• Exclusives

    M-V-Free! Let There Be No Doubt: Freeman Deserves NL Honor

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Consider how much the world has changed this year. Shuttered businesses and ballparks. Sickness and divisiveness. Feelings of power and powerless. All of it woven together in the tapestry of 2020, a year we’ve never experienced and hope to never feel again.

    And still, constants remain. Like the kids kicking an oversized green ball in front of me along the fake green grass outside Truist Park this afternoon. Like the Atlanta Braves postseason T-shirts and hats hanging on the racks at the team’s clubhouse store a short walk from my writing vantagepoint, a rite of passage three Septembers old after Tuesday’s National League East title-clinching victory.

    Like the 31-year-old first baseman who plies his craft just a few hundred feet from where I sit on this final Saturday in September.

    If there’s one constant for the Braves, it’s Frederick Charles Freeman. He debuted in the majors 10 years ago this month, launching a home run in his 12th big-league game off Hall of Famer Roy Halladay. Two years later, his walk-off homer sent Atlanta into the NL playoffs, clinching a wild-card berth as Hall of Famer Chipper Jones stood on third base with his right arm raised in triumph.

    Eight years to the day after that postseason-clinching blast against Miami, Freeman was at it again in the late innings Friday. His 13th homer of the season capped a back-and-forth affair with Boston, the blast landing in the empty seats in left field to lift Atlanta to an 8-7, 11-inning victory. With the division championship salted away and all eyes on Wednesday’s opener of the equally thrilling-and-terrifying best-of-three wild-card series at Truist Park, Freeman didn’t start Friday’s series opener.

    But he was there at the finish, as he’s been throughout the Braves rise, fall and rebirth across the past decade. The one constant, living the collapse in 2011, the infield-fly in 2012, the division title in 2013 and then four years in rebuilding purgatory, followed by three consecutive division crowns.

    Freeman reaches the penultimate day of this weird, short 60-game season leading the majors in Fangraphs WAR (3.3) while ranking second in the NL in average (.341), OPS (1.105) and RBIs (51), and third in hits (71).

    That MVP Look: Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman enters the final two games of the 2020 regular season squarely in the NL MVP race.

    The numbers speak for themselves. Still, a deeper look at Freeman’s 2020 illustrates – with all due respect to the talented field of NL Most Valuable Player candidates, including teammates Marcell Ozuna and Ronald Acuna Jr. – how this award is Freeman’s and Freeman’s alone.

    On the field, the Braves captain (not officially, but c’mon; he might as well have a “C” stitched on his uniform) has done as he’s done since taking over full-time first-base duties nine springs ago. He’s led the way for a team where Max Fried is the lone survivor of the two-deep starting rotation depth chart from February. He’s set the tone, one season after a forgettable fall when the combination of a balky elbow and St. Louis voodoo again left the franchise again losing in the opening round of the postseason. He’s delivered in the clutch, attested by his .431 average, 1.494 OPS, six homers and 37 RBIs with runners in scoring position (a situation that may be Atlanta’s postseason Achilles heel).It almost becomes commonplace to assume Freeman will continue doing what he does because, well, he’s done it for so long. Stare into the brilliant light long enough, and the illumination’s impact begins to dull. That shouldn’t be the case with Freeman, even if his team’s never won a postseason series or won the MVP award (despite finishing in the top eight in voting four times).

    The later of those two things should end come early November, when the Baseball Writers Association of America announce their award winners for 2020. It’s a season that Freeman – and the rest of us – weren’t sure would begin at all or certainly with him, after he contracted the coronavirus and ran a 104.5 degree fever during the Fourth of July weekend. At one point, Freeman admitted he worried about his life.

    Feeling Free: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman has enjoyed a season worthy of the NL MVP award after contracting COVID-19 in early July.

    Two and a half months later, he’s worried about helping his team win a postseason series for the first time since 2001. The rest of us worry his understated stardom against a field full of star power (such as Mookie Betts and the wonderful Fernando Tatis Jr.) will hinder his odds of becoming the first Braves player to win MVP since Jones in 1999.

    The fact we’re here on the final weekend of September, with baseball wrapping up its unprecedented regular season, can be attributed in a small part to Freeman. It’s his very public COVID-19 case and his subsequent comments, urging everybody to take the virus and associated safety measures seriously, that resonated throughout baseball. While there were a couple of hiccups with the Marlins and Cardinals early on, Freeman in a way became the symbol of baseball in the pandemic and the sport navigated the season smoothly.

    Time will tell if Freeman and his mates figure out the playoffs this time around, or will Atlanta’s October obstacles trip up the franchise once more. Given how miserable last year’s 10th month was for Freeman, odds are his monster regular season is a harbinger of things to come when the postseason arrives.

    This Brave for life – he’ll never hit free agency after next season; expect a contract extension to be announced before spring training – doesn’t lack for much. A husband and father, with twins on the way, Freeman might not yet have a World Series ring. But it’s not from a lack of trying. He’s become the franchise anchor through 90-win and 90-loss seasons, taking that baton when Jones retired and setting the tone for a new generation of Braves stars.

    Simply put, he’s remained steady Freddie, even in a season when precious little stayed the same.

    But in about six weeks, he will add something new: NL MVP.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.