Freddie Freeman left a trail of poor, helpless pitchers in his wake during the 2020 season. The congenial first baseman has put together a fantastic career, but we’ve never seen him go on a warpath in the way he did this season. With his name firmly entrenched in the pile of NL MVP candidates, Freeman has led the Braves to a third straight division title and, with the help of some unexpectedly-great pitching, Atlanta’s first playoff series win since Harold Baines was still a major leaguer. The narrative surrounding his season is a great one, returning from a potentially life-threatening bout with COVID-19 just days before the season began and somehow putting together the best performance of his career, but we’re not here to talk about narratives. We are here to talk about how Freeman went from being objectively good to being the best player in the National League in 2020 (there, I said it).
He’s Got the Power
Freddie isn’t going to set any home run records, but he’s always had plenty of power when he needs it; he’s shown us many times that he can turn on the ball and send it 450 feet if he needs to. But even though he’s very capable, Freeman hasn’t built his game around pulling fly balls like you might expect a 6’5, 220-pound hitter to do in modern baseball. Rather, he hits the ball to all fields with a smooth, balanced swing that’s a bit atypical for his era. As a result, Freeman hasn’t traditionally been a guy who puts up eye-popping exit velocity numbers. We can debate as to whether that approach is the best one for Freeman, but all other things equal, hitting the ball harder is preferable to the alternative. I have my gripes with average exit velocity as a metric (more on that in a moment), but it’s worth noting that Freeman has never finished higher than 30th in average exit velocity, and he’s actually finished around 100th among qualified hitters over the past couple of seasons. While he has fared better by hard-hit percentage (proportion of batted balls hit 95mph+), he hasn’t been elite there either. But this season, Freddie Freeman was a different man.
In this truncated 2020 season, Freeman has taken his hard contact to an entirely different level. His average exit velocity is up 2.6mph from 2019, which is obviously a big improvement, but that doesn’t tell us everything we need to know. Average exit velocity is useful to a certain extent, but as Tom Tango has explained on many occasions, it has its flaws – a 100mph batted ball and a 60mph batted ball have the same average exit velocity as two 80mph balls, but the former is obviously preferable since both 80mph balls are probably outs. Instead, we can view the distribution of a player’s exit velocities to get a better idea of how hard a player hit the ball over the course of a season, and we don’t have to worry about outliers or become bound to a single point estimate. Let’s take a look at how hard Freeman has hit the ball in 2020 compared to his numbers from 2015-2019:
You already knew Freeman has been destroying baseballs, but this visual tells us that he was an absolute animal throughout the 2020 season. The plot shows us that, relative to his past four seasons, Freeman’s exit velocity went through the roof in 2020. We can do the same thing each individual season going back to 2015 (when Statcast data first became available), and we’ll find similar results. But Freeman is doing more than just hitting the ball harder this season.
Keep it in the Air
As Eric Hosmer has so painfully taught us, hitting the ball hard does not necessarily make one a great hitter. You can hit the ball as hard as you want, but if you’re beating it into the ground or popping it straight up, you’re still making outs. Freeman, however, was a launch angle guy long before it was cool, likely well before he ever heard the term “launch angle.” Don’t believe me? Then you haven’t been listening to Freeman himself, who has said on numerous occasions that his plate approach is to “try and hit a line drive over the shortstop’s head.”
Freddie isn’t specifically referencing launch angle when discussing his plate approach, but this very approach helps him keep the ball in the air. And I’m here to tell you, he’s been really, really good at it. He may not be hitting skyscrapers like Joey Gallo, but when you have the kind of bat-to-ball skills that Freeman has, you don’t have to hit it to the moon – you just need to keep it off the ground. Freeman’s career ground ball rate, per Fangraphs, is 36.6%, roughly seven percentage points better than the league-average of just under 44% since he broke into the majors in 2020 (that’s declined to around 42.7% over the past three seasons, but he’s still beating that by a mile). Freeman’s average launch angle jumped from 14.3 degrees last year to 17.2 degrees in 2020, but just as we discussed how average exit velocities can be misleading, the same is true for average launch angles.
If you’re an analytically inclined fan – or just a fantasy baseball fan – you may have heard Alex Chamberlain (@DolphHauldhagen) discuss “launch angle tightness,” which you can read about here. Essentially, the idea is that a “tight” launch angle is associated with an elevated Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP), presumably as a result of good bat control skills. This is measured by taking the standard deviation of a hitter’s launch angle outcomes. Freeman was already among the league’s best in launch angle tightness (sdLA) in 2019, at 23.1 degrees, which makes sense; if you’ve ever seen him swing, you know he has great bat control. Thanks to Baseball Savant, we can see that these numbers were among his best since they became publicly available in 2015.
Freeman has done well each year in terms of both launch angle and sdLA, but 2020 was Freeman’s best year since 2016 and, consequently, he posted the second-lowest ground ball rate of his career, right behind that 2016 season. This, in combination with his increased exit velocity, is what allowed him to post his best barrel rate in the Statcast era (since 2015) at 14.7%, good for 10th in baseball among qualified hitters.
Knowing when to Strike
Of all the things Feeman has done well in his career, he has one skill in particular that separates him from the pack: he is the most patiently aggressive hitter in baseball. Now, that’s a bit of an oxymoron, but it’s absolutely true; Freeman has had a fairly average O-swing percentage (swing percentage on balls out of the zone) throughout his career, and that would normally correspond with a fairly average Z-swing percentage (the same concept, but on pitches in the zone), but not for Freddie. No, Freddie is swinging at just about everything you throw him in the strike zone. As Stephen Loftus (@stephen_loftus) wrote in this piece for Fangraphs in 2018, this is the one thing that Freddie Freeman does, quite literally, better than everyone else. Thanks to Baseball Info Solutions (via Fangraphs), we can visualize Freeman’s excellent approach at the plate for the 2020 season using the same approach as Loftus and, much like Drake on the objectively disappointing album Views, Freeman is “still here, dog.”
There’s a fairly strong correlation (r = .50) between O-swing% and Z-swing%, which makes sense; hitters who are aggressive outside of zone tend to be aggressive in the zone as well. But Freeman is exactly the type of outlier you want to be: he doesn’t swing much out of the zone, but he’s very aggressive within the zone. The regression line here represents “expected Z-swing%” based on 2020 data – and it falls in line with what we’ve seen in previous seasons. To paint the picture a little more clearly, we’ll look at the residuals (the difference between actual and expected Z-swing%) below. Distance from the horizontal line tells us how much a hitter over- or underperformed their expected zone swing percentage.
Only one player, Cory Seager – who had a great season himself – was more aggressive within the strike zone relative to his patience outside of the zone than Freeman was. You can run this same exercise for the past several years, and you’ll find Freeman at or near the top. You don’t need to be Juan Soto or Joey Votto to have great plate discipline. Having a decent eye for pitches outside of the zone and simply mashing anything pitchers give you to hit can work just the same.
From simply watching, it doesn’t appear that Freeman has made any kind of swing change, and it would be rather strange if he did, considering that he’s been a successful big leaguer for 10-plus years now. One thing that we haven’t discussed – and this could very well be the reason for Freeman’s improvement – is Freeman’s offseason elbow surgery. Freeman said after the surgery that he was finally rid of the pain that he’s felt for nine years, which is a long time to be playing through pain! While this could very well be the biggest factor in his improved performance this year, it’s not something that can be quantified, so there’s no way for us to know the impact it had on his results this season.
So the only remaining question is this: how sustainable is Freeman’s 2020 season? Well, odds are he won’t put up a 187 wRC+ over a full 162 game season, but if he can keep the ball in the air and maintain his selectively aggressive plate approach, he’s the kind of player that can potentially age very well since his production has always revolved almost entirely around what he does at the plate.
All stats and data used in this article are courtesy of Baseball Savant unless otherwise noted.