If one championship belt per position were to be awarded on an ongoing basis within major league baseball, a great deal of debate would ensue. Certainly, Mike Trout would get one outfield spot. But what if each outfield position had to be represented? Would Andrew McCutchen have a centerfield argument? Yadier Molina and Buster Posey would duke it out for catching honors. At first base, a changing of the guard is about to occur, and not just because Miguel Cabrera and Joe Mauer are headed in that direction. Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt are young and exceptional, and possess the well-rounded profiles necessary to inject themselves into the positional championship discussion in the very near future.
First, let’s take these players’ respective ages, experience levels and big-picture production and place it into some sort of historical perspective.
|LAST||FIRST||AGE||+ OBP 3 YR||+ SLG 3 YR||OPS+ 3 YR|
|LAST||FIRST||AGE||+ OBP 2 YR||+ SLG 2 YR||OPS+ 2 YR|
The above two tables measure Freeman and Goldschmidt against their closest matches in terms of number of combined standard deviations above league average in OBP and SLG at the same age, with the same number of years of experience as a major league regular. Splitting production into its OBP and SLG components allows us to match up players who are not only similarly productive overall, but who also accumulate that production in a similar manner. As you see, both of today’s players have pretty attractive historical comps.
Freeman’s youth is obviously a big part of his appeal. The group of 23-year-old three-year veteran regular MLB 1B’s is not that large (Eric Hosmer is also a member of this fraternity), and Freeman, John Olerud and Eddie Murray are the three best. The population of 25-year-old, two-year veteran regular MLB 1B’s is quite a bit larger, but Goldschmidt and his peer group represent its top echelon. The similarity of Goldschmidt to Joey Votto at the same age is quite compelling, as is Goldschmidt’s relative superiority to Todd Helton at the same age. As for Andre Thornton, well……he was a poor defender, had significant injury issues, and embodies the inherent risk of relatively one-dimensional bat-only players who arrive as regulars a little later than most star-caliber MLB regulars.
The brief exercise above clearly places Freeman and Goldschmidt alongside some Hall of Fame/Hall of Very Good players. What makes these two players’ respective offensive games tick? Let’s take a look at their batted ball profiles to get a better sense of how well they are built for the long run. First, let’s examine their batted ball frequencies by type:
Each batted ball type is expressed as a percentage, relative to MLB average (scaled to 100) and as a percentile rank compared to the population of 2013 MLB regulars.
Both Freeman’s K and BB ranks were above league average in 2013, but both are trending steadily in the right direction. His popup rate is quite low for a power hitter – it has been lower than the league average in each of his three years as a regular, and his 2013 percentile rank of 22 represents a career best.
Normally, one would expect regression from a very high line drive rate like Freeman’s 2013 mark, as year-to-year LD rates correlate the least among batted ball types. Freeman, however, has posted stellar LD percentile ranks of 86, 85 and 93, respectively, in his three years as a regular. Joey Votto has never posted an LD percentile rank below 78 in his career, and hasn’t been below 91 since 2009. Freddie Freeman is a good hitter, period, and will likely continue to post high LD rates for the foreseeable future. His fly and ground ball rates have also been quite consistent during his brief career.
Like Freeman, Goldschmidt’s K and BB rates were both high than the league average in 2013, and are both trending in the right direction. Also like Freeman, Goldschmidt has a low popup rate for a power hitter. After posting the highest line drive rate among NL regulars in 2012, he retreated to about MLB average in that department in 2013, with the drop in LD’s accompanied by a boost in his ground ball rate.
Both Freeman and Goldschmidt use the entire field – neither can be characterized as an “extreme ground ball puller”, and thus are not feasible targets for opposing infield overshifts. Both hit more fly balls to the opposite field than to the pull side in 2013, and more importantly, did damage to all directions of the field. Despite high but acceptable K rates for power hitters, both Freeman and Goldschmidt project to continue as high average, high OBP types in the future on the strength of their low popup ad high LD rates alone. As with most highly successful offensive 1B’s, however, it’s the damage done on balls hit in the air that sets them apart. Let’s take a more detailed look at their production by batted ball type last season:
|Freeman||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
|Goldschmidt||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
For both players, actual AVG and SLG by batted-ball type is displayed. In the next to last column, actual production is expressed relative to MLB average for each batted-ball type, scaled to 100, and in the last column, the relative production figure is adjusted for ballpark, luck, etc.. For purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are counted as outs, and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.
Freeman did a solid amount of damage on fly balls in 2013, as his 177 relative production figure might attest. However, a list of players with SLG over 1.000 on fly balls in 2013 would include Marlon Byrd, Robinson Cano, Shin-Soo Choo, Nelson Cruz, Bryce Harper, Raul Ibanez, Adam Jones, Garrett Jones, Brian McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, among others – and not Freddie Freeman. Part of that is because of his pitcher-friendly home park, but there are quite a few players who impact the baseball more authoritatively in the air than Freeman.
Adjustment for home park, luck, etc., raises his adjusted relative fly ball production to 217, putting him ahead of many of the players on the aforementioned list. Not only does Freeman hit a lot of line drives, he also hits them harder than the league average, though his LD relative production figure is regressed a bit back toward league average to 107. His actual relative ground ball production is low at 90, but after adjustment for his hard/soft ground ball rates, moves up to 124. That adjustment might appear a bit extreme for a slow runner like Freeman, but his ability to hit the ball hard on the ground the other way is a mitigating factor. Taking all BIP into account, Freeman’s .404 AVG-.630 SLG is good for 156 relative production, adjusted upward to 173 for ballpark, luck, etc.. His strong walk rate allows these figures to hold up quite well at 152 and 167, respectively, once K’s and BB’s are added back into the equation.
Goldschmidt did even more damage on fly balls in 2013, with his actual .378-1.170 line good for a relative production figure of 219. Now for a surprise – most see Chase Field as a hitters’ paradise, but this was certainly not the case in 2013. Goldschmidt’s home park has treated fly balls much differently than line drives in recent seasons. Chase Field’s fly ball park factor was 83.2 in 2013, compared to 107.0 for liners. Production on fly balls was suppressed in particular from LCF to RCF, corresponding with Goldschmidt’s favorite areas to drive the ball. Adjusted for ballpark, etc., Goldschmidt’s fly ball production explodes to near the Chris Davis level.
His line drives are hit even harder than Freeman’s, and he also does a surprising amount of damage on ground balls. His actual .395-.721 line on all batted balls translates to a 175 relative production figure, adjusted upward to 189 for ballpark, luck, etc.. As with Freeman, his high BB rate allows his actual and adjusted relative production figures to hold up well at 171 and 183, respectively, once the K’s and BB’s are added back.
Both of these guys are large, physical presences, Freeman at 6’5″, 225, Goldschmidt at 6’3″, 245. Both have relatively significant, normal batting splits, with Freeman’s, as a lefty, a bit larger as would be expected. Both field their positions reasonably well, to the point that they don’t have to worry about becoming AL DH-only types anytime soon. Goldschmidt actually runs quite well for a big man, and has stolen 18 and 15 bases respectively in the last two seasons. Freeman’s contract should prove to be a sound investment from the club’s perspective over the long run, while Goldschmidt’s is the equivalent of getting in on the Microsoft IPO back in the day.
Right now, with their K and BB rates trending positively and significant additional power upside available once they begin to gradually pull the ball more in the air, it is likely that neither has reached his peak. In fact, one or both is apt to take a significant additional step forward in the next year or two.
In my mind, the reigning owner of the 1B Championship Belt is Joey Votto. On a one-year basis, Chris Davis or even Edwin Encarnacion might have a claim, but you’ve got to knock out the champ, and no one has just yet. Davis has no peer when it comes to destroying fly balls, but his stratospheric K rate and extreme ground ball puller status give him little margin for error. Encarnacion has a tiny K rate for a power hitter, but his very high popup rate and extreme dead pull tendency on all types of batted balls are concerns going forward. Based on the combined standard deviations above league average OBP and SLG method used in the very first table above, Votto ranks sixth among MLB 1B’s through their age 29 season, behind five guys named Albert Pujols, Jimmie Foxx, Frank Thomas, Lou Gehrig and Johnny Mize.
Among 29-year-old six-year regulars, Votto ranks first, with Helton and Lance Berkman next in line. Interestingly enough, however, both Freeman and Goldschmidt got more production from their batted balls than did Votto last season, before and after adjusting for context. It’s Votto’s otherworldly walk rate – 99th percentile for the second year in a row – that more than anything else is keeping him in the race. He has already peaked, and will soon need to begin pulling the ball in the air more often to maintain his production levels. The new 1B champ will likely take over soon – be it a position-shifter like Cabrera or Mauer, an up-and-comer like Freeman or Goldschmidt, or someone else like Davis, Encarnacion or a resurgent Prince Fielder. Eric Hosmer and Anthony Rizzo may also want to speak their piece before too long.
Bottom line – neither Freeman nor Goldschmidt may not be the next Joey Votto, or Murray or Olerud or Helton. What both players already are, however, is pretty good – hit-before-power guys with plenty of power. Their K and BB trends are positive, they don’t give away outs with popups, and can the hit the ball out of any part of any yard. Neither has had his career year yet. Best guess – Freeman will have a long, consistent career without a defining peak, a Murray-esque run without much black ink in the record book. Goldschmidt will have a lesser overall body of work than Freeman, but is more likely to put up a .340-.420-.630 tour de force somewhere along the line. Goldschmidt is also the one more likely to go the way of Andre Thornton, though the chances of that happening to either would seem to be quite low. Both will be batting between #3 and 5 in productive major league batting orders for many years to come.
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