Elusive MVP may find Freeman this year

September 16th, 2020

Braves first baseman has played at such a high level for so long that we’ve come to take him for granted. That may be the most reasonable explanation for why he didn’t crack the top five in the National League portion of MLB.com's Most Valuable Player Award poll last week.

Fernando Tatis Jr. was the runaway winner, getting 28 of 30 first-place votes, as he puts the finishing touches on an electrifying season that has put the Padres on the threshold of their first playoff appearance in 14 years.

Freeman? Sort of the same old, same old. His team is closing in on a third straight NL East title and his fifth playoff appearance in 11 seasons in Atlanta. He’s really, really good this season, but he’s usually really, really good.

Freeman has finished in the top eight in NL MVP voting in four of the past seven seasons and 23rd in 2014. Freeman’s .919 OPS since 2013 trails only Paul Goldschmidt (.929) and Giancarlo Stanton (.921) among NL hitters.

So he’s in the MVP discussion again? Big deal, right? Only thing is, this time it is a big deal. If the voting is reflective of the player having the best season, Freddie Freeman is your man.

Let’s go to the leaderboard to see how Freeman stacked up against the NL’s best entering Tuesday’s games:

• 1st in OPS+ (185)
• 2nd in OPS (1.105) and OBP (.462)
• 4th in batting average (.345)
• Tied for 2nd in doubles (16)
• Tied for 11th in home runs (11)

Of those six statistics, Tatis leads him in just one (and it’s a big one). Tatis’ 15 homers are tied with Mookie Betts for the NL lead. Tatis also leads Freeman in stolen bases (9-1) and runs scored (46-41).

In non-traditional stats, Freeman has an advantage:

• 2nd in wOBA (.455)
• 2nd in wRC+ (186)

(The Nationals’ Juan Soto, who has 67 fewer plate appearances than Freeman, leads in both.)

Now to Wins Above Replacement. Betts leads all NL position players in Baseball Reference’s version of WAR at 3.0, while Tatis (2.5) is second and Freeman and Manny Machado are tied for third (2.3). Tatis (3.0) is first in fWAR, the FanGraphs calculation, with Freeman second at 2.7.

(Tatis leads MLB with a 64.2-percent hard hit rate and is second with a 96 mph average exit velocity. Freeman is 20th and 26th, but third overall in xwOBA.)

September? While MVP Awards are based on an entire body of work, Freeman holds a big edge in the final month of the season. He was hitting .415 in September entering play on Tuesday to .220 for Tatis.

That Freeman is even in this conversation is remarkable considering how this season began for him. That’s why the NL MVP Award will seem like a small thing compared to the real-life COVID-19 challenge he faced.

Freeman got sick in early July, with his fever spiking to 104.5 degrees. He was so sick at one point that he remembers praying: “Please don’t take me.”

Freeman is the Braves’ 2020 Roberto Clemente Award nominee, following years of community work, including a $125,000 commitment this season to Atlanta-based charities to combat food insecurity and homelessness during the pandemic.

Incredibly, Freeman returned to the Braves on July 18 and was in the Opening Day lineup against the Mets six days later. With no live batting practice before he reported, Freeman got off to a 2-for-14 start, then took off.

“It did take me a couple of weeks to get my legs under me,” Freeman said last week. “At the beginning of the season, I’d hop off the base holding a runner on. After three times, I’d be tired. All things considered, so far, so good.”

Having batted third for most of his 11 seasons, Freeman was moved into the No. 2 slot by Braves manager Brian Snitker last week. There, he’s hitting between Ronald Acuña Jr. and Marcell Ozuna, both of whom are having big seasons.

In six games as the No. 2 hitter, Freeman is hitting .480 with four home runs, and the Braves need every bit of that offense because their pitching staff has been hit hard by injuries.

In researching this article, I came upon a video of Snitker that puts Freeman’s quest -- and in lots of ways his entire career -- into perspective.

“He's amazing,” Snitker said. “He got whacked on the foot yesterday and limped around the bases and still wasn't going to be denied.”

Asked if Freeman’s production is so consistent that he gets taken for granted, Snitker said, “Probably. But we don’t. We know we have something pretty special in the person and the ballplayer.

“If he's not the MVP of this league, I don’t know who is.”

Those words were spoken Sept. 1, 2019. They could be from 2018 or 2016 or 2013. As legacies go, that’s not a bad one.