We all knew the Atlanta Braves were going to be bad. Our writer's poll here suggested they would lose 98 games this season. Less predictable though has been the struggles of the all-star first baseman Freddie Freeman. With just over 80 plate appearances, we can start to take this worrisome start at least a bit seriously.
Here's The Problem
Believed to be a chip worth retaining long-term through the rebuild or trading during this season's deadline, Freeman is slashing .203/.329/.275. So what's wrong with him?
If that level of production continues, not only will he not be worth retaining for the remaining $118.5 million he is owed, but he would be almost impossible to deal away. And, if John Coppolella and the rest of the Braves' front office could find a deal, it would likely be for such diminished returns that it wouldn't be worth it for a rebuilding team.
This past Monday, Fredi Gonzalez made the decision to bump Freeman out of the three-spot in the lineup. Instead, he batted sixth. In his four plate appearances against the Boston Red Sox, Freeman reached base three times, suggesting the lineup change might be what he needed to get back on track. However, while two singles and a walk are definitely a good game, Freeman has still shown no penchant to slug.
Of his 14 hits this season -- in 82 plate appearances -- three have been for extra bases. Two doubles and one home run.
Perhaps getting leaned on for all of the offense has taken its toll on Freeman. Or perhaps he's getting pitched differently with very little lineup protection. While the latter condition may be true, one wouldn't expect a nearly-.200 point decrease in his slugging as a result.
Can Freeman Fix It?
According to a report from David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Freeman had begun working on some minor adjustments with Braves' hitting coach Kevin Seitzer back on Friday. Freeman specifically cited that his "bat speed is just not there."
While Statcast exit velocity numbers aren't yet widely available, FanGraphs sorts all contact into hard, medium, and soft contact based on where they land and how soon. According to that measure, Freeman's hard contact has decreased by about six percentage points, so there could be some validity to the bat speed worries.
Furthermore, Freeman's BABIP is about 30 points lower than last year's norm. So perhaps he has been a tad unlucky at the dish as well. However, to add 30 points in BABIP this early, Freeman would have only needed a groundball or two to find a gap between two fielders. There seems to be clearly something wrong with his ability to drive the ball. Related is Freeman's percentage of 'pulled' balls is also down. He's getting around on seven percentage points fewer balls than last year and going opposite 10 percentage points more.
Recently, Jeff Passan pointed out some interesting historical context for the struggling Braves
The Braves' slugging percentages are currently worse than the worst single-season slugging mark originally set by a team in the Deadball Era.
While the Braves will almost certainly not end up breaking that record, their 4-16 record seems like a 100-loss season is well within the realm of possibility. According to Baseball Prospectus' third-order win percentage based on runs scored and runs allowed, the most optimistic estimation of their success this season has them at 6-14 instead.
No one player has epitomized these failures more than Freeman. And while that's unfair to put onto one player, their one hope is hitting 38 percent worse than the league average according to wRC+.
What do the Braves do if he can't recover?
If Freeman can't find his way out of this funk, there is a very real possibility that the Braves will have some very troubling scenarios on their hand. First, training and coaching staff could be blamed for the failures. Gonzalez's seat is already hot, unfairly or not. Seitzer, too, may be blamed.
Beyond this season, Freeman is owed $106.5 million over the next five seasons. If Coppolella can't find a way for Freeman to be an integral part of the rebuild on the field, it seems like the odds of finding a suitor for that hit on the books is growing slimmer. Freeman should be entering his prime, and he will be paid as such. But retaining that much salary, tied up at first base could hamper the Braves' ability to mount a successful rebuild.
The good news is, their farm system is already loaded with talent. They may not need Freeman to be worth any return, so long as he re-establishes himself as one of the premier hitters in the league at first base. It's a really small sample size to start the season so, in all likelihood, the 26-year old Freeman can work through this funk. For Gonzalez and Seitzer's sakes though, the sooner; the better.