Sam Freeman pretty much came out of nowhere for the Braves in 2017 and provided a rare reliable relief, option particularly against left handed hitters.
What were the expectations?
Frankly not a lot. Freeman signed with the Braves in October of 2016 after spending time with the Cardinals, Rangers and Brewers. He began the season at Gwinnett but earned an early opportunity. Freeman made good on that chance and became one of the team’s better lefty relief options.
Freeman posted a 2.55 ERA in 58 appearances to go along with a 3.34 FIP and a 3.97 xFIP. He limited left handed hitters to a .190/.262/.245 line although he was respectable against right handers as well. His walk rate improved over his career numbers and he allowed just three home runs all season. Freeman was worth 0.7 fWAR which was one of the best totals among Braves’ relievers, tied for first with Arodys Vizcaino.
Freeman’s strikeout and walk numbers don’t really jump out at you, but he was good at getting the ball on the ground, something that helped him succeed in a season where the ball was jumping. His line drive allowed rate was 12th best (lowest) among full-time relievers, and he similarly had the 12th-highest groundball rate and 23rd-lowest fly ball rate. On top of that, among all pitchers that allowed 160 or more balls in play this past season (that is, starters and full-time relievers), Freeman was around the 90th percentile in lowest exit velocity allowed, and fourth-best in MLB (!) on exit velocity allowed on non-grounders. He was also in the 90th percentile in not allowing batted balls of 95 miles per hour or more; the combination of getting hitters to hit the ball into the ground and not hit it particularly hard either way contributed in large part to his success despite unimpressive peripherals. (He was similarly fourth-best in MLB at avoiding barreled balls.)
Freeman was especially tough on lefties (2.64 FIP, 3.34 xFIP, good peripherals) but could survive against righties as well (3.92 FIP, 4.47 xFIP, not so good peripherals). He actually faced 46 more righties than lefties on the season, so his effectiveness might get a boost if he ends up being deployed more tactically in the future.
Freeman will be arbitration eligible for the first time in his career this offseason. The bullpen is an area that the team will look to improve on this offseason and there could be more competition but Freeman will certainly get a chance to earn a lefty specialist or middle relief role in 2018. Given prices in the reliever market, the Braves may also seek to move him if they don’t think he can replicate his 2017, especially if they find a team that believes that Freeman has found a groove.