Is Freddie Freeman Broken?

The Braves’ offense is terrible.  Absolutely putrid.  Jeff Sullivan already covered that here.  If the offense has been historically bad, odds are the best player in that lineup is performing below expectations as well.  Sure enough, that is the case with the 2016 Atlanta Braves and Freddie Freeman.  Look at any stat you want and they all tell the same story.  Sabermetrically inclined?  His wRC+ (as of when this was written) is down 65 points from his career average, with his ISO down a whopping 107 points.  Prefer the more traditional numbers? He’s batting .203 with three extra-base hits in 82 PAs.  Regardless of how you want to measure them, the results have been bad, but the real question is, what is driving the poor results?

The tempting answer is bad luck.  His BABIP is down, he’s faced several of the game’s toughest lefties and it is only April after all.  Another easy explanation is lack of protection around him. Why would pitchers throw Freeman anything he can hit when he is the only one in the lineup that can punish them?  Oh wait, his Zone% is UP and he has seen more fastballs than last year? Hmm.

This leads to questions about his health — is Freddie Freeman still battling the wrist issue that plagued him last season?  He said it was fine headed into spring training but then felt some discomfort in mid-March before calling it a false-alarm.  Maybe the wrist is still a problem for Freeman — either directly with discomfort or indirectly through altered mechanics stemming from the injury — but regardless, it is my opinion Freddie Freeman is broken.

Even this early in the season, there are data indicators to watch.  Swing%, Contact% and (in my opinion) exit velocity are all useful to an extent over small samples.

O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Avg. Exit Velocity
Freeman 2015 29.1% 75.6% 49.5% 66.6% 82.4% 77.2% 91.2
Freeman 2016 23.7% 73.9% 47.2% 63.4% 77.0% 73.4% 88.1

Swing% is down across the board, with a marked drop in O-Swing% which is actually a good indicator most times.  The real concerns lie in the decreases in Z-Contact%, Contact% and Avg. Exit Velocity.  A large drop in Contact% accompanied by a large drop in exit velocity and ISO is a recipe for disaster — typically players trade Contact% for an increase in power.  A decrease in contact and exit velocity points to a bat-speed issue, and Freeman himself believes that to be the case telling the reporters earlier this season that “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 agree with his assessment, the bat speed has not been there.  Freeman has made in-play contact on just eight of his 39 swings against pitches with a perceived velocity of at least 93 MPH according to Baseball Savant.  This is down compared to 66 of 194 in 2015 (the only other year with data, when he was still battling the wrist issue).  His production on fastballs in general is down as well, with a negative wFB/C mark for the first time since his debut in 2010.

The reduced bat speed also shows up in his spray chart.  Freeman’s percentage of balls hit up the middle or pulled have both decreased, leading to an increase in his Opp% of over 10%.  This increase in opposite-field hitting alone is not crippling, but combined with an unbelievable decrease in production on these balls in play — 2015 wRC+ of 180 to the opposite field, wRC+ of 31 so far in 2016 — it creates a major problem.

Clearly, the Braves and Freeman are focused on adjustments at this point, but if the struggles continue much longer it will be hard to silence questions about the health of his wrist.  Credit Freeman for working on a solution, but if he and hitting coach Kevin Seitzer cannot figure out a way to get him back to normal (or if he misses extended time due to reemergence of the wrist issue), then the Braves’ offense from the first 20 games may not improve much after all.  That is a possibility that could lead to a terrible, long and historic season in Atlanta.



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