Amongst the exciting young sluggers in the game, it’s easy to overlook Freddie Freeman. He’s not overly flashy and lacked the benefit of the hype machine while in the minors. However, he’s only 24 years old and was nearly a five-win player in 2013. His .387 wOBA ranked 13th in all of baseball, and he was the third-ranked first baseman in ESPN leagues.
It’s crazy to ponder the fact that Freeman will be 24 years old for the vast majority of the 2014 season, as well, because he’s already been one of the best young first basemen over the last 20 years. Since the strike, only two first basemen have connected with more home runs through their age-24 season than Freeman.
|6||Paul Konerko||White Sox||52|
The above chart certainly puts Freeman’s early-career performance into perspective, but it also indicates few first basemen acquire starting roles in their early-20s. Not factoring in position, Freeman has the 28th-most home runs of any player through their age-24 season since the labor strike — which is still impressive, but not nearly as noteworthy as being number three.
I’m not satisfied suggesting Freeman could become the next elite first baseman in fantasy leagues. He’s amassed an impressive number of home runs early in his career, which bodes well for future performance, but the young man has yet to eclipse the 23-homer mark in a single season. That’s far from elite power production from the first base position. In fact, our own Eno Sarris discussed that very issue in an erudite article earlier this year.
Sarris mentions Nick Swisher as a fair comp for Freddie Freeman going forward, and I’m fond of that comparison. Swisher has never hit fewer than 20 bombs in a full season, yet he’s only hit more than 30 homers once (2006). He’s consistent. He’s also rarely elite. As I said, that level of expectation going forward for Freeman feels on the money.
So what do we do with this season? Freeman posted a better wOBA in his third big-league season than Swisher ever did in his career. Surely, being on the correct side of the age curve, Freeman is destined for bigger and better things than being a consistent three-to-four win player.
To be fair, there’s a lot to like about his development as a player. His walk rate has improved in each of his three seasons in the majors, while his strikeout rate has correspondingly dropped. Furthermore, his 25.2% line drive rate over the past three season ranks ninth in Major League Baseball amongst qualified players, so perhaps fantasy owners should expect a higher-than-average BABIP going forward.
Those trends must translate into a consistently high batting average, though, because that’s the only thing that would separate him from someone like Nick Swisher. Freeman’s ISO and home run numbers have been extraordinarily consistent throughout his first three seasons. If we also consider the fact that his minor-league power numbers weren’t anything impressive, it seems to be a stretch to project much more power from Freeman in future seasons.
And even if Freeman did produce a high line drive rate, it’s unreasonable to expect the 24-year-old slugger to sustain a .371 BABIP. That’s the only reason he compiled a .300+ batting average, and that’s what made him so valuable in fantasy leagues. He provided solid (though unspectacular) power and packed it up with an elite batting average. If that average falls to .270-.290 through regression, he’s once again delving into Nick Swisher territory.
Though when roughly comping Freeman to Swisher, we’re talking about power and average, not counting statistics such as runs and RBI. Those are understandably variable, but Freeman could have a leg up because he’s projected to bat cleanup for the Braves. That should result in more run and RBI opportunities, which is something Swisher largely hasn’t gotten throughout his career. Thus, in standard leagues, Freeman could once again be a touch more valuable, even if the core comp still holds firm.
Looking forward to next year, I’m not sure Freddie Freeman cracks my top-five first basemen, which means I believe he’s likely going to be overrated on draft day. Without doing too much research, my cursory top-five first basemen would include Chris Davis, Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, Edwin Encarnacion and Prince Fielder. One could make an argument that Eric Hosmer belongs on that list, too.
That’s not to suggest Freeman is a poor option at first base. He’s clearly an above-average first baseman who strongly benefits from being on the correct side of the aging curve. When the 2014 draft season rolls around, though, I’m going to bank on his batting average coming down to earth and his power production remaining steady — which means I’m likely not targeting him at first base because I believe better value options will be available for less money or in later rounds.
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