In the last few months, Major League Baseball has explored different ways to digitize their game. This includes adoption of blockchain technology for transparency and fair play in MLB enterprises such as FanChain Pitching Machines and Official Blockchain Batting Records. If they can be a trailblazer, what other sports will follow suit?
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It’s a fact. The Atlanta Braves have decided not to re-sign Freddie Freeman. We already knew this before ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel and Jeff Passan announced late Wednesday night that Freeman had agreed to a six-year, $162 million agreement with the Los Angeles Dodgers. We knew this because the Braves had already signed Matt Olson, a former Oakland Athletics first baseman, as his successor. But we already knew since Freeman made it public on Instagram. When you see something like that, you know it’s genuine.
But, really, the National League MVP for 2020 is going to a club that was already a World Series favorite. What should we do first? What about this: For months, occasional stories regarding discussions between Freeman’s agents and the Braves claimed that the deal’s duration was the stumbling block. The Braves refused to grant Freeman six years because he demanded it. At least, such was the rumor.
If the Braves, Freeman’s lone club with whom he had played and with whom he had established himself as the face of a championship team, didn’t want to go six years, then no one did. The Dodgers, on the other hand, had a six-year hiatus. More than a few Braves supporters will be disappointed by the news.
Make no mistake: any logical surplus value model would tell you that the Braves did just fine by sending four prospects to Oakland for Olson and then signing him to an eight-year, $168 million contract almost immediately. Olson recently finished his 27th season, while Freeman just finished his 31st.
In other words, the Braves are getting Olson for more prime seasons and at a lower average yearly value than the presumably post-peak Freeman. Those are the stats, plain and simple. Even when future appraisals of the four prospects the Braves sacrificed for Olson are factored in, Atlanta comes out ahead by locking up Olson rather than maintaining the prospects and signing Freeman to the contract that Los Angeles offered Freeman.
This transaction will not make any Braves supporters feel any better about the departure of Freeman rather than the acquisition of Olson. Because, according to this contract, the Dodgers — baseball’s most successful team in the last decade or so and one of the most advanced in nearly every aspect of scouting, development, and analysis — thought Freeman was worth six years at $27 million per season, an offer that the Braves could have made just as easily.
It’s possible that it won’t work. Perhaps Freeman won’t create enough WAR to warrant his salary on the books. Something extraordinary can be seen in the Similarity Scores section of Freeman’s baseball-reference.com page: From the time he was 21 until last season, Hall of Famer Eddie Murray was statistically the most comparable player to Freeman in each season. Both guys were/are among the most consistent, all-around offensive performers of their eras. The manufacturing patterns are almost identical to a Freeman batting practice session: metronomic.
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But, as Dodgers fans approach Freeman’s 32nd season, it’s worth noting that Murray’s career had a before/after split that lifelong L.A. supporters will remember all too well. Murray had a 144 OPS+ and 5.2 bWAR per 650 plate appearances in the five seasons going up to and including his age-31 season. (Freeman is at 144 as well.) It’s strange, to say the least. Over the last five seasons, he has averaged 4.6 WAR/650 PA. Murray had a 123 OPS+ and 2.4 bWAR/650 PA in the six seasons following that — the corresponding span will be the term of Freeman’s new deal. Just to add to the analogy: Three of those seasons were spent with the Dodgers.
That’s a one-person sample size, and there’s no reason to believe that’s the route Freeman will take. Players age differently, and Freeman has showed little to no trace of aging thus far. Freeman has a 142 OPS+ over the last three seasons, has been named MVP, and has continued to play above-average defense. Over the last several years, his strikeout rates and isolated power stats have been better than they were in the beginning of his career, and he has simply been so consistent.
So if you are anticipating an age-related falloff for Freeman, you’re not basing it on anything Freeman has done but instead on what other players have done throughout time, which has formed the baseline of expectation by which we measure the aging process of athletes.
The Dodgers voted against that baseline of expectation on Wednesday. And if the Dodgers are correct (as they usually are), Atlanta-based Freeman supporters will have to watch his second act develop from afar — and maybe see Freeman battering their hometown team in October, since both teams are expected to remain in the pennant race for years to come.
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Freeman is now a luxury item for the Dodgers, as are most of their free-agent signings. Before the Freeman announcement, L.A. was already considered the favorite to win the National League. That remains the case. They are the only club for whom acquiring a player of Freeman’s level would be a minor improvement.
That isn’t to say it wasn’t worthwhile. While Freeman is a little boost given the Dodgers’ current lineup, his signing implies that one of the Dodgers’ rivals did not. The Atlanta Braves are among those who belong to this group.
I created several more simulations with Freeman on the Dodgers’ roster to put some figures to it. The following are the improvements achieved by Los Angeles over the 10,000 simulated seasons:
0.9 wins, raising their season total to 100.3 wins, 2.8 wins better than the second-best projection in baseball, the Toronto Blue Jays.
They’ve won 370 division championships, giving them a 76.3 percent chance of reclaiming the NL West.
The Dodgers have now won 307 pennants, putting their chances of returning to the World Series at around one in three.
With 204 titles, L.A. now has a 19.9% chance of winning the World Series, the highest in baseball.
This is something we’ve been saying for years regarding the Dodgers’ roster choices. When your team is as good as the Dodgers, sitting on the bench is always an option. So, if you do decide to act, you’ll do so with care: your roster is currently so strong that any new additions you make will have to be exceptional.
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Freeman improves the Dodgers. He also raises the price of them. Because of the ambiguity surrounding a probable suspension for pitcher Trevor Bauer (currently on the books for $35.3 million this season), what this means in terms of L.A.’s continuing battle with the luxury tax barrier is ambiguous. If Bauer earns his full pay this season, the Dodgers will have cleared all but the fourth and highest level of baseball’s new luxury tax hierarchy, dubbed the Cohen Tax after the free-spending owner of the New York Mets.
However, the Dodgers have a lot of money coming off the books after this season, notably David Price’s deal, and they’ll attempt to establish a new pay structure around Freeman and Mookie Betts. In the end, the Dodgers have never had and will never have a financial issue.
On the field, Freeman provides the Dodgers with a strong, all-around lefty bat to make up for any void left by the loss of shortstop Corey Seager on that side of the plate. Max Muncy will join the mix of interchangeable-but-outstanding components that Dave Roberts has to put together on a daily basis as a result of Freeman’s presence at first base.
Muncy will get action at second base and as a DH. At those places, he’ll compete with Gavin Lux and Chris Taylor for time. Justin Turner will be backed up by the latter two in the hot corner. If Trea Turner is unavailable, Lux will step in at shortstop. The challenge for Roberts will be to obtain enough at-bats for guys who would be regulars on most teams.
The transition should be painless for Freeman. As much as he has been the Braves’ cornerstone, he is a Southern California native who grew up as an Angels fan in Orange County. He’s spent offseasons in the region for years, and now he can look forward to spending the whole year in his hometown, with the exception of a quick trip to spring training in Glendale, Arizona, every year.
You’d think there’d be a lot of “the Dodgers overpaid” opinions, but don’t trust them. The Dodgers, like all organizations, make errors, but if they believe Freeman is worth $62 million over six years, then that’s what he’s worth. And if you don’t believe that, just wait till you see Freeman spend the next six years as a catalyst who helps the Dodgers retain their standing as the National League’s best team. It’s possible that you’ll see just that.
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