Freddie Freeman‘s batting practice sessions, by his own admission, are the most boring in baseball. He does nothing but hit line drives into left field, over and over. Picture a slicing liner that barely clears the glove of a leaping shortstop and you’ll get the idea of each ball’s trajectory. And now picture this happening repeatedly, with metronomic precision, every swing the same, and you’ll get an idea of its meditative quality. It’s like watching someone casually paint a wall, each brushstroke traveling the same distance.
The swing itself, though, is a marvel of architectural efficiency, constructed from the ground up. It emanates from his feet and travels vertically to his arms, where it seems to accelerate — against all notions of physics — after it connects with the ball, like a chain saw finishing off a tree limb.
The preparation, and that swing, is intended to create a slump-proof life for the Braves’ first baseman and reigning National League MVP, who is making his first World Series appearance in his 12th season in Atlanta. A swing that intricate, that repeatable, does not appear by chance.
After practice every day at El Modena High School in Orange, California, Freeman would set up an L screen and sit on a bucket containing 40 baseballs. His teammates would pack up and head home, and Freddie would sit on that bucket and wait for his father to finish work as a CPA and arrive at the field. Fred Freeman would stand behind that L screen and throw three buckets’ worth of baseballs — 120 pitches — to his son. Freddie hit the first 40 to the opposite field, the second 40 up the middle and the last 40 to wherever his father pitched them. He has never — not then, not now — worked on pulling the ball to right field.
Freeman’s consistency in planning and execution — his trust-the-process process — has never been more evident than during the Braves’ improbable run to the World Series. The tightened focus of a postseason exposes a player’s flaws harshly and unforgivingly; it’s the fluorescent lighting of a seven-month season. Conclusions are drawn and opinions formed quickly and definitively, based on precious little evidence. And that’s why Freeman, who provided the winning margin with a solo homer in the eighth inning of the Braves’ 5-4 win over the Brewers in Game 4, found himself in an odd and awkward position: forced to defend himself after going 0-for-8 with seven strikeouts in the first two games of the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers. (Games the Braves won, it should be noted.)
Had the Dodgers figured him out? They pounded fastballs in on his hands, which kept him from getting his arms extended and served to reduce his reaction time. So close to the World Series — and free agency — for the first time, was he pressing? The long, smooth swing path looked rushed and off balance. He swung at pitches he would normally take and took some he’d normally demolish.
Before any answers could come, it was over. The slump-proof swing returned in Game 3; Freeman employed the first-bucket philosophy — the batting-practice philosophy — and went 3-for-4, beating the shift senseless by hitting the ball to left field all four times, three of them singles. From there, the swing accelerated and got progressively angrier. In Game 4, the third-bucket philosophy: 2-for-4 with a long homer to right-center and a double to right. In Game 5, the second bucket: a regal 425-foot homer to dead center. In the decisive Game 6, after six hits in 12 at-bats, including two homers, the Dodgers threw up their hands, walking him four times in five plate appearances.
Braves manager Brian Snitker referred to Freeman’s first eight at-bats of the NLCS as “Freddie’s thing,” like he was afraid of giving it more credibility than it deserved. “That was a blip on the radar,” he said. “You don’t keep an elite player like Freddie down for an extended period.”
Nevertheless, a new storyline emerged: the seven strikeouts in eight at-bats followed by the magical resurrection. The fluorescent lights were turned off, replaced by a soft, flattering glow. Future success would be measured against past failure, and there would be no budging from this.
“It doesn’t have to be different,” Freeman said after Game 5. “It’s just baseball. I had a couple of bad games. I haven’t done anything different. It’s eight at-bats. I’ve done worse over more than eight at-bats in my career. That’s the thing: two games. I was shown video, and it showed that there was nothing different. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve been 0-for-8 before. I’ll be 0-for-8 again at some point, hopefully not this postseason, though.”
Of course he didn’t do anything different. From the time he sat on that bucket waiting for his dad, different has never been necessary. So why, on the precipice of his first and possibly last World Series with the only team he has ever known, would he start now?
It is difficult to envision Freeman in the World Series, harder yet to envision him in another uniform. He is referred to as the face of the Braves’ franchise so often it can seem like part of his name, and Atlanta’s presence in the World Series is seen in some parts as poetic justice for his years of service to a team that didn’t always have a coherent mission. All of this makes the prospect of these two events happening in quick succession — Freddie Freeman playing in a World Series and Freddie Freeman becoming a member of another team — feel like a clumsy fictional plot twist.
Freeman, 32, was picked by the Braves out of El Modena with the second pick of the second round in the 2007 draft, scuttling his plans to attend Cal State Fullerton and follow his father into the CPA business. He made his debut with the Braves in 2010, as a gangly, wide-eyed 20-year-old with an elegant swing that looked about the same as it does now. But the eight-year, $135 million extension he signed after the 2013 season expires as soon as the season ends, and he will — for the first time — become available to the most attractive bidder.
Freeman has repeatedly insisted he would prefer to remain a Brave, and at the end of the regular season he went so far as to say he considered it shocking that he finds himself in this position. Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos told The Athletic in late August, “The goal is to sign him. He’s been very clear his goal is to stay.”
As with most extensions signed by young players, it’s safe to say Freeman’s roughly $17 million-per-year salary has been a bargain, at least in baseball terms. Had he hit free agency after the 2016 season, after turning 27 and coming off a sixth-place MVP finish for a team that lost 93 games, whatever contract he received would have made the extension look small. And even now, five years later, there are many indications that Freeman has productive years ahead of him. He has been durable, missing just six games in the past four seasons, and he has finished in the top five in MVP voting three times, which includes winning the award for his .341 average and 1.102 OPS in 2020’s 60-game season. His consistency is close to legendary. For the past nine seasons, his OPS+ has not dipped below 132. (The big league average is 100.) This season he hit .300 with 31 homers and scored a league-leading 120 runs, and his OPS+ of 133 was his lowest since 2015.
None of that touches on his personality. He is an inveterate smiler, unfailingly polite, and almost comically humble in his plaid-shirt-and-jeans kind of way. He treats first base like his front porch, and no matter how long you stay he’s going to do what he can to make you feel welcome. He talks to everyone and dishes out compliments to opponents so easily it can be hard to figure out where he stores his competitive fire.
There are also many times when the moment is so overwhelming words alone can’t do it justice. When he doubled in Game 4, he said something to Dodgers second baseman Trea Turner, giving him a little shoulder squeeze. When Albert Pujols lined a single in the second inning of Game 5, a happy conversation — both men throwing their heads back in laughter — escalated to a heartfelt hug, right there on the field, in the middle of the game, sending shivers through every hard-line traditionalist.
For that reason, the often-fractured baseball world, eternally struggling with the ethical dilemma of the Houston Astros, seems united behind its happiness for Freeman’s opportunity. “He’s been through the really tough times with this team when they weren’t really winning at all,” said 24-year-old third baseman Austin Riley. “If you ask every player, he’d say it would mean a lot for us to be able to do this for him.”
Some of those players just recently met. The Braves added and subtracted players at an alarming pace in the second half of the season, acquiring players — most prominently Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler and Eddie Rosario. It fell to the clubhouse sage, the smiling, welcoming one, to provided ballast amid the shifting seas.
“To me, Freddie’s the definition of a professional baseball player,” Riley said. “Day in, day out, he’s so poised in every situation. It’s not so much what he says; it’s just the way he carries himself. If he’s 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, he’s the same guy every day, and I think guys catch on to that and gravitate toward it.”
Baseball is notorious for its silly superstitions and reliance on mystical theories, like hitting and slumping being teamwide contagions. The Braves, in a bit of mysticism that is at least more evidence-based, believe Freeman’s work ethic is contagious. Three Braves — Swanson, Riley and Freeman — played at least 159 games this season, while the fourth infielder, second baseman Ozzie Albies, played in 156. This could be attributed to Snitker’s unwillingness to give his best players days off. Or it could be, as Snitker prefers to believe, Freeman’s work ethic permeating the clubhouse. “The biggest thing I’ve learned from Freddie,” Riley said, “is learning how to deal with success and failure. To deal with this game every day, you need to learn both.”
Fittingly, Freeman caught the throw from Dansby Swanson that accounted for the final out of the NLCS. He immediately shot his arms in the air, his body in a goofy backward lean, and screamed into the night. He held the pose for a count longer than expected, maybe to savor the moment, maybe as a sign of disbelief.
“I think this might be the definition of pure joy,” Freeman said afterward. “I don’t really know how to feel. Usually we’re sitting at our locker thinking about the whole season and getting ready for next year — and this year we actually did it.”
He said he couldn’t really find the words to express just what it meant to him, and that alone — Freddie Freeman, speechless — says more than words could ever hope to say. There’s a lot going on: the World Series, the possibility these might be his final games in a Braves uniform. The safe bet is that he’ll find a way to put it all out of his mind. He’ll remember what works — what’s always worked — and then go about the unapologetically boring task of doing it over and over and over.
What to know about 2022 Baseball Hall of Fame vote
The Baseball Hall of Fame will announce the results of the Baseball Writers Association of America voting Tuesday, and it’s a winter tradition that has become as much fun as shoveling wet, heavy snow that sits atop a layer of super-slick ice. Hall of Fame debates are no longer just about who was a better baseball player, but weighing whose transgressions voters are willing to look past and whose they won’t.
Last year, 401 members of the BBWAA participated in the voting, meaning players needed 301 votes (75%) to get elected. Despite a ballot that featured 10 players with at least 60 career WAR — a total that roughly makes a player a viable Hall of Fame candidate — the writers didn’t elect anybody, with Curt Schilling coming closest at 71.1% of the vote and leaving him 16 votes short of election.
Schilling, facing his final year of eligibility in 2022, then asked to be removed from the ballot. “I’ll defer to the veterans committee and men whose opinions actually matter and who are in a position to actually judge a player,” Schilling wrote on his Facebook page. The Hall of Fame’s board of directors voted unanimously to leave Schilling on the ballot. The response from the BBWAA? A player usually receives a final-year boost, but Schilling — no stranger to controversy, of course, even before his little pique of anger — has seen his support decline. Via Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame tracker, we know Schilling’s percentage on public ballots (voters who reveal their selections before the results are announced) dropped to 59.6% (through 161 ballots revealed). He’s not getting in.
To be fair, it’s not like the writers are against electing anybody. Last year, the average ballot contained 5.86 names, despite 14 blank ballots. So far this year, the average ballot contains 7.63 names. They just can’t agree on which players are Hall of Famers.
That gets us to this year’s announcement. It’s the final time on the ballot for Schilling, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa — along with the first for Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz, the two newcomers with the strongest credentials. Some things to watch for heading into the 6 p.m. ET announcement:
1. Will Ortiz get elected?
It’s looking like … maybe? Ortiz is sitting at 83.6% of the public vote, with nearly 44% of ballots revealed. That doesn’t mean he’s a lock. The percentages for the pre-result ballots are always higher and steroid-associated players usually take an even bigger hit. Bonds, for example, received 73.7% of the pre-result public ballots last year, but just 42.6% of the private ballots. The question: Is Ortiz viewed as a steroid guy? That is a complicated answer. His name was leaked as part of the 2003 anonymous survey testing, but he never failed a test after that. Of course, neither did Bonds or Clemens. I don’t think Ortiz is viewed in the same light as those guys, in part because he didn’t break records, and in part because … well, everyone loves Big Papi.
In fact, this is where Schilling, warts and all, may have a legitimate gripe. He trounces Ortiz in career WAR, 79.5 to 55.3. Ortiz, of course, had his legendary moments in the playoffs — but so did Schilling, who has a 2.23 ERA over 133 career postseason innings including the World Series, which he won three times. On numbers alone, Schilling should be a slam-dunk Hall of Famer while Ortiz is a borderline case. The only first-ballot Hall of Famers with a lower career WAR than Ortiz are Lou Brock and Kirby Puckett.
While Ortiz might go for 1-for-1 on the ballot, Schilling will go 0-for-10. Is it really as simple as Ortiz is beloved while Schilling isn’t? That’s part of it — certainly it has been the past three or four years, when Schilling’s noxious social media behavior turned some voters off him. It has also been bad timing on Schilling’s part. He hit the ballot in 2013, a year that included nine players since elected to the Hall of Fame, along with Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro. The voters were so confused, nobody made it. The next year, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas joined the list, making it even more crowded, and then Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz after that. The ballot was incredibly crowded for several years — remember, voters can vote for a maximum of only 10 players — and Schilling could never get the momentum going. Once he did, he torpedoed his own case.
There is something else in play here when comparing Schilling to Ortiz — or to a similar candidate like Smoltz. Bill James recently published a study that showed “one team” players fare much better in Hall of Fame voting than players who played for multiple teams. Ortiz played for the Twins, but nearly all his career value came with the Red Sox. He’s a “one team” player. Schilling spread his value among the Phillies, Diamondbacks and Red Sox. This has also perhaps hurt Gary Sheffield, who played for eight different teams and earned at least 5 WAR with five of them.
2. Will Bonds and Clemens make it?
They are polling at just over 75% — 77.2% for Bonds, 76% for Clemens. Again, based on past results, that means they will fall short as both take a hit in the nonpublic voting. A year ago, both were over 73% in the pre-result ballots, but would finish at 65%, so a similar 8% drop will leave them shy of election.
They will next be eligible for the Today’s Game era committee (as will Schilling), which considers players who made their mark from 1988 to the present and happens to be the next committee up in the cycle in December. It will be fascinating to see who makes it onto that 10-person ballot (which can also include managers, executives, umpires and owners) and how the 16-person committee will consider them. Given previous rejections of Mark McGwire on the Today’s Game ballot, Schilling may have a better chance at election than Bonds and Clemens.
3. How will Alex Rodriguez fare?
Rodriguez is at 40.9%, normally a strong starting point for a candidate. Of course, most candidates didn’t hit 696 home runs, drive in more than 2,000 runs or win three MVP awards — or admit to using PEDs or get suspended from the game for a season. Bonds and Clemens received just under 40% their first time on the ballot, so Rodriguez’s ultimate fate might end up tracking theirs. If Bonds and Clemens do get elected via the Today’s Game era committee, that might help Rodriguez.
Outside The Lines examines the Hall of Fame candidacy of Alex Rodriguez, and why it’s not likely he gets inducted his first time on the ballot.
4. How high will Scott Rolen and Todd Helton climb?
They are the best of the rest, with Rolen polling at 69% on his fifth ballot and Helton at 56% on his fourth. They won’t finish that high, but with Rolen already past the 50% threshold (he finished at 52.9% last year) and Helton perhaps going over it this year, their eventual election would seem guaranteed. With the recent selection of Gil Hodges by the Golden Days era committee, every player who received 50% of the vote from the BBWAA has eventually been elected. That might change with Schilling, Bonds and Clemens, but the path looks good for Rolen — perhaps as soon as next year, and then Helton maybe the year after that.
5. Andruw Jones vs. Omar Vizquel
Last year, Vizquel received 49% of the vote (finishing ahead of Helton) while Jones received 33%, both on their fourth ballot. Both have a Hall of Fame case that rests significantly on defensive prowess: Vizquel as an 11-time Gold Glove winner at shortstop, Jones as a 10-time Gold Glove winner in center field. Vizquel played forever; Jones had his last good season at age 29. Vizquel had little power; Jones hit 434 home runs. Jones had a significant edge in career WAR, 62.7 to 45.6. Nonetheless, a year ago, voters favored Vizquel.
Turn the clock ahead 12 months and Vizquel’s Hall of Fame chances are dead. A report from The Athletic in December 2020 — at which time many voters had already submitted their 2021 ballots — revealed that Vizquel’s wife, Blanca, who was filing for divorce, alleged that he physically abused her in 2011 and had been booked for fourth-degree domestic violence assault in 2016. This past summer, a former bat boy for the Birmingham Barons, the White Sox’s Double-A affiliate, filed a civil case alleging Vizquel had sexually harassed him when Vizquel managed the club in 2019 (Vizquel was dismissed at the time after an MLB investigation).
This has caused Vizquel’s support from the BBWAA to crater. He’s polling at just 11%, way down from the 41% he received from the pre-result public ballots a year ago. Note that Vizquel has always received much more support from the private ballots (69% last year) — a group that tends to be less analytically minded and thus not pay as much attention to his low career WAR total. Regardless, a large percentage of BBWAA voters have withdrawn support.
Jones also has a domestic violence arrest in his past, on Christmas Day in 2012. His then-wife told police the couple had an argument about cleaning the house after a Christmas party and Jones put his hands around her neck, saying, “I want to kill you, I want to [expletive] kill you.” Jones pleaded guilty and received probation.
Jones’ support has increased this year. He has received 48.5% of the public ballots, up from the 39% of the pre-result figure from 2021. Yes, you can argue that he is the stronger Hall of Fame candidate, but he is borderline no matter how much you loved his defense. Jones has strong support from the sabermetric crowd and also fits into the “one team” category, since all his good seasons came with the Braves. If Jones inches closer to that 50% mark, his chances for future election also look good.
6. Will Billy Wagner see an increase?
The two other players currently above 40% are Wagner and Sheffield. Wagner is on his seventh ballot after receiving 46.4% last year, while Sheffield is on his eighth ballot after receiving 40.6% a year ago. With Lee Smith getting elected a few years ago via the Today’s Game committee, Wagner is next in line among closer candidates. Wagner was more dominant than Smith — a 2.31 ERA and 187 ERA+ to Smith’s 3.03 and 132. Smith pitched more innings (1,289 to 903) and had more saves (478 to 422). Wagner has received a big increase the past two votes, from 16.7% to 31.7% to 46.4%. The early returns aren’t showing another similar jump, so perhaps his support is leveling off. Even if the BBWAA ultimately rejects him, however, he feels like a slam-dunk selection for a future Today’s Game committee.
In the end, it’s possible the BBWAA throws a second straight shutout, although my guess is Ortiz does make it on the first ballot. Bonds, Clemens and Schilling won’t be there alongside him. Pick your side of the line on whether you think they should.
MLB Players Association to make counteroffer to league in Monday meeting
The Major League Baseball Players Association plans to make an in-person labor proposal to the league on Monday, sources told ESPN, countering MLB’s offer last week that did little to loosen the gridlock that has gripped the sport after the league locked out the players Dec. 2.
Should the players’ offer do little to advance the negotiations that thus far haven’t yielded any substantive progress, the scheduled start to spring training in mid-February will grow that much unlikelier. And the longer discussions on a new collective-bargaining agreement last, the more they jeopardize Opening Day on March 31.
The gap between the players and league remains significant, with the union seeking major financial gains in a number of areas and owners trying to hold firm with what they currently pay in salaries. Other issues players have said remain a priority include anti-tanking measures and fixing service-time manipulation.
Any concessions players make in their offer could provide a roadmap to the negotiations. Before implementing the lockout, the league asked the union to drop three areas of discussion: earlier free agency for players, salary arbitration after two years instead of three and changes to the revenue-sharing plan. The union did not agree to the condition when presented with it Dec. 1, and the league left the bargaining table, locking out the players hours later.
Forty-three days later, the league returned to the union with an offer that included paying players with two to three years of service based on a formula, slight modifications to the draft lottery it previously had proposed and a mechanism that would reward teams with draft picks when top prospects who started on opening day rosters win awards.
The proposal did little to entice players, who after losing financial ground during the previous labor agreement want to make gains this time around.
News of the MLBPA’s expected counterproposal was first reported by The Associated Press
Robot umpires at home plate moving up to Triple-A for 2022, one step away from major league baseball
NEW YORK — Robot umpires have been given a promotion and will be just one step from the major leagues this season. Major League Baseball is expanding its automated strike zone experiment to Triple-A, the highest level of the minor leagues.
MLB’s website posted a hiring notice seeking seasonal employees to operate the Automated Ball-Strike system. MLB said it is recruiting employees to operate the system for the Albuquerque Isotopes, Charlotte Knights, El Paso Chihuahuas, Las Vegas Aviators, Oklahoma City Dodgers, Reno Aces, Round Rock Express, Sacramento River Cats, Salt Lake Bees, Sugar Land Skeeters and Tacoma Rainiers.
The independent Atlantic League became the first American professional league to let a computer call balls and strikes at its All-Star Game in July 2019 and experimented with ABS during the second half of that season. The system also was used in the Arizona Fall League for top prospects in 2019, drawing complaints of its calls on breaking balls.
There were no minor leagues in 2020 because of the pandemic, and robot umps were used last season in eight of nine ballparks at the Low-A Southeast League.
The Major League Baseball Umpires Association agreed in its labor contract that started in 2020 to cooperate and assist if commissioner Rob Manfred decides to use the system at the major league level.
“It’s hard to handicap if, when or how it might be employed at the major league level, because it is a pretty substantial difference from the way the game is called today,” Chris Marinak, MLB’s chief operations and strategy officer, said last March.
MLB said the robot umpires will be used at some spring training ballparks in Florida, will remain at Low A Southeast and could be used at non-MLB venues.
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