. Today, I’m going to expand upon that question and ask where he ranks among all of baseball’s best hitters.
Freddie Freeman’s growth since midway through the 2016 season has been nothing short of incredible. We’re playing with some arbitrary endpoints here, but from September 1, 2010 (his debut) to July 22, 2016, Freddie Freeman was a .283/.365/.470 hitter. Those aren’t bad numbers. In fact, it was good enough for a 130 wRC+, which would have ranked tied for 11th among qualified hitters last season. But since then, Freeman has upped his production into a truly elite category. On July 23, 2016, Freeman went 1-for-4 with a triple and he hasn’t looked back. He has combined to hit .322/.425/.605 (167 wRC+) since.
Last year, we were talking about Freddie and his place among first basemen. Right now, that race is between Freddie and Joey Votto. Votto and Freeman led all first basemen in fWAR when looking at each of the last two seasons and three seasons combined. The group of Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt, and Anthony Rizzo that were discussed in Ben’s article last year have been left behind as Freeman and Votto have separated themselves from the pack like Justify at the Preakness. In the last two calendar years, Votto (13.4) and Freeman (12.0) are the only two first basemen over 10 fWAR. Goldschmidt is a distant third with 9.6 fWAR and then you get into a group of Brandon Belt (7.6), Rizzo (7.4) and Jose Abreu at (7.2) as the only other first basemen over 7 fWAR. When you look at wRC+, the first base comparison becomes even more distant. Votto has a 166 wRC+ over the last two calendar years, Freeman is second among first basemen at 159 wRC+ and Abreu is a distant third at 136 wRC+. Freeman ranks first over the last two years in both slugging percentage and isolated slugging percentage by first basemen.
We have established that Votto and Freeman are the cream of the crop at first base now, but how do they stack up against the best in baseball? Again, looking at the last two calendar years, that list has Mike Trout at 178 wRC+ and then J.D. Martinez, Joey Votto, and Freddie Freeman in a tight race for the next tier. It should come as no surprise that Mike Trout is at the top of the list. He is hands down the best player in baseball, and at just 26 years old, he has already reached the positional standards of Hall of Fame centerfielders. But behind him, you have a group of hitters that are household names, and then Freddie Freeman, who is quietly becoming one of baseball’s brightest stars. As the summer months get closer, Freeman’s place in these rankings should improve even more as he didn’t really start to turn it on until later into the 2016 season.
What’s changed to help Freddie transform from being “just” a very good hitter into the elite hitter he’s become? If you’ve been following baseball over the last few years, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. He has seemingly made it a primary focus of his to increase his launch angle in an effort to reduce the number of ground balls he hits. As Josh Donaldson so eloquently stated, “Groundballs are outs. If you see me hit a groundball, even if it’s a hit, I can tell you: It was an accident.” Statcast data only goes back to 2015, but in that year, Freddie’s average launch angle was 14.4°. In 2016, that increased dramatically to 17.3°. His 2017 launch angle went back down to 15.8° (more on that later), and his average launch angle in 2018 is the highest of his career during the Statcast Era at 17.6°. But going even further than Statcast’s launch angle, we have data spanning his entire career from FanGraphs that allows you to see the dramatic shift in his batted ball profile and the effort he made to hit fewer ground balls at the start of the 2016 season.
The 2017 season shows as a bit of an outlier in terms of both Statcast data and FanGraph’s batted ball data, but we can see that he kept his fly ball percentage high during 2017. Basically, what happened to his launch angle in 2017 was that his broken wrist robbed him of his ability to hit the ball as hard as he was before and his line drives were turned into ground balls as a result.
As you can see from the first graph of batted ball data, his 2018 season is looking a lot more like 2016, which indicates he’s fully recovered from the wrist injury that made the second half of 2017 such a tough stretch for him. But this year, he’s changed again to make him an even more dangerous hitter than before. He has the flyball to groundball ratio back to his 2016 levels, but this year, he’s turning medium contact into hard contact and it’s showing in his overall production.
In 2018, Freddie is batting .324/.428/.561 and has a .415 wOBA. His 166 wRC+ is the highest of his career (previous high 152 in 2016 and 2017). His .415 wOBA ranks 8th in the league among qualified batters, however, his expected wOBA, a number formulated by Statcast making use of launch angle and exit velocity, is .462, which ranks 3rd among batters with 150 plate appearances. While xwOBA isn’t meant to be a predictor stat, it’s a good indication that he’s making contact above the level his numbers are showing and backs up the hard, medium and soft contact graph above. I always like to look at players with a high BABIP, which Freddie undoubtedly has, to see if their batted ball profile shows warnings of regression in terms of BABIP in the near future. When removing his homeruns, Freddie has a .375 expected batting average on balls in play, according to Statcast, which is even higher than his .351 BABIP. So not only is Freddie already one of the best hitters in baseball at this point in the season, I wouldn’t be surprised if his numbers improve as the season goes on.
Going back to the original point of this piece, I’m going to say that Freddie Freeman is one of the top four hitters in all of baseball. There’s Mike Trout securely in the top spot, and then Freddie Freeman, Joey Votto and J.D. Martinez in whatever order you want to place them. While each of the hitters in that bunch could be ordered differently based on preference, I feel Freddie is the most suited of the group to make a run at Trout for the top spot. He was on the way to making it a discussion before being hit on the wrist last season and now that he’s fully recovered from that injury, he has become a better hitter than he ever was before. If some of Freddie’s bad luck—ridiculous to say about someone with a .351 BABIP and 166 wRC+ this season—turns around, he has everything in his toolbox to make that charge.