Freddie Freeman loves to play. He hates to sit for any reason, including injuries. If the doctors say it’s OK, Freeman is going to play. That work ethic is one reason Freeman is the best Braves hitter since Chipper Jones retired.
It’s also why it was worrisome when the team scratched Freeman from the lineup last week. Diagnosis: swollen right elbow. Freeman had surgery to clean up the joint in October and it was a problem again after just two Grapefruit League games. Here we go again.
Except it’s not that bad. Freeman was back in the lineup again on Monday night. He had two plate appearances against the Phillies. Afterward, he said he felt great. That’s unlikely to ease the worries of Braves supporters who worry that Freeman will overdo it again.
“I get it,” Freeman said. “But I’ve got a regular-season game in about three weeks. Time to get going. I missed a week.”
The best-laid plans are no match for Freeman’s desire to play. That’s an admirable trait so long as it doesn’t become counterproductive. Freeman reached that point last season. That should change this season. The Braves need Freeman at his best when it matters most.
Braves manager Brian Snitker said Freeman needs only a week of exhibition games to get ready. Freeman said he needs to play a lot of games that don’t count to get his timing right for the ones that do. From Freeman’s perspective, he already took the cautious approach when he sat out a week even though he felt fine the day after his elbow barked.
Besides, those problems were caused by Freeman overdoing it in a pregame workout. He vows to scale back on those sessions. But if the Braves post a lineup, Freeman intends be in it.
“If I’m healthy, I’m playing every game,” Freeman said. “That’s just how I am.”
That approach didn’t work out well in 2019. Freeman was in the MVP race until fading in September, then scuffled in the NLDS. Freeman’s elbow was bothering him. The first public conformation of that came when the Braves announced his surgery.
The plan was for Freeman to get some days off in 2019 after he played all 162 games in 2018. He ended up playing 158 games. Freeman sat for two games once the Braves clinched the NL East on Sept. 22. He played two more complete games before the postseason.
Freeman won’t ever tell reporters if he’s not feeling good. No excuses. Also, why give opponents that information? What matters is that Freeman lets his employer know when he’s not feeling right.
“I tell him to be honest with me, and he is,” Snitker said. “He says he feels great right now. I think he was relieved when he found out it wasn’t a joint or anything like that. It’s irritation from too much work.”
There’s a fine line for Snitker with his stubborn slugger. Freeman has earned some leeway. Also, Freeman is better than most hitters even when he’s not at full health. Certainly, there’s a big drop-off from Freeman to whoever replaces him in the lineup.
Over the past four seasons Freeman has posted a 144 Weighed Runs Created Plus, according to FanGraphs. That’s the third-best mark in the NL behind Christian Yelich and Max Muncy. There’s room for him to be less effective but still good. Even with his elbow barking last September Freeman posted a WRC+ that was close to the MLB average.
Ideally, Freeman can have it all this season. Play every day, produce like usual and not even think about the elbow.
“That’s the expectation right now,” Freeman said.
Of course, Freeman lobbied to play again on Tuesday.
“They said no,” he said, smiling. “I feel great, I really do.”
The plan is for Freeman to play again on Wednesday. The Braves are off on Thursday. If he’s feeling good after that then Freeman will play as many games as possible before Opening Day, or maybe as many games as the Braves let him. There’s always that tug-of-war with Freeman.
I think back to when Freeman showed up in the visiting clubhouse in St. Louis in July 2015. His teammates were shocked to see him because he’d played just one game on a minor league rehab assignment for a right wrist injury. Freeman had missed more than a month and couldn’t take it anymore. He had to play.
Freeman’s injured wrist never did get quite right that season. It was hurting when the Braves played at New York in September. The Mets thought Freeman wouldn’t play. Fredi Gonzalez, the Braves manager at the time, hoped to avoid it but sent Freeman to pinch hit in the seventh inning.
Freeman rapped a two-run double for the lead. He hit a three-run homer in the ninth. The Braves won. Freeman can deliver even when he’s not feeling his best.
That was back when the Braves had nothing to play for in October. Now even a third straight NL East title won’t be enough. The Braves want to finally make a run to the World Series. They need Freeman feeling good for that. If that means an occasional day off, the Braves should insist.
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