Braves Extension Analysis: Freddie Freeman

Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

Freddie Freeman has held his own in the majors at age 21 & 22, leading some to predict a breakout 2013 season. Should the Braves try to extend him now, and if so, how much would that cost?

This is the third in my series on possible extensions for the Braves' young core players. The first post covered Martin Prado, while the second looked at Jason Heyward. The TC readers' consensus for a Heyward deal was around $81M over 6 years, by the way--exactly in line with my projected contract.

There is fairly broad consensus that extending Prado and Heyward would be beneficial for the Braves, provided the price is right. However, while the Braves have a bevy of other potential extension candidates, none of the other cases are nearly so clear-cut.

This post will focus on the Braves' solid young 1st baseman, Freddie Freeman. The case against offering him an extension is fairly simple: there's no rush. Freeman isn't even eligible for arbitration until after the 2013 season. What's more, while a good player, Freeman doesn't project to become a superstar (as Heyward does), so locking up his FA years seems less helpful.

There is a solid case to be made for extending Freeman, however (though not until after Heyward, at least, is locked up). The idea is that Freeman is likely going to play better in the future, and thus it would be best to lock him up now while his perceived value is relatively low. This case is most persuasive if you believe something like this:

I know a lot of Braves fans believe this will happen, too* (I'm not so sure, though I am fairly optimistic). If Freeman really is headed for a breakout 2013, then the time to sign him to an extension is now, before his value skyrockets. Because of this possibility, it's worthwhile to take a look at what it might take to extend Freeman.

* See also Jeff Sullivan's excellent FanGraphs piece on Freeman and "teases."

In this post, I'll use the same three criteria from the earlier posts to project a "fair" value for a six-year contract, which would buy out two of Freeman's free-agency years. I'll also add in a team option for 2019 (Freeman's age-29 season), as is typical for deals signed this early in a player's career.

I'll use the same three criteria from the previous posts to determine a fair value for the contract:

  • What is the player's present value?
  • What are the chances that he can maintain this value in the future?
  • How much did comparable players make in their extensions?

Let's start with the simplest of these questions:

What is Freeman's Present Value?

Because Freeman hasn't entered the arbitration process, that can't help us. We'll have to focus simply on his statistics to this point. Here's what Freeman's averaged in his two full years:

PA HR BABIP BB% K% BA OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
628 22 .317 9.3% 21.6% .271 .343 .452 .345 117

Those are very good numbers, just a bit shy of Heyward's. Unlike with Heyward, however, the fuller context of those offensive stats does not do Freeman any favors. Whereas Heyward offers a huge amount of defensive and baserunning value, Freeman offers very little (if any).

Plus, Freeman plays 1st base, where the offensive standards are particularly high. Since 2011, Freeman ranks 13th out of 34 1st basemen in wRC+, making him just slightly above average offensively for his position. And he's much closer to guys like Mark Trumbo and Mark Reynolds than he is to the cream of the crop like Joey Votto and Prince Fielder. In other words, Freeman's position offsets much of his hitting value.

Further deflating Freeman's value are his defensive ratings, which range from average (+1 in Defensive Runs Saved over the two years) to subpar (-7 in Total Zone) to abysmal (-17 in Ultimate Zone Rating). Of course, Freeman's only played two years, and those stats need at least three years to get a good read on a player. Rather than get into the nitty gritty of regression and comparing the systems, I'll just ballpark it and say he's most likely a few runs below average per year.

This all goes to explain why Freeman's Wins Above Replacement numbers aren't that impressive despite his hitting skills. Both systems agree that he's totaled only about 3 WAR so far in his career, total (3.3 WAR by Baseball-Reference, 2.7 WAR by FanGraphs). That's a bit below average for a regular player.

Given the uncertainties in the defensive numbers, though, we should probably give Freeman a bit of a break in that department. With a different random fluctuation, he could easily have been worth more than 2.0 WAR/year. A 2-WAR player is worth a salary of roughly $9M per year.

Using $9M as a baseline, and using the 40/60/80 rule of thumb for arbitration salaries, we get a value of around $17M for the first 4 years of the deal. Pricing the last two at $9M each brings the total value of the 6-year contract to $35M.

That's affordable enough that I don't even think I need to apply an "extension discount" like I did in the previous posts. Of course, there's really no point in extending Freeman if you think he's only a 2-WAR player. The risk/reward ratio on a long deal just isn't worth it unless the player is going to be above average. But the whole point of this exercise is that we're guessing Freeman will improve--perhaps significantly. Let's look at those chances.

What are the chances Freeman will improve his value?

As mentioned above, there is good reason to believe that Freeman will break out in 2013. For one, you've got his age, which implies that he's yet to hit his peak. Many also have pointed out that Freeman had a stellar second half (.269 / .372 / .476 from June 26th on, despite being pretty bad in the last month), though that involves playing the arbitrary-endpoint game.

Also, while Freeman's overall offensive numbers remained almost eerily static from '11 to '12, he actually made some real strides in his peripherals. Namely, in 2012 Freeman increased his walk rate by 2%, lowered his K rate by 2%, increased his isolated power by 30 points, and hit 3% more line drives and 2% more fly balls. It's just that all of that progress was negated by a 44-point drop in batting average on balls in play.

If Freeman's "true" BABIP is closer to his .339 mark from 2011, then we should expect bigger numbers from him in 2013 even if he doesn't improve on his 2012 peripherals. That is a moot point, though, if his true BABIP is more like 2012's .295 mark (which is, after all, roughly the league average).

======

Like I did in the other analyses, I looked for comparable players to find a baseline for our future expectations. I took a bit of a different tack with Freeman, however: because there's such uncertainty with his defense, I looked only at offensive production.

Another complication is Freeman's combination of youth and position. In 2011-12, Freeman became the first 1B since Ed Kranepool 1965-67 to post consecutive seasons of 500+ PA by the age of 22. (Oddly enough, the Royals' Eric Hosmer also did it the past two seasons.) There just aren't many young first basemen to compare Freeman to.

Players that young most often start out at other positions, even if they are destined to end up at 1st base (Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera are two excellent recent examples). Accordingly, I expanded my search to include anyone who had played at least 30% of the time in a corner spot (LF/RF/3B/1B).

The batting runs component of Baseball-Reference's WAR served as my guidepost. I looked for all corner players since integration (1947) who, through their age-22 seasons, had at least 1000 PAs and a batting runs total between +5 and +40 (Freeman's at +20).

The result is a list of 23* players ranging from Barry Bonds to Clint Hurdle (full list here). The 23 players include 2 Hall of Famers (George Brett and Carl Yastrzemski) and two players on the current ballot (Bonds and Tim Raines) who have good cases, but the bulk of the list is solid-to-good players rather than great ones.

* Actually, the list has 24 players on it, but I removed one player (Dick Kokos) because his career was stalled by service in the Korean War.

There is only one first baseman in the sample: Jason Thompson. He is, however, an excellent comparable for Freeman, having pretty much the same skillset and production. Both are also tall, hit lefty, and hail from Southern California. If you want my forecast for Freeman over the next 6-7 years, you should probably just look at Thompson's B-Ref page.

Here are the average totals that the 23 players compiled through their age-22 seasons. I've added Freeman's numbers for comparison. The right column pro-rates the batting run totals to 600 PAs (roughly a season's worth).

PA Rbat BA OBP SLG Rbat/600
Comps 1286 +20 .273 .344 .433 +9
Freeman 1279 +20 .269 .340 .449 +9

As you can see, the group is a pretty dead-on match for Freeman's production with the bat. So how did the comparison group fare in their age-23 through age-28 seasons, the six years that would be covered in the hypothetical extension? Here are the same stats for those six-year periods (full stats here):

PA Rbat BA OBP SLG Rbat/600
Comps 3225 +105 .280 .357 .465 +20

That's an improvement of around 10 runs with the bat per 600 PAs, which equates to about 1 WAR of added value per year. It should be noted, though, that the group only averaged 538 PAs per season (this factors in a few who became part-timers or worse in the 6-year period, notably Hurdle and Greg Gross).

An average is just part of the story, of course. Below, I've divided the players into 5 groups based on their batting runs in each period. The "Broke out" group is for players who improved by at least 15 batting runs per 600 PAs, while the "Cratered" group is for a decline of at least that amount. The "Maintained" group is for players who stayed within 5 runs of their previous levels.

Group (#) Pre-Age 22 Rbat/600 Age 23-28 Rbat/600 Change
Broke out (7) +7 +33 +26
Improved (7) +10 +20 +10
Maintained (4) +10 +10 ---
Declined (4) +12 +3 -9
Cratered (1) +12 -4 -16
All (23) +9 +20 +10 (+110%)

This is quite encouraging if you're a Braves fan. More than half of the players improved by a substantial amount, while only 5 declined. Those are good odds.

If we take these numbers at face value, they tell us there's about a 30% chance that Freeman will break out with the bat--enough to potentially be 4- or even 5-win player overall (that's All Star level). There's also about a 30% chance he'll improve by a lesser amount, becoming around a 3-win player. Then there's a roughly 20% chance that he'll stay at his current, ~2-win level and a 20% chance that he'll decline (at which point, he probably won't even be a regular... though James Loney got 465 PAs last year, so who knows?).

Given that the "modest improvement" group seems most likely, let's say that he does improve by about 10 runs with the bat, to around +20 runs per year. If his fielding numbers stabilize at something a bit below average, that equates to a ~3-WAR 1st baseman.

Using the same $/WAR figure and arbitration discounts as before, that gives us a total 6-year-contract value of around $52 million. Adding in a modest 20% extension discount to account for the risk of injury/underperformance being shifted from player to team, we get $42M total. How does that compare to some recent contract extensions?

How much did players like Freeman get for their extensions?

I looked for players who got extensions at similar points in their careers. This was rough, as few players get extended after only 2 seasons, and most of those who do are superstars. The best comparable contracts that I could find went to Justin Upton, Chris Young, Starlin Castro, and Jay Bruce. Two of those guys were on Heyward's list as well. However, whereas Heyward had outperformed them, Freeman compares less favorably:

Stats at time of extension Extension Details
Player Age^ Tot. WAR WAR/600 Yrs til FA Yrs Tot. $ Avg. Post-FA $
J. Upton 21 3.9 2.0 4 6 $50M $14.4M
C. Young 23 0.7 0.6 5 5* $28M $11M (option)
S. Castro 21 4.4 2.2 5 7* $60M $10.5M
Bruce 23 6.2 2.6 4 6* $51M $12.3M
Average 22 3.8 1.9 4.5 6 $47M $12.1M
Freeman 22 3.3 1.5 4 ?? ?? ??

^ This is the player's age during the last season before the deal.
* Plus a team option for the next season.

Freeman's value to this point is a bit below all of the others' except for Young's. (And this is using DRS, the defensive rating that is most favorable to Freeman). Based on these numbers, I'd say any Freeman extension would have to come in well above Young's but somewhat below the others'.

Putting it all together, I'd project a contract that looks something like this:

  • $1M in 2013 (pre-arb. year)
  • $4M in 2014
  • $6M in 2015
  • $8M in 2016
  • $11M each in 2017-2018
  • $11M team option for 2019 with a $1M buyout

That works out to a total of $42M guaranteed over 6 years. Based on everything above, that seems like a fair deal. The question is: at that price, should the Braves even do the extension?

You could certainly make the case that it'd be preferable to play it year-by-year. Sure, you are then running the risk of Freeman breaking out and his salary going much higher... but at least if that happens, you're getting more production than expected out of him. If you sign him to an extension and then he underperforms, however, there's not much of a silver lining for the team.

There's also the matter of the order of these extensions. Freeman's case seems clearly less urgent than Prado's or Heyward's... but the team may also think it's less urgent than Kris Medlen's or Craig Kimbrel's. Even if the team wants to lock up Freeman, in other words, they may end up holding off a year or two until other things are settled. And honestly, that doesn't seem like a bad idea at all.

What do you guys think?

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