It’s probably nothing, right? It’s probably one of those things we only notice because it’s the start of the season, and there’s not enough signal yet to drown out the noise. You know how early statistics can be. Ryan Flaherty is batting .333. Gary Sanchez is batting .122. Every so often, Flaherty will bat .333, and every so often, Sanchez will bat .122, but most of the time we don’t care, because most of the time we don’t even know. That’s the beauty of baseball come July and August. The sheer size of the data samples prevents us from looking like idiots.
So, it’s probably nothing. I don’t want to alarm you. At the same time, I’m finding something hard not to notice. I have to at least raise this as a point of conversation. You’re familiar with Freddie Freeman. Amazing hitter. Best player on the Braves. For a month and a half to open last year, Freeman performed like a league MVP, before getting unfortunately hurt. There’s nothing weird about the fact that Freeman looks good again. Got a 208 wRC+. There is, however, something weird about this.
Now Freddie Freeman isn’t swinging. All right.
There is a more responsible way of looking at this. Above, you have entire seasons being compared to 2018’s sample of just a dozen games played. What the plot does accomplish is that it shows how recent Freeman is very different from prior Freeman. But it would be better to consider Freeman’s entire major-league career over rolling 12-game samples. Just how unusual is this stretch? Pretty unusual, albeit not exactly unprecedented.
Freeman has bounced around. Every player bounces around in every category. Every time before that Freeman has basically stopped swinging, he’s subsequently resumed swinging. That’s how Freeman has established a career with an above-average swing rate. But this is currently the most patient point of his life, in this regard. And the deep local minima are few and far between. It’s still very strange to see Freeman taking so many pitches, and you never know when he might be making an actual change.
For reference, several dozen players have batted at least 50 times this year, after batting a bunch last year, too. Here are the five biggest drops in swing rate.
- Freddie Freeman, -16.5% swings
- Didi Gregorius, -9.9%
- DJ LeMahieu, -9.0%
- Starlin Castro, -8.1%
- Alex Bregman, -7.3%
It’s Freeman, and it’s Freeman by a mile. Freeman has the biggest drop in out-of-zone swing rate. Freeman also has the biggest drop in in-zone swing rate. Of course, Freeman doesn’t get pitched in the zone with regularity, and pitchers understandably view him as by far the greatest threat in the Braves’ lineup, but Freeman hasn’t even been so aggressive with strikes. It seems like he’s hunting. It seems like he’s more content than ever to sit and wait.
A season ago, no batter swung at a greater rate of pitches in the strike zone. Overall, Freeman swung as often as guys like Eduardo Nunez and Odubel Herrera. Clearly, the aggressive approach was effective for Freeman, but still, here we are. You know who has a similar swing rate to Freeman in 2018? Shin-Soo Choo. Also Logan Forsythe. Instead of ranking first in in-zone swing rate, Freeman presently ranks 63rd. And I just can’t quite figure out…why.
Freeman still swings at an above-average rate of first pitches. That rate, though, has been trimmed as well. As far as I can tell, the Braves haven’t introduced a new coach. Freeman says he’s not doing anything different. But he’s doing something different.
“I’m ready to hit every single pitch,” said Freeman, whose 10 walks are the most by any player through five games since 1997, when Gary Sheffield had 10 for the Marlins through five games. “I’m not doing anything different. I’ve been seeing the ball pretty good the first five games, and believe me I want to swing. I do. They’ve been kind of nibbling, but the guys behind me have been knocking me in.
“So I’m going to keep taking my walks and putting pressure on them on the bases, and we’ll keep scoring runs.”
Swing at strikes, lay off balls. That’s Batting 101, and that’s something Freeman has always understood on some level. He says he still wants to swing all the time, and I believe him. The observed behavior is just unusually patient. Again, as noted at the beginning, it’s probably nothing. Maybe Freeman has just seen an atypically walk-heavy sequence of pitches early on. But what if — what if — it’s not nothing? That’s what we’re always wondering, in 90% of our posts. What if Freeman really has decided to wait on more pitches? One last plot, which I find remarkable. Swing rates, by pitch category.
Freeman has swung at fewer fastballs, by nine percentage points. He’s swung at fewer non-fastballs by 27 percentage points. I know that this further splits what’s already a small sample, but consider this: In 2017, Freeman ranked in the 78th percentile, in non-fastball swing rate. That is, he swung very often — more often than three-quarters of his peers. In 2018? In 2018, Freeman has swung at a lower rate of non-fastballs than any other hitter. The very lowest rate around. For the most part, when Freeman has recognized spin out of the hand, he’s decided to keep the bat on his shoulder. Might as well wait for a fastball, until or unless you get to two strikes. Freeman knows that a lot of the softer stuff is thrown to get a chase, and now he just won’t even bother.
One solution, for opposing pitchers: Throw non-fastballs for strikes. That’ll get the swing rate up, by necessity. That’s one of the reasons why baseball is so cyclical — players are forever adjusting to one another, back and forth, back and forth. But the danger of pitching Freddie Freeman in the strike zone is pretty obvious. He’s an extremely good hitter. When Freeman is in the box, there’s no good way to pitch to him. We’ll see where all these numbers go, as more of the season plays out. But almost no matter what, barring another injury, Freeman is likely to be there in the end as an MVP candidate. He’s just too good not to be.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.