As part of the research for this piece, I wanted to talk with a pitcher who has faced Freddie Freeman more than a handful of times. Cardinals veteran Adam Wainwright hasn’t ever been in the same division as Freeman, but they’ve both been in the National League more than a decade, and Wainwright has matched wits with the Braves’ first baseman 29 times in his career.
That works. I snagged a few minutes with Wainwright in front of the Cardinals’ dugout last weekend, and told him I wanted to ask about Freeman.
“Do you want to talk about his hugs? Great hugger, best hugger he is,” Wainwright said. “They’re Freddie’s Free Hugs.”
That is a fun fact, but considering that there isn’t any sort of Hug Index in the mix when considering a player’s Cooperstown credentials — at least nothing that I could find on FanGraphs or Baseball-Reference — we moved on to on-field stuff. Freeman has a .250 career average against Wainwright with a .379 on-base percentage, but only two extra-base hits (both doubles) and a .713 OPS.
“Freddie’s a guy who’s dangerous on any pitch, on any count,” Wainwright said. “Doesn’t matter the speed. Doesn’t matter the location, if it’s a strike, he’s going to hammer it. He’s just so comfortable with his approach. He can go to all fields, he can take what you give him; if you shift him big-time, he’s going to go to left. If you don’t shift him, he’ll pull the ball to right. He’s going to hit it where it’s pitched, all over the yard.”
He kept going.
“That’s what great hitters do. They’re not up there only hitting one pitch, not hitting only in one count, not only hitting to one field,” he said. “They’re using the whole field, they’re doing it at all counts against all speeds, and Freddie’s definitely at the top of that list.”
That sounds annoying, I offered.
“Yeah,” Wainwright said, “it’s super annoying.”
So, Wainwright’s scouting report on Freeman: Great hugger, super annoyingly good hitter. Now, let’s dig into some other numbers and notes.
If he retired tomorrow, would he make the Hall of Fame?
No, he would not. The fraternity of players who would have been a Hall of Famer after just 11 full seasons in the bigs is not expansive. Among current players, Mike Trout’s on that list. Albert Pujols, too. Clayton Kershaw and Miguel Cabrera probably round out the no-doubters. Lots of other active players will one day wind up in Cooperstown, but they’ll get there the same way most enshrined players did, with a long and productive career.
“He is that type of hitter, but I think we need to let him get some more years in,” Braves third base coach Ron Washington told me. “He’s a very consistent player. He cares. He works. He does everything a superstar’s supposed to do, and he brings it every day. He doesn’t take off. He plays every day. He posts every day, every single day.”
Freeman’s hit the 162-game mark twice in his career, and he’s only missed five games, total, since the start of the 2018 season. He leads the NL in plate appearances in 2021.
The Cooperstown case
We’ll start with some basic numbers. This is Freeman’s 11th full season in the majors. He has a career .295/.384/.510 slash line, good enough for an .893 OPS and 138 OPS+. He has 264 home runs and 918 RBIs, with career highs of 38 homers and 121 RBI, both in 2018, when he finished fourth in the NL MVP voting. His career WAR is 41.0, by both the Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs formulas.
Freeman, who turns 32 in September, finished second in the 2011 NL Rookie of the Year voting. He was fifth in the MVP voting in 2013, fourth in 2018, sixth in 2016 and eighth in 2019, earning a spot in the conversation about “best player not to win an MVP award.”
He dropped out of that conversation with the NL MVP award in the shortened 2020 season, posting career highs in batting average (.341), on-base percentage (.462), slugging (.640), OPS (1.102) and OPS+ (184) with a 3.2 bWAR in those 60 games.
The MVP in 2020 certainly doesn’t hurt his resume, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. Heck, not even two MVPs is a guarantee. Just ask Dale Murphy or Roger Maris.
The most encouraging thing about Freeman’s chances is that he just keeps getting better. His on-base percentage his first two seasons was .343, but it jumped up to .396 his third year and hasn’t wavered. He didn’t hit more than 23 homers in his first five full seasons in the majors, but has a 162-game average of 35.7 since 2016.
Let’s split up his career into two halves, 2010-15 and 2016-21.
2010-15: 751 games, .285/366/.466, 104 homers, 424 RBI, 129 OPS+, 15.0 bWAR
2016-21: 762 games, .304/.399/.550, 160 homers, 494 RBI, 146 OPS+, 26.1 bWAR
Yeah. Improvement across the board. He was a good player in the first half of his career, and a great player the second half of his time in the bigs.
Remember what Washington said? Wainwright echoed the same sentiment.
“I think there are lots of Hall of Fame types of players, they just have to play long enough to get there,” he said. “Freddie’s a Hall of Fame type player, and if he keeps playing and doing what he’s doing for a while, then he’s going to be in there.”
There is no reason to expect any sort of drop-off in production from Freeman for at least several years down the road.
The Cooperstown hesitation
First base is tough. The standards are almost impossibly high. It’s the position of Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx. The average bWAR for the 21 Hall of Famers considered primarily first baseman is 66.9, and that number will jump even higher when Albert Pujols (99.5 bWAR) joins, years before Freeman hits the ballot. Freeman checks in at 41.0, with only three seasons of a bWAR north of 5.0 — though it’s worth noting that he would have easily gotten to that mark last year if he’d stayed healthy, and could get there in 2021 (he’s at 2.9 through 107 games).
Freeman, who made his debut 11 days shy of his 21st birthday, should have many years still ahead of him. Still, his bWAR numbers are behind other contemporary first basemen through that stage in their careers. Pujols was at 86.6 through his first 11 seasons, Joey Votto was at 56.1 and Cabrera was at 54.8, and that’s his subpar defense at third dragging that number down. This is Paul Goldschmidt’s 11th year, and he’s at 47.1. Todd Helton was at 54.7 through the same stage of his career, and he’s still on the outside looking in (though his resume is, let’s say, clouded because of the Coors Field effect). The two most recently elected first basemen, Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas, were at 68.1 and 58.9, respectively, through 11 seasons.
The statistic used in every informed Hall of Fame debate is JAWS, a system created by baseball writer Jay Jaffe to measure players across eras. The average JAWS for those 21 Hall of Fame first basemen is 54.8. Freeman’s at 36.3. Still lots of work to do.
And it’s worth noting that the “average” numbers we reference are, yes, impacted by inner-circle Hall of Fame superstars such as Gehrig and Foxx. But they’re also brought way down by players such as High Pocket Kelly, a Veterans Committee inductee 41 years after his last game. Kelly’s career bWAR was 25.3 and his JAWS was 24.7, which is almost identical to Carlos Pena (25.5 and 24.8). That’s why it’s good to use “average” as the standard and not just “is he better than the worst Hall of Famer at this position?”
Similar Hall of Famers
Eddie Murray. Like Freeman, the hallmark of Murray’s career was consistent excellence. He reached 504 career home runs despite never hitting more than 33 in a season, which seems downright impossible. But for 20 consecutive years, Murray hit at least 16 and never more than 33, only reaching the 30 plateau five times in those 20 season.
Let’s compare the two though their first 11 seasons …
Murray: 53.2 bWAR, .296/.372/.503, 305 homers, 1,106 RBI, 141 OPS+, 1,659 games
Freeman: 41.4 bWAR, .295/.384/.510, 264 homers, 918 RBI, 138 OPS+, 1,512 games
The slash lines are very similar, but Murray has the edge in bWAR and homers, largely (but not solely) because he played significantly more games. Keep in mind that, of course, the 2020 season was only 60 games and the Braves have 54 games remaining in the 2021 season. Factor that in and Freeman closes the gap in those two categories pretty significantly.
Murray, of course, continued his excellence for a long time. After those first 11 seasons, Murray added 199 more home runs and 811 more RBIs, remaining a consistent source of reliable run production even as he bounced around the league, from the Orioles to the Dodgers to the Mets to the Indians and, finally, stints with the Orioles (again), Angels and Dodgers in his last two years.
Murray was elected to the Hall in his first year on the ballot, with 85.3 percent of the vote as part of the class of 2003.
Similar non-Hall of Famer
Will Clark. Freeman’s swing — “He has such a unique swing,” Wainwright said. “He gets up on those toes and his bat’s all perpendicular to the ground. That’s something you can’t teach. Just so cool to watch him.” — isn’t anything like Will Clark’s sweet swing, but they produced similar results. Clark was a first baseman who could hit home runs, but would never have been called a true slugger, despite starting his MLB career with a first-AB homer off Nolan Ryan. Clark was a productive first baseman who could spray the ball all over the field, and Freeman has that same skill set, with a bit more power.
So let’s take a look though 11 seasons …
Clark: 44.6 bWAR, .300/.379/.492, 218 homers, 953 RBI, 139 OPS+, 1,510 games
Freeman: 41.4 bWAR, .295/.384/.510, 264 homers, 918 RBI, 138 OPS+, 1,512 games
Pretty similar, right? Clark’s 11th year in the bigs was his Age 32 season. Freeman’s a year ahead of that, currently in his Age 31 season. Clark is prime example of why Freeman’s Cooperstown fate has yet to be determined. Clark was still an outstanding hitter the rest of his time in the bigs — he hit .313 with a .909 OPS from 1997 to 2000 — but he played his final game at Age 36, opting to retire to be with his family after hitting .345 in 51 games down the stretch for the Cardinals in 2000 and then .345 in eight postseason games that October.
He added 11.9 bWAR in those final four seasons to finish at 56.5.
He was only on the Hall of Fame ballot for a single season, garnering 4.4 percent of the vote, falling just short of the 5 percent necessary to stay on for a second year. He deserved a longer stay, but the 10-vote limit certainly hurt him. It wasn’t the most crowded ballot of all time, but it was packed: eight players were eventually inducted into the Hall, and four more guys lasted a long time on the ballot without being inducted: Tommy John, Steve Garvey, Dave Parker and Dave Concepcion.
Here’s the thing: If Freeman stays healthy and productive for several more seasons, he’ll likely wind up in Cooperstown eventually. But we are not promised tomorrow, and there are lots of stories of players with an excellent first decade who dropped off shortly into their 30s who are not enshrined. Two perfect examples come to mind on the current Hall ballot: Andruw Jones (60.9 bWAR his first 11 full seasons, 1.7 bWAR after that) and Todd Helton (54.7 bWAR his first 11 seasons, 7.1 bWAR after that). Atlanta fans almost certainly immediately thought of Dale Murphy, who had a 45.2 bWAR in his first 11 full seasons and just a 1.8 bWAR after that. Murphy lasted the full 15 seasons on the BBWAA’s Hall of Fame ballot, but never received more than 23.2 percent of the vote.
You can argue that all three of the players just mentioned belong in Cooperstown. It’s not hard to make a compelling case, but that’s not really the point here. The point is to show that, although Freeman is on the right track, speed bumps and road blocks could be lurking.
Here’s hoping he stays healthy and productive, though, because the big stage at the induction ceremony in Cooperstown is a great place for big ol’ hugs.