Freddie Freeman named 2020 National League MVP

Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman often was considered baseball’s most underrated and underappreciated player. His long-due day of recognition came Thursday.

Freeman was named National League MVP, receiving 28 of 30 first-place votes from the Baseball Writers Association of America. Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts finished second with two first-place votes. Padres third baseman Manny Machado finished third. Braves slugger Marcell Ozuna, whom Freeman credited for helping his offensive production, finished sixth.

The award appropriately capped off the best season of Freeman’s career. He hit .341/.462/.640 with 13 homers, an MLB-leading 23 doubles, 53 RBIs and 51 runs scored while playing in all 60 games. The Braves, with Freeman hitting second or third daily, produced arguably the best offense in franchise history. The 31-year-old also added his usual stellar defense. Freeman was the best player on a team that went 35-25 and won its third consecutive division title.

“I don’t think anyone can dream of ever winning an MVP,” Freeman said. “As a kid, you’re just dreaming to one day be on TV like the guys you’re watching. For it to come like this, it’s just amazing. I’ve had good years in the past and this year it just came together from start to finish.”

Beloved former Brave Dale Murphy, the only individual in franchise history to win multiple MVPs, announced the results during a special on MLB Network. Freeman, Betts and Machado were briefly interviewed before the announcement. When Murphy announced his name, Freeman, who was surrounded by family at his home in Orange County, California, put his hands over his face and behind his head before celebrating with family members.

Freeman is the sixth Braves player to win MVP. He’s the fourth to win the honor since the franchise relocated to Atlanta before the 1966 season. He joins Bob Elliott (1947), Hank Aaron (1957), Murphy (1982, 1983), Terry Pendleton (1991) and Chipper Jones (1999) in Braves immortality. Freeman, a four-time All-Star, had finished in the top eight of MVP voting four times previously.

“It’s amazing," Freeman said. "To be able to play with Chipper and learn from him, to have TP as a coach and learn from him how to play the game the right way. Dale Murphy has been around in spring training and he’s a big influence on all of us. To be in the same class as them, Hank Aaron and all those kind of guys, it’s really hard to put into words right now. This is surreal.”

Aaron said in a video posted by the Braves: “Sixty-three years ago, I was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player, and today, Freddie Freeman, I have the honor of congratulating you for being the Most Valuable Player. I want to congratulate you on not only being the most valuable player of the Atlanta Braves, but just being the most valuable player in the clubhouse, being the most valuable player that all of us can be very proud of. Freddie, this is quite an honor and I just want to congratulate you again.”

The MVP award looks even more meaningful in context. When MLB returned from its virus-induced hiatus in early July, most were skeptical even a shortened season could end as planned. The Braves were especially concerned when Freeman, the face of the organization, tested positive for COVID-19 on July 3 as players reported to summer camps.

That night, Freeman couldn’t sleep. He was battling body aches, pains and a fever that peaked at 104.5.

“I said a little prayer that night,” Freeman recalled. “I’ve never been that hot before. My body was really, really hot. So I said, ‘Please don’t take me.’ I wasn’t ready. It got a little worrisome that night.”

The next morning, Braves manager Brian Snitker informed reporters that Freeman had tested positive and would be out indefinitely. Freeman, meanwhile, was past the worst of his fever. He would be fever-free July 6 and regained his sense of taste and smell by July 9.

While he wasn’t exhibiting symptoms, Freeman couldn’t register the back-to-back negative tests needed to rejoin his team. Snitker said the Braves would “need to make a decision soon” about Freeman on July 16, eight days before opening day.

The next morning, Braves trainer George Poulis told Freeman he’d recorded consecutive negatives (“You’ve hit a home run,” he said). Freeman had several tests done at Emory and was cleared at 1 p.m. He was at Truist Park an hour later, working out during the team’s scheduled off-day.

Freeman hit in every inning during the exhibition games in preparation for July 24. It worked: Freeman was in the opening-day lineup. After it seemed he would miss the start of the season, he wound up playing every game.

It wasn’t totally smooth when Freeman returned. He struggled out of the gate, hitting .190 (8-for-42) across his first 13 games. He looked rusty, and while that was understandable, he wouldn’t use it as an excuse – just as he wouldn’t use the bone spurs in his elbow as an excuse the previous postseason. Freeman lost eight pounds during his battle with COVID and felt more fatigued in the earlier portion of the season.

“It’s amazing to take a step back and look at how my first two weeks started," Freeman said. "I was just trying to play so well so fast. I was asking too much of myself when I only had five days (to get ready) I think. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t try to do that. It took me a couple weeks to get my legs under me. … Now I just know I really do need three weeks of spring training. Now I’ll talk to Snit and see if I can come late (to spring training).”

When Freeman caught fire, he never cooled off. He posted an NL-best 18-game hitting streak from Aug. 14 through Sept. 4. He had MLB’s longest on-base streak, 33, from Aug. 11 through Sept. 18.

And when the MVP race came down to the final month, he was at his best. Freeman hit .375/.496/.750 with eight homers and 32 RBIs – with more walks (20) than strikeouts (14) – in September, winning NL Player of the Month. He topped his month off by entering the second-to-last game in the ninth inning and hitting a walk-off homer in extras to defeat the Red Sox and clinch the No. 2 seed for his team.

Ultimately, Freeman led the NL in runs (51), doubles (23), extra-base hits (37) and fWAR (3.3). He was second in average, on-base percentage (.462), slugging (.640), OPS (1.102), RBIs (53) and total bases (137). He was third in hits (73) and walks (45). Freeman became only the second player since 1920 to finish in the top four of the majors in runs, hits, doubles, RBIs and walks, joining the Yankees' Lou Gehrig, who achieved such in 1927.

Freeman’s strong finish seemed to secure his MVP award. He was considered the favorite as the regular season concluded. His Braves fell short of their ultimate goal, losing the NL Championship Series in seven games to the World Series champion Dodgers, but it was still the franchise’s best postseason run in nearly two decades and Freeman provided two memorable moments.

White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu won the American League MVP. It was the first time both league MVPs were first basemen. Freeman and Abreu also snapped a 10-year drought for first basemen and the MVP award. Before Thursday, Cincinnati’s Joey Votto was the last first baseman to win an MVP (2010). Freeman, 31, is also the oldest NL MVP since Barry Bonds (40) in 2004, yet he’s two years younger than Abreu.

“I was fine leading up until last night,” Freeman said. “I wasn’t worried about anything. For some reason, I didn’t sleep very well last night. Everything is running through your head, all the emotions. Everything you’ve done. I didn’t want to get my hopes up too high because you never know. So I went to work out this morning with Justin Upton and my cousin. We got after it, I came back and the anxiety took over. My hands starting sweating a little bit. But when my dad and step mom walked in, it was a little calmer. As the show went on, my hands were sweating. … I got a little nervous, I can’t lie. But all the emotions. It’s absolutely incredible.”

The award was a long-time coming for Freeman, who was quietly among baseball’s most consistent superstars. Freeman’s game and personality aren’t flashy, however, and at times he was even overshadowed on his own team, which is loaded with talented and exciting players.

But his production, consistency and intangibles couldn’t be overlooked in 2020. As a result, Freeman has further cemented himself as a franchise icon. Consider him underappreciated by the national audience no more.