Let me get this out of the way first … I am most assuredly not trolling Braves fans with this column. It’s merely happenstance that I came across this subject so soon after I came across the argument, put forth by generally reputable denizens of the broadcast booth, that Craig Kimbrel’s as good a Cy Young candidate as Clayton Kershaw. Maybe better!
Or maybe not.
Then, a bit of reverse-trolling. A particularly suspicious Braves fan might have considered my ode to Andrelton Simmons merely a transparent bit of penance for all those terrible things I wrote about Craig Kimbrel and 21st Century closers. Now, I do have a notebook in which I record story ideas, and I wrote down the Simmons story idea before Kimbrel’s Cy Young candidacy came across my desk.
But there’s just no convincing some people. Which I will now anti-prove by writing yet another piece about another outstanding Atlanta Brave. Here’s the lede to a recent column by Atlanta columnist Dave O’Brien:
On the Braves’ last road trip, a national baseball writer and a St. Louis writer both mentioned to me that Freddie Freeman would probably be in their top five for National League MVP, and both said it with a tone of surprise.
FreddieFree has that way with people who don’t see him play every day. His performance is so consistent and strong, yet so understated and devoid of flash, that voters look at his season numbers and watch him play defense and think to themselves, why come this guy isn’t mentioned more as a top MVP candidate?
So that’s the lede. You might notice that O’Brien doesn’t begin by asking if Freddie Freeman merits the status of a top-flight Most Valuable Player candidate. Rather, he begins with the assumption — courtesy of a couple of anonymous fellow scribes — that Freeman is a top candidate. Everything that follows, we realize already, will exist to support that assumption.
Why come, indeed.
The argument for Freeman boils down to a couple of things, which are related. The first is that he’s the best player on one of the best teams:
But on balance, over the course of the season, Freeman has been the Braves’ best hitter and most valuable player.
He’s hitting .307 (11th in the NL) with 44 extra-base hits, a .385 OBP (eighth in the NL) and an .868 OPS (ninth in the NL), and he’s fourth in the league with 93 RBIs in 466 at-bats. All others among the NL’s top-five RBI leaders have more than 500 at-bats (Freeman had a DL stint for an oblique strain in April).
Best hitter and strong defender at a key position on the team with baseball’s best record? Yeah, I’d say that warrants at least top-five MVP consideration.
First base is indeed a key position. Approximately as key as second base, shortstop, third base, left field, center field, right field, and catcher. Or maybe slightly less key, if you believe — as many people do — that the up-the-middle positions are slightly more key than the corner positions. This might be the first time that anyone has argued that a first baseman should MVP bonus points for his position. But hey, first isn’t necessarily wrong.
The second thing: Freeman’s clutch hitting makes him more valuable than his rate stats might suggest.
Basically it’s been a case of, the more important the situation, the better Freeman has been. With runners in scoring position, he’s second in the majors with a .439 average (50-for-114) with 14 extra-base hits, 26 walks, 23 strikeouts, a .535 OBP and .658 slugging percentage.
In all situations with runners on base, Freeman is third in the NL with a .360 average (80-for-222) with 11 homers, a .438 OBP and .563 slugging percentage. With none on base, he’s hit .258 (63-for-244) with seven homers, a .335 OBP and .410 slugging percentage.
Hey, clutch hitting matters! It might not affect our opinion of Freeman’s skills, but it might certainly change our opinion of his contributions to this point.
Now, there are different ways to include a player’s clutch contributions in his overall value, and Freeman scores well in all of those. By the most basic measure, Freeman’s third … behind two first baseman and well behind one of them (the amazing Paul Goldschmidt). And I could run through more of them, but Freeman doesn’t come out ahead of Goldschmidt in any of them.
Ah, but Goldschmidt doesn’t play on a playoff team. So there’s your argument, and it’s actually an argument that’s carried the day many times: Freeman’s the big RBI man on a first-place team. Right now, Freeman’s got the third-most RBI’s on a postseason team … and the two guys ahead of him — Brandon Phillips and Allen Craig — aren’t having otherwise-great seasons.
The problem is that, aside from his excellent (if hardly sublime) hitting, Freeman just doesn’t put wins on the scoreboard. He’s decent with the glove, and a zero on the basepaths. He’s an excellent player, but isn’t the best or even the second-best first baseman in the National League. Joey Votto’s at the head of the class, and then Goldschmidt. Freeman’s young, and might someday be No. 1. But he isn’t yet. Let alone No. 1 in the league.
Is he “in the conversation,” though? We just had a conversation. The MVP ballot goes 10 deep, but I’m not going to spend the hours it would take to come up with an ideal 10th-place candidate. Here are my top five, though, in approximate order:
1. Andrew McCutchen
2. David Wright
3. Joey Votto
4. Paul Goldschmidt
5. Yadier Molina
Hey, I said it was approximate. There’s as much art to this as science. And I’m no artist.
For much more about the Braves and their many MVP candidates, please visit SB Nation’s Talking Chop.