The special nature of Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman begins with his name: Freddie. How many good players in history have been named Freddie? Shortstop Freddie Patek, second baseman Freddy Sanchez and third baseman Freddie Lindstrom? Pitchers Freddy Garcia and Freddie Fitzsimmons? Freddie Freeman. Now that's a name to remember.
And then there's Freeman's age: 21. "I was drafted when I was 21," said Braves outfielder Eric Hinske. Said Braves pitcher Eric O'Flaherty: "When I was 21, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't know how to make adjustments. But with Freddie, if you get him out the first time, he figures it out, and the next time, he hits a double to the gap." Said Braves pitcher Derek Lowe: "I can't believe how good these players are when they're that age. I wasn't like that when I got to the big leagues at 23. There is no awe in Freddie. What he's doing is no big deal to him. To him, this is what he's supposed to be doing."
What Freeman is doing is making a run at the National League Rookie of the Year, while hitting in the middle of the order for a team that is on its way to the playoffs. He's hitting .283 with 15 home runs, 51 RBIs, a slugging percentage of .470 and an on-base percentage of .357. Those numbers aren't quite as impressive as those of Freeman's rookie teammate, reliever Craig Kimbrel, but the Braves wouldn't be where they are without both of them. Freeman filled a huge hole at first base, and after starting the season as the No. 8 hitter in the batting order, injuries to teammates and his production have moved him up in the order.
"Every time he moves up one notch," said Braves outfielder Nate McLouth, "he gets better."
I knew Freeman was headed for big things when, in 2010, he hit his first major league home run, a blast off Roy Halladay. And then I asked Chipper Jones about him this spring. Chipper is as honest a guy as there is in the game, as well as a great talent evaluator. When asked about Freeman in February, Chipper said simply, "Whoa." Then he paused and said, "He has a great idea of the strike zone; he swings at strikes. He hits the ball from pole to pole. People say he'll be a 25-homer guy. I think he'll hit more than that."
Freeman didn't hit the ball to all fields the first month of the season. He tried to pull everything, "because I was trying too hard, trying to do too much right away," he said. And instead of staying in his slight crouch at the plate, he would straighten up as the pitch was delivered, causing too many moving parts in his swing. Consequently, he hit .222 without power in March and April. But now, he is staying in his crouch and hitting the ball to all fields, and from May 1 on, he has hit .305 with power. He is batting fourth or fifth in the Braves' order.
That is where he has hit in the order, and how he has hit, his entire life. Freeman grew up in Southern California idolizing the Angels; he was 12 when they won the World Series in 2002. "Garret Anderson was my guy, and I loved watching Darin Erstad get 240 hits in one year," Freeman said. "I would always rather have three hits than hit a home run. I've always felt that when I hit a line drive up the middle for a single, then I'm really locked in."
But the home runs have come because he's so big and so strong: 6-foot-5, 225 pounds. "I saw him when he was 18 and 19 years old, and I knew that if he could just swing at strikes, he could be as good as they get," said Braves catcher Brian McCann. "He used to hit doubles to the gap; now those balls are leaving the ballpark. He has lightning-fast hands at the plate. I can't wait to see what he's like at 24 or 25. He's going to be as good as they get."
What Freeman also has is uncommon poise for one so young.
He has lightning-fast hands at the plate. I can't wait to see what he's like at 24 or 25. He's going to be as good as they get.
”-- Braves catcher Brian McCann on
teammate Freddie Freeman
"He is so mature," O'Flaherty said.
Said McLouth: "You forget that he's only 21 years old. With the really, really, really good ones, they get it right away. He has great at-bats all the time, not always with great results, but great at-bats."
Added Hinske: "It's so impressive how he can just sit on a breaking ball, and how he makes adjustments. A guy gets him out the first time, he adjusts, and the next time he hits a double down the line. It doesn't matter whether it's a left-hander or a right-hander. It helps that he's 6-foot-5; he has such great leverage up there. When he gets coiled in his swing, and his legs are under him, you get the feeling that there isn't anyone he can't hit. He doesn't take a lot of pitches. When he is ready to go, it doesn't matter where they throw it; he can cover it."
Said Lowe: "It really helps that he has so many other young guys on this team. When I came up, I was 23, and there was maybe one other young guy on our team. Everyone else was a veteran. Here, we have 10 guys that are 25 or younger. When Freddie looks around, he sees guys his age; he feels he belongs."
Plus, Freeman has made great strides defensively. Three years ago, his hands were a little stiff, but now, says McCann, "He's really good. He can pick it. He will win a Gold Glove someday."
None of this seems to affect Freeman; certainly, nothing has gone to his head. He will always be Freddie Freeman, the soft-spoken "goofy kid," as McLouth affectionately calls him, playing cards (Casino) with his teammates in the clubhouse, and enjoying the game.
"My real first name is Frederick," Freeman said. "But I've never been Fred or Frederick. Always Freddie. Just Freddie."
A name to remember.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Tim Kurkjian on Twitter: @Kurkjian_ESPN