Strange times in disappointing season for Braves' Freeman

DENVER -- These are strange times in a disappointing season for Freddie Freeman, the only current Braves major leaguer deemed untouchable this winter by the front office, a player that GM John Coppolella has called "our rock" and said Freeman "is here to stay" and that he (Coppy) would rather trade his right arm than trade Freeman.

With the exception of a terrific June, it's been this kind of season for Freddie Freeman. (Curtis Compton/AJC file photo)

In March, Coppy told ESPN's Jayson Stark, "The Braves had Chipper Jones. Before him, Dale Murphy. Before him, Hank Aaron. Now, Freddie is that guy for us."

Which brings us to the here and now and why Freeman draws so much attention, even for a last-place team with the worst record (33-62) in the majors, a team that just lost a series at Cincinnati against another last-place team to start this three-city road trip, which ends with a two-game series at Minnesota against the team with the second-worst record (35-59).

Because he's the only big, proven, in-his-prime slugger on this team, just as Julio Teheran is the one proven starting pitcher. And with the exception of a terrific June, Freeman has not played with any consistency like the hitter the Braves need him to be, the one they paid to be the focal point of their offense. And the second half has started with a thud for the two-time former All-Star.

Freeman has struck out in 11 of 16 at-bats during his past four games, going 2-for-16 with a homer, one RBI and one walk in that span. He hit the homer Wednesday in the series finale at Cincinnati and struck out in his other three at-bats in that game, striking out twice in each of the first two games of the series, and striking out in all four plate appearances Sunday vs. the Rockies.

He's 6-for-43 (.140) with four RBIs in his past 12 games, with a .260 OBP and .395 slugging percentage. Five of his six hits in that span have been extra-base hits including three homers, so three of his four RBIs in that span have been driving in himself on home runs.

Freeman is 2-for-23 (.087) in six games since the All-Star break, with one homer, one RBIs, two walks and 13 strikeouts. It should be noted, he's played with stitches in his upper back after having a mole removed during the All-Star break, a mole that contained cancerous cells but was removed in its entirety, Freeman was told by doctors.

Freeman said last week that the stitches would stay in for 10-14 days and that he’d likely get them out this weekend during the Colorado series in Denver.

It should also be noted that Freeman recently played through a rib-cage injury that prevented him from taking batting practice, so sore was he that Braves coaches told him to save his swings for the games if he insisted on playing -- which he did, from my understanding -- and confine his pregame to hitting balls flipped to him in the batting cage.

But he's presumably healthy now, which leads me to believe the stitches have to be affecting him. Then again, Freeman was healthy in April and May and had really bad months, so I honestly don't know what's going on. Just having a bad year, probably. After having an injury-slowed season in 2015. Better to get it out now, I guess, before the team moves into a new ballpark in 2017 and presumably adds at least another proven hitter or two, along with couple of dynamic prospects.

Still, it's frustrating for everyone with the Braves, first and foremost for Freeman. He hates struggling like this. Really hates it. And in the past, he's been able to snap out of funks quickly, but not this year. Long slumps have become commonplace.

After hitting a season-high .346 with 18 extra-base hits, a .426 OBP and .654 slugging percentage in 28 June games, Freeman is back to .217 (13-for-60) in 16 July games with nine extra-base hits, a .309 OBP and .500 slugging percentage.

For the season, he's still batting just .178 (13-for-73) with runners in scoring position, with 22 walks, an alarming 31 strikeouts, a .374 OBP and .356 slugging percentage. That includes 4-for-22 with RISP and two outs, with 12 walks and eight strikeouts.

This is a particularly telling stat for a hitter who has only 35 RBIs in 94 games despite hitting third in the order and already has a very respectable 17 homers, only one shy of his season total each of the past years. Colleague Mark Bradley said something recently about Freeman needing more hitters gets on base in front of him. And while, yes, that would help him do damage, the bigger problem in my view is Freeman's failure to capitalize on the opportunities he's had when he does have guys on base.

A .178 average with runners in scoring position, from a hitter who had thrived in those situations throughout his career. Even during an injury-plagued season in 2015, Freeman still had a majors-leading .376 (35-for-93) with runners in scoring position, with a .512 OBP and .645 slugging percentage.

He hit .294 (37-for-126) with a .432 OBP and .476 slugging percentage with batting with runners in scoring position in 2014, and from 2011-2013 – his first three full seasons -- Freeman posted a .305 average (127-for-417) with runners in scoring position, with a .407 OBP and .484 slugging percentage.

Another Freeman stat that jumps off the page this season: In close-and-late situations, he's 11-for-55 (.200) with two homers and just two RBIs with 11 walks and 24 strikeouts. Yes, the only runs that he’s driven in during the late innings of close games have been the two times he’s driven in himself with homers.

Which brings us back to the Rockies and the four-game series that starts tonight at Coors Field, where Freeman has five homers, 10 extra-base hits and a .627 slugging percentage in 59 at-bats (14 games).

The opponent in purple used to be something of an elixir if Freeman happened to be scuffling before facing the Rockies, but lately he’s struggled against a team he wreaked havoc upon for the first years of his career.

Freeman’s current slide worsened against the Rockies last week when he went 0-for-11 with one walk and six strikeouts, including Sunday’s “golden sombrero” game -- 0-for-4 with four strikeouts in a 1-0 Braves win at Turner Field.

Freeman is 1-for-29 with no RBIs, four walks and 12 strikeouts in his past eight games against the Rockies, including six Braves losses. In 27 career games against the Rockies prior to that, he hit .362 (34-for-94) with a whopping 18 extra-base hits including 10 homers with 25 RBIs, a .460 OBP and .777 slugging percentage.

Tonight might not be the best matchup for to get things turned around: He’s 0-for-9 against Rockies starter Chad Bettis. But the Braves need Freeman to get going if they hope to establish any momentum during the second half, or at least if they hope to avoid losing 100 games, something he and others have said is important.

I'll close with this one from late, great Merle Haggard. R.I.P, Hag.

"COLORADO" by Merle Haggard

There's a place where mother nature's got it all together

She knows just when to let wild flowers bloom

Some-how she always seems to know exactly what she's doin'

And The Lord saw fit to furnish elbow room. Have you ever been down to Colorado?

I spend a lot of time there in my mind.

And if God doesn't live in Colorado

I'll bet that's where He spends most of his time. I'd love to be there watching early in the morning

The sun comes up and crowns the mountain king

If by chance you dare to be there high upon the mountain

I swear that you can hear the angels sing. Have you ever been down to Colorado?

I spend a lot of time there in my mind.

And if God doesn't live in Colorado

I'll bet that's where He spends most of his time.


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About the Author

David O'Brien
David O'Brien
David O'Brien has covered the Atlanta Braves for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2002.