Freddie Freeman Lost His Poor Meatball

Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

I got a little anxious last night. It was nothing major. I was sad that the Orioles were being eliminated from the playoffs. I was also sad about the way it was going down, which called to mind a cartoon character being tossed face-first through a saloon door while the bartender shouts, “And stay out!” I was a little drained from making conversation at a long group dinner. And I knew this article could really use another draft, which meant getting up early before a doctor’s appointment that I was already a little nervous about. All minor things, but the result was that when I answered a question from my wife, something in my voice made her stop and ask if I was okay.

Everyone deserves to feel seen. I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling lonely, and I am well aware that it’s privilege to have someone who cares enough about you to know whether you’re telling the truth when you say, “I’m fine.” But also, sometimes you really are close enough to being fine that you’d rather have your slightly sour mood slip by unnoticed. Humans are very picky creatures.

I imagine baseball players must feel that way a lot of the time. It’s nice to be recognized for your accomplishments, but it’s got to feel weird that anybody on earth can look up your batting average, and that a whole lot of your neighbors already know it without needing to look it up. Think about how often you see a player who has no idea that they’ve achieved some amazing statistical accomplishment until an interviewer asks them about it. On Saturday, Carlos Correa was too busy actually playing in the playoffs to know that he’d passed David Ortiz and Derek Jeter on the all-time playoff RBI list.

So much of analytics is about reading into small details, finding the bellwethers. We watch a pitcher’s velocity and release point for signs that he’s getting tired or compensating for an injury. We track exit velocity and chase rate because they stabilize more quickly than wRC+ and strikeout rate. We decide whether a hitter will get on base by analyzing how comfortable they look when they take a pitch.

This is all preamble for the fact that I think Freddie Freeman is struggling right now, and I’m basing it on something a little different. It’s not because he only has one hit and two walks in eight postseason plate appearances. A two-game sample is too small to jump to that conclusion, and a .375 on-base percentage isn’t necessarily a sign of impending doom. It’s the pitch he took on Monday night, the Zac Gallen curveball that froze him with two outs and two on in the bottom of the fifth:

Complete digression: I’ve watched this clip a hundred times, and my favorite part has nothing to do with either Freeman or Gallen. My favorite part is Bob Costas saying, “There goes Mookie.” Talk about an evergreen sentiment. Whether on a baseball field, at a bowling alley, or out in the wide world, at any given moment Mookie Betts is usually either doing something amazing or on his way to do something amazing. There’s rarely a bad time to say, “There goes Mookie.”

Back to our topic, here’s how Patrick Dubuque broke down Freeman’s take for Baseball Prospectus:

Freeman was out before the ball hit Gabriel Moreno’s glove, before it even left Gallen’s hand. He was out the previous pitch, despite it being technically a bad result for the pitcher: a 2-2 curveball that dove too eagerly out of the zone. Freeman recognized it—it was the same exact pitch that had gone for a ball on 1-2—so his brain called halt to that back leg, and he laid off of it. And when the next pitch came in, same spin, same velocity, Freeman reacted. Maybe he was looking fastball and read it as the first pitch of the at-bat, which sailed up near eye level. Maybe he saw the seams and expected another drop. Either way he froze—before realizing that one variable had altered. The ball broke, just as expected, a foot higher, into the bottom of the zone for the crucial strike three.

No doubt, Gallen’s pitch sequencing was an important part of Freeman’s decision to take. For his part, Freeman was more worried about the cutter Gallen threw him earlier. “I had a 1-1 cutter that will not make me sleep tonight,” he said. “That’s the one pitch I needed to hit, and I didn’t hit it. Then he threw three straight curveballs. Good pitch. Three straight, you’re not usually used to that.” However, as I thought about what Patrick wrote and watched the clip a few more times — taking a pitch right down the middle like that — something else struck me, so I did a little digging:

Freeman sees a lot of pitches. In fact, he saw 2,753 this season, 17th-most in baseball. It was the first time he’d finished that low since 2019, when he also ranked 17th. There are plenty of fun names for those middle-middle pitches in Gameday Zone 5. Cookie is common, and I’m particularly partial to cream puff, but the general idea is that they’re delectable. Baseball Savant calls them meatballs, and Freeman tends to feast on them, running a .491 wOBA this season.

During the regular season, Freeman saw 189 meatballs and swung at 173 of them. His 91.5% swing rate was the third-highest among qualified batters, behind only Corey Seager and Fernando Tatis Jr. That’s all the more notable because both Seager and Tatis have much higher overall swing rates than Freeman does. That is to say that relatively speaking, he might be the most aggressive meatball masher in the league. Here are the 16 meatballs Freeman didn’t swing at this season:

There are plenty of ways to break them down. Fourteen of them came in either an 0-0 count or when he was ahead in the count. Eleven came either on a fastball or a cutter. On four of them, Freeman was very clearly just timing them up and not even thinking about offering. On another four he started a swing but couldn’t pull the trigger. Only one of them came with two strikes and completely caught him out the way Gallen’s did on Sunday. But here’s the thing that really caught my eye: In 15 plate appearances, Freeman went 2-for-14 with two singles and a walk, a slash line of .143/.200/.143. In PAs where Freeman eschewed a middle-middle pitch, he performed badly.

Fifteen plate appearances is a very small sample, and it’s already selecting for PAs where we know that Freeman has taken at least one strike, but it still made me curious. I pulled up Freeman’s rolling 15-game averages and mapped the dates of those takes onto them. There are only 14 dots on the graph because Freeman took two meatballs each on June 25 and July 2:

Most of the times that Freeman just let a meatball pass by, he was either in a slump or about to start one. Obviously, plate discipline is a crucial indicator for any hitter, but I’d never thought of looking at it quite this baldly.

Freeman went on Betts’ podcast last week, and he talked about his progress toward the 30-homer mark. While he wasn’t necessarily saying that he’s been struggling at the plate lately, he did talk about the constant work and adjustments that come with trying to feel comfortable at the plate, especially toward the end of the season.

“It was just like little flashes. Like I had the one game in Colorado where I hit the home run and I hit the double, but then the next day it’s like I can’t barrel a ball. It was just off and on. And then I had the first game in San Fran, I had the home run and the double and I was like, “Huh, we might do it.” But then I got to the cage the next day and I couldn’t even hit the ball in the cage. And I was like, ‘God, this isn’t good.’”

“Most people just see the big picture, and they see the .330 and this and that, and they think that everything is great, but there is little stretches during that course of 162 that, man, I just I feel like I don’t know how to hit the ball. I stay in the box, it feels like my feet are in the wrong spot, my hands are in the wrong spot.”

That brings us back to our two-game postseason sample. Not only did Freeman pass on the curve from Gallen on Monday, he also watched a middle-middle curve from Merrill Kelly on Saturday. Those were the first curveball meatballs that he didn’t swing at this year. He saw 12 during the regular season, and he swung at every single one of them. In our tiny sample of two pitches, Freeman isn’t acting quite like himself, and I think it’s fair to say that he’s not seeing the ball as well as he usually does:

To be clear, when I talk about a slump, I mean that in relative terms. Freeman ran a .409 wOBA this season. A .320 wOBA counts as a real slump for him, but it’s the big league average, which is hardly disastrous. If you were to ask, I’m sure he’d tell you that he feels fine. And again, we’re talking about Freddie Freeman. He just put up the sixth-best wRC+ in baseball, the second-best wRC+ of his career, and career bests in batting average and on-base percentage. If there’s anyone who can turns things around in a hurry, or anyone who should get the benefit of the doubt when they get fooled on the occasional curveball, it’s him. But at the moment, I’m wondering if he’s okay.

Davy Andrews is a Brooklyn-based musician and a contributing writer for FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @davyandrewsdavy.

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Ashburn Alley
4 months ago

This was a great article that did a great job of looking at both analytics and personal factors. Thorough and convincing.