It started with Freddie Freeman. Actually.
Spin the clock again to 2013. Freeman had accomplished his third season because the Atlanta Braves‘ on a regular basis first baseman, taking up at age 21 after a cup of espresso within the majors close to the tip of 2010. Throughout these first three years, the Braves gained 89, 94 and 96 video games, respectively, however added solely a single postseason victory to that complete throughout that span. They began sturdy in 2014 as nicely, however collapsed, largely due to an absence of organizational depth.
Worse, that they had strayed from the Braves’ outdated method of constructing their roster on homegrown expertise and depth, notably on the pitching facet. To maintain their upper-middle-class degree of success going, they must spend on free brokers at a time when their finances already was fairly nicely strained. The once-vaunted minor league system ranked 26th in Baseball America’s 2014 preseason rankings. It was crossroads time.
Taking inventory of all this, Corridor of Fame government John Schuerholz prodded the group to chart a brand new course. Properly, really, it was the outdated course, the one he adopted within the early ’90s whereas constructing an Atlanta dynasty that lasted for practically a decade-and-a-half. Alas, to comply with that course would imply going all the way in which again to the start.
“We had to return down to reveal metal and strip all of it away,” Schuerholz instructed ESPN in 2018. “Undergo the heartburn and heartache of buying and selling away some very, very proficient main league gamers who had been making nicely over what they need to be making. That was the dedication and it was supported from the very high on down. We knew we needed to do it.”
Good gamers from the 2013 membership that was, once more, a 96-game winner, finally discovered new houses, both via trades or free company. Jason Heyward ended up with the Cardinals. Andrelton Simmons joined Mike Trout with the Angels. Craig Kimbrel made his option to the Padres. It occurred step by step, however by the tip of a 79-83 season in 2014, the die was solid. A couple of years earlier than rampant rebuilding induced a lot hand-wringing in baseball circles, the Braves launched right into a full reset.
Whereas all of this was unfolding, the Braves made one transfer that ran counter to this course. Simply earlier than spring coaching in 2014, Atlanta signed Freeman to an eight-year, $135 million extension that runs via the 2021 marketing campaign. As practically each a part of the Braves’ edifice was dismantled, Freeman remained because the preordained franchise cornerstone. It is a choice that nobody who works for, performs with or is fan of the Braves has regretted for a minute.
“It meant the world,” Freeman instructed ESPN in 2018, the yr the Braves returned to elite standing. “We made a dedication to one another after the 2013 season. To select me, to imagine in me to assist this crew get again to the playoffs meant quite a bit.”
Again-to-back postseason appearances coming into 2020 already signaled that the Atlanta rebuild was a hit. The method accelerated after Alex Anthopoulos took over the entrance workplace in 2018, sprinkling in a bit extra 21st-century considering into the Braves’ conventional playbook. Freeman flourished yr in and yr out because the solid round him turned over and slowly coalesced right into a winner. Pleasant Freddie, as he must be recognized, is a participant so amiable that even within the warmth of competitors, he cannot resist chatting up opponents in the event that they attain first base.
“It is exhausting to get a success within the postseason,” Freeman mentioned earlier than the division sequence spherical, defending his demeanor. “When you get a success, I will let you know ‘good job.’ Particularly with the pitching employees we have got. I am not altering. I’m who I’m.”
Freeman has turn out to be an Atlanta baseball icon via his longevity and his outstanding consistency. Over eight seasons, starting with 2013 when he first reached All-Star standing, Freeman has batted between .276 and .341 every season, posted on-base percentages between .370 and .462, and slugging percentages between .461 and .640. Based mostly on OPS+ at Baseball-Reference, he has been a minimum of 32% higher than the league-average hitter in every of the previous eight seasons, all whereas operating the bases higher than the standard first baseman, stealing a number of baggage per season and taking part in sterling protection, for which he was awarded a Gold Glove in 2018. His metronomic profession vacillates every year between excellent and nice.
Throughout the brief season of 2020, Freeman’s numbers spiked at age 30, with a .341/.462/.640 slash line and league-leading totals in doubles and runs scored. His Baseball-Reference WAR (2.9) ranked second amongst place gamers within the NL, whereas his FanGraphs WAR (3.4) topped all NL gamers. In the meantime, he ranked second within the NL in win chance added. In different phrases, Freeman, who has completed within the high 10 of NL MVP balloting 5 instances however by no means greater than fourth, is making his first critical bid to take residence the award.
But, all of that appears insufficient to explain simply what Freeman means to the Braves, to their rise again to prominence, and the lineup he anchors.
“I do not know if you happen to can [quantify Freeman’s presence], how large it’s, his presence, who he’s and what it means to our group, on the sphere, within the clubhouse, off the sphere, the person that he’s,” Braves supervisor Brian Snitker gushed earlier than the LDS spherical started. “The man is a few form of particular for all of us, for me greater than most. I lean on him. We discuss [because] I have been with him for therefore lengthy, the flexibility to simply bounce issues off of him, it is actually good to have a pacesetter like that, which you could discuss to. I am snug speaking to him about something.”
The Braves’ 5-Zero postseason run into their NL Championship Sequence showdown with the Los Angeles Dodgers has been dominated by pitching-related headlines. It is not a mistake in media focus. In any case, Atlanta’s employees has a 0.92 ERA through the playoffs and has been fueled by younger starters Max Fried, Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright, whose collective brilliance rekindles reminiscences of the golf equipment that Schuerholz as soon as constructed.
Nonetheless, let’s not overlook what acquired Atlanta to the playoffs: Freeman and an Atlanta offensive assault that may simply be baseball’s finest. Sure, it’d even be higher than the Dodgers’. It is shut sufficient that the “would possibly” equivocation should be included, however examine again in every week.
“I am simply glad the narrative is altering from the sequence win, to getting previous the division sequence, so there’s not likely a lot to speak about now,” Freeman mentioned. “We’ll begin our personal narrative. That is the beauty of this.”
Intentional or not, the 2020 Atlanta offense has flourished by embodying the traits which have at all times marked Freeman’s excellence: well-roundedness, consistency and fidelity.
1. Properly-roundedness. Residence runs and offense have merged precariously near synonym standing in baseball, circa 2020, however that does not imply full-service scoring does not retain some cachet.
The Braves ranked first or second in baseball through the common season in runs, homers, common, on-base proportion and slugging, whereas rating third in walks. Solely two groups struck out extra, however Atlanta maintained its lofty batting common by rating second in line-drive charge, first in common on balls in play and proper within the center in pull proportion.
It form of sounds just like the crew model of Freeman as a hitter, albeit with a decrease strikeout charge. Freeman ranked second within the NL in all the normal proportion classes to the Nationals’ Juan Soto, however performed in additional video games. Freeman tied for the big-league lead in runs created (65) with teammate Marcell Ozuna.
Freeman compiled these numbers whereas main the majors in each line-drive charge (41%) and complete line drives hit (72), in response to TruMedia. He ranked within the 41st percentile in pull charge and within the 82nd by way of opposite-field hitting. Regardless of this, groups nonetheless shifted Freeman greater than two-thirds of the time. In response to baseballsavant.mlb.com, Freeman posted a .424 wOBA in opposition to shifts and a .509 mark in opposition to regular alignments. You’ll be able to’t win, actually — the league-average wOBA was .315.
These traits lengthen to the crew degree. Solely six groups had been shifted in opposition to greater than the Braves, however their .369 wOBA in opposition to such alignments simply led the majors.
2. Consistency. We have talked about the slender vary of excellence that Freeman lands in yr after yr. Since he grew to become an on a regular basis participant — a full decade now — solely Mike Trout and Joey Votto have created extra runs. Since 2013, when Freeman rose to star standing, he ranks third in runs created behind Trout and Paul Goldschmidt. Over the previous 5 years, he is third behind Trout and Mookie Betts. Over the past two seasons, he is second behind Trout. You get the concept.
The Braves ranked within the high 4 by the Baseball-Reference model of runs created at 4 of the 9 hitting positions, within the high 10 at seven of 9 and within the high half of the majors at each spot besides third base. They ranked seventh in wOBA in opposition to starters and first in opposition to relievers. They had been first in wOBA in opposition to righties and 14th in opposition to lefties. They had been second at residence and third on the street. Regardless of the way you cut up up the Braves’ numbers, they charge from above common to elite.
“I do know that taking part in in opposition to them, calling a sport in opposition to them, I used to be not going to mattress till about 5 a.m. as a result of I used to be apprehensive about them the subsequent day,” Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud mentioned. “Now I get to sleep a bit of higher at evening, understanding that I am on that crew.”
Whereas it’s going to be written about in much less pedantic phrases over the subsequent week, Freeman’s omnipresence within the Braves’ lineup has by no means been much less taken as a right. Whereas the Braves prevented a big scale COVID-19 breakout akin to people who struck the Marlins and Cardinals early within the season, Atlantans had been left on tenterhooks when Freeman was contaminated earlier than the season. His bout with the virus was terrifying sufficient to persuade teammate and shut good friend Nick Markakis to quickly decide out of the season.
Three months later, Freeman is best than ever, with the one distinction being the masks he wears throughout Zoom interview classes, although he isn’t required to put on one in that area.
“I used to be simply hoping to make it to Opening Day, and right here we are actually,” Freeman mentioned earlier than the NLDS. “It has been a particular yr. The whole lot has form of come full circle this yr.”
Freeman has had his share of accidents through the years and was ailing throughout final yr’s postseason, when he struggled with proper elbow issues that resulted in offseason surgical procedure to scrub up the joint. He suffered a fractured wrist in 2017 after being hit by a pitch and missed 10 weeks. Nonetheless, when he is capable of play, he is an on a regular basis fixture. He has twice performed 162 video games in a season, performed 157 or extra three different instances and, this season, performed all 60 regular-season video games.
That stability was mirrored by the crew round him in 2020. No crew had extra plate appearances from its 9 most incessantly used hitters than Atlanta (1,866), although that quantity outcomes from a mixture of a gentle group of gamers and the truth that the high-scoring Braves turned the lineup over quite a bit. However by way of proportion of plate appearances going to its high seven hitters, solely the Padres had a extra incessantly used core. The Braves grew to become much more of a set-lineup unit when second baseman Ozzie Albies returned from damage in September.
Whereas efforts at constructing depth on the minor league degree have been a bit extra prolific on the pitching facet through the Atlanta renaissance, with Freeman in place the Braves have grown this lineup by way of all obtainable channels for taking part in acquisition:
• Ronald Acuna Jr., one among baseball’s brightest younger stars, was a world signing, as was his shut good friend, Albies. They had been signed a yr aside, in 2013 and 2014, simply because the Atlanta rebuild was kicking off.
• Austin Riley was Atlanta’s first-round decide in 2015.
• Markakis was a low-cost free agent again in 2014, and given the Braves’ timeline, he figured to be a stopgap common. He is turn out to be a franchise fixture and clubhouse chief, whereas persevering with to provide on the plate and within the discipline.
• D’Arnaud, who was launched by the Mets in Could of final season, has turn out to be such an efficient hitter that Snitker has incessantly used him as Atlanta’s DH when he isn’t behind the plate. For the previous few weeks, Snitker has written him in because the Braves’ cleanup hitter practically day by day. Throughout the postseason, d’Arnaud has a 1.342 OPS.
• Adam Duvall was a low-level commerce deadline pickup in 2018 from Cincinnati. After struggling at first with the Braves, his profession has discovered second life over the previous two seasons, as he has hit 26 homers over 98 video games with a .545 slugging proportion.
• Marcell Ozuna was Atlanta’s free-agent splurge throughout the latest offseason, signing a one-year deal at what quantities to an MLB model of a pillow contract. He led the NL in homers (18) and RBIs (56), efficiently changing the offense misplaced when Atlanta’s 2019 third baseman, Josh Donaldson, departed by way of free company.
That is the group that has coalesced to turn out to be one among baseball’s finest and most numerous offensive assaults, coming collectively step-by-step. But it surely all started with Freeman. When the Braves beat the Reds through the wild-card spherical, it was the membership’s first postseason sequence win since 2001 and, thus, the primary of Freeman’s profession. After the Braves swept the Marlins within the Division Sequence, his profession sequence win rely doubled to 2.
As a participant who ranks 17th on the profession bWAR record of one among baseball’s two oldest franchises, with every excellent-to-great season Freeman places up, he is constructing an underpublicized Corridor of Fame case. That quest would solely be helped by an enormous October, now that the Braves are again taking part in for a pennant for the primary time for the reason that days of Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz.
“The place we have come from in 2015, it is fairly drastic,” Freeman mentioned. “An entire 180 from the place we had been. I even [said] coming via it, it has been powerful however I used to be on board. They saved me within the loop the primary couple of years. You can see it coming. You hear about these guys while you’re dropping 90-plus video games and also you’re simply hoping they’re going to get right here sooner. I used to be on board, I actually was. They gave me that contract. They believed in me, so I owed them the whole lot to present it again. They drafted me once I was 17 years outdated, this group.”
In fact, the Dodgers are a frightening impediment mendacity within the Braves’ — and Freeman’s — path, however with a robust exhibiting by the crew and their star over the subsequent few days, this might be the time that Pleasant Freddie lastly finds his footing on the nationwide stage. If he and his teammates can show to be a greater offense than L.A.’s, and do it in opposition to the mighty Dodgers’ run-prevention machine, it may create a stir.
All of it’s proper there for the Braves, and for Freeman … the MVP award, the World Sequence, all of it. It is why the Braves anointed him all these years in the past, and it is why he has caught round, with out criticism, ready for it to all come collectively.
“I positively know who I might vote for [as MVP],” Swanson mentioned. “It is fairly straightforward for me. What he means for this crew, what he means for the group, the fan base, it is simply consistency. The primary sport we performed to the 60th into the postseason, he is been super. He simply does a lot greater than individuals understand. That is saying quite a bit, as a result of individuals know he does quite a bit.”