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Freddie Freeman is having his best season

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Freddie Freeman is awesome, especially lately. If you like learning more about that sort of thing, this might be the article for you.

Washington Nationals v Atlanta Braves Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

(Ivan’s note: This was initially supposed to be a timely piece when Freddie Freeman was red-hot. He hasn’t exactly cooled, but his rampage is at least slightly more old hat now than it was before. In any case, life got in the way, and as such this has languished in an unpublished form for a while for about a week, so all the stats in here are about a week old. Which means they also came out before the new splits tool in Fangraphs. Sigh. Still, hopefully you’ll find them interesting. Also, the point of this isn’t really to advance any particular view, other than “Hey, Freddie Freeman is cool and interesting.” So if it feels disjointed or overly peripatetic, that’s at least somewhat the intent. Sorry.)

So, you want to know about Freddie Freeman. Well... I think we can help with that.

Freddie Freeman is a good hitter

Freddie Freeman has a career 133 wRC+ (33 percent more runs produced than a league-average hitter). If you recall, however, in his first two seasons he wasn’t really all that exciting of a hitter, with just a 116 wRC+. He turned a corner in 2013, but looking closely, he didn’t substantially evolve, but rather made a lot of incremental adjustments or improvements in his offensive profile. The real 2013 difference was a crazy-high BABIP, but there were some real improvements in limiting strikeouts, hitting more line drives, and hitting the ball harder as well. He also improved his pitch recognition and swung at more strikes, rather than watching them go by.

Getting to the more recent past, post-2013 Freeman settled into the type of hitter that many fans may think of him as — lots of line drives, sans elite power. One important thing: in 2015, he had an injury-plagued and potentially disappointing season, but he did flash an uptick in power that he hadn’t really showcased before. (And yes, this is perhaps a bit weird, as injuries and power generally aren’t directly correlated, unless it’s like, an injury to one’s failure gland.)

This brings us to 2016, which has a few different ways to look at it. You could look at it, depending on how you are inclined:

  • Pre-Matt Kemp vs. post-Matt Kemp

Or, something that I think makes slightly more sense,

  • Pre-August 6th-ish vs. post-August 6th-ish.

Now, you’re probably aware that these two options are really just splitting some near-meaningless strands of hair. Kemp joined the lineup on August 2, so there are only four games that fall into one of those spans and not the other. For me, though, the dramatic Freddie Freeman Godzilla Mode World Tour really appears to start around August 6, but the numbers are illustrative either way.

Disclaimer: August 2016 stats go only through last week

So given the above, some maybe-interesting things about Freeman’s 2016, relative to the rest of his career:

  • Much high power output (yay!).
  • Hitting the ball about as hard as he ever had before, but not out of line with some of his past experience, meaning that the increased power output came despite quality of contact staying pretty similar to 2014-2015.
  • A ballooning whiff rate, mostly having to do with high pitches. (See Corinne Landrey, of Fangraphs, do a take on this here, if you haven’t seen it already.)
  • Side note to that article: it attempts to make the case that Freeman’s “evolution” is a somewhat rudimentary trading contact for power thing. But given his documented injury issues, I’m not convinced that this is the case. It’s possible that he was both having trouble with high pitches and generating more power on balls in other parts of the zone, without a big, conscious decision to sell out and miss those high pitches as a “hit moar homerz” strategy. It’s hard to tell, for certain, without begin in his head, however. I bring this up only because it allows for the possibility that Freeman can both grow his power and also resolve his high pitch issues, which would give him a sky-high offensive ceiling. Probably not the 200+ wRC+ driven by a 30 percent HR/FB% rate, but perhaps above 150?

Spray Charts

One narrative heard from the Braves’ broadcast booth in August was that Freeman has added substantial power to left field. Unfortunately, exit velocity data are not available for years prior to 2015, and 2015 is not a great comparison season in and of itself (injuries, one year of data, etc., ideally you’d want to compare 2013 through 2015 with 2016). But even so, we have:

2016 (inclusive of August rampage of doom):

There’s a lot more darker red dots in terms of balls going to the outfield in the 2016 chart. I’m not really at the point of assessing these statistically (reviewing play logs is tedious) but my eye test of the spray chart suggests a lot more darker red to center field and left-center in 2016. The broadcast booth, in particular, seems to be talking about that huge line of new (compared to 2015) dots along the left field warning track, and then a little behind them (and over the fence).

In fact, we can grab some quick numbers on these:

  • 2015: 39.5% of flies hit to left field, 50.0% of flies hit “hard”
  • 2016: 55.9% (!!!) of flies hit to left field, 58.1% of flies hit hard

Using the new Fangraphs interactive splits tool clarifies these a bit more:

  • Career (inclusive of 2015-2016): 32.8% of left field flies hit hard
  • 2015: 26.7% of left field flies hit hard
  • 2016: 43.8% of left field flies hit hard

Even more amusingly, in August 2016, Freddie Freeman hit 12 fly balls to left field. Nine were classified as “hard” and three as “medium,” leaving nil as “soft.” Nice. The data also show that he’s basically been hitting fly balls to left field incredibly hard, and ramping up his ability to do so, since May 2016. (Thanks, Fangraphs splits tool!)

Separately, there also looks to be an uptick in harder-hit balls to left-center, whereas on the 2015 spray chart, that was more of a spot dominated by “very light red” dots.

Heat Maps

The addition of Matt Kemp has drug out from Xibalba the “debate” about “protection.” Or, if not about protection in general, at least about whether there are changes in how pitchers have approached Freddie “August Godzilla” Freeman lately. Specifically, looking at strike zone maps of pitch locations to Freeman, what you largely see is that pitchers are being much more careful to him.

The big changes appear to be: 1) fewer pitches down the middle; and, 2) some more pitches high (though slightly fewer high and away).

If you go by conventional protection theory, Freeman should see more meaty pitches because pitchers are afraid of facing Matt Kemp behind him. (In reality, is anyone afraid of facing 2016 Matt Kemp? I’m not sure...) But really, Freeman is seeing fewer meaty pitches. In fact, Freeman’s zone% (how often pitchers throw him something in the zone, in case that wasn’t clear) has gone from:

  • 41.8% pre-Kemp, to
  • 39.5% post-Kemp.

Even more dramatically, pitchers used to get strike one on Freeman about 60 percent of the time, and now it’s down to 49.5 percent. (Some of this is also driven by how often he swings at the first pitch, but it says something that those first pitches are now so bad that he’s not even offering at them anymore.)

You can’t attribute all of this to Kemp’s protectiveness and lack thereof, because pitchers are probably just running scared of August Freeman, as well they should be.

Hitting is not just about the types of pitchers you get, it also has to do with the types of pitches you swing at (duh). August Freeman has curtailed his swinging quite substantially. Is that because he thinks he has Kemp behind him, so he can afford to get walked rather than making something happen himself? You’d have to ask him. But either way, happen it has.

Similar contact rate (a little better), way less swinging. He’s chasing less, but he’s also swinging at strikes less. Sure, you expect some reduction in swinging if pitchers aren’t willing to throw you strikes. But there’s just more patience being exhibited overall. One could say Freeman is “waiting for his pitch” more, but I don’t really know what that means, and it seems like lots of the pitches he gets thrown are “his pitch” these days.

The two charts above are pre-August and post-August heat maps of swing rate. The two big differences I see:

  • Swinging less at those pesky high pitches that were giving him trouble (especially up and in); and
  • Swinging a lot less at inside pitches overall.

Freeman also used to chase pitches out of the zone (see the whiter areas n the left chart), but is spitting on those pitches more (hence the lower o-swing%) in August. All of these things help to explain why he’s pounding the snot out of the ball more.

There are likely more interesting insights to be gained from heat maps for contact%, SLG/P, and the other cornucopia of funs they have on Fangraphs. But overall, my heat map-based takeaways are mostly that he’s stopped swinging so much (especially at high pitches) and that pitchers fear throwing him strikes more than they did before. He continues to punish the pitches he does swing at, though.

Overall, there’s not much evidence of a traditional protection effect going on. That doesn’t mean Freeman doesn’t “feel protected” and has, as a result, changed his approach in a favorable way. Or maybe this is just a very welcome, prolonged hot streak. Either way, it’s fun to watch.

Addendum: Due to a couple of bad games after the numbers were compiled, Freeman’s wRC+ for August 6th through September 1st is “only” 240. He doesn’t seem to be unequivocally cooling down (eight game hit streak, with two homers and two doubles and a handful of walks in there too). Hot streaks generally end when they end (which could be today, for example), so we’ll just keep watching to see how long Freeman can keep it going.