Freddie Freeman had the best season of his career in 2016. He set career highs in just about every stat you can name: home runs, extra base hits, slugging, on base percentage, walks, BABIP and strikeouts. All of that sounded pretty great up until those last two, right? You wouldn’t be alone if you felt that way. Freeman has always been a good player, I doubt many have felt otherwise. It seems that every year Freeman marches into the season, puts up solid numbers at first base, shows off his leadership skills on and off the field, and then quietly goes into the offseason. This year was different, though. In 2016 Freeman had a true break out season worthy of MVP consideration. He had a substantial increase in performance across the board, in every major statistical category, and yet, there is still question about his ability to repeat this performance in 2017. All due, in large part, I think, to one little number: BABIP.
Freeman posted a .370 BABIP in 2016. This is significantly higher than his career averages .344 respectively, but it certainly isn’t unprecedented for a slugger to maintain a BABIP this high in the major leagues. Paul Goldschmidt, for example, has posted a .369 BABIP since 2014. J.D. Martinez has hovered around the .366 mark as well of that same time frame. Neither of these guys are horrible comps for Freeman. Neither are speedsters, we know that much. Although both are probably faster than Freeman by a decent margin, and I feel comfortable saying both are better power hitters as well. We know the key to BABIP is hitting the ball around 14-18 degrees vertically, and the harder, the better. Those sorts of hits will turn into singles pretty frequently, and if you can knock the launch angle up north of 24 degrees every once in awhile, you’ll hit home runs as well. It’s easier said than done, but, in general, that is how you’re going to achieve consistently high BABIP over multiple seasons. Otherwise you start introducing the concept of luck.
I have a few tools to examine just how ‘lucky’ Freeman may have been in 2016, though. xStats examines each batted ball measured by statcast, and determines the league average success rate by comparing it to similarly hit balls (those with similar exit velocity along with vertical and horizontal launch angle). So, for example, if the ball is hit 105 mph on a 22 degree vertical angle and 22 degree horizontal angle, xStats will compare that batted ball to all those hit between 104-106 mph and 20-25 degrees vertically and 20-25 degrees horizontally; count how many singles, doubles, triples, and homeruns were hit in that group divided by the size of the group; and then adjust these numbers for the running speed of the batter. So, these numbers should be, theoretically, neutral for both park and fielding effects.
In the table above you’ll see Freeman’s actual stats and xStats for the 2016 season.
Freeman did not, by this measure, have any appreciable amount of luck with regards to BABIP. You’ll notice his expected average and slugging are both higher than his actual, the slugging significantly so. The following table shows how many singles, doubles, triples, and home runs Freeman ought to have had compared to what he actually achieved in game.
This result is shocking to me, genuinely shocking. xStats believes Freeman’s power should have warranted an even larger surge in home run production. If Freeman hit 45 home runs, he would have nearly doubled his prior career high in home runs, which stood at 23 prior to 2016. That difference of 11 home runs is enormous, and I immediately dug deeper and looked at it broken down by home stadium:
A six home run difference in Turner Field! However, this was the last year Freeman is every going to play in Turner Field. The Braves are opening SunTrust Park in 2017, so I wonder how all of this may translate to that stadium? SunTrust Park has a significantly smaller right field, the corner will be 325 feet, in from 330 in Turner field, and jets out in a straight line towards right center. As a result, the difference in depth steadily grows as you get further from the corner, up to a maximum delta of around 30 feet. The deepest mark in right center field in SunTrust Park will be 375 feet, the equivalent distance in Turner was 390 feet.
As you can tell, the fences are moving in substantially in right field. Center field will remain roughly the same, as will the left field foul pole. The left field gap will be slightly deeper in SunTrust Park, where it will stand 385 feet in left center, and 375 in the left field gap, where Turner Field stood 380 and 364 respectively. The fence height will vary with location around the outfield. From the right field corner up through to the location of the bullpen in center field, the fence will be 16 feet tall. In front of the bullpen the fence drops down to 8.5 feet, and remains this height all through center and left center field. In left field the wall will be six feet tall.
I have compiled a chart of Freeman’s deep fly balls in Turner Field from the 2014, 2015, and 2016 seasons. These distances and landing markers come from the Gameday stats, so they may not be entirely accurate, but they will have to do for this exercise. The red dots show balls that cross the new SunTrust fence line, while the yellow dots show balls that came somewhat close to these new dimensions. The thick black fence line shows SunTrust Park, and the thick blue line show the old Turner Field.
Please note that, especially in right and right center, balls that cross the line may not necessarily be home runs in the new park. The 16 foot high fence may catch some of these balls, turning them into doubles or long singles. This fence will have a plain brick facing, so it is possible for balls to take weird bounces not unlike those you may see in San Francisco, for example. In fact, the Braves have made public statements suggesting they are hoping odd bounces will become a feature of the ball park. Freeman is not a very fast runner but he managed six triples this year, so perhaps a few lucky caroms could lead a few in 2017.
Take a look at those red dots, though, I count 19 balls to right and right center field that would be aided, in some manner, by the dimensions in SunTrust Park. Granted, this is over a three season time frame, so you could expect maybe 6 per season. Seven of these were hit in the 2016 season. These 19 balls turned into 7 fly outs, 9 doubles, and 3 triples. From what I can tell, Freeman wouldn’t lose any hits to the left field side of the park, he didn’t happen to hit any home runs into the area where the fence has been moved back. The one ball in the chart that looks like it may have just gone over the line was actually caught for an out.
I decided to go around the field, every 15 degrees starting on the right field line, and found the distance to the SunTrust Park fence, the Turner Field fence, the number of balls hit by Freeman, their average distance, the standard deviation of that distance, and average launch angle. I did this twice, once for all batted balls hit over 300 feet, and a second time for balls hit over 350 feet. You can see the results in the chart below.
|Angle||SunTrust Fence||Turner Fence||number||avg feet||STD Feet||avg EV||number||avg feet||STD Feet||avg EV|
|min 300 feet||min 350 feet|
From this chart you can see on balls hit down the right field line between the angles of 30 and 45 degrees, Freeman’s average distance in both of these cases exceeds the distance to the wall in SunTrust. In deep right center, the 15 degree angle, his average distance for balls hit over 350 feet exceeds the distance to the fence in SunTrust. For the rest of the field, Freeman would need to hit between a half and a full standard deviation above the mean to clear the fence.
To sum things up, this year Freeman had the greatest season of his career. There is is some reason to worry about his BABIP being far above his career average, but it isn’t very far above other high end hitters around the league and it is actually quite similar to another great first basemen: Paul Goldschmidt. Looking at his xStats, his BABIP isn’t much higher than what you would expect judging from the quality of his batted balls alone, even when factoring in his foot speed, or lack thereof. At the same time, xStats feels his home run rate may go up even further than it already has, which feels far fetched on its face and maybe should be taken with a grain of salt. However, his performance seems to have been hindered by his home ballpark, which has since been decommisioned. His new ballpark, SunTrust Park, appears to tailor to his strengths, and seven balls that failed to leave Turner Field would have, at least potentially, cleared the SunTrust Park fences. Comparing these seven balls to the six extra home field home runs xStats felt Freeman was entitled too lends some credence to the argument that Freeman’s power figures may still have some room to grow next season.
5:20: The xOBP, xSLG, and xBABIP have been updated since this was first published.