Atlanta Braves’ Freddie Freeman, His Projections, and His Air Assault

Feb 26, 2017; Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA; Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman (5) hits a base hit in the first inning against the Houston Astros at Champion Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 26, 2017; Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA; Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman (5) hits a base hit in the first inning against the Houston Astros at Champion Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Braves had a rough 2016 overall but it was highlighted by their superstar Freddie Freeman and his breakout campaign. The team around him struggled to consistently produce but Freeman himself tore through the league from basically start to finish.

How good was Freddie Freeman in 2016? The Atlanta Braves first baseman set career highs in:

  • WAR
  • wRC+
  • wOBA
  • SLG
  • OBP
  • HR
  • 2B
  • 3B
  • ISO
  • BB%
  • SB

Freeman produced at such a high level last year, he ended up with the third highest WAR in the National League. Only guys named Bryant and Seager beat him out and had his team been more competitive, the limited MVP consideration he received probably would’ve been much higher.

It was a career year in every way.

So it might’ve come as a surprise to some people when the projections for 2017 started rolling out and Freeman’s projections were – modest. Here are his 2017 projections next to his 2016 production:

There are, of course, some completely understandable reasons behind this.

One, projection systems typically go back 3 years for their data and if you look at Freeman’s 2014 and 2015 seasons, you see a little more inconsistency. Some of that injury related, some performance related but either way, it’s there.

Two, career years are called career years for reason and there’s at least a reasonable chance 2016 will be the peak of Freddie Freeman’s career.

And three, a 4 WAR projection is in no way an insult. It’s an All-Star level season that still reserves your place among the best players in the game.

With all that being said though, there is one interesting thing about Freeman’s 2016 numbers that make me think not only was it not a career year, but it may be his new norm.

Here are his fly ball percentages by year:

Now here is that same chart but accompanied with his ISO numbers:

Couple of things immediately stand out:

  1. His best FB% years and his best ISO years correlate pretty closely.
  2. In 2016, he increased both significantly.

But just saying he had career highs in FB% and ISO in 2016 isn’t sufficient. We need more data.

For that we go to Statcast.  Since Statcast has gloriously entered our lives, we’ve begun to learn a little about the optimization of hitting.  And one thing we’ve seen is when hitting the ball between 20 and 40 degrees of launch angle and at an exit velocity of at least 95mph, we get optimal results.

The Thumpers

Consider these numbers:  last year there were 5610 home runs hit in Major League Baseball. Out of those 5610 home runs, 5294 of them were hit with a launch angle between 20 and 40 degrees. That’s 95%.

Also, of the 5610 home runs hit, 5402 of them were hit with an exit velocity of at least 95mph. That’s 96%.

It’s a “sweet spot” if you will. Now it’s not exactly breaking news that it’s good to hit the ball hard and that home runs come from fly balls but now that we have finite numbers to represent that idea and a way to measure it, we can see who’s achieving them most often.

Atlanta Braves
Atlanta Braves /

Atlanta Braves

So who reached those parameters most last year? Here’s the top 5:

If you’re a Braves fan, this list should excite you for a couple of reasons, but there’s Freeman. He didn’t just hit the ball in the air more last year, he did it exactly the way you want to hit the ball in the air and he did it almost more than anyone.  And as Travis Sawchick recently wrote, Freeman isn’t alone in this new approach nor is he the only finding success.

Bottom line is there’s a real correlation between hitting the ball in the air, and hitting for power and Freeman seems to have found one of the best combinations of those two in baseball.

Oh and if you’re wondering how he did in those 73 at-bats, here’s the breakdown:

  • .600 AVG
  • 33 HRs
  • 12 2B
  • 2 3B

And if you click on that link you can see, even the out he made in those 73 ABs are lineouts and 380, 390 and sometimes 400 foot fly outs.

The numbers are pretty clear, in 2016, and even back to an injury shortened 2015, Freeman has made a conscience effort to hit the ball in the air more. And given the authority and frequency in which it’s happening, we could be on the verge of watching something special.

There’s absolutely an argument to made that we’ll look back on 2016 as the peak of Freddie Freeman’s career. After all, 6 WAR season are incredibly rare and most players never have one.

Next: The First Weekend

But there’s also some evidence pointing to the idea that he is merely scratching the surface of his potential and will spend the next 4 or 5 years showing us what he really is. A monster.