It’s easy to see how the Atlanta Braves might seem like the forgotten team in the churning drama of the National League East. They weren’t as noisily busy in the offseason as the Miami Marlins or the Washington Nationals. They aren’t the Philadelphia Phillies. Not even last year’s agonizing late-season implosion seems to generate the schadenfreude the New York Mets’ sorry lot might inspire.
They also didn’t need to be, and a lot of that rests on the broad base of young talent already on hand. Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Info broke down Jason Heyward's problems last season as he struggled to deliver power while coping with a shoulder injury. But another key young corner bat for the Braves is first baseman Freddie Freeman, who coming off his rookie season.
As the chart reflects, it was a nice season. But as the chart also reflects, from leading projection systems like Insider’s Dan Szymborski (ZiPS), Bill James’ projections from Baseball Info Solutions and Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA, it hasn’t generated any great expectations for what’s to come in 2012. Two of them expect to see Freeman lose ground, while BIS projects modest growth.
That might seem like glum stuff, but there are a couple of big, nagging problems with Freeman’s rookie season. His batting average on balls in play (good ol’ BABIP) and his problem making consistent contact. Put those together, and you’ve got a lot of at-bats that end at home plate, and -- worst-case -- reason to believe that his numbers will drop if a few more balls in play land in leather instead of grass.
Is that pessimism reasonable? In broad strokes, sure. There’s an almost automatic twitch in the sabermetric community to despair over anyone with a BABIP well beyond the norm, as Freeman’s .339 was last year. It becomes even more troubling when you’ve got a guy who swings and misses as often as Freeman did last year against breaking stuff. It isn’t like pitchers don’t know they can get an empty swing after snapping off a good slider or curve.
But keep in mind, “average” describes everybody in the same way that a league-wide slugging percentage does. It tells you what’s average, not what his actual skill set is and not what a specific player can do. A player’s BABIP describes what he’s done, but the mean is not a magnet, and regression is not gravity. As an aggressive line-drive hitter, it isn’t like Freeman is a guy who hammers lots of high fly balls and sees his production move around with the vagaries of his homer-to-fly ball rate.
Freeman’s biggest problem was making contact, especially versus lefties, and especially against breaking stuff. He struck out in 27 percent of his at-bats against southpaws. Remember that number, because as Simon notes, "He put the ball in play on 27 percent of his swings against curves and sliders. That's terrible, comparitively. The major league average against curves and sliders is to put the ball in play 38 percent of the time. But when he makes contact, he produces well: six homers and eight doubles against breaking pitches.”
So this isn’t a simple case of a batter being overmatched by big-league breaking stuff. Freeman is winning some of his battles. While the tepid .707 OPS he put up against the lefties he had to face a third of the time last season wasn’t good, it also isn’t the worst place to start. As Curtis Granderson’s mid-career adaptation shows, Freeman’s problems with lefties and breaking stuff are not immutable constants. If he learns and adjusts, he could start delivering even more of that power he’s already shown.
While folks are well aware that Heyward is just 22 years old, has plenty of upside, and is years removed from his peak seasons, I think the same broad observation goes for Freeman. After all, he’s a month younger than his teammate. If Freeman can cut down on his problems making contact, he’s shown an ability to hit those pitches for power.
The ultimate upside is that the Braves could wind up with a quality bopper at hitter’s slot under club control for at least the next five seasons -- a spot where so much of the NL's talent has scrammed for paydays as a designated hitter. As homegrown competitive advantages go, that’s the sort of thing that should encourage a contender to let it ride.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.