LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — As big a season as Freddie Freeman had in 2011, he probably deserves more than 25-26 inches of copy in the first story about him in 2012, right? Glad you agree.
And that is our easy ingress to this utilization of pertinent Freddie Freeman quotes that didn’t make it into the feature story posted Sunday night on this AJC.com Braves page. Paid professional working here. Stand back.
Freeman hit more home runs (21) last season than he hit in any minor league season, more homers than any Braves rookie since Chipper Jones hit 23 in 1995. It was more homers than any of us predicted from a guy who’d been known as more of a line-drive, high-average and high-OBP type of hitter in the minor leagues.
So I asked the 6-foot-5, 240-pounds first baseman, who added about five pounds this winter through an offseason strength-and-conditioning program, if he now considered himself more of a power hitter than people had him pegged as before last season.
“I don’t,” he said. “I’m still a line-drive guy. I take a lot of pride in hitting for average. I love hitting for average. I lifted a couple of balls last year. Obviously I play a position where home runs are a big key for that position.
“I did get stronger in the offseason; we’ll see if it projects to hitting more home runs that 21. We’ll see what happens, but I take a lot of pride in getting on base and scoring runs, driving in guys. I never hit a lot of home runs in my life, really, I always just stayed through the middle and hit line drives.”
He smiled and added, “We’ll see what happens. Maybe I can backspin a few more [into homers]. We’ll see.”
Among qualifying major league rookies in 2011, only Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer (.799) had a higher OPS than Freeman (.795).
Freeman, who didn’t turn 22 until September, led NL qualifying rookies in average (.282), OBP (.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).
And teammates say he was just as good in the clubhouse as he was on the field.
“Yeah, he’s a great guy,” said veteran Eric Hinske. “We’re always with each other taking ground balls at first, and he’s fun to be around. He’s happy every day and keeps it loose.”
No Brave was razzed more last season than Freeman from Day 1 of spring training through the end of the season. It was done out of affection – they don’t bother razzing you if they don’t like you – and he handled it well. Like everything else in his rookie season.
“Yeah, exactly,” Hinske said. “He nailed it. His first year, he nailed it.”
Freeman will tell you that the slumps he had last season came when he tried to get too pull-conscious, like he was at the very beginning of the season. He got that way again, he said, after hitting a mammoth home run to the field-field upper deck at Houston in June.
Each time, he got back to his up-the-middle swing within a couple of weeks. Slump over.
“I don’t even know if you could say that was a problem,” catcher Brian McCann said of Freeman’s occasional pull-happiness. “His first year through the league, I think you give him an A-plus. He’ll have to make an adjustment to things he needs to work on, and he’s got a great ability to do that.
“He’s special. And he’s a great guy. We get on him a lot and he handles it great.”
The one notable statistical area where Freeman didn’t fare well was in the defensive metic stats, which indicated, among other things, that he had below-average range. To me, he’s a case study in why metric stats for defense aren’t anywhere near as widely accepted as they are for the offensive side of the game.
Because most people who watched Freeman play on a regular basis will tell you that he was a well-above-average defensive first baseman, and teammates say he was terrific with the glove and predict that he’ll win a Gold Glove before too long.
Before Cincinnati’s Joey Votto won the NL Gold Glove for first basemen in 2011, the six previous NL awards at the position went to Derrek Lee, Adrian Gonzalez and Albert Pujols, who won two apiece in that period. Gonzalez and Pujols are now in the American League and Lee remains unsigned (and last won a Gold Glove in 2007).
“I take a lot of pride in my defense,” Freeman said. “I don’t care about awards, but that’d be cool to win one of those. It’s really special. I think the two most special things to me would be to win a batting title and a Gold Glove. Those are my favorite things, and I would like to win a lot of Gold gloves in my life. Who doesn’t?
“I truly believe Alex Gonzalez should have won one last year; he was incredible Sometimes it goes unnoticed [by Gold Glove voters]. All that matters is if guys on the team think you’re doing a good job. I was told a lot that I was helping out the team, and that’s all that matters to me.
“I don’t care if I have a Gold Glove next to my name or not, as long as these guys appreciate it that’s all that matters to me.”
Freeman’s numbers tailed off – as did those of most Braves hitters – late last season, his dip coinciding with a quadriceps injury in late August. At that time he consistently downplayed the severity of a quad strain when asked about it by reporters.
He also never used a nagging wrist injury as an excuse, but it was there at times during the courts of the season. I asked him Sunday if he’d had a couple of nagging injuries during the season. Again he downplayed them, but at least acknowledged them.
“Yeah, I did,” he said. “At the end I had the quad that was bugging me, and my wrist bugs me every year. I just get a couple of cortisone shots [in the wrist] and that makes it go away. Because my follow-through is so violent, when I whip the bat back, I always have a little problem with my wrist.”
For those of you wondering about the motivation for his adding five pounds of muscle and concerned that it might affect his sweet swing, Freeman said the weight gain came naturally with an improved offseason fitness regimen and diet.
He worked out with McCann, Kris Medlen, Jonny Venters, Brandon Hicks and former Brave Mark DeRosa under the eye of Atlanta-area trainer Ryan Goldin, who has worked with many football players before the NFL combine.
The program that Freeman and the other Braves followed was baseball-specific, however. It was not designed for adding bulk, and Freeman’s added weight is spread over his frame. He actually appears leaner than before, without the baby fat if you will.
“I was just working out,” he said. “There wasn’t really any goal, just getting ready for the season like I do every offseason. The ultimate result was that I got a little bit bigger. I added about 5 pounds – 238, 240 right now.
“Yeah. I had [a workout regimen] last offseason but it wasn’t as strict. This year was the first time where I had to be there — or I had Brian calling me if I didn’t show up.”
In the batting cage, his swing has looked as quick as ever, and he consistently pounded balls over the fences during early batting practice last week before the hitters started facing pitchers in live BP.
♣ A sunblock story: I don’t normally pay much attention to the sunblock-usage habits of ballplayers, but twice in the past few days I couldn’t help but notice.
On Thursday, Chipper Jones returned from a two-day fishing trip on a Florida river and had a sunburn the likes of which I had not seen since college, when a buddy of mine passed out on a Florida beach without applying sunblock, and we left him there for the afternoon (we were thoughtful enough to turn him over at one point, so he had an even burn, unlike Chipper’s farmer’s tan on arms and neck from wearing a sleeveless T-shirt).
When I asked Chipper about sunblock, he conceded he hadn’t worn any. Then this revelation, which I found pretty astounding in 2011: “To be honest, the only time I use [sunblock] is on my lips,” he said.
Three days later, on a cloudy Sunday, Jason Heyward sat at his locker stall, preparing for the workout that would start in an hour. I noticed Heyward using the same brand of sunblock (Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Body Mist) that I’ve used down here and mentioned it to him.
“SPF 100,” said Heyward, who uses about twice the potency of the SPF 45 that I have (I’m sure there is a better word for it than potency, but it’s now 6:30 a.m. Monday and I need to get this blog posted and get in the shower and drive back over to the ballpark for 8 a.m. clubhouse time.)
When I told Heyward that I used that particular spray because it wasn’t greasy and I could spray it on my thinning hair to protect my scalp – which, in hindsight, was probably more information that he cared to hear Sunday morning — he smiled and said something to the effect that he didn’t have that problem. I felt rather pathetic.
And there you go.
OK, folks, just five days until the Braves’ Grapefruit League opener. Prince Fielder in his Detroit Tigres debut at Dark Star on Saturday.
♣ Since the Daytona 500 got rained out Sunday and moved to today (Monday) let’s close this blog with a racing-themed Drive-By Truckers tune, penned by Mike Cooley. You can hear it by clicking here.
“DADDY’S CUP” by Drive-By Truckers (M. Cooley)
Before I could walk, I had a wrench in my hand
I was my Mama’s little angel and my Daddy’s second chance
He went end over end the first year he went pro
Lost part of his eyesight and he couldn’t race no more
But he never lost his touch when he got underneath the hood
He knew how to make them run and he knew one day he would
See his name in victory lane and engraved on that cup
Just like all them other crazy fools with racing in their blood
He would put me on his lap when he’d drive and I’d take the wheel
He’d say “What do you think about that son? How does she feel?
You just wait till them little legs get long enough to reach the gas
Once you put her on the floor one time there ain’t no turning back”
Every Saturday, he’d take me out to the garage
He’d take an empty bucket and fill it full of engine parts
He’s sit me down and pour em out in front of me on the floor
I’d have to tell him what each one was and what each one was for
We’d jump into the car and go down to the race that night
He’d tell me what each driver was doing wrong and what each one did right
He could always pick the winner before they ever took a curve
#3 might have the car but 43 has got the nerve
Before I turned 18 Daddy said “Now pretty soon
You’ll be old enough to drive but I’ll leave it up to you
I taught you all about it, taught you everything I know
You gotta have a car to do it and you gotta work and buy your own”
The first one I bought was a Mustang #2
Nobody kept’em any longer than they kept a pair of shoes
They started showing up at every used car lot in town
A V-8 on a go-cart, easy terms, no money down
Me and Daddy and my uncle took her home and tore her down
Checked her out real good, cleaned her up and bored her out
Took out all the seats, pulled the carpet off the floor
Knocked out all the glass and welded up the doors
The first time that I raced my qualifying was a shame
I started out way in the back and came back about the same
I pulled her in the pit, couldn’t look my Daddy in the eye
He said “If you quit now son, it’s gonna haunt you all your life”
It ain’t about the money or even being #1
You gotta know when it’s all over you did the best you could’ve done
Knowing that it’s in you and you never let it out
Is worse than blowing any engine or any wreck you’ll ever have
Since then I’ve wrecked a bunch of cars and I’ve broke a bunch of bones
It’s anybody’s race out there and I’ve learned to race my own
I’d shove em in the wall and I’d hit em from behind
I’d let them know that I was there, I’d let them know that track was mine
It’s been several years now since my Daddy passed away
But his picture’s on my dash every time I go to race
I lost more than I won but I ain’t gonna give up
Till they put me in the ground or Daddy’s name’s on that cup
– by David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog