Freddie Freeman’s Delicate Balance of Power and Contact

Last week, I wrote about the dearth of production at the first-base position this season. In the piece, I highlighted Wil Myers as one of the few, young beacons of hope at the position and mentioned a few other young stars, but there was one notable guy I failed to mention: the Braves’ sole star-caliber position player, 26-year-old first baseman Freddie Freeman. It wasn’t a slight on my part, but instead was a side effect of my awareness that Freeman was worthy of an entire post of his own. Well, the time has come. Let’s take a look at Freddie Freeman.

Freeman’s 2016 season started unbearably slowly. After homering in his first at-bat of the season, he went on to accumulate just two more extra-base hits – both doubles – over his next 81 plate appearances. After play on April 26th, he’d recorded a miserable 65 wRC+ and had been bumped down in the batting order from his typical spot in the three-hole. Fortunately for the Braves — who have Freeman under contract for $106.5 million from 2017 to 2021 — Freeman’s season quickly began to turn around. Entering play on Tuesday night, he had posted a .307/.379/.571 slash line — good for a 151 wRC+ — ever since his statistical nadir on April 26th.

His offensive production during the month of June has been among the best in the majors and has led to Freeman currently sporting the highest ISO figure (.211) of his career. On the strength of his power surge, it might appear that Freeman is well on his way to another predictably strong season, but it must be noted that not all indicators are trending in the right direction for Freeman.

In addition to setting a career high in power, Freeman is well on his way to setting a full-season career high in strikeout-rate. His rolling K% illustrates the trend quite well:

Freeman Rolling K%

After displaying a typical fluctuation of peaks and valleys in recent years, Freeman’s strikeout rate this season more closely resembles a tightly packed mountain range. The end result has been a 25.3% figure which, while hardly prohibitive, is still well above his career 21.2% mark. What’s more alarming than the strikeouts themselves, though, is the trend behind them.

Below are two strike zone charts of Freddie Freeman’s contact rate. The graphical depiction of his 2015 season is on the left and this season is on the right. Play close attention to the contact rate up in the zone.

2015-2016 Contact% Zone

Across these two charts it’s clear that Freeman’s rate of contact has plummeted. From 2013 to 2015, Freeman posted a mark of 76.8%, but this year he’s making contact on just 71.8% of his swings, which gives him the 18th-worst Contact% in the majors. As you can see, the most stark change in contact rate for Freeman has come on pitches up in the zone. With this in mind, take a look at the pitch location corresponding to Freeman’s hits:

2015-2016 Hits

Take note of all that white space in the top of the zone on this year’s chart. In addition to whiffing on pitches up in the zone this year, he’s also not getting hits when he does make contact.

Take these struggles one level deeper and an unsettling trend arises. While Freeman has been struggling on all pitches up in the zone this season, the tendency has been magnified on fastballs. Here’s one more Contact% plot with 2015 on the left and 2016 on the right, but this time it’s just on fastballs.

2013-2015 and 2016 Contact% vs FB

In a staggering decline from last season, Freddie Freeman is flat out not hitting high fastballs this season. Of course, considering it’s still only June and we’ve divvied up his pitches seen both by location and pitch type, it’s still important to take sample size into consideration here. This is a trend that’s still in infancy and it’s certainly not unprecedented for baby trends never to reach the toddler stage, let alone grow up to become a new norm.

The impacts of these struggles are noticeable, but still well shy of alarming.

Freddie Freeman Fastball Linear Weights
Season wFB/C MLB Percentile
2013 2.34 97%
2014 1.27 81%
2015 1.36 80%
2016 1.12 69%
Note: Freeman did not qualify for the batting title in 2015, but all percentile ranks are among qualified major-league hitters.

This season, Freeman’s production against fastballs has dipped as measured by our Pitch Type Linear Weights metric. In the three seasons prior to this one, Freeman had been among the better hitters in the league against fastballs, but this year he falls in at merely above average.

You could reasonably argue this article is a bit nitpicky. Freeman’s walk rate, batting average, and on-base percentage are all in-line with his career norms and, as mentioned previously, he’s hitting for power more than ever. He’s rebounded nicely from a rough April and is putting together a predictably solid season.

Right now, Freeman finds himself in the well-established category of a player who has traded contact for power and, at this point, the balance between the two is working for him. However, Freeman’s ISO currently ranks just 57th among qualified hitters this season even while also representing his career high. He’s successfully walking a tight rope right now, but if the Contact% worsens or the power dissipates, then his current resurgence may begin to fall apart.

Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.

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7 years ago

My first thought is that maybe he knows it’s a lost season for the team, so maybe he’s trying to see if a new approach works positively or not

7 years ago
Reply to  Doorknob11

Now would be the year to experiment with his approach and see if he can find more value for the 2018 season.

Travis Lmember
7 years ago
Reply to  Doorknob11

Serious question: what evidence is there that a player deciding to change their approach will have any meaningful impact on their game?

I get changing the swing plane, but I think approach is more about deciding when to swing against different pitches/locations. I hear about hitters saying they “change their approach” all the time, but do we have any evidence it has an effect on their process or their results?