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Playing through pain is a bad idea and it’s hurting the Braves

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The featured picture is from 2019. Freddie was playing with bone spurs in his elbow. That’s not good!

Atlanta Braves v New York Mets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Hello! It’s Demetrius Bell, the internet’s local blogging Braves nerd. So, um, this take that you absolutely have to play every game that you possibly can and built-in days off are kind of bad? It’s um, it’s not good.

Yep. To take it a step further, that take is “nooooooo gooooooood,” as a really speedy blue hedgehog from the 1990s would say. I’ll start with the understandable parts, which is what Hannah Keyser pointed out in her article on the subject. I definitely recommend that you read it, since she’s pretty fair in pointing out that there have been a couple of situations where forcing a guy onto the field — namely, Freddie Freeman pressuring someone to play in the friendliest, most Freddie Freeman-est way possible — ended up working out for the Braves.

“Sometimes it’s too much,” he admits, “because some of these guys are hurting sometimes, but they go out there because they don’t want to hear me. Cause I will be all over them from the minute they get into the clubhouse.”

At the end of August, Albies fouled a ball off his own knee and had to be carried off the field. He missed the next two games, the most rest anyone around the horn has gotten this year.

“He got two days, there’s his two days,” Freeman says. “Now you’re out there every single day the rest of the way.”

To be fair, Albies homered in his first game back.

Freeman also brought up a time a couple of years ago when Adeiny Hechavarria got dinged-up while making a play and thought about sitting out the next night. Freddie said that they needed him, so Hechavarria played and ended up hitting a dinger the next night. So it does work out sometimes, but those are also very short-term anecdotes that don’t really take into consideration the long-term issues of playing as many games as possible without taking some days off to stay as fresh as possible.

The main guy who I can think of who this affected the most was Nick Markakis during his final seasons. By the time he was winding down his career, the book on Markakis was that the first half of any given season of his would be pretty good — He’d look like the Nick Markakis that garnered such a strong fanbase while playing here in Atlanta. Then came the second half of the season, when it was obvious that he was completely gassed and he’d routinely go on slumps as the season winded down. That led to October rolling around and Markakis being more of a liability than an asset to a team with World Series aspirations. This wasn’t a case of Markakis wilting under the hot lights of Postseason baseball — Instead, his fate was determined when he entered October with a “162” under the “G” column of an age-34ish season.

Even Freddie Freeman himself should be able to testify about the perils of running yourself into the ground in the regular season. Back in 2019, Freddie Freeman injured his elbow at some point in September. To let you know just how much of a vice grip the Braves had on the division that year, they were 10 games ahead in first place by September 7 and stretched it to 10.5 games by September 14. Freddie probably could have afforded to take some time off, but instead he shouldered on and ended up playing 158 games. That was a prelude to the news eventually getting out that Freddie was in fact playing hurt and Freddie dropping this gem of a quote:

As y’all vividly remember, it was not a wonderful Game 5 for the Atlanta Braves. Freeman ended up getting surgery four days after the NLDS and personally, I let out an incredible shriek. While it’s admirable that Freeman is this tough on himself and apparently has a pain threshold and healing factor on the level of Wolverine from the X-Men, it’s not the type of level that’s able to be sustained over a marathon such as a baseball season. Again, it’s not like Freeman and the Braves have to look any further to find an example of how to do this the right way — they just got done playing three games against the Giants.

The Giants currently have the best record in baseball and it certainly isn’t because they’re trotting out the same lineup with the same guys day in and day out. Instead, they’re able to get their core players as much rest as they need to stay fresh while also slotting in players that are capable backups. While this has coincided with a lot of their players having the season of their respective lives at approximately the same time, a lot of this is just good roster management and roster building on the part of San Francisco. They have a veteran-laden team and they aren’t being ground into dust by the rigors of the regular season.

For comparison’s sake, the Braves’ infield that has been hitting the cover off of the ball for most of this season has usually been out there for every game. Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Austin Riley, and Dansby Swanson have all played at least 140 games — I would’ve bumped that threshold up to 145 since Freeman, Riley, and Swanson have each played 146 games and Ozzie would’ve been at 145 if it weren’t for those aforementioned two days he had after he hurt his knee. Anyways, that’s all giving this comparison a huge amount of leeway because not one single Giants player has even played 130 games this season. They’ve got a couple of guys who are close but nobody has passed that threshold and they’re nowhere close to the workload that Atlanta’s infield has been subject to.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Los Angeles Dodgers
Ozzie played two days after this! It may be admirable but it’s definitely not optimal!
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

As a result, which team do you figure is going to do more work in the Postseason (should Atlanta even make it there at this point): A team with a bunch of guys who have made a deep run in the recent past but are limping into the tournament, or a team that is returning to the dance for the first time in a while and doing so while still being relatively fresh and healthy? I’d bet on the latter team at this point and assuming baseball doesn’t prove itself to be the wacky sport that we’ve seen it be, that’s probably what will happen once October comes around.

Simply put, “load management” is very beneficial and it usually works out better than the current Braves philosophy of simply getting everybody out there as much as possible, fatigue and small injuries be damned. Russell A. Carlton did a really good article on Baseball Prospectus on the subject and again, I suggest you read this in its entirety. As far as the Braves go, this is probably going to be a problem for them as long as they have this mentality, and it’s not something that just popped up with Freddie Freeman. He probably learned it from Chipper Jones and Chipper learned it from the generation that came before him. It’s a decidedly-old school approach and the Braves would probably do well to start fortifying the bench as much as possible in order to spread around the work instead of simply expecting the core players to shoulder all the work.

I do get why those players don’t want to sit — They’re passionate about this sport, they’re insanely competitive and most importantly, the drop off around here has usually been incredibly steep between the regulars and the bench players. Again, you fix that by fixing the bench and making it deep and versatile instead of simply an array of pinch-hitters. I don’t know when it’s going to be fixed but it’s got to be fixed at some point in the near future, or else the Braves could get left behind by the teams that do figure it out.

While it may be admirable from Freddie Freeman that he wants to be out there as much as possible, there comes a time where that type of mindset becomes counterproductive to the ultimate goal of winning a title. Also, I really and truly hope that he figures out the benefits of planned and occasional rest while in a Braves uniform instead of figuring it out with some other team. If he embraces it, then maybe the rest of the organization will and the Braves can finally get with the times when it comes to this sort of thing.