If You Don’t Slug, Aim

Freddie Freeman’s $135 million extension raised a lot of eyebrows this week, not just because of the size of the commitment but because of Freeman’s somewhat undeveloped power for a first baseman. The position has long been considered the domain of hulking sluggers, and even in this age of reduced power, it’s a position where teams still expect to get a fair share of home runs. And Freeman is not really a home run guy.

Over the last three years, he’s 21, 23, and 23 home runs, and his 67 total homers in that time frame ranks just 14th among qualified first baseman. And of the top 30 qualified first baseman in home runs, Freeman’s rate of home runs per plate appearance — one every 28.1 trips to the plate — ranks 23rd, putting him in the same category as guys like Justin Smoak and Mitch Moreland. If one was to judge Freeman solely on his ability to hit the ball over the wall, he would grade out as an average first baseman at best.

However, even if chicks dig the long ball, not even a first baseman has to specialize in dingers in order to be highly productive and extremely valuable. While Freeman’s home run rate compares with lesser players, it also puts him in the same range as Joey Votto — he’s averaged one home run every 28.7 trips to the plate — and he’s probably the best hitter in the National League. And while Freeman certainly doesn’t have Votto’s track record, there are some similarities here that should make Braves fans less nervous about this large of a commitment to a first baseman who doesn’t physically remind you of The Incredible Hulk.

Freeman’s 2013 breakout season came in large part because of production in hitting the ball to the opposite field, which has been a hallmark of Votto’s career. Last year, 112 of Freeman’s contacted balls were hit to left field, and he posted a .448 wOBA on balls hit to the opposite field; among qualified first baseman, only Chris Davis (.648 wOBA) and Votto (.529 wOBA) were more productive when using the opposite field. In fact, Freeman’s opposite field wOBA was nearly as high as his pull wOBA (.464), as he didn’t lose any real production going the other way than when he turned on a pitch.

How is that helpful? Hitters who go use the whole field, rather than focusing on pulling the ball to maximize their power, regularly post higher rates of hits on balls in play. Freeman’s .371 BABIP is almost certainly unsustainable on a yearly basis, but the way he used the field suggests that higher than average BABIPs should be expected in the future. For instance, the 10 left-handed hitters who hit the ball to the opposite field the most often — Votto was #1, and the list also includes guys like Joe Mauer and Shin-Soo Choo — last year combined for a .322 BABIP, 25 points higher than the league average.

Especially with the increased emphasis on the shift as a defensive weapon against left-handed pull hitters, a hitter who can drive the ball to left field has a significant advantage. While pull-focused hitters like Mark Teixeira have routinely seen line drives caught by a defender playing short right field, hitters like Freeman and Votto are harmed less by the shift, because their offensive approach doesn’t involve trying to hit the ball to right field as hard as humanly possible.

Because it’s easier to pull a ball over the fence than it is to drive a home run to the opposite field, the trade-off is a lower quantity of home runs, but more hits overall. It is essentially the age-old balance of quality versus quantity, and it is important to remember that there is a quantity of singles and doubles that makes up for a lack of home runs, even for a “power position” like first base.

With $135 million in guaranteed money coming his way, it can be tempting to think that Freeman has to develop more power to justify his contract, and become more of a slugger than he has been to date. But he doesn’t, really. $135 million isn’t what it used to be, and it certainly doesn’t buy elite power anymore. Choo, probably the closest approximation in terms of skillset to Freeman on the market this off-season, landed a seven year, $130 million contract as an opposite field line drive hitter, and Choo is headed for the decline phase of his career. Freeman is already as good as Choo, and is on the upswing of his career; factor in three more years of salary inflation, and Freeman’s eventual free agent price would have been far more than the $22 million per year that he sold his five free agent years for in this extension.

Freeman isn’t Prince Fielder or Ryan Howard, and if you just focus on home runs, than it might be easy to miss the reasons that Freeman is actually a good player. He probably won’t be able to sustain his 2013 batting line — even Votto’s career BABIP is .359, pretty much the upper limit for this kind of player — and some expected regression might make Freeman more of a good player than a great one, but $135 million for the prime years of a good player is simply what the market has dictated in 2014. This contract doesn’t require Freeman to be a superstar, or to hit a lot of home runs, in order to be a good investment. He simply has to keep hitting line drives all of the field and the Braves will be just fine.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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