SweetSpot: Freddie Freeman

More of our 10 questions project ...

Question No. 3: Is Freddie Freeman a .300 hitter?
Last year, in his age-23 season, Freeman hit .319. It looked like a breakthrough year, as he was spraying line drives all over the field. He made the All-Star team and finished fifth in NL MVP voting.

The interesting thing: In nine fewer plate appearances than 2012, when he hit .259, he had basically the exact same strikeout and walk totals -- 60 unintentional walks and 129 strikeouts in 2012, 56 and 121 in 2013. He hit 23 home runs both seasons and actually had fewer doubles in 2013 (33 to 27).

His improvement was all singles and didn't seem to come from a different approach. That doesn't mean it was all good luck. According to ESPN Stats & Info, his line-drive rate increased from 21.7 percent to 25.8 percent. He hit fewer fly balls, which go for base hits less often than ground balls and line drives.

One thing that impressed me was that he increased his average against fastballs from .291 to .367. I viewed that as the maturation of a young hitter, reading pitchers and counts better and knowing when to attack fastballs.
But you know what? His line-drive rate against fastballs was the same both seasons. His isolated power was the same. More balls simply found holes in the defense.

Then Freeman started 2014 red hot. Through 17 games he was hitting .413 and had eight unintentional walks and just eight strikeouts. Was he taking another step forward, cutting down on his strikeouts?

No, the low strikeout rate didn't keep up. Since that hot start he's hit .245 with 50 strikeouts and 29 walks in 53 games. Overall, he's hitting .280/.374/.492, on pace for 87 walks, 134 strikeouts and 26 home runs. He's walking a little more and also hitting more doubles (19 already), but the overall value is about the same as 2013.


What will Freddie Freeman hit this year?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,147)

The interesting thing about Freeman is that while the walks are high (he's 26th out of 171 qualified regulars in walk rate), he's in the bottom third of regulars when it comes to chasing pitches out of the zone. Considering the issues the Braves have had at the top of the order, one reason he's walking more often may be that there are simply fewer runners on base and thus more opportunities to pitch around him.

Anyway, it appears to me that Freeman has found a center between his low average in 2012 and his .319 mark last season. Via FanGraphs, ZiPS projects Freeman to finish at .283 and Steamer also projects a .283 final average.

I will leave you with one more piece of data: His line-drive rate is up from last year, but he's hitting .627 on line drives compared to .802 last year. (The MLB average is .674.)

Freeman is a very good hitter and there's still the possibility that he becomes a 30-homer guy as he matures. I'm just not sure he's a .319 hitter.

Where do you think Freeman finishes?

In the spring of 2009, while researching a column on MLB’s worst-hitting pitchers, I sought out Washington Nationals outfielder Adam Dunn for his take on the subject. Say what you will about Dunn’s glove work or his penchant for striking out, but he’s a 400-homer man and one of the wryest baseball observers around.

The Big Donkey instantly warmed to the topic, dissecting the swings of Daniel Cabrera, Ben Sheets and others pitchers from the “bail and flail” school of hitting. He took particular relish in critiquing the handiwork of his former teammate, Aaron Harang, a workhorse starter who is also a walking endorsement for the designated hitter.

“He swings underwater,” Dunn said of Harang. “His bat speed is below Tim Wakefield’s knuckler speed.”

Harang wasn’t exactly a prime candidate to join Don Larsen, Don Drysdale and Dontrelle Willis on the list of offensive-minded pitchers to hit somewhere other than ninth on the lineup card. But desperate times call for offbeat batting orders.

[+] EnlargeFredi Gonzalez
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsBraves manager Fredi Gonzalez doesn't like what he's seeing as the losing streak deepens.
Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez created some buzz Monday night when he made out his lineup against St. Louis with multiple changes: Justin Upton moved up from cleanup to the No. 2 spot, with his brother B.J. Upton dropping from second to fifth. On a more eye-catching note, Harang was penciled in at eighth, with second baseman Ramiro Pena behind him in the ninth spot.

In part, Gonzalez made the move because Justin Upton hit .301 with a .922 OPS in 48 starts as Atlanta’s second-place hitter last season, and appears to have a comfort level in the No. 2 hole. Gonzalez also told reporters that he wanted to give Jason Heyward, Upton and Freddie Freeman more run-producing opportunities on their second, third and fourth times through the order.

“The offense is sputtering around, so why not do it?” Gonzalez said. That’s manager-speak for, “What do you want me to do -- pick the names out of a hat?”

For the record, Harang went 0-for-1 with a sacrifice bunt and the Braves showed some late signs of life in a 4-3 loss to the Cardinals. When measured against their recent standard, that’s a virtual onslaught.

Atlanta fans have gone from upbeat to restless to cranky awfully fast. On April 27, the Braves beat Cincinnati 1-0 in 10 innings to raise their record to 17-7 and open up a 3 -game lead over the New York Mets in the National League East. Since then, they’ve dropped seven straight to Miami, San Francisco and St. Louis by scores of 9-0, 9-3, 5-4, 2-1, 3-1, 4-1 and 4-3.

With the exception of two blowout losses at Marlins Park -- when the Braves suggested something fishy was taking place and the Marlins might be stealing signs to get better hacks against the Atlanta pitching -- the focus has been almost exclusively on the offense, or lack thereof.

Should the Braves be taking more batting practice, or less? Can anybody lay off a high fastball? And they are simply too deficient at “manufacturing” runs and too reliant on the long ball to weather the inevitable down times? According to ESPN Stats & Information, 55 of Atlanta’s 102 runs this season (or 53.9 percent) have come via the home run. That’s the highest rate in the majors, ahead of San Francisco’s 48.1 percent.

The Braves have also scored one or fewer runs in a game a major league-high 12 times this season. That’s one more than St. Louis.

The Braves were OK when Freeman, Justin Upton and Andrelton Simmons got off to torrid starts, but the team’s mainstays have leveled off recently. Freeman is 10-for-his-past-57, and Upton has struck out 11 times in his past 15 at-bats. He came up with the tying run on second base in the ninth inning Monday but took a Trevor Rosenthal fastball for a called third strike to end it. The Braves are hitting .118 (6-for-51) with runners in scoring position during their seven-game losing streak, and that’s only when you give them the courtesy of rounding up from .1176.

No one has been more of a lightning rod of late than second baseman Dan Uggla, who’s being pilloried on social media. He ranks 84th among 88 qualifying National League hitters with a .528 OPS, and he’s not even drawing walks anymore. This comes on top of a dreadful 2013 season that ended with the ultimate indignity of his being dropped from the Braves’ Division Series roster. You have to wonder when the Atlanta brass will have a frank discussion that things aren’t likely to get better, and it’s best for all parties to bring this arrangement to an end and find Uggla a new home.

Now that the Braves have other options at second base, it’s getting progressively harder for them to justify keeping Uggla around for reasons other than the $23 million they still owe him. Pena slugged .443 in 97 at-bats last year before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury and has a nice swing from both sides of the plate. Tyler Pastornicky was a .280 hitter in the minors, and Tommy La Stella, Atlanta’s No. 9 prospect, is plugging away with a .313 batting average for Triple-A Gwinnett.

Atlanta’s front-office people, who have seen the Braves go through fallow stretches like this in the past, think this group is eminently capable of turning it around and going on a tear. They point out that Heyward has picked up the pace of late, and B.J. Upton is having much better at-bats since he donned his new glasses.

But some talent evaluators are dubious. “They only have only reliable hitter -- and that’s Freeman,” said a National League scout. “He’s going to hit good pitching. When they face No. 1s and 2s, they’re not going to score any runs unless he’s involved.”

So the manager ponders hitting the pitcher in the ninth spot and says, “Why not?” According to research by J.G. Preston of SABR, Tony La Russa employed the tactic 432 times during his managerial career. Lou Boudreau is a distant second at 74, and Casey Stengel, Joe Torre and Jack McKeon were among the other managers who gave it a shot here and there. Gonzalez has now done it nine times in his managerial career.

At the very least, Gonzalez’s offbeat strategy helped change the discussion from why the Braves aren’t hitting to what the manager is trying to do to prevent a bad week from turning into a free-fall. And the more people quizzed him about Harang batting eighth, the fewer people were asking him about Uggla getting the night off and what he plans to do moving forward at second base.

What will Gonzalez do when Gavin Floyd makes his 2014 debut Tuesday night against the Cardinals? Only he knows for sure. Unless he can figure out a way to squeeze a 1999-caliber Chipper Jones onto the lineup card, it might take the Braves a while to figure this thing out.

SweetSpot TV: Rapid fire!

April, 29, 2014
Apr 29

Eric and myself take questions via Twitter and answer them in this week's edition of rapid fire.

SweetSpot TV: Who is No. 2?

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24

Keith Law has his list up of his 25 best players under 25. Obviously, Mike Trout is No. 1. But who should be No. 2? Eric and myself discuss and debate.

SweetSpot TV: Rapid fire!

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14

We're back with the always popular rapid fire edition of SweetSpot TV, where Eric and myself take a quick trip through the majors. Today's topics include the Brewers, Freddie Freeman, the A's one-two punch, Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton, the first manager to be fired, Red Sox injuries and Jose Abreu.

1. The biggest story of the first two weeks has to be the Milwaukee Brewers, winners of nine in a row and at 10-2, two wins better than any other team in the early going. The big surprise is the Brewers have allowed just 29 runs, fewest in the majors. They swept Pittsburgh over the weekend by out-Pirating the Pirates, winning 4-2, 3-2 and 4-1.

Kyle Lohse was dominant in Sunday’s win, falling one out short of a complete game when manager Ron Roenicke removed him after Andrew McCutchen singled with two outs (Roenicke was greeted with a smattering of boos from the home crowd but was vindicated when Will Smith fanned Pedro Alvarez on three pitches to end it).

The Brewers are a difficult team to analyze. They’ve drawn just 25 walks, fourth fewest in the majors, so they love to swing the bats and you wonder if this aggressive approach will be exploited as the season rolls on. They have a 1.80 ERA and it hasn’t been just smoke and mirrors -- they’re fourth in the majors in strikeout percentage and tied for sixth in lowest walk percentage. The unknown at this point is whether the staff is really shaping up as one of the best in the majors. A year ago it ranked 27th in strikeout percentage and 11th in walk percentage.

Anyway, without overanalyzing two weeks of results, what I wanted to know about Milwaukee is this: Does a long winning streak mean good things are ahead for the Brewers? There are a lot of nine-game winning streaks in a season, so searching for any nine-game winning streak might not tell us much. I thought I’d check nine-game streaks in April to see if that correlates to season-long success. For example, last season the Braves and A’s both had nine-game winning streaks in April and went on to division titles.

But you know who else had a nine-game winning streak in April? The Milwaukee Brewers. Of course, they had started 2-8 before reeling off nine a row from April 14 through April 23, so that put them at 11-8. They were 14-11 through April 30 but then went 6-22 in May and the season was over.

Another way to look at the Brewers’ hot start is to look at teams that began 10-2 or better to start the season. Here are the teams since 1996 to do that:

2013 Braves: 11-1 (96-66, division title)
2012 Rangers: 10-2 (93-69, wild card)
2011 Rockies: 10-2 (73-89, missed playoffs)
2009 Marlins: 11-1 (87-75, missed playoffs)
2006 Mets: 10-2 (97-65, division title)
2005 Dodgers: 10-2 (71-91, missed playoffs)
2003 Giants: 11-1 (100-61, division title)
2003 Royals: 11-1 (83-79, missed playoffs)
2003 Yankees: 10-2 (101-61, division title)
2002 Indians: 11-1 (74-88, missed playoffs)
1999 Indians: 10-2 (97-65, division champ)
1998 Indians: 10-2 (89-73, division champ)
1998 Padres: 10-2 (98-64, division champ)
1998 Orioles: 10-2 (79-83, missed playoffs)
1996 Orioles: 10-2 (88-74, wild card)

The tally: The 15 teams went an average of 88-74 with nine of them making the playoffs. So a hot start isn’t a guarantee of reaching the postseason. The 2005 Dodgers started 10-2 and went 15-8 in April, but that proved to be their only winning month. Still, a 10-2 stretch is a sign of something. In the tough NL Central, it means we could be seeing a four-team race this year.

2. We’ll have more Braves coverage Monday to preview the Braves-Phillies game on ESPN, so just a couple of quick thoughts on the Braves’ impressive weekend sweep of the Nationals. Justin Upton, who is 11-for-14 over his past four games with four home runs, two doubles and 8 RBIs, is in one of his patented hot streaks. But we've seen this before, most notably last April. I still don’t expect Upton to suddenly morph into anything different from what he was last year, but it's fun to watch when he gets in a groove.

The Nationals are 6-0 against the Mets and Marlins, 1-5 against the Braves ... which sounds a lot like 2013, when the Nationals went 6-13 against the Braves and 80-63 against everyone else. Until they prove they can beat the Braves, I’m going to withdraw my preseason evaluation of the Nationals as one of the three best teams in baseball.

Finally, Freddie Freeman: No hitter has looked more impressive through two weeks than Freeman, who is hitting .442/.519/.814. He hit his fourth home run Sunday -- a towering fly ball to right field (about as high as you’ll see any home run hit). Most impressive to me is he’s struck out just four times in 52 plate appearances -- a 7.7 percent strikeout rate compared to 19.2 percent in 2013. If this K-rate is a sign of a new and improved Freeman, he’s going to win the batting title.

3. Mark Buehrle is one of those players you don’t properly appreciate until you take the time to properly appreciate him. The fastest pitch he’s thrown this season is 86.0 mph and after a sterling seven-inning effort in Toronto’s 11-3 pounding of the Orioles he’s 3-0 with a 0.86 ERA.

He has as many swings and misses in his three starts (24) as Felix Hernandez got on Opening Day, but he pounds that outside corner to right-handed batters and they often pounded it into the ground. When they say velocity doesn't matter, what they really mean, "Well, no, not if you can paint the corners like Mark Buehrle." Since Buehrle debuted in 2000, the only pitchers with more than his 189 wins are CC Sabathia (206), Tim Hudson (196) and Roy Halladay (194).

4. In that game, Ubaldo Jimenez had his third shaky outing, giving up 10 hits and five runs, including two home runs. He’s 0-3 and has allowed 13 runs in 16 innings, with a 13-10 strikeout-walk ratio and four home runs. Colby Rasmus and Brett Lawrie tagged him Sunday, Rasmus on a 3-2, 92 mph low fastball over the middle of the plate and Lawrie on a 2-1 splitter that was pretty much down the middle. Obviously, both were pitches in bad locations.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyDon't worry about Chris Davis -- he'll still hit a bunch of home runs this year.
Compared to last year, Jimenez’s velocity on his fastball is down a bit (91.7 to 90.0) and while his overall percentage of strikes is about the same, he’s throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone (50 percent to 46 percent) and inducing about 4 percent fewer swings and misses. We don’t want to consign this to the bad signings bin after three outings, but so far Jimenez hasn’t resembled the pitcher who had a 1.82 ERA over his final 13 starts last season for Cleveland.

5. More Orioles: Chris Davis, last year’s 53-homer monster, finally hit his first of 2014, a 433-foot bash to straightaway center. The good news here is that Davis hasn’t actually been "slumping" like he's prone to do; he’s still hitting .279/.353/.419, so at least he has been contributing even without the home runs. I'm not worried about the slow power output so far and still see him as a 38-to-40 homer guy. I thought I’d check to see which players who hit 50-plus home runs had the biggest decrease the following season. Here are those who fell by 25 or more home runs:

Hack Wilson, 1930-31: -43 (56 to 13)
Mark McGwire, 1999-2000: -33 (65 to 32)
Brady Anderson, 1996-97: -32 (50 to 18)
Luis Gonzalez, 2001-02: -29 (57 to 28)
Roger Maris, 1961-62: -28 (61 to 33)
Barry Bonds, 2001-02: -27 (73 to 46)
Hank Greenberg, 1938-39: -25 (58 to 33)

Of the 42 previous players to hit 50, they dropped on average from 55.7 home runs to 43.6 the following season, which puts Davis right around 40.

6. After tearing apart the Angels in their opening series, the Mariners' offense is starting to look a lot like ... the Mariners' offense. In four of their five losses since that 3-0 start they’ve allowed three runs or fewer, so the pitching staff has done its job even with Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker on the disabled list.

The A’s beat the Mariners 3-1 Saturday and shut them out 3-0 Sunday behind Scott Kazmir (looking good early on) and some late runs. Suddenly, the Mariners are hitting .225 and rank 27th in the majors in batting average and on-base percentage. Robinson Cano is hitting .333 but hasn’t homered and some disturbing numbers have come from Kyle Seager (.121), Brad Miller (17 strikeouts, one walk), Mike Zunino (12 strikeouts, no walks) and Corey Hart (nine strikeouts, one walk).

7. Here’s a double play you rarely see: 6-2-4-3-2 as the Rays recorded two outs at home plate. It didn't matter in the end as the Reds won 12-4, but the Rays still won the series after winning 2-1 and 1-0 in the first two games behind David Price and Alex Cobb. Cesar Ramos started Sunday in place of the injured Matt Moore in what was essentially a bullpen game -- Tampa Bay used six pitchers, none for more than two innings. For all the attention given to Billy Hamilton’s slow start, shortstop Zack Cozart is hitting even worse (.114/.162/.171). The more you look at this Reds lineup, the more you wonder where the runs are going to come from.

8. Continuing on our struggling offenses theme, we bring you the Kansas City Royals, who have one home run in 11 games. They suffered a three-game sweep in Minnesota, getting outscored 21-5. Sunday’s 4-3 loss was especially dispiriting as the Royals had scored three runs in the top of the eighth to take a 3-2 lead on a 42-degree day in Minneapolis. But Aaron Crow walked the first two batters of the eighth, bringing on Wade Davis, who struck out Joe Mauer but then loaded the bases with another walk.

He induced a tapper back to the mound for what could have been a 1-2-3 inning-ending double play but instead threw wildly to catcher Salvador Perez. One major reason for the Royals’ 86-76 record last year was beating up on the hapless Twins -- they went 15-4 with a plus-47 scoring margin (exactly their scoring margin for the season). We give the two-week caveat, but this game showcased my concern with the Royals heading into the season: a lack of power and a bullpen that probably wasn’t going to repeat last year’s AL-leading 2.55 ERA.

9. Two general takeaways from the first weeks: There is a lot of parity in the American League this season. It wouldn’t surprise me to see two or even three playoff teams from the AL win fewer than 90 games. The only AL playoff teams in the past decade to win fewer than 90 were the 2012 Tigers (88), 2009 Twins (87) and 2008 White Sox (89).

Second, offense is puttering along at about the same pace as last year, when batters hit .253/.318/.396, the lowest major league average of the DH era (since 1973). This year, we’re off to a .247/.316/.393 start heading into the Sunday night Red Sox-Yankees game. And, no, offense doesn’t always pick up when the weather heats up.

Last year, the OPS per month ranged from .706 (July and September) to .722 (May). In 2012, hitters were "cold" in April with .711 OPS and increased that to .730 and .731 in May, June and July. In 2011, the OPS ranged from .708 (June) to .740 (August).

10. Adrian Gonzalez homered Sunday for the fourth straight game and Giancarlo Stanton hit another mammoth bomb Saturday, a 469-foot blast that now gives him the first- and third-longest home runs of 2014. But the biggest home run news of the week came Wednesday when David Ortiz took 32.91 seconds to round the bases after his home run -- the slowest trot yet recorded on Larry Granillo’s Tater Trot leaderboard.

Overreact after one series? Of course we're going to overreact! We're baseball fans. It's no fun if we just spout things like "small sample size" and "check back in two months." So, what have we learned after one series? Here are a few trends and things to watch, starting with Evan Longoria.

The Rays third baseman went 2-for-4 in Tampa's 7-2 win over Toronto, slugging a three-run homer for his first home run of 2014. So here's the deal with Longoria: If anyone is going to crack the Miguel Cabrera-Mike Trout stranglehold on the AL MVP Award, Longoria is the most likely candidate. Consider his merits:

[+] EnlargeEvan Longoria, David DeJesus, Ben Zobrist
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsIs this the year Evan Longoria puts it all together for the Rays?
1. He's off to a hot start! Our guy is hitting .400.

2. He's good. Not including 2012, when he played just 74 games, he's finished fifth, sixth, third and fourth in WAR among AL position players and has three top-10 MVP finishes.

3. The Rays are a good bet to make the postseason. MVP voters love that.

4. Longoria is an RBI guy, averaging 110 RBIs per 162 games over his career. MVP voters love themselves some RBIs.

5. He should knock in more than the 88 runs he did last year, when he hit .265 with just four home runs with runners in scoring position (22 of his 32 home runs came with the bases empty).

In truth, as good as Longoria has been, we've kind of been waiting for that monster season, haven't we? Maybe that's unfair to say about one of the best all-around players in the league (did you see the play he made the other night?), but Longoria hit .294 in 2010 and just .269 last season, when his strikeout rate increased to 23.4 percent, easily his highest rate since his rookie season. If he cuts down on the strikeouts, I can see that average climbing over .300 for the first time in his career and the RBIs climbing well over 100.

Other thoughts from many hours of baseball viewing over the past few days:

  • If they stay healthy, the Giants are going to have the best offense in the National League. On Thursday, they scored five runs in the eighth inning to beat the Diamondbacks 8-5. Angel Pagan is a solid leadoff hitter, and Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence provide a juicy meat of the order. I've mentioned Belt as a guy I like to have a big breakout season, and he hit his third home run. Pence seems to get better the higher he wears his pants legs. Posey won't slump like he did in the second half last year. Sandoval hits and eats and hits some more.
  • The Angels’ and Phillies’ bullpens look like disasters. The Mariners pounded every reliever the Angels tried in their series and the Angels are suddenly staring at another bad April start: 9-17 last year, 8-15 in 2012. Jonathan Papelbon looked like a shell of his former shelf in getting roughed up the other day.
  • [+] EnlargeJim Johnson, Bob Melvin
    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesStruggling Jim Johnson might get hooked from his role as the A's closer.
  • How long do the A’s stick with closer Jim Johnson? OK, he led the AL in saves the past two seasons. He also led the AL last season in blown saves and was second in relief losses. He has two losses already, he’s not a strikeout pitcher and the A’s have other good relievers. It’s never too early to panic about your closer!
  • How many closers do you have complete confidence in right now anyway? With low-scoring games and tight pennant races, late-inning relief work is going to decide a division title or two. We had six blown saves on Wednesday. The D-Backs coughed up that game on Thursday. The Rockies blew an eighth-inning lead to the Marlins. And so on. Rough few days for the bullpens (in contrast to starters, who generally dominated).
  • A young pitcher who hasn’t yet made his mark to watch: Seattle’s James Paxton showcased electrifying stuff in his first start, striking out nine in seven and throwing 97 mph in his final inning.
  • With Clayton Kershaw missing a few starts, the new Cy Young favorite in the National League: Jose Fernandez. He’s must-watch TV, Pedro-in-his-prime eye candy. His run support will be an issue, but the stuff, poise and confidence are that of a wise veteran, not a 21-year-old kid.
  • In case you had doubts, Michael Wacha is most assuredly the real deal. His changeup is Pedro-in-his-prime nasty. The Reds went 0-for-10 with four strikeouts against it.
  • Veteran Alex Gonzalez is not going to last as the Tigers' shortstop. He simply doesn’t have the range to play there. Stephen Drew, come on down?
  • Manager on the hot seat: Kirk Gibson. The Diamondbacks are off to 1-5 start, and nine of their next 15 games are against the Dodgers (six) and Giants (three). If the D-backs can avoid digging a big hole over that stretch, the schedule does get a little easier starting April 21, when they play 19 consecutive games against teams that finished under .500 in 2013.
  • Tyro Zack Wheeler is not Matt Harvey. Hold down your expectations, Mets fans.
  • We’re going to see a lot more shifts this year. I haven’t checked the numbers, but anecdotal evidence suggests infield shifts are way up. Expect batting averages to continue to plummet as a result.
  • Free-agent-to-be Max Scherzer is going to make a lot of money this offseason.
  • I hope B.J. Upton gets fixed, but I have my doubts. Six strikeouts in his first 12 plate appearances.
  • Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman is going to have a high BABIP again. Great stroke to all fields, great balance between attacking fastballs early in the count and waiting for his pitch later in the count. He'll be an MVP candidate again.
  • Clearly, Emilio Bonifacio (11 hits in three games!) is the best player in the NL. OK, seriously: The Royals couldn’t find a spot for this guy on their roster? Ned Yost, everyone!
  • Rookie Xander Bogaerts is ready NOW. He’s hitting .556 with three walks and one strikeout in three games. Maybe the power takes a year or two to fully develop, but his mature, disciplined approach at the plate is going make a star right away.
  • Dave Cameron of FanGraphs suggested this and it’s not outrageous: With Jose Reyes injured, Brad Miller might be the best shortstop in the AL. Or maybe Bogaerts. Could have been Bonifacio, if only the Royals had kept him!
  • Best team in baseball: The Mariners ... too early?

Is Freddie Freeman ready for bigger things?

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2

Sure, one game is not supposed to mean more than one win or win loss, but does anyone else think that Freddie Freeman isn’t ready to explode? After he ripped a pair of home runs against the Brewers on Tuesday night, it’s worth remembering that he is only 24 and nearing the cusp of what are supposed to be his prime seasons in the 25-to-29 range.

That might seem easy to say after a big night, but Freeman provides a great reminder that some basic sabermetric concepts like regression don’t apply to everyone equally. If you think that batting average on balls in play exerts a force like gravity, you’d expect that Freeman was going to regress toward a more normal .300 after hitting for a .371 BABIP last year. But that’s the thing, Freeman’s so young despite three full seasons in the majors that his potential to develop into something more can’t be discounted, especially after the .339 BABIP he put up in his rookie season or the .359 he put up as a 20-year-old in Triple-A.
[+] EnlargeFreddie Freeman
Jeffrey Phelps/Getty ImagesAfter Freddie Freeman's two-homer game, let's give the man a hand.

When you look at what leading projection models like Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS say about his likely 2014 production (.286/.365/.477), or Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA (.279/.350/.458), those seem fairly conservative for a guy who put up an .897 OPS last year. Indeed, PECOTA is so pessimistic about Freeman that it basically says there’s just a 10 percent chance he hits as well this year.

I guess I’m a little skeptical about the models in this instance. Freeman didn’t deliver unusual numbers in terms of homers per fly ball, although he did generate a tremendous number of line drives last season -- 30 percent, which is evidence of him executing his plan at the plate consistently, no easy thing to repeat against the best pitching on the planet, but a reflection of skill. I guess I look at the BABIP numbers and the confident assertions that there’s no way that Freeman can keep getting hits on 37 percent of his balls in play at 23 and figure people would have said much the same about Don Mattingly after he posted a .331 BABIP at 23 in 1984. And those predictions, based on the observable fact that most people regress to the mean, would have been completely wrong. Donnie Baseball didn’t regress; he was just getting started.

That’s because not every player is cut from the same mold, and not every hitter is going to wind up regressing to the same level when he doesn’t execute as well at the plate. Instead, hitters are going to perform within their ranges of possibility. And looking at Freeman, it’s easy to dream on why the orbit he travels in happens to be a bit higher than most, maybe a bit higher than the projections suggest, if maybe not quite as high as where he was hammering balls in Miller Park on Tuesday.

The question for the Braves will be how much they’ll need him to be that guy, because other than Jason Heyward, is there anyone in that lineup you expect to bust out and become something as good or better as he was last year? Maybe if Justin Upton has three hot months instead of two, or B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla return to the land of the living, sure, there’s help to be had. But as much as I’m willing to believe in Freeman (and Heyward), if he isn’t that guy right now, it’s going to be hard for the Braves to get to October and win a postseason series.
  • One of the things I’ve always loved about the Braves when you watch them talk about their own talent is who they soft-pedal versus who they play up -- and then seem willing to trade to get something they can contend with. Now sure, Alex Wood was by no means a sleeper -- going from their second-round pick out of the University of Georgia in 2012 to top 10 prospect status in the organization last year to Tuesday night’s winning pitcher -- but going into that same 2012 season the Braves pitching prospects you heard the most about were guys like Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino and Randall Delgado. Delgado was dealt to the D-backs and may not hold his job as the last man in their rotation, while Vizcaino was dealt and was last seen headed for High-A for the Cubs. Lefties with low-90s heat and an effective circle change and knuckle curve don’t grow on trees, and this ready already after less than two seasons in the minors? After Teheran’s effective Opening Day start, Wood provided an easy additional reminder about why it pays to scout their own neighborhood as well as the Braves do.

    Not that one game means much, but with Mike Minor on the mend coming off a breakthrough year in 2012, if veterans Ervin Santana and later Gavin Floyd simply provide innings, regular turns and quality starts more than half the time, maybe the Braves’ starting pitching won’t turn out to be so bad after all.
  • To give the Brewers some love, watching center fielder Carlos Gomez crush his first homer of the season provided another reminder about something cyberpunk writer William Gibson wrote in Wired back in the ’90s about how the mainstream is usually five years late to a subject. That’s hopefully less true today with the accelerated news cycle, but if you didn’t already notice that Gomez was one of the best players in baseball last year, you don’t want to be any later to this particular party. I know WAR is more suggestion and sorting tool than fact, but Gomez’s 8.9 WAR last season easily outpaced Andrew McCutchen’s 7.9 and Paul Goldschmidt’s 7.3 to lead the NL. While a huge part of that was the educated guesstimates of his value on defense, I don’t think it’ll be too much of a reach to suggest that for the next couple of years he and McCutchen might become the National League’s trophy frenemies equivalent to Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout in the AL.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
All offseason, fans have wondered: What are the Atlanta Braves going to do about locking up Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, their two young stars, to long-term contracts? Heyward was going to be eligible for free agency after the 2015 season, Freeman after 2016.

Those questions were answered on Tuesday as Heyward signed for two years and Freeman for a reported eight years, $125 million. Let's do Heyward real quick here since Freeman is the bigger deal. It certainly made sense for Heyward to wait and not commit to a below-market, long-term contract. He missed time last year after an appendectomy and was hitting under .200 in early June before rallying to finish at .254/.349/.427. Heyward needs to bet on himself to stay healthy and have that big season we all predicted would come after he played so well as a 20-year-old back in 2010.

So he signs through his arbitration years and will hit free agency for his age-26 season. Even if he doesn't get better, he'll be a very rich man. Compare Heyward to Shin-Soo Choo, who signed a seven-year, $130 million deal that takes him from his age-31 through age-37 seasons. A seven-year deal for Heyward gets you his age-26 though age-32 seasons. Oh ... and Choo wasn't that much better than Heyward last season, even though Heyward played just 104 games. Baseball-Reference valued Choo at 4.2 WAR, Heyward at 3.6 WAR (he was 5.8 WAR in 2012). Choo got on base at a terrific clip, but Heyward is the better defensive player and produced in a tougher park for hitters. If Choo can get $130 million at his age, Heyward can easily expect to get $150 million or more.

The Braves did lock up Freeman, who at age 23 become the vocal leader of the club, the face of the franchise, and hit an impressive .319/.396/.501 with 23 home runs to finish fifth in the National League MVP voting. It's a safe bet for the Braves. You get Freeman's age-24 through age-31 seasons, exactly the years you want for a first baseman who doesn't run well.


Which player would you most want long-term?


Discuss (Total votes: 11,459)

The question is more a baseball one: How good is Freeman? Was 2013 a true breakout season or one fueled by a high .371 average on balls in play (fifth highest in the majors)? Answer: It could be both. Considering his age, it could be real improvement. According to ESPN data, he had a 25.8 percent line-drive rate in 2013, up from 21.7 percent the year before. (Other sites have different percentages, complicating the analysis a bit.) One thing I like to check is how a batter does against fastballs. The best hitters kill fastballs, and that's what Freeman did in 2013, hitting .367 with 15 of his 23 home runs, up from .291 and 13 the year before.

So I'm inclined to think Freeman did mature as a hitter, even if his walk and strikeout totals were essentially identical to 2012. Maybe he won't hit .319 again, but it wouldn't surprise me since he also became so adept at going the other way. His hit chart shows a fair number of doubles in the left-center gap, and he hit five home runs to left-center or left.

In the past, I believe I've compared him to John Olerud. Physically, the comparison makes sense: A tall first baseman who is more of a 20-25 homer guy than 30-35. Olerud had a monster season in 1993 at age 24 when he hit .363 and another one in 1998 when he hit .354, but he was generally right around .300 with 90 to 100 walks and a .400 OBP. Freeman was worth 5.4 WAR last year; Olerud had those two seasons worth more than 7 WAR and three others above 5. If Freeman is the new John Olerud (minus 30 walks a year), that's still a heck of a player. And in today's market, $125 million for three pre-arbitration years and five years of free agency for that kind of player looks like a good deal for the Braves ... even if Heyward does prove to be the slighty more valuable player in the long run.

A final note: Some may end up comparing this to the Pirates in the early '90s, when they signed Andy Van Slyke and allowed Barry Bonds to leave as a free agent. You know, sign the popular white guy and let the black player leave. First off, Heyward isn't going anywhere yet. Second, the Pirates didn't just "let" Bonds leave. He signed a big deal with the Giants, a contract the Pirates probably couldn't afford, to return to the area where he grew up and to play for the team his dad played for. I wouldn't compare this to that; each situation is different, and we don't know what kind of offer Heyward may have turned down.
ATLANTA -- Evan Gattis slipped on a pair of jeans and buttoned his plaid shirt, turned around and faced the questions.

Gattis is the Braves rookie with the inspiring backstory, the guy who quit baseball in college and was out of the sport for several years, working odd jobs across the country before getting back into the game. He's the kind of player who fans love, an everyman who hits without batting gloves, seemingly a testament to his unconventional path to the big leagues.

The Braves won 96 games and coasted to the National League East title, but in the biggest game of their season, there was Gattis, a catcher by trade with limited experience in the outfield, playing left field and batting cleanup against the best pitcher on the planet.

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
AP Photo/David GoldmanClayton Kershaw struck out 12 in seven innings in the Dodgers' Game 1 win.
As fun as is story is, and even with all the late-inning heroics he's provided this year, it's also a sign of the Braves' weaknesses that Gattis is now playing such a vital role on this team. He was involved in two crucial plays in the Braves' 6-1 opening game loss to the Dodgers.

In the second inning, he butchered a soft liner from A.J. Ellis into a run-scoring double, running hard but missing the catch as he dove after the ball. "Just a play I didn’t make," he said. In the bottom of the inning, Gattis reached against Clayton Kershaw on a bloop single but then got caught off first when Yasiel Puig easily ran down a shallow fly in right-center. "I got deked," he said. "I didn’t think he was going to get there. Took a hard step towards second base. Just a mistake."

Manager Fredi Gonzalez has Gattis in the lineup for power, but even the bat has cooled off after a hot start. Gattis hit just .242/.272/.406 in the second half, and that included his six-homer September; his .291 OBP is decidedly a non-cleanup kind of number. In fact, Dan Uggla -- left off the playoff roster -- had a higher OBP on the season than Gattis.

Gonzalez's other gamble of sorts is Uggla’s replacement at second, Elliot Johnson, claimed on waivers from the Royals in late August after hitting .179 with Kansas City. Johnson hit a quiet .261 for the Braves in 32 games, enough to take the job away from the slumping Uggla. But he's in there for his glove not his bat and he booted Carl Crawford's grounder leading off the third -- generously ruled a hit -- setting the stage for a two-run Dodgers rally that made it 4-0.

That was the most discouraging part of this game for the Braves. There's no shame in losing to Kershaw, but the defense let starter Kris Medlen down. Jason Heyward had two good opportunities to throw out a runner at home plate but overthrew the cutoff man both times, allowing baserunners to advance. Medlen's final line looked ugly -- four innings, nine hits, five runs -- but with better defense he keeps his club in the game (although he did make one huge mistake, a changeup left out over the plate that Adrian Gonzalez crushed to center for a two-run homer following Johnson's hit/error.

As for Kershaw, the Braves hadn't faced him this year, and he's tough enough to figure out even if you have seen him before. Justin Upton, who was 3-for-29 in his career against Kershaw from his Diamondbacks days, said, "He's the best I’ve ever seen. He got into a rhythm. He got any fire we had going early on and that was it."

Kershaw appeared to struggle early on with his fastball command but even a not-his-best Kershaw can make any team look helpless, and he battled through seven innings and 124 pitches, striking out 12 of the whiff-prone Braves while walking three and allowing just three hits. As he struggled with his command, he started to throw more offspeed pitches in the middle innings, including one unfair curveball to pinch-hitter B.J. Upton that Upton simply looked and headed to the duguout.

Don't worry, B.J., you're not the only one: Batters his .097 off Kershaw's curveball this year with 80 strikeouts, no extra-base hits and no walks. That's as unhittable a weapon as pitcher can possess.

"We went out and worked him," Freddie Freeman said "I think he had 130 pitches in seven innings. We just couldn't get the runs across and in the end that's all that matters."

[+] EnlargeElliot Johnson
AP Photo/Dave MartinElliot Johnson and the rest of the Braves' hitters had no answer for what Kershaw had to offer.
The Braves, of course, have a fairly tortured playoff history, and not just those great teams of the '90s that won just one World Series (tell Cubs and Indians fans that one title wasn't enough). Including last year’s wild-card game they've lost seven series in a row since beating the Astros in the 2001 Division Series. Including Thursday's loss, the Braves are 9-21 in the playoffs since beating Houston.

The Braves are still confident heading into tomorrow. You don't win 96 games without a lot of that. Facing right-hander Zack Greinke will give Freeman, Heyward and Brian McCann -- arguably their three best hitters -- the platoon advantage. Don't be surprised if lefty-swinging Jordan Schafer is out in left field.

"That's the beauty of it," Freeman said. "Come back and go at it tomorrow. Give these fans something to cheer about."

When asked if it's a must-win game, Justin Upton smiled. "That's why they give us five games."

Unfortunately, if it does go the distance, the large shadow of Mr. Kershaw looms in the distance.

Playoff watch: Thoughts of the day

September, 2, 2013

Some quick thoughts on the most important results and plays of the day and a look forward to Tuesday.

[+] EnlargeMat Latos
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMat Latos is a big part of the reason why September could be good for the Reds.
Pitching performance of the day: Mat Latos, Reds. Don't count the Reds out just yet in the NL Central race. For the second start in a row, the Reds battered Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, but Latos stepped up with his first complete game of 2013 and just the fourth of his career. Dusty Baker rarely lets Latos get to 110 pitches (his season high is 111, twice) so Latos rarely gets past the seventh. But he threw an efficient 100 pitches, striking out two while allowing four hits. If the Reds don't win the division, it could be Latos who gets the ball in the wild-card game.

Key at-bat of the day: Jurickson Profar versus Grant Balfour. With a 4-2 lead and Oakland closer Balfour pitching for the fourth time in five days -- he said after the game he was "pitching on fumes" -- he walked David Murphy on four pitches to start the ninth and gave up a Leonys Martin single to left. That brought up the rookie, Profar. The Rangers are second in the AL in sacrifice bunts (although with 34, they're hardly Gene Mauch-ish about it) and Ron Washington decided to play for the tie rather than a win against a tired reliever. Except Profar squared around twice and took two strikes. Swinging away, he ended up bouncing out to first, so he at least advanced the runners. But what if he had been allowed to hit away? Balfour escaped the inning as Ian Kinsler and Adrian Beltre both swung at first pitches and flew out.

Most important win: Oakland's win over Texas, giving them a tie for first rather than a two-game deficit.

Most important loss: The Indians not only dropped behind the Yankees (not to mention the Rays and Orioles) for the second wild-card spot, but lost rotation ace Justin Masterson after just one inning with soreness in his side. He'll undergo an MRI and other tests on Tuesday.

Awards watch: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman is pushing his way onto the short list of NL MVP candidates. He homered, doubled and drove in five runs in Atlanta's 13-5 thrashing of the Mets and now ranks fourth in the NL with 93 RBIs. And there's nothing MVP voters love more than an RBI guy on a playoff team.

Tuesday's best pitching matchup: Detroit's Max Scherzer versus Boston's Jon Lester. Scherzer is going for his 20th win but faces Lester, who has allowed more than three runs just once in his past nine starts. Scherzer escaped his second defeat in his last start when the Tigers rallied in the ninth inning. Considering the Tigers' remaining schedule, if he gets past this one without a loss we could be looking at the best single-season win-loss percentage in history.

Tuesday's most important pitching matchup: St. Louis' Michael Wacha versus Cincinnati's Homer Bailey. Wacha pitched out of the bullpen in August and the rookie will be making his first major league start since June. He did throw four scoreless innings in relief against the Reds on August 28, but the Cardinals rotation is scuffling right now: Since Aug. 15, it has the second-worst ERA in the majors (5.14). The St. Louis rotation is why I think the Pirates can win the division -- or why the Reds could catch the Cardinals and Pirates, even though everyone still seems to be picking St. Louis. Wacha has talent, but he's also pitching in Cincinnati, where the Reds are 42-23. Look for more angst in St. Louis after Bailey beats the Cards.

Player to watch: Matt Moore. The Tampa Bay lefty returns to the rotation for his first start since July 28 following a DL stint with elbow soreness. He made one rehab start in Triple-A, allowing eight hits and two walks with two strikeouts in four innings.

This is how you win 13 games in a row. You're tied 3-3 in the eighth inning. With two outs, Andrelton Simmons doubles. A guy named Joey Terdoslavich walks. Jason Heyward singles in one run, Justin Upton doubles in two and then the league's best bullpen does its job the final two innings. Heyward and Upton get the glory stats with the RBIs, but the key at-bat of the inning in the Braves' 6-3 win over the Nationals was Terdoslavich walking on a 3-2 pitch.

1. Thirteen in a row is pretty awesome. How often does it happen? Since 1990, here are the streaks of of 13 games or longer:

2002 A's: 20 (second-longest in history)
2001 Mariners: 15
2000 Braves: 15
1991 Twins: 15
1999 Padres: 14
1994 Royals: 14
1991 Rangers: 14
1999 Orioles: 13
1992 Braves: 13
1991 Phillies: 13

And now the 2013 Braves. That's 11 streaks in 24 seasons, so it happens on average about once every two seasons or so. Pretty impressive.

2. Kris Medlen looked pretty good on Wednesday. He's only 9-10, however. What's going on there?

Medlen, of course, had that unhittable stretch as a starter last season, going 9-0 with an 0.97 ERA in 12 starts. He's been much more hittable this season, without the same fastball command and precise location on his change. Opponents are slugging .450 off his fastball as opposed to .355 last year. But it was the changeup that was absolutely devastating a season ago: Batters hit .087 (10-for-115) with one home run; it was arguably the best pitch in the game. In 2013, they're hitting .210, although with just two home runs, so he's still keeping it down in the zone. Maybe he's not the ace some projected at the start of the season, but he's pretty solid.

3. But they don't need him to be an ace, do they?

Not with the way Mike Minor and Julio Teheran are pitching. Minor is finally starting to get some publicity, but it's the rookie Teheran who has been the big surprise. Since giving up 13 runs and five home runs in his first three starts, he's posted a 2.38 ERA and has allowed zero runs or one run 10 times in 19 starts. He's legit.

4. How about Jason Heyward hitting leadoff?

I love it. Simmons is not a leadoff guy with his sub-.300 OBP. Heyward may have the body of a cleanup hitter but he's the best leadoff option for the Braves right now, so it was a smart move by Fredi Gonzalez to move him there in late July. The Braves are 12-0 since that move, which is mostly coincidence, but partly getting a lineup into a more efficient order.
[+] EnlargeJustin Upton, Brian McCann
AP Photo/Nick Wass Is Justin Upton the Braves' key ingredient?

5. Justin Upton appears to the straw that stirs the drink, no?

He does. I can't explain what happened during that two-month funk when he hit .224 with two home runs in 54 games. After going 3-for-4 against the Nationals, Upton now has a 12-game hitting streak during which he's batting .440 with five home runs -- those Upton home runs that have that special sound. Remember when Upton started the season red-hot and carried the Braves to a 12-1 start? So two hot Upton stretches, two hot Braves stretches.

6. Is Freddie Freeman the new Chipper Jones?

He kind of is, in that he seems like the heart and soul of this team, so to speak. He's famous for hugs and he's getting famous for his bat. He's hitting .311 with 79 RBIs and some people feel he's been the team MVP. He's also starting to enter the periphery of the NL MVP discussion as well.

7. OK, the bullpen. How awesome is it? There's that word again.

Pretty hard to say it isn't the best. It has the lowest ERA in the majors (2.40), the lowest batting average allowed (.212), the lowest OPS (.589), the best winning percentage (22-8) and the fewest home runs allowed (16). Craig Kimbrel had a little blip earlier when he blew three saves but he's now converted 26 in a row and has allowed one run his past 32 innings. Considering the Braves lost Jonny Venters in spring training and Eric O'Flaherty early in the year, kudos to Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell for their work in handling Luis Avilan, Jordan Walden and the rest.

8. Chris Johnson! Dude! How could you wait to No. 8 here to mention him?

No kidding. Two more hits on Wednesday, raising his average to .339, best in the NL. It's insane. His batting average on balls in play is .419. That's not off the charts, that's impossible. Only four players since 1950 have hit .400 on balls in play according to Baseball-Reference, with Rod Carew's .408 in 1977 the "record."

9. Dan Uggla? Why does everyone hate him?

Because he's Dan Uggla.

10. OK, the schedule has something to do with this, right? The NL East is kind of a joke.

True, but the streak did start with three wins over the Cardinals. But you know? The Braves have only seven games the rest of the season against teams currently with winning records (four against St. Louis, three against Cleveland). With a 70-45 record and 47 games remaining, the Braves could be on their way to 100 wins.

11. You forgot to mention Andrelton Simmons' defense!

I did. Thanks for covering me there.
NEW YORK -- Media day at the All-Star Game isn't quite media day at the Super Bowl, but on a hot, steamy day in the Jackie Robinson Rotunda at Citi Field, sweaty media members met with sweaty ballplayers. There was a vibe of happiness from the players because everyone enjoys being an All-Star, but special praise to Justin Verlander and Brandon Phillips for gutting out the hot weather and wearing jackets to their media sessions -- Verlander in a baby blue coat complete with pocket square, something you might see your grandfather wearing at his condo in Florida -- when most players smartly donned short-sleeved shirts.

(Poor Felix Hernandez kept needing a towel to mop off the sweat dripping down his forehead. Hey, he's not used to 100-degree weather pitching in Seattle.)

Players praised Mariano Rivera and talked about childhood dreams coming true, although Brett Cecil admitted he never dreamed of becoming an All-Star. Matt Carpenter was asked to translate "I love baseball" in Chinese for a promotional video. Joey Votto said he thought Ichiro Suzuki would be a good contestant for the Home Run Derby.

Speaking of home runs, on Sunday, I wrote about Chris Davis now being on pace to hit 62 -- short of Barry Bonds' record of 73, but giving him a chance to beat Roger Maris' total of 61.

I asked readers who they think the "real" home run champion is and the poll results, with more than 38,000 votes, have Maris ahead of Bonds, 73 percent to 27 percent. That's a landslide for Maris.

What do the All-Stars think? All leaned toward 73 -- as in homers, not percent -- at least the ones we asked. Some of the more interesting responses:
  • Votto, the Cincinnati Reds first baseman: "I think 61 came with its own little asterisk, since they had extended the schedule to play more games. At the time, if you asked players of the previous era, they probably would have said 60 is the record, with Babe Ruth. If you ask players of Maris' generation, they'll say 61 is the record. If you ask the recent generation, they'll probably say 73 [with Barry Bonds]. My gut says to keep 73, but it's something we'll have better perspective on in 20 or 30 years."
  • Baltimore Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy, teammate of Davis: "I think that year all those home runs were happening was really exciting for the fans, really exciting for us, fun to watch. I don't know where the record should stand. If Chris hits 61 home runs this year, that would be pretty cool though." By the way, Hardy on playing with Davis this year: "It's awesome. Just like the fans and how interested they are in watching, I think everyone on his team is the same way. Everyone in the dugout watches every one of his at-bats in case something special happens. He put up numbers like this in the minors and it was just a question of whether he'd do it in the big leagues, so it's not like he hasn't done it before. It's something that's been in there."
  • Cleveland Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis: "That's a record I'll never have to worry about. It's a topic you're going to have a lot of debate over if Davis gets close. I guess the old-school guys will say 61. The purists will probably say 61. But didn't the pitchers use back then as well? They did from what I know. I think [Bonds] is just a product of his era. The fact is he hit 73 home runs."
  • San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner, giving a little bit of a Of course Bonds holds the record, he's a Giant look: "Bonds holds the record, but if Davis can come close to 61 or 73, that will be fun to watch."
  • Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman: "That's a tough question. I grew up with Bonds and I choke up on the bat because of him. It was amazing what he did when he would often only get one pitch to hit in a game. That answer your question? Probably not."
  • Washington Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann: "Bonds holds the record. I grew watching him and it was incredible what he did."
  • Braves reliever Craig Kimbrel: "I'd like to see Davis hit 62 because that's fun baseball. [But would that make him the home run king?] If he hits 62, he hits 62."

One interesting side note: Many of players seemed reluctant to actually mention Bonds by name, which is interesting, although they still tacitly acknowledged he's the record holder.

As for Davis himself suggesting 61 is the record, Votto had the best quip: "Maybe he's just being selfish, saying that if he beats the record he'll get to wear a crown or something."
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.
The final player vote for the All-Star Game is kind of like democracy on steroids, which, considering baseball's recent history, is perhaps fitting. I had to block a person on Twitter for the first time ever today (sorry, Matt in Atlanta) because he kept tweeting #VoteFreddie and including me (more than 150 tweets, apparently each tweet counted as a vote) -- something about a conspiracy theory to get Yasiel Puig in the All-Star Game instead of Freddie Freeman.

As it turned out, Braves fans like Matt in Atlanta rallied around Freeman, and he beat out Puig for the final spot on the National League squad.

Look, Freeman is a fine ballplayer having a very good season. He is hitting .307 with nine home runs, has driven in 56 runs and plays a nice first base. He's only 23 years old and has a chance to get a lot better considering his age; I could see him turning into this generation's John Olerud, and I mean that with the highest of compliments.

Also, considering the Braves are in first place, it's fair to argue they deserved another All-Star besides closer Craig Kimbrel. So there's nothing wrong with Freeman winning the vote for the National League's final All-Star slot. You can even argue that the NL's team chemistry will be improved with Freeman on the roster instead of Puig, with Puig apparently already earning villain status among his fellow big leaguers. Freeman's presence will lead to a happier dugout and since the game COUNTS, a happier dugout will give the National League a better chance of winning. (You can't tell me it was a mere coincidence that the NL went 3-11 in years Barry Bonds was on the team!)

But isn't the All-Star Game ultimately a chance to market the sport? It's played at a time when little is going on in the sports world outside of sports beloved in Europe (cycling, soccer), and Puig has been one of the big stories of the first half, a reason casual fans may tune in to watch the All-Star Game when they otherwise wouldn't. The argument against Puig is he hasn't earned the spot, that 35 games and 152 plate appearances don't warrant selection, even if he is hitting .394, belting home runs and playing spectacular defense. Of course, he has played more than Kimbrel -- who has faced 131 batters -- but I get it: Puig hasn't proved anything over the long haul.

Another argument against Puig is that teammate Hanley Ramirez, out much of the season with an injury, has been just as hot since his return from the disabled list, actually outhitting Puig. Considering Ramirez's track record of MVP-caliber seasons, why Puig and not Ramirez?

In looking just at 2013 value, however, Puig had earned an All-Star nod. His 2.6 WAR is basically the same as Freeman's 2.7 and better than seven NL position-player All-Stars.

In the end, it's not that big of a loss that Puig won't be in the game. He probably would have received one at-bat, maybe two, hardly much of an opportunity to display his talents. Baseball did miss a golden opportunity by not including Puig in the Home Run Derby, but I guess there's always next year; I get the feeling Puig will have some All-Star Games in his future.

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The American League also had a final player vote, a choice of relief pitchers Joaquin Benoit, Steve Delabar, David Robertson, Tanner Scheppers and Koji Uehara. Toronto's Delabar won the vote and becomes one of the least likely All-Stars ever.

Jim Caple outlined Delabar's amazing story when he first reached the majors in September 2011 -- from substitute teacher that March to major leaguer six months later. When the Mariners signed him, he had been out of baseball for two years and had a metal plate and screws in his arm.

It's an improbable story, but now he's heading to New York as an All-Star. And that's the beauty of baseball, isn't it? Anyone can become an All-Star, whether you grew up in Cuba or the suburbs of Southern California, or even if you worked as a substitute teacher.