3 reasons Kemp won't 'protect' Freeman in Braves' lineup

Matt Kemp is set to join the Braves for tonight’s series-opener against the Pirates at Turner Field, and conventional thinking says Freddie Freeman should be the happiest person to see him. After all, Freeman is a power-hitting lefty who hasn’t had an accomplished power-hitting righty (or any power) since Justin Upton and Evan Gattis were traded after the 2014 season.

Kemp is a power-hitting righty: 23 home runs this season, a mark he has reached or surpassed in each of his past seven full seasons. The “lineup protection” theory says Freeman, who is having a down year, will see better pitches hitting in front of Kemp because pitchers can’t afford to walk him when Kemp is waiting on-deck.

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Assuming Kemp hits behind Freeman in the order, I don’t see it working that way. Here are three reasons why:

1. Freeman isn’t really having a bad season

Freeman’s Weighted Runs Created Plus this season is 131, which ranks 38th in the majors. Last season it was 133, which is pretty good (though injuries limited him to 481 plate appearances). Freeman was great in 2013 (150 wRC+) with Upton, Dan Uggla, Evan Gattis and Brian McCann in the lineup. He was very good in 2014 (141 wRC+) ) with Upton and Gattis in the lineup.

It's true that Freeman's production has been unusually streaky this season. But I don’t think having Kemp in the lineup will help Freeman much because . . .

2. Kemp is no longer a good enough hitter to offer Freeman lineup protection

Or at least he shouldn’t be. You never know how opposing pitchers and managers view him but they should note that Kemp’s 104 wRC+ this season and his 109 last season and conclude he’s now an average hitter who shouldn’t be feared.

By contrast, Upton was a good hitter in 2013 (129 wRC+) and Gattis (120) and McCann (122) were pretty good. (Uggla was not good, and Jason Heyward was OK.) Upton was a good hitter in 2014 (134 wRC+) and so was Gattis (126).

The Braves had plenty of other good hitters in the lineup when Freeman was having his best seasons. Kemp no longer is producing the way Upton, Gattis and McCann were back then. And besides . . . .

3. A lack of good pitches isn’t holding Freeman back

Watching Freeman this season I’ve noticed that he seems to swing and miss at strikes a lot more often than usual. The numbers confirm it: Freeman’s Baseball Information Solutions Z-Contact% (contact rate on pitches in the strike zone) this season is 78.5. That’s better than just seven other players in the majors. (Melvin Upton Jr. ranks last in z-Contact% at 73.2).

Freeman’s z-Contact% has never been below 82.1 percent since his rookie season. Freeman is swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone this season (O-Swing% of 34.7) than he did the past two seasons (30.7 and 29.8). But he swung at as many pitches outside the zone in 2013, his best season (34.3). The problem, again, is contact: Freeman's contact percentage on pitches outside of the zone this season is 59.8, well below his career average O-Contact% of 65.

Also, Freeman is actually seeing a higher percentage of strikes inside the zone this season (Zone% of 41.8) than he did in 2013 (39.6). In fact, Freeman’s Zone% this season is higher than any year except for his rookie season. And he’s swinging at a higher percentage of pitches in the strike zone this season (82.1) than in any season except 2013.

It’s for these reasons Kemp probably isn’t going to help Freeman turn his pretty good season into a great one. Kemp isn’t that kind of player anymore, and a lack of good pitches to hit isn’t Freeman’s issue. Pitchers are throwing Freeman strikes. He just needs to hit more of them, like usual.

About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.