It’s the top of the ninth, and the Atlanta Braves are down 4-3 to the Marlins in Miami. Drew Smyly stands at first, the go ahead run, while Freddie Freeman stands at the plate as the winning run. Marlins closer Yimi Garcia delivers the pitch, and Freeman ropes it… directly to former Brave right-fielder Adam Duvall for the second out of the inning. The Braves lose when Austin Riley strikes out two batters later.
That ball off the bat of Freeman had an exit velocity of 99.2 mph. At that velocity and launch angle, the ball had an expected batting average of .520. Instead, it’s an out.
It’s more of the same for Freddie Freeman.
After struggling early in 2020 thanks to a dangerous bout with COVID-19, Freddie Freeman took out his wrath on the National League. He finished the year with an unprecedented .341/.462/.640/1.102 slash line, taking home the NL MVP award with ease, all while carrying the Atlanta Braves to a third straight division title and one win away from their first World Series appearance of the millennium.
Sixty games into 2021, it hasn’t quite been the same for the reigning MVP.
His BA, OBP, and SLG have all plummeted to a pedestrian .228/.347/.442. He still has a 109 OPS+, 9% better than the league average, but there’s a problem.
Freddie Freeman is not league average.
If you take a quick glance at his advanced analytics, it would seem that he’s just run into some bad luck. His xBA sits at a cool .300, a typical Freeman average, which is good for 22nd in the league. His actual BA of .228 is 208th among qualified hitters. That’s the third worst difference between expected and actual batting average in MLB.
Slugging is the same story. Freeman is slugging .442, 106th in the league. He places 19th in xSLG. That’s the seventh worst difference in the league.
Freeman’s .409 xwOBA is the third highest of his career. If you somehow need more evidence, just glance over Freeman’s percentile rankings from baseballsavant.mlb.com.
He is still elite in almost every category.
But this kind of collapse in actual statistics can’t be explained with just bad luck. Freeman’s on the wrong side of 30. There are numbers that suggest a possible decline.
Freeman’s philosophy at the plate has always been to hit a line drive to the shortstop. Throughout his career, this approach has allowed him to beat shifts, stay on breaking balls and hit for power.
Freeman’s line drive percentage is 24.1%, the lowest in his career since 2012. his groundball percentage is 40.4%, the highest since his rookie season. In this day and age of complex shifts, hitting the ball on the on the ground is a death sentence, no matter how hard you hammer it.
It might not matter as much if Freeman hit the ball to the opposite field like he’s accustomed to. However, Freeman has hit the ball to the opposite field at the worst rate of his career, at 13.5%.
Freeman has also prided himself on his ability to mash both left-handed and right-handed pitchers. In 2018, Freeman hit a consistent .309 against both sides. Since then, Freeman has been outstanding against righties and passable against lefties. In his 2020 MVP campaign, Freeman destroyed righties to the tune of a .373 average. Lefties he hit just .245. That trend has worsened into 2021. Freeman is hovering above the Mendoza line against lefties with a .203 average.
One thing that anyone who has ever watched Freeman hit knows is that he destroys fastballs. Against four-seamers in 2019 and 2020, Freeman had a run value of 22 and 19, respectively, both elite numbers.
In 2021, his run value against four-seamers is 1.
His lack of production hurts in more ways than one. As the defending NL East champs, his Atlanta Braves sit below .500 with a 29-32 record, highlighting Freeman’s lowly numbers. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Freeman is just in a rut. However, this could be the beginning of a slow decline.
We’ve seen great first basemen such as Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Chris Davis, and Joey Votto sign massive deals before declining rapidly in their 30’s and becoming a financial burden to their teams. Many Braves fans found it strange that Freeman is yet to sign an extension in the final year of his contract. Freeman himself said that they had not begun extension talks.
Maybe Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos believes that this is the beginning of the end of the Atlanta icon.
Maybe it’s for the best.
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