When I first started researching for today’s post, Freddie Freeman was in the midst of one of the worst slumps in his career. It was so bad that for one game Fredi had him batting as far down as 6th in the lineup. For the last week, however, Freeman’s gotten hot again, scattering his second and third homeruns among 11 hits and bringing his wRC+ for the season up to an almost respectable 98. This is still a long ways off from his 130 career mark, but it’s at least a movement in the right direction.
Anytime a hitter is struggling I try to break it down piece by piece to try to determine what area is driving the struggle and whether or not it’s just a random bad stretch or if an actual adjustment needs to be made. Most of the time, it’s simply a collection of random pieces, each of which are mostly poor luck, but add up to what appears to be a prolonged slump. For Freddie this season, that’s certainly part of the issue: Some well hit balls haven’t gone over the fence, he’s had some whiffs on breaking balls, and his exit velocity has been a little down on off-speed pitches. All stuff to keep an eye on, but nothing to make something out of in such small samples. However, after digging into all the factors, there is one thing in particular that has worked against Freeman this season, and that he’ll have to adjust to if he wants to return to his previous form.
I started out looking at his splits against righties and lefties. The first thing that pops out is that versus left handed pitchers, he’s been great.
His 159 wRC+ against them would be a career high, but that’s mostly due to some good BABIP and ISO luck. His batted ball velocities look almost identical against LHP this year versus last year, and his BB% and K% are practically identical to his career averages. Nothing to see here, really. The difference for him has come against righties.
Small sample caveats abound, but this season Freeman hasn’t been able to consistently put a barrel on a ball against RHP. As seen above, his strikeout rate against them is a full 8 percentage points higher than his career average, and it’s easy to assume his ISO and BABIP dips against them are related.
So we now know his struggles are against righties, and based on that strikeout rate we know those struggles are driven by whiffs. With that in mind, we’ll continue to break things down even deeper. Below is a breakdown of his results against RHP by pitch type.
From this we find that over half of the increase in his whiff% against RHP has been on fourseams. Yes, there’s changes elsewhere, but changing his whiff rate against fourseams this season to his 2015 rate brings his overall whiff rate down from 15.4% to 12.4%, which is close to his career average of around 10%. That’s a huge difference! To see if it’s just a bad stretch, we’ll break it down one more step to see how RHP are attacking him with fastballs this year versus last year.
The image below is a heat map of how RHP approached him with fastballs in 2015.
These fastballs average 92.6 mph and were focused on three areas: the inside edge, the outside edge, and the bottom edge. This is a pretty standard approach of keeping the ball out of the center of the plate, hoping to get weak contact off the end of the bat or closer to the knob. Now let’s take a look at 2016.
This is a drastic change from the year prior. These fastballs averaged 93.6 mph and were concentrated almost exclusively up and away. In past years, when guys would challenge him with these pitches, he was pretty good about laying off of them. Now, in addition to seeing pitches there more often, he’s grown much more aggressive against them. His swing rate on pitches up in the zone is at a career high. So he’s seeing greater velocity, more pitches up in the zone, and less of an ability to lay off them.
Many slumps are just random stretches of poor luck or unfavorable matchups that need nothing more than to be waited out. But others signal a change in approach, either by the pitchers or the hitter or both, and necessitate an adjustment. Based on what we’ve seen with Freddie this season, I believe that’s what’s happening. Right handed pitchers have learned they can get him to whiff on the high heat, and until he learns to either lay off them or put a barrel on those pitches, he’s going to continue to struggle. For now, we’ll just have to wait and see.