After turbulent year, it's now Freddie's time

COVID-19 recovery in July, injuries in '19 -- but now he's MVFree

October 6th, 2020

Three months after being weakened by COVID-19, feels better than he did at this point in either of the past two seasons. Consequently, there’s greater reason to believe this postseason will prove to be more memorable than most any other the Braves have experienced over the past two decades.

“I feel like our team is clicking on all cylinders right now,” Freeman said. “We feel good. Everyone's healthy.”

As the Braves prepare to begin their National League Division Series against the Marlins on Tuesday, they are in better position than they were either of the past two years. They were significantly overmatched during the 2018 NLDS against the Dodgers and they were significantly weakened by Freeman’s right elbow ailment during their '19 NLDS matchup with the Cardinals.

“Yeah, he was hurting,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “There's no doubt about it. That guy laid it out there for us. And I know it wasn’t fun for him. There's a couple of times that we weren’t sure 10 minutes before the game started whether or not he was going to be able to go, but he always managed to go. He’d do anything to play. So I'm excited for him that he's healthy now, feeling good, able to compete at the level that he wants to.”

After going 4-for-20 during last year’s NLDS, Freeman made it a point to repeatedly say his right elbow didn’t bother him. Maybe that was the case. But painkillers couldn’t erase the fact his timing was off after he missed most of the regular season’s final week because of bone spurs, which were surgically removed the week after the Braves matched an MLB record by losing a 10th consecutive postseason series.

Atlanta ended that postseason skid by sweeping the Reds in the Wild Card Series last week. Their entrance into this best-of-five NLDS as heavy favorites is a product of a mighty offense that soared as Freeman spent September constructing what appears to be the NL's best MVP resume.

“It’s hard to be a stable team when you don’t have consistent, stable performers,” Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “[Freeman] is someone who does that every single day. It doesn’t get overlooked in our clubhouse whatsoever.”

The baseball world has been aware of Freeman’s greatness for a while now. The Braves first baseman was arguably the game’s most productive player before fracturing his wrist six weeks into the 2017 season. He was drawing strong MVP consideration in 2018 before producing a .741 OPS over his final 38 games.

Freeman's 2019 late-season decline was more painful both physically and mentally. He hit 38 homers and had a .979 OPS through Sept. 1, but the elbow discomfort led him to produce a .625 OPS over his final 21 games.

This season’s conclusion proved to be much different for Freeman, who ended up producing a MLB-high 3.4 fWAR and ranking second in the game with 187 weighted runs created plus (wRC+). He hit .384 with 11 homers and a 1.220 OPS over his last 45 games.

“How it started off three months ago, getting COVID, I didn't know what this year was going to have in store for me," Freeman said. "But you know, I'm just glad to be here. It's been a special year so far.”

Exactly one week before the Braves opened the 2020 season on the road against Jacob deGrom and the Mets, Freeman rejoined the club and detailed his experience with COVID-19. The night before Braves players began their Summer Camp workouts at Truist Park, he was at his suburban Atlanta home dealing with a 104.5 degree fever and admittedly praying, “Please don’t take me.”

Freeman accelerated his preseason preparations while still attempting to regain the strength he’d lost after being stricken by the virus. As a result, he had an uncharacteristic .713 OPS through his first 15 games. But once he regained his strength and timing, he re-established himself as one of the game’s premier offensive threats.

All along, he was continuing to serve as a valuable clubhouse leader.

“It’s really good for a manager to have a leader like that in the presence in the clubhouse that you can talk to,” Snitker said. “I'm comfortable talking to him about anything. It's just hard to quantify what he means to this team and this organization.”

Having been a part of each of the Braves’ past five postseason exits, Freeman now wants to move the club beyond the NLDS for the first time since 2001. He has grand plans for the remainder of this year and continues to make it clear he wants to remain in Atlanta long after his current contract expires at the end of 2021.

“This team is built to win for a long time,” Freeman said. “It's gonna be a good ride. Hopefully I can be a part of it.”