Note: all numbers are current as of September 16.
On September 12, Freddie Freeman celebrated his 31st birthday. He still looks like a big kid to me, but he’s been in the big leagues a full decade, and as magnificent a player as he is, he’s likely closer to his retirement than to his rookie year. (He finished second in the 2011 RoY vote to Craig Kimbrel, just for comparison.)
So, whenever he hangs up his spikes, is he likely to be a Hall of Famer?
Short answer: he’s almost halfway there.
First, let’s start with the facts: there are 24 first basemen in the Hall of Fame. Three played primarily in the Negro Leagues: Buck Leonard, Mule Suttles, and Ben Taylor. Many of them played nearly a hundred years ago.
Only nine Hall of Fame first basemen played the majority of their major league careers after World War II: Jeff Bagwell, Orlando Cepeda, Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey, Johnny Mize, Eddie Murray, Tony Perez, Frank Thomas, and Jim Thome.
Let’s add a tenth, Albert Pujols, who will be in the Hall of Fame two seconds after he retires, an eleventh, Miguel Cabrera, who is an above-average Hall of Famer and very likely to make it even if he is not inner-circle like Pujols. (According to Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system, linked on baseball-reference.com, Cabrera’s just above the cutoff; Joey Votto is just below it.)
Oh, and one more thing: by Bill James Similarity Scores, Freddie Freeman‘s most similar player by age, for every single full season of his career — ages 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, and 29 — is a Hall of Fame first baseman: Steady Eddie Murray.
Please Allow Me to Introduce Himself
Frederick Charles Freeman was born in California to Canadian parents, and he represented Canada in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. His high school, El Modena, was not a hotbed of prep talent but it wasn’t unknown to scouts, either; in 2001, the Yankees took a 19th-rounder from El Mo, and in 1999, the White Sox took a guy in the 15th round and the Cubs took a guy in the 26th. Freeman was the first and so far only high draft pick taken from the school, and of the six draftees to date, he’s the only one so far to reach the majors.
However, nothing he’s done could have been entirely shocking to anyone who saw him in high school. A 2005 scouting report of a 15-year-old first baseman named Freddie C. Freeman is astonishingly prescient:
Mechs: Tall stance, spread base. Slight knee flex. High back elbow.
Fielding: Soft hands. Makes the plays at him.
Range: Slow 1st step. Gets to what he can.
Abilities: Plus bat spd, slight uppercut plane. Good leverage, gets arms ext. Fills gaps w/ backspin ld. Plenty of loft & raw pwr. Middle-pull HR juice now. Ez avg arm, on-line carry.
Weaknesses: bad wheels, uncoordinated, choppy strides. Slow out of box, tick better underway.
Summation: Young LHH w/ a high ceiling, still 15 yrs old. Solid feel to hit now. Shows abil to go the other way & when needed, drop some serious bat head. Solid follow, still 2 yrs away.Baseball Hall of Fame, PASTIME Scouting Reports
Two years later, he was the Braves’ second-round pick. And a decade and a half after that scouting report was filed, just about everything that scout wrote remains true — Freddie’s literally reached the full potential of the guy he was as a prospect.
(Fun fact: Jason Heyward, the team’s first-round pick, has 38.3 rWAR; Freddie, the second-round pick, has 38.1 rWAR. Whatever happens, Jason Heyward has had a hell of a career and I will never stop rooting for him.)
Freddie had a pretty uneventful march through the minors. In his first full season, the Braves assigned the 18-year-old to Single-A Rome, and he hit .316/.378/.521. He hit well at High-A Myrtle Beach in 2009, then struggled a bit at the end of the year after a promotion to Double-A Mississippi.
But when he was promoted to Triple-A Gwinnett in 2010, he had the exact same OBP/SLG as he did at Rome: .319/.378/.521. And that’s almost identical to what he would hit in the majors from 2013-2019, .300/.390/.520. He was 20 that year, in 2010. The next year, he finished second in the Rookie of the Year vote.
The key takeaway from his past: Freddie Freeman is pretty much exactly the guy he’s always been, except he’s the best possible version of that guy.
Oh, except for one minor thing: he’s still getting better. Freddie is leading the majors in 2B and wRC, and he’s second in BA, OBP, and TB, OPS, wOBA, wRC+, and fWAR. He has finished in the top 10 of the MVP vote in four of the last seven seasons, and he may finish in the top two this year. Not bad for a 31-year-old who scouts were calling slow back when he was 15.
Hall of Fame Standards for First Basemen
First base “standards” are descriptive and sometimes predictive, but they’re not normative. For the purposes of the below, I’m going to summarize the work of Jay Jaffe and Bill James in describing who has made the Hall in the past; this work reflects the Hall’s own imperfect past decisions. Many Hall of Famers are worse than many players who aren’t in the Hall of Fame.
In general, it makes sense to focus on the “average” Hall of Famer at a position, particularly because of the egregious decisions made by past Veterans Committees. The worst Hall of Fame first baseman is probably High Pockets Kelly, who is a strong contender for worst Hall of Famer ever, along with guys like Rube Marquard and Freddie Lindstrom. So it doesn’t make sense to compare Freddie to Kelly.
Instead, I’m going to focus on the eleven modern players I mentioned above: Bagwell, Cabrera, Cepeda, Killebrew, McCovey, Mize, Murray, Perez, Pujols, Thomas, and Thome, with a look at the overall average of the 11 — nine Hall of Famers and two modern players whose near-certain Hall of Fame careers are nearly over — as well as a specific look at Freddie’s most-similar player, Eddie Murray:
Like I said: Freddie’s just about exactly halfway to the average, and Eddie Murray is just about exactly average. So if Freddie basically doubles his career numbers, he’ll be Eddie Murray, and he’ll also be a Hall of Famer.
How First Basemen Get Older
One way to measure how a player’s getting older is their speed. Freddie isn’t fast, but he has a high baseball IQ and just as the scout noted back in high school, he picks up speed once underway. And by one aggregate statistical measure, Freddie’s speed isn’t getting worse.
Fangraphs tracks “base running runs above average,” and early in his career, Freddie was pretty negative on this: from 2010 to 2014, Freddie was at -7.9 runs. But since then, he’s at +6.1 runs, including +1.3 runs in 2018, -0.1 runs in 2019, and +0.5 runs this year. So he went from slightly below-average to slightly above-average and holding.
That said, he doesn’t have a lot of margin to play with here, and if he does ever lose a step, his foot speed could quickly go from slow to unplayable.
(For a comparison that illustrates how BsR can capture loss of game speed, Ender Inciarte was at 4.5 UBR in 2016, 2.3 in 2017, 6.1 in 2018, but 2.6 in 2019, and he’s at 1.5 in 2020 — a huge dropoff, particularly for an up-the-middle defender who has not yet turned 30. That tracks with what our eyes are seeing.)
Clearly, Freddie’s a very good player, and this year he’s hitting better than he ever has. In addition to being at or near the top of the league in most offensive categories, he’s setting Statcast personal highs in average exit velocity, Barrel%, and HardHit%. Last year, he set a personal record for home runs with 38; and this year he would be on pace for about 35 home runs, along with about 58 doubles.
So he’s hitting great right now, and despite being a leadfoot playing the easiest position on the diamond, he’s still nearly the most valuable player in all of baseball.
But that’s new for him. Since 2016, he has 22.6 WAR — ninth-most in baseball, just about indistinguishable from Jose Altuve, behind Nolan Arenado and Jose Ramirez, and just ahead of Kris Bryant and Xander Bogaerts. Good players all, but none at the absolute top of the league.
The biggest question area for Freddie is: he’s been steady, but his peak is not as high as the peak of the biggest stars in baseball, and as a first baseman, there’s always a fear that he’ll reach a point where he gets old quickly, as Pujols and Cabrera did. (For the purposes of this article, I’m ignoring the prominent rumors that Pujols is two years older than his listed age; it really doesn’t change the aggregate math that much.)
In all, in all seasons before their age-30 season, the eleven first basemen had an OPS+ of about 153; in all the seasons age-30 and after, they had an OPS+ of about 133. For Freddie, whose age-29 season was last year, his OPS+ from 2010-2019 is 136 — so his performance is closer to the older diminished players than to the younger versions of Hall of Famers. Here’s how that looks:
|Before Age 30||PA||HR||RBI||Triple Slash||OPS+|
|Age 30 & After||PA||HR||RBI||Triple Slash||OPS+|
Obviously, Freddie has played in an offensive era less lofty than the era in which Bagwell and Thomas and Thome and Pujols had their peaks. Murray, his closest comparison, is closer to Freddie, with an under-30 OPS+ of 144, which declined to 116 after the age of 30.
But Murray hung around for a very long time after turning 30. Not all of the players did.
Miguel Cabrera has had fewer than 4000 PAs since the beginning of his age-30 season, and he’s turned into a pumpkin. Pujols has had 6281 PA after 30, and the last 1811 of them — the last four seasons — have been below replacement level.
Johnny Mize, the Big Cat, had fewer than 3200 PAs after 30, because World War II robbed him of three of his best years; when he came back, he was 33, though his performance in those years was still excellent. Bagwell’s balky shoulder gave him scarcely more than 5000 PAs after 30, but he too was producing right up to the end.
Murray’s longevity got him to the magic numbers of 500 and 3000, which undoubtedly helped his candidacy, but he was still a far better player before he turned 30 than he was afterwards. Also, both Mize and Bagwell had established a Hall of Fame-level peak performance in their earlier years, as Bagwell was an MVP at age 26, and Mize had two straight second-place MVP finishes at ages 26 and 27. Freddie has not reached their heights.
(Freddie has only knocked 30 homers twice in his career and only exceeded 180 hits once, so is unlikely to get to those magic numbers. Bill James’s Favorite Toy estimates the odds of 500 homers at 22 percent, and the odds of 3000 hits at 20 percent.)
Freddie’s at 38 WAR right now. If he gets to 65 he’ll have a shot, and if he gets to 70, I’d call him relatively likely to be elected.
So, he needs six more seasons of five-WAR production from 2021 to 2026, since 2020 is already almost over. He needs for 2020 to be a legitimate improvement in his peak, he needs to hit like this for a full year in 2021 and 2022, and then he needs to decline gracefully for another half-decade after that, before becoming a part-time player and then finally hanging up his spikes.
One piece of good news, though: not every player declined after turning 30. Killebrew’s OPS+ was a smidge higher after 30 than before, 143 to 142. Thome improved by even more: 144 to 149. And McCovey’s OPS+ barely moved: 149 before 30, 146 after.
If Freeman’s able to stay healthy, and continue to improve his approach, it’s not inconceivable that he could continue to become a better hitter for the next couple of years, and establish a higher level of production for his golden years than he maintained in his youth, before the toll of time is unmistakeable.
While We’re At It, Here’s the Keltner List
Because this is a Hall of Fame discussion, and because this is Braves Journal, this piece wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of the Keltner List. I won’t answer each of the questions fully because his career isn’t yet complete, but they’re worth raising, because this is a good way of structuring the argument: this is how we’ll argue about Freddie in a decade, once the full shape of his career is clear.
- Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball? (No.)
- Was he the best player on his team? (Frequently, yes.)
- Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position? (Yes, at times.)
- Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races? (Some.)
- Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime? (TBD)
- Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame? (No.)
- Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame? (TBD)
- Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics? (The announcers would probably say yes, because Freddie’s pretty good at digging out balls in the dirt. Your mileage may vary.)
- Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in? (Not impossible; he’d have to pass Helton and Votto and, depending on how you treat their numbers, Palmeiro and McGwire.)
- How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close? (His fourth-place finish is the closest he’s come; it’s not impossible that he wins one, and this year may be his best shot. He currently has 1.30 career MVP shares, from his various top-10 finishes)
- How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go into the Hall of Fame? (Four ASG appearances to date, which is okay if on the low side for a guy whose career is half over. This year would have been a deserving fifth.)
- If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant? (Qualified yes. His Braves won division titles in 2013, 2018, and 2019, but zero league pennants. I’d say he was ontologically the “best player on the team” all three times, but by rWAR, the team leader in 2013 was Andrelton Simmons, and by both fWAR and rWAR, Josh Donaldson, Ronald Acuna, and Ozzie Albies all had more WAR in 2019. Freeman was the undisputed WAR leader in 2018.)
- What impact did the player have on baseball history? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way? (No.)
- Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider? (Yes.)
The goal here is to ask a number of questions about the player’s eliteness, as well as qualitative questions to try to draw out anything that wouldn’t be obvious from the back of the baseball card. The answers will always be the same: Freddie is one of the best players in baseball, but he will never be considered one of the top two or three or four or five players in baseball. His only shot at the Hall will be as a prolific compiler, so his longevity will be crucial.
All in All
Will Freddie Freeman be a Hall of Famer? My best answer: maybe.
I think he’s on pace to be on the bubble. If everything continued exactly as is, and he followed a normal aging path for a normal first baseman with exactly his production, I think he would likely just miss out, though he would probably have a strong lobby raising his case with the Veterans Committee for decades.
If he’s better — if the new-and-improved Statcast barrel monster we’re seeing in 2020 is a reflection of true talent, and not just a fluke of a weirdly short season, then I’d upgrade my own gut feeling.
(If this year’s performance is a bit of a fluke, one thing that is not a likely culprit is his BABIP, by the way: it’s .372 this year, which seems high, but it actually isn’t unusual for him. His BABIP was .371 in 2013 and .370 in 2016. His career BABIP is .342. He always, always has a high average on balls in play.)
So what we’re left with is somewhere between “too close to call” and “too soon to tell.”
That said, it’s worth making a note about the Big Hall versus the Small Hall, which Mac would probably do if he were writing this piece.
To put it at its simplest, Small-Hall people basically want to restrict the Hall of Fame to the elite of the elite, the people who, when you watch them play, make you think, “That guy’s a Hall of Famer.” To them, no more High Pockets Kellys should be elected, and no more Eddie Murrays should be elected, either.
Big-Hall people would like every player who meets at least the standard of an average Hall of Famer to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. In other words, they’d agree that no more High Pockets Kellys should be inducted, but no one should be held to a standard that does not acknowledge the fact that numerous non-elite players — from High Pockets Kelly to Tony Perez and Orlando Cepeda — are already Hall of Famers.
Therefore, to a Big-Hall guy, compared to the existing standard of the Hall of Fame, Eddie Murray is clearly deserving. If Freddie is a Hall of Famer, he’ll be a Hall of Famer whose candidacy a Big-Hall guy would support but a Small-Hall guy would not.
Freddie isn’t Chipper Jones. He’s not a first-ballot sure shot. But he’s one of the best players in baseball, just like he has been for years, and he’s basically on track to meet the exact average standard for a first baseman. Will that be enough for voters? Hard to say.
But it’s enough for me.