The Braves have gotten off to a decent start to the year so far, with many thanks to a great series against the San Diego Padres as the team opened up SunTrust Park. There are a few interesting story lines so far, such as the bullpen’s improvement after opening day, Ender Inciarte’s sudden power outburst, and Brandon Phillips providing some quality value at the plate and on the bases. The most interesting story line, to me, is the continuing development of Freddie Freeman. There is a legitimate case to be made that Freeman is now the best first baseman in baseball.
Here are the leaders in first base WAR since the start of 2016:
Freddie Freeman 7.4
Anthony Rizzo 5.6
Paul Goldschmidt 5.2
Joey Votto 5.2
Miguel Cabrera 5.0
That is a pretty impressive list of names to begin with, but the fact that Freeman is nearly two full wins better over the past season and a few weeks is borderline mindblowing.
I will admit that I did not see this coming from Freeman. I do not think many did, which is why I suspect most are skeptical to put Freeman at the top of the list in terms of baseball’s best first basemen. When the Braves opted to give Freeman the long term contract over Justin Upton or Jason Heyward, I was a bit curious. Freeman was coming off of an absolutely excellent 2013 season, but Heyward and Upton had previously had more complete careers and were outfielders. Of all the decisions the Braves have made over the past few years, opting to keep Freeman over Upton and Heyward may have been the best call.
As it stands, with Freeman’s power improvement and increased walk rate, it is reasonable to put the label of best first baseman in the game on him. Freeman, who prior to 2016 was known as more of a lighter hitting first baseman, has the highest slugging percentage of any first baseman since the start of last year by nearly .040 points. The next closest is Miguel Cabrera, who has two more home runs but 15 fewer doubles than Freeman over that time period.
There is obvious concern from many that Freeman’s power outburst and overall output from 2016 could be an aberration. After all, when he excelled in 2013 he tapered back a bit in the following two years in terms of overall offensive production. But this is simply a newer Freeman. As I outlined a few weeks ago, he is swinging harder and hitting for more power because of it. Although that comes with more strikeouts, which has continued again this year, it also comes with a lot more power and an increased exit velocity.
Chipper Jones agrees. In an interview with Mark Simon from earlier this month, Chipper had this to say about Freddie:
“Jones: Freddie is a homebody. He’s gifted, and he listens. He’s a sponge whenever we talk hitting. He knows what works for him. What works for him doesn’t work for everybody, but he knows what makes his swing tick. You’re seeing him go from a good player to a great player. He’ll be a perennial top-five MVP candidate from here out.”
Freeman’s game is a bit different than Chipper’s in that Chipper was able to have an elite walk rate while keeping his strikeouts down, but nonetheless there are some similarities in the two at the plate. Being able to alter their swings to put the barrel on the bat is something that only the best hitters are usually able to do, and it is something that Chipper and Freeman both have in common. I imagine most people would be surprised to read that Chipper Jones career 141 wRC+ is only marginally better than Freeman’s career 137 mark. Keep in mind that Chipper’s career mark includes his decline phase, but he also had more plate appearances in his peak.
Freeman’s primary competition at this point in his and their respective careers is Anthony Rizzo and Paul Goldschmidt. Brandon Belt is also a darkhorse in the race to be the best first baseman in baseball, but he is not quite putting up the type of numbers of the other three aforementioned candidates.
If you look back from 2015, when Goldschmidt had a 7.3 win season with a 163 wRC+, he ends up higher in WAR (12.6) than both Rizzo (11.1) and Freeman (10.7). There is certainly arguments for both, but the notable changes in Freeman’s game post-2015 have me leaning towards his candidacy. The year is still early and Freeman may revert back to the type of player he was before last season, one that still hits very well but not for as much power, but the early signs this year point toward last year being the new normal and not an aberration, as Chipper alludes to. If Freeman continues to hit this well, he may soon be vying for best position player in the National League with the likes of Kris Bryant, Bryce Haper, and Corey Seager.