Dad’s hitting approach has taken Freeman a long way

Freddie Freeman said he was only 7 or 8 years old when his father, Fred, began to bake into his young mind the hitting approach the Braves first baseman uses to this day. The approach that would help him become an All-Star first baseman at age 23 and a very wealthy man at 24.

The scene: Southern California suburbs, mid-1990s. Day after day. Little Freddie with his bat. Three buckets of balls. Big Fred warming up his throwing arm.

Fred threw batting practice and instructed Freddie, a left-handed hitter, to hit every ball from the first bucket to left field. When that bucket was empty, dad would move to the second one and Freddie would do as told and try to hit each ball to center field. On the third bucket he would just hit, but never focused on pulling balls to right.

“We’d hit the first one to left field, the next one to center field — and not try to pull the ball, just hit it where it was pitched,” said Freeman, who still does much the same thing in batting practice. “And we did that every single day. He instilled it.”

Freeman hit two home runs Tuesday in a 5-2 win at Milwaukee, and one left teammates and hitting coach Greg Walker shaking their heads. Kyle Lohse threw him a slider that caught no more than the inside edge of the plate, if any plate at all. Freeman didn’t just hit it hard, he pulled it down the right-field line for a home run, just inside the pole.

“I don’t know how he does that,” said Braves third baseman Chris Johnson, who was on deck. “A lot of guys either hit that foul or at best get that top spin and single to the pull side. He hits a top-spin homer.”

He pulled another homer two innings later, but Freeman said those long balls are a product of a hitting approach that is anything but pull-oriented.

“I’m a gap hitter,” said Freeman, who hit .319 with a .396 on-base percentage, 23 homers and 109 RBIs in 2013 and finished fifth in the National League MVP balloting. “Some guys have more power and want to hit 30 or 40 home runs. I don’t know if I’ll do that one day; I have no idea. But I just really concentrate on trying to hit the hard liner right up through the middle. If I backspin a couple and get a little out in front on them, so be it. But I’m never trying to do that. …

“I think because my swing is so up-through-the-middle that I have some room for error, so if I am a little late (the bat) is still through the zone, and I can be out in front like I was on that slider. I can hit it and still keep it fair. Everything’s up the middle. Try to put the barrel on the ball up the middle, and good things will happen.”

Freeman is about 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, but Braves hitting coach Greg Walker said he has a smaller man’s swing.

“His swing is really short. He’s got great speed and great strength, and the bat stays in the zone,” Walker said. “He told me … his dad taught him this years ago, and he’s basically hit this way his whole life. It’s hard to believe he’s as young as he is because he really knows his self better than most veterans, and he keeps it simple. That’s a coach’s dream right there.”

In fact, Walker calls him, “the most low-maintenance player I’ve ever been around.”

In January, the Braves signed Freeman to a franchise-record eight-year, $135 million contract. He needn’t worry about hitting a lot of homers to get a big contract someday. He got the contract. The Braves want him to keep doing his thing.

Freeman has an “aw-shucks” demeanor in postgame interviews, always trying to make it sound as if he got lucky and ran into a pitch. He has swung at more first pitches than almost anyone in the majors over the past three years and done more first-pitch damage than anyone.

But teammates roll their eyes when he says he just plants his front foot and swings at anything close. They all love the guy, but will tell you there’s a lot more going on in his head than he lets on.

“He’s not just up there swinging,” said second baseman Dan Uggla, a close friend. “He knows what he’s doing. He’s got one of the best eyes at the plate. The things that he picks up are baffling to me, stuff that I’ll never even think to look for. He sees the ball so well out of the hand. And he’s got such a good approach.

“He’d rather hit a line drive to left for a base hit before hitting a home run, and that is tough to do, buddy. I have not mastered that yet.”

Johnson was asked if there was any one thing in particular about Freeman that stood out.

“Besides being better than everyone else?” he said, smiling. “Yeah, people think he’s just a free swinger, just goes up there and sees the ball, hits the ball. He knows what he’s doing. He works. He knows who’s pitching today, he knows what he’s going to do, what he’s going to throw to try to get him out. And he knows his swing really, really well.”

Walker is the first to say that he’s done nothing to make Freeman the hitter he is.

Other than his father, the only hitting coach Freeman cites for helping him establish his approach as a child was Ira Green, father of former major league slugger Shawn Green, who ran a Los Angeles-area baseball academy.

“But it’s mostly the influence of my dad, his philosophy of hitting,” said Freeman. “Go to the left side of the field, swing through the ball.”

Freeman said his dad’s pitching arm is shot now. Big Fred knows it was worth it.