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How the Braves built arguably baseball’s best offense around Freddie Freeman

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It began with Freddie Freeman. Literally.

Spin 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.”

3. Constancy

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.

Dansby Swanson was acquired during an offseason trade from Arizona in 2015, along with reserve outfielder Ender Inciarte.

• 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.”

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Sources: Arizona hit with nine alleged violations

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The University of Arizona has been charged with nine alleged rules violations, including five Level I charges, the most serious under NCAA rules, following a multiyear investigation of its men’s basketball program, sources confirmed to ESPN on Sunday.

The Athletic, which first reported the number of allegations, also reported on Sunday that Arizona has been charged with lack of institutional control and failure to monitor, and Wildcats coach Sean Miller has been charged with lack of head coach control.

The Athletic reported that it obtained the information from a letter that Arizona’s outside attorney, Paul Kelly, sent to the NCAA requesting that the infractions case be referred to the Independent Accountability Resolution Process (IARP), which was formed to handle complex cases.

On Friday, Arizona officials acknowledged receiving a notice of allegations from the NCAA, but declined to release it or provide details.

A special meeting of the Arizona board of regents is scheduled for Monday.

The Athletic reported that Wildcats women’s swimming and diving coach Augie Busch also is charged with a head coach control violation.

Arizona is the eighth university to publicly acknowledge receiving an NCAA notice of allegations related to information obtained from a federal investigation into bribes and other misconduct in college basketball, joining Kansas, Louisville, NC State, Oklahoma State, South Carolina, TCU and USC.

The NCAA enforcement staff also accused LSU coach Will Wade of either arranging for or offering “impermissible payments” to at least 11 potential recruits or others around them, according to documents obtained by ESPN in August. The LSU case also will be handled by the IARP, along with those involving Kansas, Louisville and NC State.

Sources had previously told ESPN that Alabama, Auburn and Creighton were also under investigation, but none of those schools have confirmed receiving a notice of allegations.

Former Arizona assistant Emanuel “Book” Richardson was one of four former assistant coaches who pleaded guilty for their roles in the federal bribery case. He pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to commit bribery in a plea deal, after prosecutors accused him of accepting $20,000 to steer Arizona players to certain managers and financial advisers once they turned pro. A judge sentenced him to three months in prison and two years of probation.

During one of the federal criminal trials, prosecutors played a wiretap recording to the jury in which Richardson told aspiring manager Christian Dawkins that Miller was paying then-Wildcats star center Deandre Ayton $10,000 per month while he was enrolled at the school.

Dawkins and Richardson were discussing how to recruit Ayton as a client to Dawkins’ fledgling sports management company.

While talking about Ayton, Richardson told Dawkins, “Sean’s got to get the [expletive] out of the way and let us work.”

“We’ll see how Sean plays it out,” Dawkins said.

“You know what he bought per month?” Richardson asked.

“What he do?” Dawkins asked.

“I told you — 10,” Richardson replied.

“He’s putting up some real money for them [expletive],” Dawkins responded. “He told me he’s getting killed.”

“But that’s his fault,” Richardson said.

During the same recording, Dawkins indicated then-Wildcats guard Rawle Alkins was also receiving improper benefits while playing at Arizona.

“You already know Sean is taking care of Rawle and them,” Dawkins said.

In the HBO documentary “The Scheme,” which was released earlier this year, Dawkins said, “Book was loyal to Sean. Arizona was definitely more open to getting some s— done.”

When director Pete Kondelis asked Dawkins about his conversation with Richardson in which they discussed Ayton, Dawkins said, “I’m being told that Sean is the one financing the Deandre Ayton situation.”

Miller has denied paying Ayton, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, or any other player to sign with Arizona.

“I never have, and I never will,” Miller said during a news conference in March 2018.

When Kondelis asked Dawkins about Miller’s comments during that news conference, Dawkins said,

“When Sean Miller had his press conference, I literally thought of Book, and I was like, ‘S—, I mean Sean should have his own like movie agent or a manager, like he should be an actor. That was a very high-level … I was convinced, honestly.”

When Dawkins was asked by Kondelis if Miller was telling the truth, he replied, “When Sean Miller had his press conference and said has a player from Arizona ever received money or did he know anything about a player from Arizona receiving money, did he lie? Yeah, that wasn’t true.”

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Titans run out of fourth-quarter magic, fall to Steelers for first loss

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The streak of fourth-quarter comebacks came to an end for the Tennessee Titans in their 27-24 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Titans trailed by 27-7 at one point in the third quarter. But the Titans made it close, pulling to within three points in the fourth quarter. With just over two minutes left, the Titans started on their 20-yard line after an interception by Amani Hooker in the end zone resulting in a touchback. Tannehill drove the Titans to the 28-yard line to set up a 45-yard field goal attempt by Stephen Gostkowski that was off the mark with 19 seconds left in the game.

Entering this week, Ryan Tannehill had led the Titans to four fourth-quarter come-from-behind victories this season. The Steelers jumped to an early 14-0 lead to make the fourth-quarter comeback necessary. According to ESPN Stats & Info, entering this week, Tannehill was 1-28 as a starter when his teams fall behind by at least 14 points. The lone win came in 2014 against the Vikings. Conversely, including the playoffs, Ben Roethlisberger is 97-1-1 in his career in games where the Steelers had a 14-point lead. The only loss was 2018 Week 13 vs the Chargers and the tie was 2018 Week 1 at the Browns.

The game described in two words: Third downs. The Titans were unable to stop the Steelers from the start on third down. Pittsburgh converted on 13 of their 18 third downs in the game.

Troubling trend: Tennessee’s defense failed to get off the field, especially on third down. The Titans had the ball for only one minute and 21 seconds in the first quarter. That was the least time of possession for any team in a quarter this season. The early struggles were in large part due to Pittsburgh’s ability to keep drives going by converting on third downs. At one point, the Steelers were 7 for 7 on third downs. Their first punt didn’t come until the third quarter.

Biggest hole in the game plan: Constantly playing off coverage on the outside made it easy for Roethlisberger to connect with the Steelers wide receivers. Diontae Johnson had his way with the Titans secondary, getting a free release on both of his short touchdown receptions. Tennessee normally plays a lot of man defense, but they played more zone against the Steelers. Roethlisberger carved them up to the tune of 32 completions on 49 attempts for 268 yards and two touchdowns.

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Mayfield outduels Burrow as Browns nip Bengals

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Baker Mayfield‘s first quarter Sunday against Cincinnati couldn’t have gone any worse.

But from then on, the Cleveland Browns quarterback was perfect.

Literally.

Mayfield rebounded from a 0-of-5 start, including an interception on his first throw, to break a franchise record with 21 consecutive completions, propelling Cleveland to a thrilling 37-34 comeback victory over the Bengals.

Mayfield finished 22 of 28 passing with 297 yards and five touchdowns, with three coming in a wild back-and-forth fourth quarter.

His final touchdown was a game-winning 24-yard strike to rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones with just 15 seconds remaining. His only incompletion after the first quarter was a spike to stop the clock on the final drive.

Mayfield passed Bernie Kosar (1989) and Kelly Holcomb (2003), who previously shared the Browns’ record with 16 straight completions. No other Cleveland quarterback in the last 30 seasons had tossed three touchdowns in a fourth quarter, either, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and none since Derek Anderson in 2007 had thrown five in a game.

Mayfield out-dueled Cincinnati rookie quarterback Joe Burrow in a shootout of former Heisman Trophy winners and No. 1 overall picks.

Burrow completed 35 of 47 passes for 406 yards, the first 400-yard passing game of his pro career. Despite losing three starting offensive linemen to injury during the game, Burrow also threw three touchdowns and rushed for another. On fourth-and-1, he connected on a 3-yard, go-ahead touchdown pass to running back Giovani Bernard with just over a minute to play, which set up Mayfield’s late-game heroics.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first game in NFL history with five go-ahead touchdown passes in a fourth quarter.

ESPN’s Ben Baby contributed to this report.

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