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Freddie Freeman and Embracing the Teases

People have expected big things from Freddie Freeman. I know this because Freeman is a professional baseball player, and all of those guys — each and every last one of them — was at one point considered a future star. The backup catcher, the disappointing first baseman, the 36-year-old in triple-A — former superstars, somewhere, thought to have the brightest of futures. Sometimes they fulfill their promise and most of the times they do not.

I know this also because, among professional baseball players, Freeman was and still is highly regarded. He was drafted 78th overall in 2007, two picks after Giancarlo Stanton, and before 2009 he cracked Baseball America’s top-100 list of prospects. Before 2010, he cracked the top-40; before 2011, he cracked the top-20. Freeman debuted in the majors before he turned 21, and he was established as a regular before he turned 22. Players who do that often become good players, relative to the other players, and unbelievably, inconceivably great players, relative to us.

Freeman is now just 23, nearly 1,300 plate appearances into his big-league career. For reference, he’s slightly younger than teammate Andrelton Simmons, and he’s also slightly younger than teammate Jason Heyward. Something something, and here’s this from Buster Olney Tuesday night:

Freeman has been pretty good. He’s young, so he’s supposed to get better still. Now, let’s step back for a quick moment. We’re all on FanGraphs, right now(!), so we’re all familiar with statistical analysis. Much of what we try to do is project future performance, for players or for teams. Even when we don’t think we’re attempting projections, we’re often attempting projections. When it comes to matters of projections, we’re frequently looking for signs of skillset changes. Otherwise, projections would be simple and dull. And with young players especially, we’re frequently looking for signs of improvement. We know that, on average, young players follow certain aging curves, and we’re always looking for hints of big things to come. A player advancing from the minors to the majors spoils some of the mystery, but the mystery isn’t entirely spoiled until the player’s past his peak.

Breakouts, basically. With young players, we love trying to identify breakout candidates. As if we could ever hope to predict the essentially unpredictable. Now we get back to Freddie Freeman. Look closely at Freeman’s numbers, and some things might jump out at you. Some encouraging things, if you like the Braves, or Freddie Freeman.

I’ll warn you now that we’re passing into Arbitrary Endpoints Territory. You won’t need a passport and don’t mind the armed guards. They’re more afraid of you than you are of them for some reason. Freeman debuted in September 2010, and through June 2012, he’d batted more than 900 times. Here is his line:

Not bad for someone so young. Freeman posted a .327 BABIP, and a .171 isolated slugging percentage. But there were issues. Freeman was aggressive, so he walked barely 7% of the time. He struck out 23% of the time, and in order for Freeman to take a step forward, this was something that would probably need to improve. His power, too, was fine, but unremarkable; for Freeman to approach his ceiling, he’d need the power to increase.

All right, you’re still with me. From July on last year, Freeman batted more than 300 times. Here is his line:

There’s actually a dip in batting average, but this could just be BABIP-related. Now look at the next two numbers. The OBP went up, and the slugging went up. The isolated slugging, of course, went up, to .209. More encouragingly, Freeman trimmed his strikeouts to 19%, and he boosted his walks to 13%. Down the stretch in 2012, Freddie Freeman just about doubled his previous walk rate, which is an uncommon thing for a player to do.

When Freddie Freeman was newer in the majors, he was productive, but he swung too much, he wasn’t selective enough, and his power was only all right. Over last year’s final three months, he swung less often, he was more selective, and his power got better. If we’re always looking for signs of young player improvement, then sure enough, Freeman does seem like he might be headed for a breakout. There’s evidence that he’s answered most of his questions.

And this is the tease. Go into the numbers looking for something, and you’ll subconsciously try your damnedest to find something and convince yourself it’s meaningful. With aging players, we believe with confidence we identify signs of decline. With young players, we believe with confidence we identify signs of improvement. We’re all aware of the possibility of randomness, noise, but seldom do we give it enough weight. As a rule of thumb, it’s usually noise. As another rule of thumb, we usually think it’s not.

When it comes to young players, you can think of it as being over-optimistic, because we all want for young players to blossom into the next young stars. We love thinking about talent ceilings, and talent medians are considerably less exciting. Look at Freeman. We can’t just ignore 2012’s first three months, even though for a time he was struggling with his vision. In the final month, he posted a .299 wOBA and struck out more than a quarter of the time. There are reasons to be bearish, but we like to believe in hope more than we like to believe in randomness or stagnancy. Down the stretch, Freeman reduced his swing rate, and increased his contact rate. That had to have been deliberate, right? And Freeman will keep it up in the future, yes?

Freeman very well might build on what might have been improvements. He might walk a lot more, now, being more selectively aggressive. I’m not trying to say that Freeman’s second-half numbers are just noise. Just that they might be, and we can’t dismiss that possibility just because Freeman is young and a former top prospect. Young players fluctuate just like older players do, and those fluctuations aren’t always predictive.

So Freeman is teasing something that might not come true. Many of us think it’s more likely to come true than we probably ought to. But to be honest, it’s probably better this way. If you’re trying to write a serious Freeman analysis, you should be as realistic as possible, but if it’s human nature to believe strongly in the improvement of youth, I’m not going to argue the alternative is preferable when it comes to being a baseball fan. Baseball, at its core, functions as entertainment; entertainment, at its core, functions to encourage positivity. Optimism and positivity are inextricably linked, and the experience of following baseball is better when you think about leaps and ceilings. Put simply, it’s more fun to think that Freddie Freeman is on the verge of a breakout. We’re in it for the fun, and we’re in it for the stars.

So there’s nothing wrong with getting ahead of yourself, just so long as you can understand that you’re probably getting ahead of yourself. Baseball should be an escape from the way you have to be in the rest of your day-to-day life. Baseball, after all, ultimately isn’t a big deal, for us. Young players are going to tease, and most of those young players are going to fall short of what they could have been, but if it brightens the day to think of a young player as being on the verge, who’s to say that’s irrational behavior? Right now, Freddie Freeman is a tease, and bless Freddie Freeman.