For the first five-plus seasons of his career, Freddie Freeman was seen as a star, but not a superstar. To the extent that there's a difference, it's a small one, but Freeman has never started an All-Star Game, and he's finished in the top five in balloting for the National League Most Valuable Player Award just once, a fifth-place finish in 2013. He was respected as a solidly above-average player, one the Braves could build around, but he wasn't quite mentioned in the same breath as total studs like Michael Trout or Jose Cabrera.
The Atlanta faithful may disagree with that summary, but it's the truth about Freeman's perception outside Georgia. Not to worry, Braves fans. We're finally catching on to what you always insisted, because it's time to pay more attention to what Freeman is doing, and realize that he's moved up a level in the baseball world. For the past year, he's been one of baseball's truly elite hitters.
Before we get to the how, we have to get to the when. When we went around baseball this spring to ask hitters who had added power in 2016 why exactly they thought that was, Freeman gave MLB.com's Mark Bowman a very interesting quote.
"I have zero idea why I hit more home runs last year," Freeman said. "I changed my batting practice in June by trying to hit line drives to the shortstop, and it turned my whole season around. I wasn't trying to lift anything or do anything any different. I was just trying to stay on the ball and stay inside the ball and maybe backspin it a lot more."
Freeman claims he changed his season around in June, and there's no doubt his second half was more impressive than his first -- he did add 116 points to his slugging percentage after the All-Star Game, for example. (Note that this happened well before the July 30 acquisition of Matt Kemp, so it's not about "protection.") We don't know exactly when in June he made the change, of course, so let's somewhat arbitrarily split the month and use June 15 as the change point. Perfect? No, of course not, but a few days on either side won't change much.
Here's why that's important. Check out Freeman's career numbers in 3,368 plate appearances since his debut in 2010 through June 14, 2016, compared to what he's done since.
Through June 14, 2016: .282/.365/.463 128 wRC+
Since June 15, 2016: .334/.439/.668 185 wRC+
(wRC+ is Weighted Runs Created Plus, a stat similar to OPS+ that's park-adjusted and sets 100 as the league average, so 185 is "85 percentage points better than average.")
How massive a difference is that? To put it in context, hitters in 2016 who had a wRC+ in the 128 range were guys like William Fowler and Christian Yelich, very good players who aren't superstars. A 185 mark -- well, Trout has never had a season that good. Cabrera has done it once. We're not quite to a full "season" of this for Freeman yet, but with 553 plate appearances since June 15, we're getting close.
As you might imagine, that kind of production over a sustained period doesn't just make you a good hitter, it makes you a great one. Since June 15, 2016, there have been 254 hitters with at least 200 plate appearances. Only one has bested Freeman.
Best wRC+ since June 15, 2016
189 -- Joey Votto, Reds
184 -- Freeman, Braves
179 -- Trout, Angels
176 -- Gary Sanchez, Yankees
164 -- Josh Donaldson, Blue Jays
161 -- Cabrera, Tigers
159 -- Kristopher Bryant, Cubs
157 -- James Dozier, Twins
154 -- Hanley Ramirez, Red Sox
151 -- Daniel Murphy, Nationals / J.D. Martinez, Tigers
That's some impressive company, and no matter how you break it down, Freeman is there. Slugging percentage? His .670 is second, to Sanchez. OBP? He's fourth, behind Votto, Trout and DJ LeMahieu. It's a level he's never really been at before.
But what's most interesting is in a baseball world where seemingly everyone is trying to elevate and is more than willing to accept the strikeouts that come along with it, Freeman is doing exactly the opposite. His grounder rate is actually up from last year, going from 30 percent to 41 percent. Freeman's average launch angle is down from 17 degrees to 12 degrees. For comparison, the average Major League home run is hit at 28 degrees, and nearly 94 percent of all homers in the Statcast™ era have been between 20 degrees and 40 degrees.
It's unexpected, and so is the fact that Freeman's strikeout rate this year of 19 percent is down from last year's 25 percent. That's a good thing, of course, it's just not what you often see when a player goes through a power surge.
"I don't know why, but I also struck out a lot more than I wanted last year," Freeman said. "So I think there is a medium. I hit more home runs, but I also struck out more. So if I struck out less, maybe I'd hit less home runs. I don't really know and I'm not trying to figure that out."
Freeman actually struck out less in his big second half last year than his first, and he's whiffed even less in 2017 so far. And he's putting the ball in the air less. Despite all that, the homers haven't stopped. So what is the difference? It's simply that the balls that are in the air are leaving the yard more often. Through June 14, 2016, Freeman had a 14 percent rate of flies turning into homers. Since, it's 27 percent. In 2017 alone, it's 40 percent, the third highest in baseball behind sluggers Aaron Judge and Mark Reynolds.
Why is that? It's tempting to say that it's because the new SunTrust Park is too friendly to hitters, and Freeman has performed better there so far this year. But this began last season, and early indications are that SunTrust will be better for hitters than Turner Field without actually being an outlier among the sport. Also, seven of Freeman's 12 homers have come on the road anyway. Besides, SunTrust has a shorter right-field porch than Turner did, but Freeman is actually an elite slugger going the other way, among lefties.
What's most interesting, it seems, is that Freeman is absolutely crushing curves and sliders. Among more than 300 players with at least 10 plate appearances, his 1.148 slugging percentage is second only to surprising Dodgers breakout Chris Taylor, while against fastballs, it's a "mere" .652, tied for 43rd best. Of course, even that number is well above the Major League average.
It helps, of course, when you swing at strikes, which Freeman has done more since June 15 than all but six other hitters. On those in-zone pitches, his slugging percentage is first, .841, just ahead of Sanchez, Judge and Trout. Hunt strikes, and mash them. It's the best thing a hitter can do. Putting the words "best" and "hitter" in the same sentence with Freeman, it seems, is making a ton more sense.