It is not hyperbole to say that Freddie Freeman is the face of the Atlanta Braves franchise, a position he’s held for a while. Ronald Acuña Jr. is one of the absolute best and most exciting players in the entire league (and Freddie himself has always been quick to mention Ronnie as an MVP candidate basically any time he has been asked), but Freeman has been with the Braves for over a decade and has a track record of performance, hugs, and dance moves that has endeared him to his teammates, fans, and opposing players alike. He was incredible yet again in 2021, but now the question is whether or not he will return in 2022 in what will be the most consequential free agent choice the Braves are likely to engage in this offseason.
The Braves drafted Freddie Freeman way back in 2007, in the second round of the MLB Draft. He quickly established himself as a top Braves hitting prospect and ascended to the major leagues fairly quickly despite being a high school draftee. He made it to Triple-A in 2010 and his major league debut came late in that same season. The rest is history: five All-Star appearances, 2020 National League MVP, three Silver Slugger awards, and, of course, a World Series Championship in 2021.
To say that the expectations from the general masses were high for Freddie coming in to the 2021 season is an understatement. He was coming off a MVP campaign that saw him post a 186 wRC+ with a .341/.462/.640 slash line during the COVID-shortened 2020 season. That is a tough bar to clear.
ZiPS was a bit more bearish in its expectations for Freddie for the 2021 season, but still expected him to post a 4 fWAR season. Steamer was a little higher, at around 4.4 WAR. In a bit of a spoiler... these were almost spot on.
2021 Season Stats
Freddie Freeman: .300/.393/.503, 31 homers, 83 RBI, 120 runs, 135 wRC+, 4.5 fWAR
Yep... Freeman was really, really good. Oddly enough, his 135 wRC+ was the worst he has posted since 2015, which tells us more about how good he has been in his career than anything else. His xWOBA of .411 was the best of his career outside of his insane 2020 campaign. The only thing that suppressed his numbers overall was a mediocre start to the season for him, driven largely by some rough batted ball luck and, according to him, his adjustment to being on the road with newborn twins at home. The idea of having young twins at home is terrifying enough for this writer that that explanation makes all the sense in the world. He turned things around quickly and did not hit worse than .306 in any month the rest of the way. If you look just at Freeman’s inputs, you can even toss the twins thing aside — it was not lower than .400 in any month until an August slump, so while Freeman may have been feeling the wrath of the baseball gods consistently through June along with the whole newborn twins thing, he wasn’t really playing like it.
What went right? What went wrong?
It is easier and shorter to mention what went wrong for Freeman as his 2021 season was mostly excellent. For the first couple months of the season, however, Freddie looked very ordinary to even bad at times. He hit just .237 for the first month or so of the season and for the month of May, he hit just .233. As mentioned earlier, a good chunk of the problem was some abysmal luck as for those two months, he posted BABIPs of .211 and .254 respectively. Some of that can maybe be explained by some quality of contact issues during those two months, but overall it was just some crummy luck, which happens to the best of them (though not necessarily for multiple months in a row). That said, one thing that he did really well even when he was scuffling early in the season was draw walks which kept his overall production reasonable. He was also hitting for power when he did hit, so the impact overall of his struggles was relatively muted.
As for what went right, well... basically everything else unless you are measuring him up against his 2020 MVP season. He posted yet another .300 season by batting average, which makes that five of the past six seasons he has accomplished that feat. His .393 OBP was above his career average and the 120 runs he scored were the most of his career. He struck out just 15.4 percent of the time, and his strikeout rate has generally dropped as the league’s rate has continued to increase. He did so while maintaining a 12.4 percent walk rate, in line what he’s done the past half-decade His 31 homers during the 2021 were the third-most he has hit in his career behind just his 2016 and 2019 seasons.
Freeman finished top 30 in the league in fWAR among position players, and created yet another sea of red on his Baseball Savant percentiles graphic:
Oh yeah... he won the National League Silver Slugger award for first base as well as a World Series ring. Speaking of that postseason run...
Road to the Title
Freddie Freeman’s postseason stats: .304/.420/.625, 5 HR, 11 RBI, 169 wRC+
Freddie saved some of his best performance in 2021 for last, as he was a dominant offensive force throughout the Braves’ World Series run. (Despite the increased quality of competition, he only topped his 169 wRC+ during the playoffs in July and not any other month; his .433 xwOBA in the postseason was his highest except for September.) During the Brewers’ series, his home run off of Josh Hader in the eighth inning of the Braves’ series clinching win in Game Four was one of the best highlights from the Braves’ 2021 postseason ,period.
Josh Hader had not allowed a HR to a left-handed batter all season. Opponents hit .159 BA against Hader's slider this year.— Danny Vietti (@DannyVietti) October 13, 2021
Enter Freddie Freeman. pic.twitter.com/YaaNWMnkSG
That homer gave him his highest cWPA game of the season, and actually made him the most valuable player by cWPA in that series, despite Joc Pederson’s heroics in other games.
After that, he hit well against the Dodgers in the NLCS even though his production was overshadowed by Eddie Rosario turning into Mickey Mantle during that series. In the World Series against the Astros, he continued his steady dominance as he had key hit after key hit. In the end, the last run the Braves scored in the Fall Classic was fittingly on a solo homer from Freeman, which tied him for the most home runs in a single postseason with Fred McGriff which is pretty good company to have. The final out in Game Six was caught by Freeman and for the foreseeable future, the highlight of him launching his hands into the air and running to celebrate with his teammates will be played over and over again.
Outlook for 2022
Well, that is the $200 million dollar question, isn’t it? The Braves seemingly made a pretty big error in not getting a deal done with Freddie on a contract extension before the 2021 season. Some of that likely had to do with the financial uncertainty caused by COVID-19, while some of that had to do with differences in opinion between the two sides over the length of a deal with the question of a sixth year appearing to be the primary sticking point.
However, with the end of the season comes a Braves organization brimming with the profits of a World Series championship and a potentially more expensive Freeman after his performance during the regular season and postseason. For the next few years, it is probably fair to expect Freeman to post stat lines in the .300/.400/.500 range and the time when that level of production could be bought with an extension in line with Paul Goldschmidt’s five-year deal with St. Louis has long passed. Freeman is positioned to be one of the best hitters in MLB and the Braves have run out of excuses to not pay the man other than things like “we want our budget to be X, period” or “we never want to pay for a below-average season if we can avoid it.” It very well might take a six year deal approaching $200 million to get a deal done, but the Braves may have a hard time not paying it and finding Freeman’s near-term production elsewhere, even when you factor in expected regression towards the back end of the deal.
While the prevailing wisdom is that that the Braves and Freeman will work out a deal eventually, if the two sides can’t come to an agreement, Freddie will have no shortage of suitors even with the qualifying offer attached. The Yankees, in particular, seem very smitten with Freeman and they certainly have the money and motivation to try to get a deal done. Time will tell how Freeman’s saga unfolds, but if this is the end of his Braves chapters, he picked a hell of a season, and a hell of a way, to turn the page.