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Freeman: The new Olerud or Murray?

7/12/2013

Take that, Freddie Freeman critics!

For those clamoring for Yasiel Puig to make the All-Star Game -- Freeman beat out the much-hyped Los Angeles Dodgers rookie in the Final Man Vote -- Freeman showed why he is worthy of All-Star recognition himself, going 3-for-4 with four RBIs in the Atlanta Braves' 6-5 win over the Cincinnati Reds on Thursday.

Putting aside the All-Star controversy for now, Freeman is a good young player, a 23-year-old who has suddenly become the focal point of the Atlanta offense with Justin Upton's struggles since April and Jason Heyward (who left Thursday's game in the second inning with a strained hamstring) still trying to get into a consistent groove. Freeman is now hitting .313/.392/.477, has knocked in 60 runs and is hitting .421 with runners in scoring position.

In writing about Freeman making the All-Star team over Puig, I described him as this generation's John Olerud. One of my editors suggested Sean Casey. A reader on Twitter suggested Eddie Murray. So in ascending order we have an All-Star (Casey), a borderline Hall of Fame guy (Olerud) and a Hall of Famer (Eddie Murray).

Casey is a little different character, since his first full season in the majors didn't come until he was 24, whereas Freeman, Murray and Olerud were all regulars at 21. Physically, Freeman is more similar to Olerud than Murray: Both are 6-foot-5, bat left-handed, not exactly burners on the basepaths. Murray was a 6-foot-2 switch-hitter.

Let's look at the three and see if the comparisons are grounded. After all, Olerud and Murray were terrific players, Olerud finishing with 58.0 career WAR via Baseball-Reference, Murray with 68.2. We'll look at adjusted OPS, walk and strikeouts compared to the league average non-pitcher hitter and isolated power.

Through Age 22 Season

Murray: 7.5 WAR, 131 OPS+, 8.7% BB rate (+0.2%), 14.8% SO rate (-2.4%), .191 ISO (+.060)

Olerud: 3.5 WAR, 116 OPS+, 12.9% BB rate (+4.0%), 16.5% SO rate (-1.7%), .173 ISO (+.042)

Freeman: 3.8 WAR, 113 OPS+, 9.2% BB rate (+0.9%), 21.8% SO rate (-3.1%), .181 ISO (+.032)

Murray obviously has the edge, primarily thanks to his power -- he hit 27 home runs each of his first two seasons, totals that ranked 13th and ninth in the American League. Freeman can't match Murray's power. And while he struck out much more than Murray and Olerud in literal numbers, on a rate basis he's not that much worse than his peers than those two were. Olerud was already showing what would become his hallmark attribute -- patience at the plate -- by walking 4 percent more than the typical AL hitter.

Let's check age 23 season, with Freeman's season in progress …

Age 23

Murray: 4.9 WAR, 130 OPS+, 10.5% BB rate (+1.9%), 11.4% SO rate (+0.3%), .180 ISO (+.041)

Olerud: 3.3 WAR, 127 OPS+, 13.0% BB rate (+4.1%), 11.4% SO rate (+3.6%) .166 ISO (+.040)

Freeman: 2.8 WAR, 134 OPS+, 10.8% BB rate (+3.0%), 19.5% SO rate (-0.7%), .158 ISO (+.010)

Murray's walk rate increased a little bit at age 23 in 1979 and better defense also helped his WAR. They called him Steady Eddie for a reason, and he would make a final improvement at the plate at age 25. From 25 through 29, he hit .304/.390/.530, worth a 155 OPS+ and averaging 5.6 WAR per season.

Olerud's plate discipline continued to improve and he'd have his breakout season at age 24 in 1993, when he hit .363/.473/.599 and probably should have won the AL MVP Award (he finished third in the balloting). That was a bit of an outlier season -- although he'd have a similar .354 season with the Mets in 1998 -- but from age 24 through age 33, Olerud averaged 4.7 WAR per season, topping 5.0 five times. He'd end up walking more times in his career than striking out, a testament to the pitch recognition that made him such a disciplined hitter.

With Freeman, we're seeing improvement in strikeout/walk ratio this year, a good sign that his .300 average isn't a fluke (he hit .259 last year). His power remains the big question, as his isolated power figure is barely above the league average.

Overall, Freeman compares favorably in many ways to Murray and Olerud. If he continues to hone that strike-zone judgment, it's possible he'll not only continue to hit .300 but learn to pull the ball more often, which would lead to more home runs. Even if he settles in as a .300, 25-homer first baseman with solid defense, that's a good player, one who will be returning to more All-Star Games in the future.