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Freddie Freeman: Was That A Breakout?

Freddie Freeman improved almost across the board in his second season. He ended up ranked 15th in our 2012 final first base rankings (with Billy Butler added in), worth about $12. If you expected him to be great, that was a disappointment. Our staff thought he would be 15th, so we nailed it. If you picked him up for a dollar or late in your draft, you were happy with his improvements.

But what did he actually do? If we can figure out if he actually broke out, then we might know a little more about his remaining potential upside.

One piece of improvement — runs and RBI went from 143 combines to 185 — was all team- and context-specific. He played a little less (620 PAs in 2012 to 635 the year before), but his plate appearances came in better lineup slots in 2012. Other than 41 at-bats, all of his playing time came in the three-four-five slots this past season. The year before, he got 208 at-bats in the sixth slot or lower. Unless the Braves sign a couple big hitters this offseason — an unlikely proposition — Freeman will continue to hit in a premium slot in the order and will offer good runs and RBI totals. That looks sustainable.

His batting average actually went down, but his peripherals were shiny. He had a 26% line drive rate, which is out of this world. Of course, line drive rates don’t have much season-to-season correlation, and there’s a ton of noise in there, but that’s still a good sign. He’s now been well-above-average in the category for two straight years (24.4% career, 19-20% is average). He also kept his infield fly rate below average for the third straight year (7.7% in 2012, 6.1% career, 10% is about average). That’s virtually the same formula for success that has allowed Joey Votto to post great batting averages. Votto has a 24.8% career line drive rate, an incredible 1.6% infield fly rate, and a lifetime .316 average. In related news, his BABIP is .359 while Freeman’s is .315. Of course, Votto has been doing this longer, is fleeter-of-foot, and hits more ground balls (1.19 career GB/FB to Freeman’s 1.12), but maybe those two BABIPs should be closer together. Lo and behold, Freeman’s xBABIP was .337 last season.

Of course none of this would matter if Freeman jacked more than 23 dongs last season. Read that differently and a whole lot of things would change, but we are talking about home runs here, get your mind out of the gutter. In general, you can see that some of his power peripherals moved forward, but the overall power picture is still muddied.

The good news is that Freeman hit fewer ground balls and more fly balls (1.01 GB/FB down from 1.23 last season), and that’s good for power — especially if you hit more fly balls over the fence (14.8% home runs per fly ball in 2012, up from 14.0%). His isolated slugging percentage went from below-average for a first baseman (.167) to above-average for a National League first baseman (.196, average was .174 in the NL this year). He had five more extra-base hits in 15 fewer plate appearances, so his power took a step forward.

But how many steps remain? If his ceiling is Joey Votto without the batting average, well that’s not very exciting.

Take a look at the relationship between his pull angle (on the left) and his power below. You can see that he pulled more balls in the second half (the positive field is right field, and Freeman is a lefty so that’s his pull field) and that his batted-ball distance (on the right, with each cluster of red indicating a year) went up accordingly. (Thanks BaseballHeatMaps.)

Maybe it’s coincidence that Freeman’s career-best monthly ISO (.250) came in August this year. Maybe. But you can also see a little bounce in his pull angle and batted ball distance right around where August should be on this map. A .250 ISO on the season would have bested all National League first baseman that qualified for the batting title. Going into next season as a 23-year-old with slowly burgeoning power, this is your best-case, dream-upon-a-dream scenario here, that his pull gains in the second half and outstanding power August portend a .200+ ISO next season and a movement into the top ten first basemen in the league.

On the other hand, it was just one month. On the season, Freeman hit the ball 289.65 feet on homers and fly balls, which came in 74th in baseball, just between Danny Espinosa (.155 ISO) and Alfonso Soriano (.237 ISO). Even if you try to find first baseman comps using batted ball distance and HR/FB ratios, you find this range of possibilities. Eric Hosmer was 82nd on the batted ball distance leaderboard (288.5 feet) and has a career 12.5% HR/FB to go with his .149 career ISO. Mark Teixeira was 88th on the list (287.8 ft) and had a 16% HR/FB to go with his .224 ISO this season. Of course, Teix hits more fly balls than grounders most years (.94 GB/FB career) and doesn’t have the line drive percentage that Freeman has shown so far (20.8% line drives career).

Freddie Freeman has more in common with Joey Votto than Mark Teixeira. If the BABIP falls in line with his peripherals next year, his owners will be happy with Votto-lite. If Freeman’s batted ball mix continues to skew towards power, with more fly balls and more home runs off those fly balls, Teixeira-lite might be okay too. Neither sounds like an elite first baseman for fantasy purposes, but both are possible paths and would produce useful parts. If Freeman’s .259 batting average this season keeps his price down in drafts next season, he might be undervalued once again.