Braves Offense Position-By-Position Breakdown: 1st Base

This is the second in a series of posts that examines the Braves' 2011 offensive performance at each position and looks ahead to the 2012 season. The first part discussed the Braves' catchers. Today, we focus on Freddie Freeman and 1st base.

Coming into the 2011 season, it was hard to know what to expect from Freddie Freeman. Such is the case for any prospect who is handed a full-time job with very little major league experience. (We'll run into this exact problem when discussing Tyler Pastornicky later in this series.)

I think it's fair to say that Freeman's hitting performance in 2011 was near the high end of the expectations. He was not a dominant offensive force along the lines of some other 1st basemen, but he was one of the Braves' better hitters most of the year. The hitting standards are very high at 1st base, but Freeman measured up fairly well, especially when you consider his age.

Below, I've used Weighted Runs Created (wRC) to break down Freeman's performance relative to other teams' first basemen. Remember, wRC is just a more useful version of runs scored or RBIs; it's on the same scale and everything.

By the way, Freeman is the only Brave to have the plurality of his plate appearances at 1st base, so he's the only player in this comparison. Several other teams, including the top 2, had only one qualified 1B. Okay, here's the graphic (please click on it to see it full-size):

Braves-wrc-1b_medium

Analysis and projections for 2012 after the jump.

Overall, Freeman was slightly above-average for his position, at least on a rate basis. The Braves' overall total suffers a bit from only having Freeman's total, but the other players to man 1B (mostly Eric Hinske) only hit .244 / .333 / .356 in 52 PAs, so it's not a huge injustice.

Freeman was a long ways off from the production of Joey Votto or Prince Fielder, but he was also quite a bit better than guys like Aubrey Huff and Lyle Overbay. For a 21-year-old, that's an impressive season.

The question going forward is whether Freeman will be able to build on his strong rookie season, or whether he will fall victim to that oft-cited bogeyman, "the sophomore slump." Leaving aside the particulars of Freeman's case for a moment, I should point out the in most cases the "slump" is merely a matter of players who overachieved in their first season returning to their expected level of performance. In other words, the first year is more often the out-of-whack performance.

Okay, back to Freddie. What do the projection systems think he'll do in 2012? Bill James, as the graphic shows, thinks he'll do basically the same as in 2011. A bit worse in terms of total wRC because of fewer plate appearances, but a bit better on a rate basis.

The fan projections at FanGraphs think Freeman will improve slightly, to a total of 91 wRC and a rate of 100 wRC per 700 PAs. Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system projects him to hit at almost exactly the same rate as in 2011, though again in fewer PAs. ZiPS doesn't give wRC, but based on the .279 / .344 / .455 projection, I'd estimate the wRC projection to be a bit below Bill James'. Maybe 80 to 82 wRC overall, and 94-96 wRC per 700 PAs.

These projections tell us that we should expect Freeman to hit at roughly the same levels as last year. Of course, none of them have much reliable data to go on. They're all assuming, for instance, that Freeman's Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) remains high--it was 44 points above the league average in 2011. This is, of course, far from certain. His BABIP could fall either because its natural level is closer to .300 or because BABIP is just a really, really volatile stat. Or it could even go up, especially if Freeman's natural skill level really is in the .330 to .340 range.

What I'm trying to get at is that there is a great deal more uncertainty in Freeman's projections than there are in, say, Brian McCann's. I agree with the projections that the median expectation should be that Freeman will remain a middle-tier 1st baseman, but I would not be all that surprised to see him end 2012 in the top tier... or struggle so badly that he gets Constanza'd late in the year.

I know we're entering the time of year when hope rules, but even good players have bad seasons sometimes. Braves fans should not expect such a disaster, but we also shouldn't assume that the chances are all that slim. We have a better idea today than we did a year ago about Freddie Freeman's hitting ability, but we are still a long way from knowing how good he really is.

Hopefully by this time next year, we'll have twice as much data to back up the notion that Freeman is a solid (or better) big-league first baseman.

In Friday's 3rd installment, we'll look at 2nd base, where Dan Uggla had perhaps the worst half-season and the best half-season of any Brave.

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