Freddie Freeman swapped titles on Thursday night.
The Braves first baseman no longer is the most underrated player in baseball, the label he’s unofficially carried for a few years now, at least from a national perspective.
Freeman’s new title: 2020 National League MVP.
And, folks, it’s about damn time.
Not about time that he won the NL MVP award, to be clear. Freeman had four top-eight MVP finishes heading into 2020, but here’s the truth: It’s not like he was robbed of winning the award any of those seasons. He finished fifth in 2013, sixth in 2016, fourth in 2018 and eighth in 2019, and that’s right about where he should have finished each of those seasons, give or take a spot or two. And when he finished second in the 2011 NL Rookie of the Year voting, that’s probably exactly where he should have finished, too, a spot behind Braves teammate and ninth-inning sensation Craig Kimbrel.
The 60-game 2020 season was the first for which you could legitimately make the argument that not only did Freeman deserve to be in the first-place MVP conversation, but that he deserved to actually win. And 2020 was, indeed, the first time Freeman received even a single first-place vote.
And, again, to be clear, saying Freeman “only” deserved to finish in the top eight of the NL MVP voting in the four best full seasons of his career — he played only 118 games in 2015 and 117 in 2017 — is by no means a slight.
If anything, it’s proof as to why we should stop calling him underrated, even if it’s meant as a compliment.
Bryce Harper said last month that Freddie Freeman is the most underrated player in the game, and Josh Tomlin used the same verbiage earlier today. Nice compliments.
Yet it’s a wonder why Freeman is still classified as “underrated”… pic.twitter.com/FALPRLO8vJ
— Daniel Kramer (@DKramer_) September 11, 2020
Over the past eight years, Freeman has received MVP votes every time he’s played at least 75 percent of his team’s games. That’s a decent amount of love.
The “underrated” talk has existed for years. Braves fans will scream it from the rafters every time his name is brought up, which is why ESPN’s Buster Olney saying it in 2018 was like throwing red meat into a lion’s den.
And Phillies outfielder Bryce Harper stoked that fire again this summer, when he was mic’d up during a game against the Braves this season.
The thing about the word “underrated” is this: That word can mean many, many things. For some, probably Braves fans in particular, it means those in baseball don’t whisper Freeman’s name in the same breath with Mike Trout and Mookie Betts, and that makes him underrated. That seems … picky.
For others, including bigger-picture stars like Harper, they likely say Freeman is underrated because he’s not known nationally, outside of baseball circles. And that’s almost certainly true, but it’s also worth noting that the list of baseball players known outside the sport’s fan base is not lengthy.
The Braves certainly don’t underrate Freeman, and haven’t for quite a while. They signed him to an eight-year, $135 million deal in February 2014, which covered his final three years of arbitration and five potential free-agent years. We’ll see how much they value him going forward; his contract expires after the 2021 season, when he’ll be just 32 and looking at another healthy multiyear contract.
Here’s another truth: In 2020, Freeman took his already superb game to another level. His season is perhaps even more impressive when you consider that it began just weeks after a serious bout with COVID-19.
Let’s compare his cumulative numbers from 2013 — the year he finished fifth in the MVP voting — through 2019 to his 2020 numbers.
2013-19: .300/.390/.520, .910 OPS, 143 OPS+
2020: .341/.462/.640, 1.102, 186 OPS+
He’s always been good with runners in scoring position, but he was unconscious in 2020, batting .423 with a .583 on-base percentage, boosting his career numbers to .324 and .443.
In the advanced metrics, he posted career highs in wRC+ (187, topping 152), wOBA (.456, topping .407), ISO (.299, topping .280). Oh, and for the first time in his career, Freeman walked more times (45) than he struck out (37).
So, yes, 2020 is the first time Freeman deserves to be called NL MVP, but it’s way past time for people to stop underrating him.