Who gets the rings? Dodgers star Freddie Freeman's breakup with the Braves could color World Series hunt for years
It has been an eventful year for Freddie Freeman. About 11 months ago, he plucked the last out of the World Series from the leather of his glove, screamed to the heavens and deposited it in his back pocket as he ran to celebrate with his Atlanta Braves teammates. In the afterglow of that capstone achievement — for the franchise and the player who had come to embody it — manager Brian Snitker said, “I don’t know what I’d do without him, quite honestly.”
In that moment, no one really thought he would have to figure it out. Freeman, a year removed from an MVP award, made no secret about his intention of returning to Atlanta even though he was set to enter free agency. But four months later, on the other side of a lockout and some negotiations that did not produce a signed contract, GM Alex Anthopoulos swung a trade for Matt Olson. In one shocking tweet, it became apparent that Freeman and the Braves — inseparable for so long — would go forward separately.
Both parties, somehow, seemed shaken by the seismic change. The Los Angeles Dodgers soon swooped in and inked Freeman to a six-year, $162 million deal, but the league’s resident juggernauts adding a third ring-wearing superstar to the top of their lineup somehow took a back seat. When Freeman returned to Atlanta for the first time in June, the breakup was still fresh. The emotions flowed freely, and then came the intrigue. Days later, Freeman cut ties with his agents at Excel Sports Management. That escalated into a full sideshow when Fox Sports Radio basketball commentator Doug Gottlieb tweeted an accusation that Excel had failed to relay a Braves contract offer to Freeman. Gottlieb retracted that after being sued for libel.
And when we all looked beyond the intrigue, there was Freeman, perpetuating the Main Character Energy on the field. In his new environs, Freeman is having the best full season of his career. By FanGraphs’ calculations, he’s about to notch his first 7 WAR season.
His fully evolved excellence has melded with that of Mookie Betts and Trea Turner to give the Dodgers a terrifying, October-tested 1-2-3. Now, with the Braves having summited the NL East once again, Freeman, the Dodgers and the Braves are careening toward a new confrontation, one that could repeat for years to come.
Freddie Freeman demonstrating his value in 2022
It’s true that intrigue does not require importance in 2022. But the most eyebrow-raising drama in baseball did indeed surround the best player who changed teams. While he’s almost certainly going to run a hearty third or fourth in NL MVP voting — 15 homers and some narrative oomph shy of Paul Goldschmidt — Freeman has a legitimate case.
He’s batting an eye-popping .325 and reaching base at a .407 clip, outproducing the average MLB hitter by 56%, according to park-adjusted metric wRC+. All those marks would rank second in his career behind the dominant 60-game 2020 season that won him his NL MVP nod. Oh, he also has a career-best 13 stolen bases, because sure.
Max Scherzer calls Freeman the toughest hitter he’s ever had to face, and the full scope of Freeman’s mastery has come into view as pitchers’ tactics have evolved. Long one of the game’s most devastating fastball hitters, Freeman has maintained that status while also punishing the sliders and cutters proliferating around the league.
Those late-breaking, often high-speed offerings made up 20% of the league’s pitches in 2015, and 24% in 2019. In 2022, 28% of all pitches have been sliders or cutters, according to Statcast. The reason is simple: They are more effective than fastballs, in aggregate. Just not against Freeman. He’s batting an MLB-best .382 against sliders and cutters this year. His overall performance against them, by wOBA, trails only Aaron Judge.
Zoom out, and you wind up with a brick-by-brick understanding of why Freeman relentlessly bats .300 with pop, and how valuable that consistency can be when compared to hitters — like, say, Matt Olson — whose production is more easily knocked off kilter.
Choose your fighter: Dodgers vs. Braves, Freeman vs. Olson
The choice between Freeman and Olson was always a luxurious one. They are both quite good. But it was a choice, and the Braves’ move for Olson will continue to reverberate.
Thanks in large part to Olson’s monster series against the New York Mets, the Braves clinched the NL East and the No. 2 seed in the NL bracket on Tuesday night. A third consecutive clash with the Dodgers in the NLCS is very much on the table. Both first basemen are now tied to their sides through at least 2027, with Olson’s Atlanta deal potentially running through 2030.
Olson’s game has never much resembled Freeman’s. Yes, they both play first base and bat left-handed, but the difference is obvious. Freeman swings like someone who wants to be the batting champ. Olson swings like someone who wants to be the home run champ.
Olson’s spectacular 2021 saw him cut his strikeout rate to a Freeman-esque 16.8%, but his career mark is within a rounding error of this year’s 24.5%. His overall numbers have fluctuated, basically alternating between MVP candidate level (50% better than a league average hitter, or a 150 wRC+) and good starter level (a 115 to 120 wRC+). His miserable 2020 dipped lower than that. Freeman’s lowest wRC+ of the past decade was 132.
All of that is to point to the most significant difference between the elder Freeman and the younger Olson: Consistency. We have a great idea of what Freeman will look like in the playoffs. He has 183 October plate appearances under his belt, and his .290/.393/.523 line is a spitting image of his career regular season line (.298/.386/.509). Olson has only 36 postseason plate appearances, mostly in a 2020 season where he was clearly off, and the line isn’t pretty.
The postseason tends to push the game toward the extremes, and a bit into the future. For instance, over the past five completed regular seasons, MLB pitchers have thrown fastballs (not including cutters) 52.9% of the time. Over the same completed postseasons, they have thrown fastballs only 50.8% of the time. That point favors Freeman. However, postseason games have also been more reliant on home runs for scoring in recent years and, well, Olson is certainly more of a home run threat.
With every hit and every whiff, someone in the breakup is going to be scoring points. It’s easy to forget that we’ve actually seen significant players jump from titan to rival titan recently — Gerrit Cole going from the Astros to the Yankees springs to mind.
But Freeman’s emotional response and open connection to Atlanta infuses this comparison with drama. He is taking swings the Braves chose to pass up. He can’t win another ring for the Braves, and they can’t win another ring with him standing in the way. In at least one way, they’re stuck with each other.