The lack of run production for the Atlanta Braves this season has been highly publicized. The Braves have scored the fewest runs in MLB, and if not for the San Diego Padres they would have the lowest OBP as well. Not only have the team’s collective struggles overshadowed the fact that Freddie Freeman is still hitting at a high level, they’ve actually made his sustained excellence at the plate even more impressive.
With Justin Upton now hitting in the two-hole of the Braves order, Freeman doesn’t have a lot of protection behind him in the lineup. Evan Gattis certainly has enough power to strike fear into opposing pitchers, but his .242 batting average and 5 to 1 K/BB rate aren’t as imposing. In the 15 games Chris Johnson spent hitting cleanup, he posted a measly .217 batting average.
This lack of protection behind Freeman has led to him getting fewer pitches to hit. Only 30.43 percent of the pitches Freeman has seen this season have been located in the strike zone. In 2013, 33.97 percent of his pitches faced were located in the zone, which is just below his career average.
That 3.5 percent may not seem like much of a difference, but if Freeman faces roughly as many pitches as he did in 2013 (2,387), that would equate to about 83 fewer pitches in the zone over a full season.
Freeman is more aggressive at the plate than most hitters, which is part of the reason why opposing pitchers give him fewer pitches out over the plate. For some context, 35.11 percent of pitches seen by Jason Heyward have been in the strikezone this year, yet Heyward has three more walks than Freeman.
There’s also the fact that Heyward is the only other left-handed hitting regular in the Braves lineup. Atlanta has faced only seven left-handed starters in their first 43 games this season, and opposing starters would rather face the Braves’ right-handed hitters than Freeman.
The diminishing number of good pitches to hit makes Freeman’s 2014 numbers even more impressive. He’s on pace to hit more home runs and draw more walks than he did last year when he finished fifth in the NL MVP voting. His .314 average and .392 OBP are both best on the team, and he will likely finish in the top 10 in the league in both categories if he maintains those numbers.
Freeman has been able to continue his production because of his aggressiveness and efficiency. His ability to hit the ball to all fields keeps him impervious to shifts and allows him to cover both sides of the plate. However, if the guys hitting behind Freeman continue to struggle, he could see even fewer pitches to hit. If that happens and he doesn’t dial back his aggressiveness some, his numbers could suffer.
If the rest of the Braves order can start to turn it around, Freeman could get more pitches to hit and be in for a huge season. If they don’t, he needs to be content with taking more walks.