Saying that the 2016 season has been miserable for the Atlanta Braves and their fans is probably an understatement. The team is an MLB-worst 45-80 and has a 4.5-game edge on the Minnesota Twins for the top pick in next June’s MLB Draft. They’re going to finish under .500 for the third straight season after finishing below .500 just twice from 1991-2013.
There hasn’t been much to be happy about this year, but the continued emergence of first baseman, and franchise cornerstone, Freddie Freeman should give Braves fans something to hold on to.
It’s not fair to say that Freeman is a “controversial” player, because the only “controversies” he’s been involved in have been the eight-year, $130 million extension the Braves gave him before the 2014 season and Atlanta’s subsequent refusal to trade him during their teardown following that 2014 season. He’s not some sort of bad seed or negative presence, yet you’d think that way from the way some Braves fans continually tear Freeman down.
Freeman is having the finest season of his six-year career in 2016. Through 123 games, he’s hitting .291/.386/.557, good for a .391 wOBA and a 145 wRC+. Those are the best and second-best marks of his career, respectively. Freeman’s 26 home runs are already a career-high. He leads the Braves in average, OBP, slugging, homers, and runs scored, and is second in RBI behind Nick Markakis (who spent most of the season hitting cleanup, right behind Freeman in the Braves lineup). Aside from Freeman, only Adonis Garcia has double digit home runs (10), and catcher Tyler Flowers is the only Braves hitter to log at least 100 plate appearances this season to have a wRC+ above 100.
Atlanta has the worst offense in baseball, but you knew that already. They’re the lone team in baseball without 100 home runs (they have 88). Their .245 batting average and .309 on-base percentage both rank 26th in baseball. Their .368 slugging is 22 points lower than the Phillies, who are 29th in baseball. As a result, the team’s .293 wOBA and 79 wRC+ are the worst in baseball. And all of that is *with* Freeman mashing the bejeezus out of the ball and putting together a top-five year for any first baseman in baseball.
Wait a minute — Freddie Freeman, top five first baseman in the majors? The stats back it up.
Freeman’s 4.4 fWAR is second-best among all first basemen, behind just Chicago Cubs MVP candidate Anthony Rizzo. His 26 homers are the seventh-most among all first basemen, and that’s with qualifying part-timers Edwin Encarnacion and Carlos Santana at the position. Freeman’s .391 wOBA is fourth among all first basemen in baseball (behind Rizzo, Joey Votto, and Paul Goldschmidt), and his 145 wRC+ is third (behind Rizzo and Votto). It’s absolutely not a stretch to group Freeman with Rizzo, Votto, Goldschmidt, and Miguel Cabrera in that top tier of baseball’s first basemen.
And remember, Freeman doesn’t turn 27 until the second week of September. Rizzo turned 27 this month. Cabrera’s 33. Votto and Goldschmidt share a birthday days before Freeman’s birthday, turning 33 and 29, respectively.
Oh, and that “ridiculous” contract Freeman signed? Yes, he’s still owed $108 million over the final five seasons of the deal, from 2017-2021.
But Chris Davis will collect a hair less than that over the same time period, and he’s already 30 and having a worse season this year than Freeman is. Votto will collect $122 million from the Reds. Cabrera will take in an eye-popping $148 million from the Tigers. Prince Fielder, who will never play another baseball game again, gets $96 million from the Rangers. $140 million is going to Albert Pujols from the Angels to… well, I’m not sure exactly what Pujols will be doing in Anahem over the second half of his contract.
Really, the only thing you can say about Freddie Freeman to criticize him for not being Paul Goldschmidt or Anthony Rizzo, and that his contract isn’t nearly as team-friendly as either of those players’ deals. But hey, if the worst things you can say about Freeman is that he’s not as good as a two-time NL MVP runner-up or the player who may be leading the NL MVP race this season, he’s doing *something* right.