Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning you’ll get a fresh, topical column to start your day from one of SI.com’s MLB writers.
The Braves were at a crossroads in 2014. The previous year, they’d lost in the National League Division Series to the Dodgers and appeared to be a cut below the crop of World Series contenders. A rebuild was on the horizon, and the team decided it would keep only one of its two homegrown star hitters on the payroll through its looming race to the bottom.
Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward had come up through the minor leagues together after they were both drafted by the Braves in 2007; Heyward in the first round, Freeman, the second. Heyward hit a home run in his first career MLB at bat, made the All-Star team in his debut season and narrowly finished second in the ’10 Rookie of the Year voting to Buster Posey. Freeman went 0-for-3 with a strikeout, a double play and a groundout in his first career game, and he finished second in the ’11 Rookie of the Year voting in blowout fashion to teammate Craig Kimbrel, who garnered every first-place vote.
Most Braves fans wanted the team to retain Heyward if they had to choose one. Heyward is from the Atlanta area and had always been seen as having a higher ceiling as a former five-tool prospect. Freeman is a California native who simply didn’t elicit the same type of collective embrace from the fan base despite finishing fifth in the MVP voting in 2013, when he also matched Heyward’s lone All-Star selection. Nevertheless, the Braves signed Freeman to a franchise record eight-year, $135 million contract ahead of the ’14 season. After that campaign went awry and ended with a 79–83 record, Heyward was traded to the Cardinals, officially kicking off Atlanta’s first full-fledged rebuild since the 1980s.
Seven years later, it’s clear the Braves chose the right hitter to keep around. Heyward’s 131 OPS+ as a rookie remains the best output of his career, and his All-Star berth that year is his only one. Freeman has become Chipper Jones’s true heir as the face of the franchise, leading Atlanta through the depths of three straight 90-loss seasons and into three straight playoff appearances, earning three consecutive starts at first base for the NL All-Star team and last year becoming the first Brave since Jones (1999) to be named MVP. On Wednesday, he became the first Braves player since they moved to Atlanta, the fifth first baseman and the 28th player in modern MLB history to hit for the cycle for the second time in his career, completing the feat in just six innings against the Marlins.
A cycle, or even two, is far from a reliable predictor for future enshrinement in Cooperstown. But with the Braves suddenly atop the NL East once again and Freeman in the mix to repeat as MVP in a crowded race, it seems like as good of a jumping point as any to assess the 31-year-old’s burgeoning Hall of Fame case.
First, let’s focus on how Freeman became the first first baseman to win the MVP since Joey Votto (2010), an accomplishment that changed the calculus of his candidacy. Because of his position’s relatively low effect on defense, he needed to establish a huge advantage on offense. And that’s exactly what he did, leading the majors in doubles, runs, win probability added and fWAR in the abbreviated 2020 campaign. He also ranked in the top two in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, total bases and RBIs. The only other first basemen to lead the league in fWAR this century are Votto (2010), Albert Pujols (2006, 2008) and Jason Giambi (2001).
It wasn’t a fluke. He was in the discussion for MVP in 2019, too, before two bone spurs and three fragments in his elbow contributed to a September swoon that knocked him out of the race. He underwent surgery during that offseason and has been on a career-defining tear ever since. While detractors could view Freeman’s MVP as mattering less because it came in the 60-game season, you could also take the view that he was robbed of racking up counting stats when his bat was at its best.
After a disappointing start to the 2021 season, the lanky lefty with the short, sweet swing was pegged by Sports Illustrated’s Nick Selbe in June as a candidate to bounce back from a slow start. Freeman slashed .195/.326/.407 in his first 31 games through May 7. He’s now at .301/.399/.520, leads the NL in runs (90), ranks second in total bases (233) and win probability added (3.3), and third in hits (135) and on-base percentage (.399). He’s also been at his best during Atlanta’s climb atop the NL East standings. The Braves are 13–3 in August, and in those 16 games, he's hitting .377/.433/.623 with four homers. His 1.056 OPS in August comes after he put up a 1.063 OPS in July. Both of those marks are somehow below his astronomical 1.102 OPS in his 60-game romp last year.
At a time when first basemen have never been less proficient at the plate, Freeman stands as the rare breed who’s improved his plate discipline and maintained his ability to hit for average while also ramping up his power. He’s finished in the top 10 of MVP voting five times and appears set for a sixth time in 2021. He’s led the league in times on base—the intrinsic goal of hitting—five times. Dating back to 2016, 10 first baseman have batted .300. None have done it more than twice other than Freeman, who’s done it four times and is on pace to do it again this year. He, Votto, Paul Goldschmidt and Anthony Rizzo are the only first basemen to post an on-base percentage above .400 during that span, with the first three each having done it three times. He’s the only one of that group to slug north of .550 multiple times—and he’s done it thrice.
It’s down to Freeman or Votto for the title of best first baseman of the millennial generation, with Votto’s MVP win coming in 2010 and Freeman’s in ’20. (Some of Miguel Cabrera’s best years, including his two MVP seasons, came at third base, and Old Man Albert Pujols was born one year too early.) Votto turns 38 on Sept. 10, while Freeman turns 32 two days later.
(Aside: Apparently, Virgos make good first basemen. Goldschmidt, who is four years younger than Votto, and Hall of Famer George "High Pockets" Kelly were also born Sept. 10. The top Google result for “Virgo traits” describes them as “perfectionists at heart and aren’t afraid to improve skills through diligent and consistent practice” … so, actually, maybe astrology is real? Then again, SI MLB editor Matt Martell is also a Sept. 10 millennial, so maybe this is all meaningless.)
A panel of four MLB.com voters unanimously deemed Votto a future Hall of Famer this week; Freeman is on that same trajectory. Through his current age-31 season, Baseball-Reference’s similarity score has consistently likened him to Hall of Famer Eddie Murray (who played regularly through age 40 and ended up with 503 career homers despite never hitting 40 in a season) and HOF-caliber slugger Rafael Palmeiro, who found another level of power in his 30s that was tainted by a failed steroid test in 2005. To get a contemporary comparison, let’s look at Votto’s statistics through his age-31 season against Freeman’s career thus far.
Votto has the advantage in every rate category, Freeman leads in home runs and they split the two popular versions of WAR. While it’s worth noting Freeman can add to the totals displayed in this table for the rest of this season, this doesn’t paint the prettiest picture for him. It’s not unreasonable to think his 30s will be more fruitful than Votto’s after the Reds’ first baseman endured a three-year decline at the plate before his 2021 resurgence, but Votto also nearly added another MVP to his ledger in ’17 when he compiled a career-high 8.1 bWAR during his age-33 season.
While his relatively pedestrian numbers in his 20s likely leave Freeman with too much ground to catch up to the inner circle of first basemen in Cooperstown, his peak has begun to clear a path for enshrinement. His career 139 OPS+ is above the likes of Murray and Tony Perez, two of the four first basemen inducted by the writers since 2000 (Pujols and Votto figure to join them before Freeman). A few more 5.0 WAR seasons—of which he’s on pace for in ’21—would greatly enhance his standing in JAWS, a metric designed by former SI writer Jay Jaffe, currently of FanGraphs, to measure Hall credentials.
And if Freeman’s statistics don't end up as outstanding arguments for induction, his most important piece of individual hardware could serve as the tipping point for voters.
The deciding factor could be whether Freeman wins another MVP, perhaps his second straight while leading Atlanta to another division crown. Though this wouldn't necessarily clinch him a bust, the odds would increase significantly. Of the 31 men who have won multiple MVPs, only two retired players who haven’t been connected to PEDs aren’t in the Hall of Fame. One of them is Roger Maris (another Sept. 10 birthday!), who retired after his age-33 season. The other was, like Freeman, a widely beloved figure who long served as the face of the Braves: Dale Murphy, who was on a clear Hall of Fame track before a sharp production decline. His last All-Star season came when he was 31. From ages 32 to 37, Murphy was a below-league-average hitter (96 OPS+) and amassed 4.9 bWAR; this after he averaged 5.3 bWAR per year from ages 24 to 31.
Watch MLB games online all season long with fuboTV: Start with a 7-day free trial!
If Freeman needs any extra motivation in his quest toward Cooperstown, all he needs to do is look up into Truist Park’s left field stands at Murphy’s retired No. 3. Freeman’s No. 5 seems like a solid bet to hang directly beside it one day. But with the way Atlanta’s adopted son has been hitting over the past several years, he’s earned the right to set his sights even higher. Freeman's next five years—when he will be the same ages that Murphy was when he turned from MVP candidate to replacement-level veteran—either will bolster or curtail his Hall of Fame case.
Injuries diminished the Hall of Fame résumés of Murphy and Andruw Jones, another Braves star whose decline was even sharper than Murphy's. Both of them were Gold Glove center fielders, and patrolling the outfield is a far more physically demanding duty than Freeman has playing first base. The pending implementation of the DH in the NL should also help preserve Freeman's health, allowing the occasional day off from playing the field.
Freeman is a free agent after this season. The Braves will almost certainly make the same decision they did back in 2014 and re-sign him to a long-term deal. The future looks much better than it did then—for the Braves, Freeman and his Hall of Fame case.
More MLB Coverage:
• Angels’ David Fletcher Is Baseball’s Most Anonymous Talent
• Can the Padres Hold Their Playoff Spot?
• Return of Bruised Bombers Bolsters Red-Hot Yankees
• Toronto’s Playoff Hopes Dwindle as Losses Pile Up
Sports Illustrated may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.