When Freddie Freeman inked an 8-year, $135 million extension with the Atlanta Braves back in early February of 2014, it was officially his time to take over as the “face of the franchise.” After Freeman’s best buddy and first ballot Hall of Famer Chipper Jones retired at the end of the 2012 season, it was time to pass the torch to the 23-year-old first baseman. Freeman hit .259/.340/.456 with 23 HR and 94 RBI during Jones’ last season as a Brave and continued his success into 2013, slashing .319/.396/.501 with 23 HR and 109 RBI. He finished 2nd in the National League in RBI (109), 3rd in batting average (.319), 6th in OBP (.396), 8th in wOBA (.387), and 10th in WAR (5.0). He continued to grow and improve both offensively and defensively after his first three seasons in the Majors. The Braves were taking a gamble still three years away from free agency at the time he signed the deal, many saw the first baseman as a promising and productive player for years to come.
On the surface, it looked like Freeman put together a strong 2014 season. He did, but not as good as the prior season. He was able to play in all 162 games for the first time in his career, yet hit five less HR than 2013. Freeman also saw his batting average, slugging percentage, and OBP decline. He put up relatively gaudy numbers in 2013 due to a high BABIP (.371), so some regression was bound to happen. But after the first two and a half months of the season in 2015, Freeman looked to have his pop back. He slashed .299/.367/.520 and had 12 HR and 41 RBI. His slugging percentage was up 59 points from the year prior and he seemed to have moved on from a “down” 2014 season.
Unfortunately, Freeman went down with a wrist injury and was placed on the DL on June 18, 2015. Initially it was believed that he would only require a quick stint on the disabled list, but a full month later, Braves’ Director of Baseball Operations John Hart was quoted saying:
It’s more serious than we expected. I’m hoping he’ll be back before the first of August but he may not be. He’s working hard to get back but it’s a slow-healing injury and it still gives him pain when he swings. We gave him an injection and thought he would be back in two or three days but it was no better. We did further tests and found it was more serious than we thought.
That is something you definitely do not want to hear regarding your franchise player. The first basemen did return to play on July 25, but only hit .241/.374/.395 with seven doubles and six homers. His slugging percentage took a serious hit, and it did not look like Freeman had fully recovered from his wrist injury.
Coming into the 2016 campaign, Freeman claimed he was “100 percent” and pain-free. He did exit a spring training game on March 13th due to right hand and wrist discomfort, but the Braves removed him for only precautionary reasons.
Freeman is now 21 games into the 2016 season and we have not seen any signs of improvement. In fact, we are seeing his worst numbers as a professional so far. Yes, we are still looking at a very small sample size and yes, he has more than enough time to turn it around, but the early signs are not positive. Now, is it a wrist injury that is still hampering his power? Or is there another reason why he has struggled at the plate?
Let’s first look at his distribution of balls put in play:
The thing that sticks out most is what I have outlined in the chart above. Freeman, who has hit the ball 25.3% of his career to the opposite field, is hitting 34.8% of his balls in play that direction this season. There hasn’t been a change in his stance or swing since he entered the league, so seeing that number jump almost 10 points from his career norm is concerning. When you compare that to 2013, his best offensive season in the Majors, he is pulling the ball and hitting up the middle 1.3% and 7.8% less respectively. Even from last season, he has seen those numbers drop. What I’m getting at is the percentage of balls put into play going to the opposite field this season is definitely an outlier.
Just a couple of days ago, David O’Brien of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on Freeman and his comments about his bat speed and approach:
My bat speed is just not there. I don’t know if I’m tensing my shoulders and I’ve got to get loose; that’s what I was just working on. I haven’t been loading. It’s just been kind of stepping into the ball instead of loading and getting my (front) foot down. We’ve kind of known it was there and trying to work on it. I feel great up there, just not getting any results.
Now there are a couple of things to take out of this statement. One, his bat speed. Does that have something to do with his wrist injury? He doesn’t want to make it sound like that way. Second, he talks about his loading and getting his front foot down. I think he does have a point there. Check out the three videos below. The first is a home run he hit back in 2013, the second is a strikeout versus Jeurys Familia this year, and the third is a home run he hit against Boston this past Wednesday.
2013 HOME RUN VIDEO:
2016 STRIKEOUT VIDEO:
2016 HOME RUN VIDEO:
If you watched these three videos, you saw two things: Freeman can mash the ball and Familia throws gas. I’m sorry. Those weren’t the two things you should have been focusing on. You should have been looking at Freeman’s load prior to and during the pitch.
2013 HOME RUN:
In the first photo, we see where Freeman begins to lift his foot and in the second photo, we see where Freeman plants his foot. It’s a pretty quick and simple toe-tap. You can see the pitcher still hadn’t released the ball yet.
Now you will see that on April 22 of 2016, Freeman begins his toe-tap much later and does not plant his foot on the ground until the ball is halfway to home plate. That’s a major difference from 2013.
2016 HOME RUN:
Lastly, five days after his strikeout versus Familia and his comments on his loading, you can see that Freeman once again begins his toe-tap prior to the ball being released and getting his foot down just milliseconds after the pitch is thrown. Now that is the Freddie Freeman we have know and love!
Well Freddie, it looks like all of your problems are solved! Just get that toe-tap going a little earlier! But wait – there’s more. I did a little more research into Freeman and found another interesting tidbit. Pitchers have been throwing many more pitches to the first baseman up and to the outside edge of the plate (as seen in the outlined in yellow).
From 2012 to 2016, we can see a significant jump in pitches up and away to Freeman. He has been a guy that generally destroys pitches on the inner-third of the plate, so pitchers shy away from that spot – evidenced by the graphs above. The real question is, is Freeman making contact with these pitches?
The answer is no. Freeman is making significantly less contact with pitches up and away in the zone since 2012 and pitchers are now throwing more in that location. In 2012, he was making contact with roughly 70-80% of pitches up and away in the zone. This year, it is floating between 40-70%. While on the surface it may look like a lingering wrist injury or the fact that he is not loading at the correct time, he is also seeing more pitches at a location where he can’t hit them. And why can’t he hit them? I think that answer may come back to bat speed. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a website that tracks those statistics, but Freeman referenced his bat speed a week ago and has been dealing (I believe) with a lingering wrist injury that no one will admit to. If his bat speed has diminished, it would certainly make it tougher to make contact with pitches up and away.
What should Freddie Freeman do? That’s a tough question. There is obviously something missing in his swing right now, but does that have to do with his loading issues or the fact that his bat speed has been hindered by a nagging wrist injury? I think it may be a combination of the two. In the videos above, you can see that Freeman “fixed” the loading issue Wednesday night and turned on a pitch and took it deep. That’s a good sign. On the other hand, you are seeing a guy struggle with pitches up in the zone when in the past, he has not. That suggests that his wrist injury could still be an issue.
Regardless, I believe that Freeman can turn things around. In the past four games against the Red Sox, he is 8-for-15 with a double and a home run. Just in last night’s game, he had three singles that had an exit velocity of 107, 97, and 102 MPH. That’s a positive sign. Those types of hits will turn into more extra base hits. Freeman is still only 26 years old and while he is currently playing on a struggling Braves team, they should be mighty good in the coming years. And hopefully he’s in the middle of that success.