And Thursday night, Freeman, the Atlanta Braves’ veteran first baseman and one of the most consistent hitters of the past decade, was rewarded with the National League Most Valuable Player award, coming two votes shy of being a unanimous winner.
Another first baseman, José Abreu of the Chicago White Sox, won the American League award. Both players collapsed with emotion as their names were called — a reminder that, for everything that was missing from an abbreviated, 60-game season wedged into the summer of a pandemic, it was as meaningful to the players as any that came before it.
Abreu, in tears, pointed to a photo of his grandmother on a table behind him and said, “She was my life.” He earned 21 of 30 first-place votes from members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, easily outpacing runner-up José Ramírez of the Cleveland Indians. New York Yankees infielder DJ LeMahieu finished third, and Cleveland Indians pitcher Shane Bieber, who one night earlier was awarded the Cy Young award, finished fourth.
Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout finished fifth in AL balloting — amazingly, the lowest finish of his nine-year big league career. In previous seasons, he had finished first three times, second four times and fourth once.
Abreu, who led the majors with 60 RBI this season, became the third Cuban-born player to win an MVP award, following Minnesota’s Zoilo Versalles in 1965 and Oakland’s Jose Canseco in 1988.
Freeman, meantime, received 28 first-place votes, winning in a landslide over Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts — who fell short in his quest to add a second MVP award to the one he won for Boston in 2018 and thus join Frank Robinson as the only players to win the award in both leagues. A pair of San Diego Padres, Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr., finished third and fourth.
Washington Nationals left fielder Juan Soto finished a distant fifth despite leading the NL in batting average (.351), on-base percentage (.490), slugging percentage (.695) and adjusted OPS-plus (212). Soto, however, played in only 47 games in 2020 after missing the start of the season because of a positive test for the coronavirus. Voters were required to rank their top 10 choices, and two writers’ ballots did not include Soto at all.
Freeman, 31, finished second to Soto in all of the above categories while playing in all 60 games for the Braves — despite his July battle with the coronavirus — and amassing an NL-leading 3.4 wins above replacement (FanGraphs version). He also hit an unfathomable .423/.583/.885 with runners in scoring position. Freeman became the first Braves player to win the MVP since Chipper Jones, whom Freeman considers a mentor, in 1999.
“So many emotions right now,” Freeman, surrounded by family, said upon hearing his name called Thursday night. “Absolutely incredible. Never did I think something like this could ever happen.”
Freeman lost eight pounds during his July illness, and by the time he returned, the Braves had just two exhibition games and a handful of intrasquad games remaining for him to prepare for the season. It took him three regular season games to collect his first hit and six to hit his first homer.
But by Aug. 23, he had lifted his batting average above .300, and he hit a blistering .375/.496/.750 in September as the Braves sprinted to their third straight NL East title.
“It hit me pretty good,” Freeman said of the coronavirus. “It took me about eight days to finally feel healthy. And after that I was extremely tired. It took the wind out of me walking to the other side of the house. It took about two weeks into the season to get my legs under me. … Things started taking off from there.”
In the playoffs, the Braves advanced to the NLCS and pushed the Dodgers to seven games before falling, with Freeman hitting .360/.448/.720 in defeat. It was a strong finish to 2020 for a player who may have wondered back in July — much like the sport of baseball itself — whether he would make it that far.
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