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Before He Broke His Wrist, Freddie Freeman Was Hitting Like an MVP

The Atlanta Braves star will miss at least 10 weeks after getting hit by a pitch on Wednesday

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

After wearing a 94 mph fastball from Toronto reliever Aaron Loup on Wednesday night, Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman is going to miss at least the next 10 weeks with a broken left wrist. Given the Braves’ humble preseason expectations and 16–21 record, this injury probably won’t make much of a difference in the pennant race, but it does put an end to Freeman’s most serious MVP challenge yet.

This kind of injury is one of the most frustrating in baseball; a hit-by-pitch in the torso or thighs does no damage, but a ball to a less meaty area, one that is also particularly difficult to armor, can put a player on the shelf for months. Some broken bones in the hand and wrist sap grip strength and can affect a hitter’s power long after he returns. And yet there’s no real way to prevent what happened to Freeman; on a checked swing, the difference between a serious injury and a foul ball is razor thin. Broken wrists and hands and fingers are, to some extent, the cost of doing business.

The Braves entered Thursday in second place in the NL East, but at 16–21, they were eight games behind the first-place Nationals and only three games up on the fifth-place Marlins. If we were talking about Freeman’s upcoming two-month-plus absence in terms of lost wins, they would probably determine only where in the 70s Atlanta’s win total ends up.

More interestingly, the injury puts an end to Freeman’s MVP hopes. In the first couple of seasons of his career, I was a Freeman skeptic because there’s a limit to how good a first baseman can be without either top-end power or Joey Votto–like on-base skills. Freeman was always a very good hitter, but last year he took a huge step forward, eclipsing the 30-home-run and .400 OBP plateaus for the first time in his career. And then 2017 Freeman made 2016 Freeman look like James Loney.

At the time of his injury, Freeman was hitting .341/.461/.748, leading the National League in home runs, sixth in batting average, and second in OBP, SLG, wRC+, and both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference WAR. If the MVP vote came down today, Freeman probably wouldn’t win, but only because Bryce Harper is having a similar offensive season, plays a more difficult defensive position, and — this still matters a little, even if it doesn’t matter as much as it did 10 years ago — is on a first-place team. Still, Freeman would’ve deserved and received votes, probably even first-place votes, for his performance so far.

Whether he could’ve sustained this level of production is a more complicated question. I wouldn’t expect him, or anyone else, really, to keep hitting for literally this much power over the course of a full season. Freeman’s ISO sits at .407, a mark that only two hitters (Sammy Sosa in 2001 and Barry Bonds every year from 2001 to 2004) have eclipsed in a full season since 2000. Fully a third of Freeman’s fly balls have turned into home runs this year, which is also likely unsustainable. FanGraphs publishes batted-ball data back to 2002. Since then, there have been nine 50-home-run seasons, and in only two of those — Jim Thome’s in 2002 and Ryan Howard’s in 2006 — has a hitter posted a higher HR/FB rate.

It’s not all noise, though. The biggest change in this young season has been Freeman’s walk and strikeout rates. He’s always walked a lot, and he’s never posted a Joey Gallo–like strikeout rate, but he usually strikes out about twice for every walk. This season he’s walked 27 times against 31 strikeouts, the eighth-best K/BB ratio among National League hitters and tantalizingly close to even.

Since Bonds retired, only 19 times has a hitter posted a full season of a .200 ISO and at least as many walks as strikeouts. (Albert Pujols did it four times.) Could Freeman have literally slugged .700 all year and hit close to 60 home runs if he hadn’t gotten hurt? Probably not. Could he have ended up beating Votto’s hitting line since 2015 (.316/.442/.551) and given Harper a run for his money in the MVP race? Absolutely.

In many respects, this injury isn’t that bad a break, so to speak, for Atlanta. The Braves won’t specifically miss Freeman’s production in a season when they were expected to finish fourth in the division, and the injury opens up at-bats for players whose status on the next good Atlanta team is less certain than Freeman’s. Just now, they’ve called up 22-year-old third baseman Rio Ruiz, acquired in 2015 in the Evan Gattis trade, to take Freeman’s spot on the roster. Atlanta still has a long way to go in its rebuild: Freeman’s been the face of the team for years now, Dansby Swanson and Ender Inciarte have established themselves as part of the core, and 20-year-old second-base prospect Ozzie Albies should be up in the next 12 months, but the organization’s best pitching prospects are still years away.

As for Freeman, he’ll still have the confidence of this hot two-month start, and he’s already proved that he’s one of the best first basemen in the game. The potential lingering effects of that broken wrist are worth keeping an eye on once he comes back, but at 27 years old, and with a contract that runs through 2021, he’s got plenty of time to get healthy.

The only lasting effect of this injury will be on the MVP race, which is now Harper’s to lose.