LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Only two major league rookies hit more home runs in 2011 than did Freddie Freeman, whose 21 matched his age and were more homers than he hit in any minor league season.
But players look at more than home-run totals to gauge power. Freeman, the first Braves rookie to hit 20 homers since Chipper Jones in 1995, did something that made teammates believe he’s only scratched the surface of his power potential.
“Going oppo” is the expression they use. Opposite-field power is seductive stuff.
“When you’re 21 years old and you can go left-center field 10 rows deep, you’re special,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said. “And he can do that. Like I’ve said, he’s going to have a great career. He’s going to have a big, huge career.”
He was the National League Rookie of the Year runner-up, like his teammate and pal Jason Heyward the year before. Like Heyward, who finished second to San Francisco catcher Buster Posey, Freeman had a season that would’ve been good enough to win the award in a typical season.
There was nothing typical in 2011 about fellow Braves rookie Craig Kimbrel, who led major league relievers with 127 strikeouts in 77 innings and shattered the major league rookie saves record with 46, tied him for the NL lead.
Kimbrel got all 32 first-place votes, while Freeman got 21 second-place votes.
“It’s cool just to get some votes,” Freeman said. “I already knew he was going to win.When you break records like that, you deserve it.”
Freeman led NL qualifying rookies in average (.282), on-base percentage (.346), slugging percentage (.448), hits (161), doubles (32) and RBI (.76). He tied for the NL rookie lead in homers and was second in walks (53) and runs (67).
“Tremendous,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “I don’t think you could ask for a rookie season to go any better for him. There were some peaks and valleys, but overall it was a great experience for him.”
Freeman hit .214 with no homers and a .283 OBP in his first 13 games, then tore off a 45-game stretch in which he batted .294 with a .365 OBP and five homers. That was followed by another 13-game slide June 7-21, in which he hit .235 with two homers while striking out 24 times in 51 at-bats with only three walks.
“You don’t ever want that, but it happened and you just can’t let it get you down,” said Freeman, who said each time he slumped it was because he became too pull-conscious, trying to hit home runs to right field instead of drive the ball to all fields.
“That’s always the key. Just stay to the middle and use the whole field and I’ll be all right.”
He snapped out of his strikeout-plagued stretch again with a torrid stretch much longer than the slump, batting .354 over his next 38 games with eight homers, 27 RBIs and a .415 OB while striking out just 32 times in 147 at-bats.
That ability to make adjustments is what most impressed Braves veteran Eric Hinske, an American League Rookie of the Year back in 2002 with Toronto.
“Yeah, he had a stretch where he was striking out a little bit,” Hinske said, “but I think his overall numbers speak to what kind of a hitter he is. He’s just a big dude that has an easy approach and uses all fields. It seems like it’s going to be hard for him to struggle. There’s really not a lot to [his swing]. It’s foot down, separate and go after the ball.
“For a big strong guy like that, it’s pretty cool. He gets on the plate, keeps his foot down and just waits for the ball. Sees the ball, controls the depth of it — easy approach. I like how simple he is with it, the way he thinks and what he’s trying to do up there. For how young he is — he’s beyond his years, for sure, in his approach to the game.”
Freeman is 6 feet 5 and uses every bit of that length to his advantage, both in the plate coverage with his swing and defensively with the stretches he makes to prevent errors on throws a little high or wide.
He sometimes does the splits with his long legs, extending as far as possible in order to shorten a throw by a few inches — which can make the difference on a bang-bang play.
“Future Gold Glover, if you ask me,” Hinske said.
McCann said, “His swing is great. He can make adjustments. He’s got some of the best bat speed on this team. And you throw in all these things he does well on the offensive side, he may be equally as good on the defensive side. He’s a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman.”
Freeman spent the offseason working out with McCann and a few other Braves who followed a baseball-specific regimen designed by Atlanta-area trainer Ryan Goldin. It was the most rigorous offseason program Freeman has followed, and he said McCann made sure he stuck with it and called him if he was late for a session.
Freeman added five pounds of muscle, up to 240, but still considers himself a line-drive hitter rather than a home-run hitter. He hopes to win a batting title and Gold Gloves in the future, but said being a home-run leader isn’t a goal.
Asked what he learned about himself last season, he said the realization that he could drive the ball with authority to left and left-center field.
“In the minor leagues I really didn’t hit a lot of opposite-field homers,” he said. “Now I can go out everywhere [hit home runs to any field], so I don’t need to pull it. I can just stay up the middle of the field. I think that’s what I learned the most.
“But [opposing pitchers] are going to make the adjustments. They saw me hit opposite-field home runs last year, so we’ll see how they do this year against me, and I’ll make adjustments against them.”