We first came to know him as the (slightly) lesser half of a tandem. Freddie Freeman was the Braves’ second pick in the 2007 draft; Jason Heyward was the first. They would become minor-league roommates.
By 2010, Heyward was Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect; Freeman would top out at No. 17 the next year. Heyward’s first home run came off Carlos Zambrano on opening day in 2010 and stands as one of the Braves’ highlights of this century; Freeman’s came off a much better pitcher – Roy Halladay – as a pinch-hitter that September in Philadelphia on a night the Braves trailed 5-2.
When the two graced the cover of Sports Illustrated the next spring, they were presented as a duo, though the positioning was telling. Sitting atop a rolling basket of baseballs, Heyward is nearer the camera. Freeman is behind him, his left arm on his former roomie’s shoulder. Which made sense: Heyward finished second in the rookie-of-the-year voting and, if you go by WAR, was the MVP of that wild-card team; Freeman, September call-up, and didn’t make the postseason roster.
In February 2014, the Braves made a choice that revealed a shift in thinking. They signed Freeman, then 24, to an eight-year extension worth $135 million. They signed Heyward to a two-year deal worth $13.3 million. The latter had been eligible for arbitration, and this new contract was to be a bridge to free agency. Frank Wren, then the general manager, was convinced that Heyward was eager to test a market in which the Braves weren’t apt to compete. (Indeed, he would sign with the Cubs for $184 million over eight years in December 2015.)
Wren, however, had become convinced of something else – that Heyward would never become a truly great player. Freeman, however, just might.
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Wren was gone eight months later, but the administration of John Hart and John Coppolella endorsed his valuation. Heyward became Coppolella’s first major sell-off; he was sent to St. Louis for Shelby Miller, who would be sent a year later to Arizona for Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte. In November 2015 -- after a manic 12 months that saw the Braves shed Heyward, Evan Gattis, the Brothers Upton, Craig Kimbrel, Alex Wood, Jose Peraza and Andrelton Simmons – rumors swirled that Freeman would be next. Said Coppolella: “I’d give my right arm before I’d trade Freddie Freeman.”
As much as Coppolella/Hart did to deconstruct the team assembled by Wren, he left them a precious gift. He left them a cornerstone, and a relatively cheap one at that. The reason Coppolella never came close to trading Freeman was that he knew he could look another 10 years without finding anybody as good. Put it this way: If Freeman were to become a free agent this winter, he’d be looking at $135 million X 2, plus another $35 mil.
This is – belated apologies – a long way of saying what you already know: Freddie Freeman is a great player. As of Friday morning, he led the National League in batting average, hits, doubles, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and runs created. He was posting similar gaudy numbers last season until his wrist was broken in May. “This is the same,” said Bobby Cox, his first big-league manager (though only for a month). “He does this every year.”
There were questions from the start about Heyward’s swing. There were none about Freeman’s. Both are 6-foot-5, but Freeman’s seemed effortless where Heyward’s was convoluted. Heyward couldn’t handle the inside pitch and lost power. Freeman gained power and hits everything.
A tiny example: On Wednesday, he faced the Mets’ Jacob deGrom in the fourth inning with Dansby Swanson – who had just managed the game’s first hit – on second base. For statheads, this was the equivalent of Thor versus the Hulk: deGrom leads the NL in WAR for a pitcher; Freeman leads it in WAR for a position player.
Pitch sequence: 96-mile four-seamer outside and up, taken for Ball 1; slider down and away, fouled off; fastball down the middle, swing and miss; fastball up and away, taken for Ball 2. Right about here, you were thinking that the missed four-seamer might be the best thing Freeman sees in this at-bat, and it probably was. Pitch No. 5 was a slider down. Freeman inside-outed it to left field for a RBI single.
Freeman would hit a home run off the left-hander Jerry Blevins in the eighth – Reason No. 13 thatFreeman is good: He’s a lefty who kills lefties – and the Braves would win 2-nil, but the AB against deGrom was the game. Said Braves manager Brian Snitker: “If we were going to score, you figured he’s the guy who’d have to do it. That guy is so good.”
He meant deGrom, though the same applies to his guy, too.
One thing more: Always a special hitter, Freeman became extra-special when he and hitting coach Kevin Seitzer noticed something in July 2016. If Freeman would just try to hit a ground ball to the shortstop, he’d have a head-down swing that could yield much bigger results than a 6-3. On deGrom’s slider, that was exactly what he sought to do. “Same thing,” Freeman said, almost sheepishly. “Nothing more to it.”
He had a 6.5 WAR in 2016. He had a 4.5 last season despite the broken wrist and an odd turn playing third base. He’s on pace for an 8.6 now, and the MLB leader in WAR last season was Jose Altuve at 8.3. Altuve wound up being his league’s MVP, and his team won the World Series. Freeman is on track to be his league’s MVP, and his team holds first place.
At the dawn of this decade, Freeman was seen as an excellent prospect, yes, but also as the Face of the Franchise’s former roommate. This never quite became Heyward’s team, and someday it could be Ozzie Albies’ or Ronald Acuna’s, but there’s no debate as to whose it is now. There could be no rebuilding without a foundation. Freddie Freeman was that foundation.