It began with Freddie Freeman. Literally.
Turn the clock back to 2013. Freeman had completed his third season as the Atlanta Braves' everyday first baseman, taking over at age 21 after a cup of coffee in the majors near the end of 2010. During those first three years, the Braves won 89, 94 and 96 games, respectively, but added only a single postseason victory to that total during that span. They started strong in 2014 as well, but collapsed, largely because of a lack of organizational depth.
Worse, they had strayed from the Braves' old formula of building their roster on homegrown talent and depth, particularly on the pitching side. To keep their upper-middle-class level of success going, they would have to spend on free agents at a time when their budget already was pretty well strained. The once-vaunted minor league system ranked 26th in Baseball America's 2014 preseason rankings. It was crossroads time.
Taking stock of all this, Hall of Fame executive John Schuerholz prodded the organization to chart a new course. Well, actually, it was the old course, the one he followed in the early '90s while building an Atlanta dynasty that lasted for nearly a decade-and-a-half. Alas, to follow that course would mean going all the way back to the beginning.
"We had to go back down to bare steel and strip all of it away," Schuerholz told ESPN in 2018. "Go through the heartburn and heartache of trading away some very, very talented major league players who were making well over what they should be making. That was the determination and it was supported from the very top on down. We knew we had to do it."
Good players from the 2013 club that was, again, a 96-game winner, eventually found new homes, either through trades or free agency. Jason Heyward ended up with the Cardinals. Andrelton Simmons joined Mike Trout with the Angels. Craig Kimbrel made his way to the Padres. It happened gradually, but by the end of a 79-83 season in 2014, the die was cast. A few years before rampant rebuilding caused so much hand-wringing in baseball circles, the Braves launched into a full reset.
While all of this was unfolding, the Braves made one move that ran counter to this direction. Just before spring training in 2014, Atlanta signed Freeman to an eight-year, $135 million extension that runs through the 2021 campaign. As nearly every part of the Braves' edifice was dismantled, Freeman remained as the preordained franchise cornerstone. It's a decision that no one who works for, plays with or is fan of the Braves has regretted for a minute.
"It meant the world," Freeman told ESPN in 2018, the year the Braves returned to elite status. "We made a commitment to each other after the 2013 season. To pick me, to believe in me to help this team get back to the playoffs meant a lot."
Back-to-back postseason appearances entering 2020 already signaled that the Atlanta rebuild was a success. The process accelerated after Alex Anthopoulos took over the front office in 2018, sprinkling in a bit more 21st-century thinking into the Braves' traditional playbook. Freeman flourished year in and year out as the cast around him turned over and slowly coalesced into a winner. Friendly Freddie, as he ought to be known, is a player so amiable that even in the heat of competition, he can't resist chatting up opponents if they reach first base.
"It's hard to get a hit in the postseason," Freeman said before the division series round, defending his demeanor. "If you get a hit, I'm going to tell you 'good job.' Especially with the pitching staff we've got. I'm not changing. I am who I am."
Freeman has become an Atlanta baseball icon through his longevity and his remarkable consistency. Over eight seasons, beginning with 2013 when he first reached All-Star status, Freeman has batted between .276 and .341 each season, posted on-base percentages between .370 and .462, and slugging percentages between .461 and .640. Based on OPS+ at Baseball-Reference, he has been at least 32% better than the league-average hitter in each of the past eight seasons, all while running the bases better than the typical first baseman, stealing a few bags per season and playing sterling defense, for which he was awarded a Gold Glove in 2018. His metronomic career vacillates each year between very good and great.
During the short season of 2020, Freeman's numbers spiked at age 30, with a .341/.462/.640 slash line and league-leading totals in doubles and runs scored. His Baseball-Reference WAR (2.9) ranked second among position players in the NL, while his FanGraphs WAR (3.4) topped all NL players. Meanwhile, he ranked second in the NL in win probability added. In other words, Freeman, who has finished in the top 10 of NL MVP balloting five times but never higher than fourth, is making his first serious bid to take home the award.
Yet, all of that seems inadequate to describe just what Freeman means to the Braves, to their rise back to prominence, and the lineup he anchors.
"I don't know if you can [quantify Freeman's presence], how big it is, his presence, who he is and what it means to our organization, on the field, in the clubhouse, off the field, the man that he is," Braves manager Brian Snitker gushed before the LDS round began. "The guy is some kind of special for all of us, for me more than most. I lean on him. We talk [because] I've been with him for so long, the ability to just bounce things off of him, it's really good to have a leader like that, that you can talk to. I'm comfortable talking to him about anything."
The Braves' 5-0 postseason run into their NL Championship Series showdown with the Los Angeles Dodgers has been dominated by pitching-related headlines. It's not a mistake in media focus. After all, Atlanta's staff has a 0.92 ERA during the playoffs and has been fueled by young starters Max Fried, Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright, whose collective brilliance rekindles memories of the clubs that Schuerholz once built.
Still, let's not overlook what got Atlanta to the playoffs: Freeman and an Atlanta offensive attack that might just be baseball's best. Yes, it might even be better than the Dodgers'. It's close enough that the "might" equivocation must be included, but check back in a week.
"I'm just glad the narrative is changing from the series win, to getting past the division series, so there's not really much to talk about now," Freeman said. "We'll start our own narrative. That's the great thing about this."
Intentional or not, the 2020 Atlanta offense has flourished by embodying the traits that have always marked Freeman's excellence: well-roundedness, consistency and constancy.
1. Well-roundedness. Home runs and offense have merged precariously close to synonym status in baseball, circa 2020, but that doesn't mean full-service scoring doesn't retain some cachet.
The Braves ranked first or second in baseball during the regular season in runs, homers, average, on-base percentage and slugging, while ranking third in walks. Only two teams struck out more, but Atlanta maintained its lofty batting average by ranking second in line-drive rate, first in average on balls in play and right in the middle in pull percentage.
It kind of sounds like the team version of Freeman as a hitter, albeit with a lower strikeout rate. Freeman ranked second in the NL in all the traditional percentage categories to the Nationals' Juan Soto, but played in more games. Freeman tied for the big-league lead in runs created (65) with teammate Marcell Ozuna.
Freeman compiled those numbers while leading the majors in both line-drive rate (41%) and total line drives hit (72), according to TruMedia. He ranked in the 41st percentile in pull rate and in the 82nd in terms of opposite-field hitting. Despite this, teams still shifted Freeman more than two-thirds of the time. According to baseballsavant.mlb.com, Freeman posted a .424 wOBA against shifts and a .509 mark against normal alignments. You can't win, really -- the league-average wOBA was .315.
These traits extend to the team level. Only six teams were shifted against more than the Braves, but their .369 wOBA against such alignments easily led the majors.
2. Consistency. We've mentioned the narrow range of excellence that Freeman lands in year after year. Since he became an everyday player -- a full decade now -- only Mike Trout and Joey Votto have created more runs. Since 2013, when Freeman rose to star status, he ranks third in runs created behind Trout and Paul Goldschmidt. Over the past five years, he's third behind Trout and Mookie Betts. Over the last two seasons, he's second behind Trout. You get the idea.
The Braves ranked in the top four by the Baseball-Reference version of runs created at four of the nine hitting positions, in the top 10 at seven of nine and in the top half of the majors at every spot except third base. They ranked seventh in wOBA against starters and first against relievers. They were first in wOBA against righties and 14th against lefties. They were second at home and third on the road. No matter how you split up the Braves' numbers, they rate from above average to elite.
"I know that playing against them, calling a game against them, I was not going to bed until about 5 a.m. because I was worried about them the next day," Braves catcher Travis d'Arnaud said. "Now I get to sleep a little better at night, knowing that I'm on that team."
While it'll be written about in less pedantic terms over the next week, Freeman's omnipresence in the Braves' lineup has never been less taken for granted. While the Braves avoided a large scale COVID-19 breakout such as those that struck the Marlins and Cardinals early in the season, Atlantans were left on tenterhooks when Freeman was infected before the season. His bout with the virus was terrifying enough to convince teammate and close friend Nick Markakis to temporarily opt out of the season.
Three months later, Freeman is better than ever, with the only difference being the mask he wears during Zoom interview sessions, even though he's not required to wear one in that space.
"I was just hoping to make it to Opening Day, and here we are now," Freeman said before the NLDS. "It's been a special year. Everything has kind of come full circle this year."
Freeman has had his share of injuries over the years and was ailing during last year's postseason, when he struggled with right elbow problems that resulted in offseason surgery to clean up the joint. He suffered a fractured wrist in 2017 after being hit by a pitch and missed 10 weeks. Still, when he's able to play, he's an everyday fixture. He has twice played 162 games in a season, played 157 or more three other times and, this season, played all 60 regular-season games.
That stability was mirrored by the team around him in 2020. No team had more plate appearances from its nine most frequently used hitters than Atlanta (1,866), though that number results from a combination of a steady group of players and the fact that the high-scoring Braves turned the lineup over a lot. But in terms of percentage of plate appearances going to its top seven hitters, only the Padres had a more frequently used core. The Braves became even more of a set-lineup unit when second baseman Ozzie Albies returned from injury in September.
While efforts at building depth at the minor league level have been a bit more prolific on the pitching side during the Atlanta renaissance, with Freeman in place the Braves have grown this lineup via all available channels for playing acquisition:
• Ronald Acuna Jr., one of baseball's brightest young stars, was an international signing, as was his close friend, Albies. They were signed a year apart, in 2013 and 2014, just as the Atlanta rebuild was kicking off.
• Austin Riley was Atlanta's first-round pick in 2015.
• Markakis was a low-cost free agent back in 2014, and given the Braves' timeline, he figured to be a stopgap regular. He's become a franchise fixture and clubhouse leader, while continuing to produce at the plate and in the field.
• D'Arnaud, who was released by the Mets in May of last season, has become such an effective hitter that Snitker has frequently used him as Atlanta's DH when he's not behind the plate. For the past few weeks, Snitker has written him in as the Braves' cleanup hitter nearly every day. During the postseason, d'Arnaud has a 1.342 OPS.
• Adam Duvall was a low-level trade deadline pickup in 2018 from Cincinnati. After struggling at first with the Braves, his career has found second life over the past two seasons, as he has hit 26 homers over 98 games with a .545 slugging percentage.
• Marcell Ozuna was Atlanta's free-agent splurge during the most recent offseason, signing a one-year deal at what amounts to an MLB version of a pillow contract. He led the NL in homers (18) and RBIs (56), successfully replacing the offense lost when Atlanta's 2019 third baseman, Josh Donaldson, departed via free agency.
This is the group that has coalesced to become one of baseball's best and most diverse offensive attacks, coming together step by step. But it all began with Freeman. When the Braves beat the Reds during the wild-card round, it was the club's first postseason series win since 2001 and, thus, the first of Freeman's career. After the Braves swept the Marlins in the Division Series, his career series win count doubled to two.
As a player who ranks 17th on the career bWAR list of one of baseball's two oldest franchises, with each excellent-to-great season Freeman puts up, he's building an underpublicized Hall of Fame case. That quest would only be helped by a big October, now that the Braves are back playing for a pennant for the first time since the days of Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz.
"Where we've come from in 2015, it's pretty drastic," Freeman said. "A complete 180 from where we were. I even [said] coming through it, it's been tough but I was on board. They kept me in the loop the first couple of years. You could see it coming. You hear about these guys when you're losing 90-plus games and you're just hoping they'll get here sooner. I was on board, I really was. They gave me that contract. They believed in me, so I owed them everything to give it back. They drafted me when I was 17 years old, this organization."
Of course, the Dodgers are a daunting obstacle lying in the Braves' -- and Freeman's -- path, but with a strong showing by the team and their star over the next few days, this could be the time that Friendly Freddie finally finds his footing on the national stage. If he and his teammates can prove to be a better offense than L.A.'s, and do it against the mighty Dodgers' run-prevention machine, it's going to create a stir.
All of it is right there for the Braves, and for Freeman ... the MVP award, the World Series, all of it. It's why the Braves anointed him all those years ago, and it's why he has stuck around, without complaint, waiting for it to all come together.
"I definitely know who I would vote for [as MVP]," Swanson said. "It's pretty easy for me. What he means for this team, what he means for the organization, the fan base, it's just consistency. The first game we played to the 60th into the postseason, he's been tremendous. He just does so much more than people realize. That's saying a lot, because people know he does a lot."