Prior to 2016, when one would analyze Freddie Freeman’s offensive profile the one thing most would harp on is his lack of power compared to most first basemen. From 2011-2015, which begins with Freeman’s rookie season, he had 103 home runs which would rank 16th among all first basemen. When most think about Freeman, even prior to last year, he is looked at as an above average first baseman. The power department was not why many felt that way. It was reasonable to expect Freeman to develop in the mold of a high OBP bat who could hit some home runs but will never compete for the National League home run crowd.
Things changed last year. Freeman became a full-on power hitter. He was fifth in the National League in home runs with 34, third in ISO at .267, and led in extra base hits – finishing second in the majors behind only David Ortiz. Freeman even had more total bases than MVP Kris Bryant. So, how did he suddenly go from a hitter who had never had an ISO north of .200 to becoming one of the National League’s preeminent power hitters?
Unfortunately, it was not all simply development or growing into his body. Remember, Freeman had never really lifted prior to becoming a professional, so many believed there was more power in his large frame than he had produced. Even so, there was a noticeable difference in his hitting profile.
Over at Beyond the Box Score, Ryan Romano looks at the potential hole Freeman created in his game last year. Freeman’s strikeout rate spiked in 2016 to the highest it has ever been, even higher than his previous high of 22.4% way back when he was a rookie (I am not including the 24 plate appearances he received at the end of 2010). The worrisome part, to Romano, is his whiff rate with pitches inside the zone.
In using Sandy Kazmir’s handy dandy hitter profile tool I have utilized in the past, Romano is right that Freeman’s swinging strike rate and zone-contact rate specifically are significantly lower than league average. Freeman was in the 11th percentile of zone-contact and 12th percentile in terms of swinging strikes. Freeman took a lot of swings and he missed a good deal of them.
The difference last year was the type of swings Freeman was taking. His hard hit percentage of 44% was in the 98th percentile in all of baseball. As mentioned earlier, he led the National League in extra base hits. The balls he was making contact with were being smoked. It is clear, based on both of these notions, that Freeman was sacrificing swings-and-misses to make much louder contact with the ball. Swinging harder will generate more swings and misses, as you can see with almost all power hitters in this era.
We have seen the types of swings that Freeman can take when he cuts the swing in half and can poke it into the outfield. He has been using those types of swings for his whole career. Last year, those still types of swings still occurred, which allowed him to continue to hit for a .370 BABIP and a .303 average (again, much of that was also due to him hitting the ball as hard as anyone in baseball), but he also started cutting loose for the first time in his career.
Freeman made the decision to become a power hitter by taking more significant cuts at the ball. That led to more swings and misses, more home runs, and additionally more walks. When a hitter can hit for the type of power Freeman showed last season, especially in a lineup that had low threat bats surrounding the power hitter, walks tend to start increasing.
This is exactly what happened with Freeman, as his walk rate jumped up to a career high 12.8%. That happened despite Freeman being one of the most active swingers-of-the-bat in baseball. If the ball is in the zone, Freeman will be swinging. His zone-swing percentage of 81% was in the 99th percentile. So if the ball was thrown in the zone, there was a 4 out of 5 chance that Freeman was taking a hack at it.
To me, this is the best version of Freeman we have seen to date. I would argue that the swings and misses are not only not a bad thing, but that they are actually a positive. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but Freeman, as well as basically every player, does not possess the ability to hit the ball as hard as anyone in the league without also missing the ball with a high frequency. Freeman’s hit tool is so high quality that he can take these types of hacks without becoming a Chris Davis. If he is going to hit the ball this hard then he needs to swing harder, and that will inherently lead to a lot of swings and misses. It would be worrisome if he added a high swing and miss rate to his profile without adding additional power, but if swinging and missing at pitches in the zone more often leads to a 40% increase in ISO, Freeman, the Braves, and every single fan of the team will take it every day of the week.