The Atlanta Braves have the best record in the National League and Freddie Freeman has been the Braves best offensive player this year. As a result, there is a large contingent of Braves fans who have argued that Freeman should “be in the MVP discussion.” There seems to be a widespread feeling that if Freeman doesn’t actually win the award, he is being disrespected if he isn’t “in the discussion.” To me, the idea that Freeman should win the award or has some need to be in the conversation seems rather silly and unnecessary.
First off, the idea of being in the conversation seems odd. The conversation should be “here is the player I think should win the award” versus the player someone else thinks should win the award. In other words, if you are not arguing Freeman should finish first in the voting then there is no need to argue he should be in the conversation. In my opinion, the only NL players who can reasonably be argued as deserving of the NL MVP are Andrew McCutchen, Clayton Kershaw and, maybe, Matt Carpenter. No other player can reasonably be argued as the NL MVP; therefore, no other player needs to be in the conversation.
Of course, there are some fans and Atlanta media members who would argue that Freeman should finish first and win the award. Most of their arguments for Freeman are based on the classic Triple Crown stats, especially RBI. If you look just at batting average, RBI, and homeruns, then Freeman’s case becomes rather strong compared to the guy I see as the MVP frontrunner, Andrew McCutchen. Freeman has a .315 avg, 23 homeruns, and 106 RBI. McCutchen leads Freeman in avg with .320 but trails Freeman with only 20 homers and 83 RBI. In a world where those three stats are the only tools available for measuring a player’s value, Freeman has a rather strong case against McCutchen. Luckily in 2013, we have many more ways to measure a baseball player’s value and these tools are far more effective than the Triple Crown stats.
I don’t like the Triple Crown stats as a tool for evaluating players as two of the three stats are flawed and misleading. Batting average ignores walks while also treating a single and a triple as being of equal value when they obviously are not equal. RBI is a stat that shouldn’t be used when evaluating individual players because it is dependent upon other players on the team being on base when a batter gets his hits. Since an RBI is so dependent upon a player’s teammates, it really should be treated as a team stat more so than an individual stat. Much better tools for evaluating a player’s offense is on base percentage which credits a player for reaching via a walk unlike batting average and slugging percentage which gives measures a player’s ability to hit for power. On base percentage is much better as it measures every plate appearance for a hitter and not just the arbitrarily selected group of “at bats.”
McCutchen has a .405 OBP compared to Freeman’s .393, which while not a huge difference is certainly points in McCutchen’s favor. Slugging percentage gives a player more credit for a double than for a single as a double is obviously more valuable. McCutchen leads Freeman in slugging with a .509 percentage as compared to Freeman’s .500.
Again a tiny difference, but McCutchen has hit for slightly more power than Freeman, a fact that would not be obvious if we could only measure power by home runs. According to Fangraphs’ measurement of both players total walks, singles, doubles, triples and homers, McCutchen has been 55 percent better than league average from the plate, while Freeman has been 48 percent better. This number also adjusts for what parks both players got their hits in. Basically, this adjustment counts a homer in Coors Field as less valuable than a homer in Dodgers Stadium as it is much easier to hit a homer in Coors Field than any other park. What this says is that while Freeman leads McCutchen in the triple crown stats, when accounting for the relative value of each players hits and adjusting for what park their hits have come in McCutchen has been 7 percent better as a hitter than Freeman has.
Now, the difference in the two player’s offensive games isn’t huge so the argument is not over with their offense. Unfortunately, for Freeman supporters it’s all the other ways a player can add value where the gulf between the two players starts to widen. McCutchen is a centerfielder while Freeman is a first basemen and this matters when evaluating a player’s value because first base is the easiest position on the field to play while centerfield is one of the most difficult (along with catcher & shortstop.) First base is where a team stashes its lumbering slugger who mashes the ball but can barely move in the field. Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, and other players of that ilk play first base.
While Freeman is a very good defensive first baseman, being a good defensive first baseman adds very little value to a team because the position is so easy to field relative to the other positions. According to Fangraph’s reckoning, Freeman has been worth -8.2 runs in the field relative to league average. Now, this may seem overly harsh but what is important to understand is that no National League first baseman has added positive value in the field this year. This is because first base is so unimportant a defensive position relative to the other positions that even the best first basemen cannot add value with his defense relative to the league average.
McCutchen has been the 8th best defensive centerfielder in the NL according to Fangraphs. This may not seems impressive, but by being the 8th best centerfielder McCutchen has saved his team 8 runs with his defense while Freeman has cost his team 8 runs. This shows that being a good centerfielder is worth far more defensively than being the best first basemen which Freeman has not been. Essentially a first baseman has to add all of his value to a team with his offense. For a first baseman to be a realistic MVP candidate, he has to be the best offensive player in the league and be a noticeably better hitter than any player at one of the premium positions on the field. Freeman has had a great season but he isn’t the best offensive player in the NL. That distinction would belong to his fellow first basemen Paul Goldschmidt & Joey Votto (with Freeman also trailing Goldschmidt in defensive value as well.)
Overall, Fangraphs rates Freeman’s offense as having been worth 32.1 runs above average while McCuthen’s offense has been worth 46.2 runs (this number also accounts for baserunning where McCutchen leads Freeman comfortably.) McCutchen has been 14.1 more runs than Freeman on offense and has been worth 15.7 more runs on defense for a total of 29.8 more runs created by McCutchen than by Freeman. There really is no argument to be made that despite that difference of nearly 30 runs worth of value between the two that Freeman has been more valuable than McCutchen.
To me, McCutchen is the clear NL MVP, but other candidates are out there who have a better argument for the award than Freeman. Fellow first basemen JoeyVotto and Paul Goldschmidt have been better offensive players, while Goldschmidt has saved the second-most runs of any NL first basemen. Matt Carpenter has gotten on base at a higher rate than Freeman while hitting for slightly less power, but when adjustments for park factors are made, he has been a better offensive player. Carpenter’s defense and baserunning put him solidly ahead of Freeman in terms of total value added and, in fact, Carpenter has added the second most value to his team of any NL player (trailing McCutchen). Clayton Kershaw has been the best pitcher in the NL and pitchers deserve more consideration for this award than they get. Even fellow Brave Andrelton Simmons could be argued to have been more valuable than Freeman, as he has arguably had the greatest defensive season in the history of baseball. There just isn’t much of an argument for the idea that Freeman has been the single best (and most valuable) player in the National League this year.
None of this is to disparage Freddie Freeman who has had an outstanding season and has been a major reason why my favorite team has the best record in the National League. The thing to understand is that just because a team has played as well as the Braves have doesn’t automatically mean that one of their players has been the best player in the league. What has really defined the Braves this year is the total team effort that winning has been. The Braves have six position players in the top 40 in player value in the NL this year. The pitching staff has allowed the fewest runs in baseball despite not having a Cy Young candidate. Instead of searching for a star to glorify, Braves fans should take pride in the total team effort and the unexpected contributions of players like David Carpenter, Evan Gattis, and Chris Johnson that has led to the team’s first division title in 8 years. This is a true team and one that Braves fans can be proud.
No, Freddie Freeman isn’t the NL MVP. But that’s okay, he is still awesome and the Braves are still (hopefully) going to win the World Series.