The SI.com Debate Series pits two of our writers against one another on opposing sides of a decision many fantasy owners will face during their drafts. In this installment, we look at the top of the first base position where Paul Goldschmidt squares off with Freddie Freeman.
Michael Beller makes the case for Goldschmidt over Freeman…
You know in the classic Italian restaurant scene in The Godfather when Michael tells Sollozzo that what he wants, that what’s most important to him, is that he has a guarantee that there will be no more attempts on his father’s life? And, as part of his reply, Sollozzo says, “I missed my chance,” even though he knows he’s planning on taking as many chances as he needs to get rid of Vito? That’s how I feel about Goldschmidt and Freeman, with the latter in the role of Sollozzo. No, he's not going to get whacked while right-hand man Ozzie Albies enjoys the best veal in the city, but he did miss his chance. He had an opportunity to best Goldschmidt, but it slipped away. Now, the new Cardinal is entrenched as the Don of the first base position.
Back in 2016, Goldschmidt had his worst season since his rookie year. Worst is technically correct, but the connotation feels off considering that he hit .297/.411/.489 with 25 homers, 95 RBI, 32 steals and a .382 wOBA that season. Still, Goldschmidt was better in 2013, 2014 and 2015, so, by the definition of the word, 2016 was his worst season since his rookie campaign. That was Freeman’s time, and he nearly pulled it off. After finishing sixth in NL MVP voting in 2016, he was on a Bondsian pace in 2017, hitting .341/.461/.748 with 14 homers in the first 37 games of the season. And then a fractured wrist ended the dream. He still put together an incredible season, slashing .307/.403/.586 with 28 homers, but Goldschmidt got back on top of the position. He ended that year with a .297/.404/.563 slash line, 36 homers, 120 RBI, 18 steals, and a top-three finish in NL MVP voting. Freeman missed his chance.
Fantasy baseball, really all fantasy sports, is about locking in guarantees and chasing plausible upside where you can. Goldschmidt is a rock-solid guarantee. Remember that worst season of his we just discussed? If that’s his floor, which it is, sign me up. Well, check that for a second. We’re obligated to say that’s his floor because we’ve seen him put up that season. But his average year starting with 2013 is a .301/.406/.541 slash with 30 homers, 100 RBI and 17 steals. If we put a greater weight on what he did in 2017 and 2018 compared with 2013 and 2014, which we should, the case is just as strong. In his final two years with the Diamondbacks, Goldschmidt hit .294/.396/.547 with a 140 OPS+ and seasonal averages of 34 homers, 102 RBI and 12 steals. He may not be running as much as he used to, which does take a bite out of his fantasy value, but there’s no doubt about what he’s going to do with a bat in his hands.
To his credit, there’s no doubt about what Freeman’s going to do at the plate, either. It just isn’t quite as good as what Goldschmidt does, especially in the power department. Goldschmidt has hit at least 33 homers in four of the last six years, and was on pace to do it a fifth time before being derailed by injury in 2014. Freeman has hit 33-plus homers once in his career, and almost certainly would’ve gotten to that mark without the fractured wrist in 2017. It’s nearly a wash between these two, but I’ll take my chances with Goldschmidt in both the power and on-base departments. Team context feels about equal, but I’ll take right-handed power at Busch Stadium over left-handed power at SunTrust Park, as well. This is close, and I’ll be happy with either, but if I have my choice between the two, I’m taking Goldschmidt.
Kaelen Jones makes the case for Freeman over Goldschmidt…
The Godfather? Isn’t that movie like 50 years old? Just like his movie taste, Beller’s fantasy baseball preferences at first base are stuck in the past.
I put together the first base rankings for SI’s fantasy baseball draft magazine, and I went back and forth on this one for a while before ultimately landing on Freeman. He didn’t have his best year in 2018, but it was still fantastic by nearly anyone else’s standards. Freeman hit .309/.388/.505 with 23 homers, 44 doubles and 98 RBI, earning a trip to the All-Star Game and finishing fourth in NL MVP voting. Just as importantly, he quelled any concern about his durability after the fractured wrist Beller mentioned cut into his 2017 season. He played in all 162 games for the Braves, helping lead the team back to the postseason for the first time since 2013.
Freeman is a known commodity at this stage of his career. He’s a contact-heavy batter who attacks the first pitch more than anyone in the league, which helps him make the most of his good, but not great, pop. That he knows who he is and has refined his approach is one of his biggest strengths, and should have fantasy owners confident in his high floor.
Admittedly, Goldschmidt held advantages in most of the advanced metrics prized by forward-thinking baseball fans, most notably HR/FB ratio. Freeman did, however, post better numbers than Goldy in three of the stickier marks: contact rate (78.6% for Freeman, 70.8% for Goldschmidt) strikeout rate (18.7% for Freeman, 25.1% for Goldschmidt), and BB/K ratio (0.58 for Freeman, 0.52 for Goldschmidt). Those metrics suggest that Freeman won’t deviate much, if at all, from the trajectory he’s been on his entire career. What’s more, that floor could act as a launching pad this season.
A landmark piece by Baseball Prospectus in 2010 on the Age-27 Theory in baseball, suggested that players enter their physical prime that season and remain in it until they hit 30, with peaks commonly forming in age-29 seasons.. Freeman turned 29 last September. If you believe that theory, which has more than enough supporting evidence to buy into in the right instances, Freeman could be on the cusp of his best season. That’s an exciting thought.
Freeman’s career-highs to this point are 34 home runs (2016), 109 RBI (2013) and 10 stolen bases (2018). Over the past three seasons, he has slashed .306/.396/.549. If 29 proves to be the magic age for him, as it has for so many player before him, those numbers could all come together in one monster season that would have him ahead of Goldschmidt in the first base rankings.
Goldschmidt is an understandable choice at the position and in the middle of the second round in any fantasy draft. He’s an understandable choice ahead of Freeman, despite the strong argument I’ve just made in the other direction. Going that way, however, would sell Freeman short on the growth he has made in his late-20s. You want to be ahead of the curve in, well, all areas of life. That goes for your fantasy baseball leagues, too. Freeman over Goldschmidt is the fantasy baseball’s purest distillation of being ahead of the curve.