Braves rolling as Freddie Freeman’s good swings rewarded

Atlanta Braves' Freddie Freeman rounds second base as he gets a triple during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Miami Marlins, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

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Atlanta Braves' Freddie Freeman rounds second base as he gets a triple during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Miami Marlins, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

It was a good reminder of one difference between those of us who watch MLB games, and those who play them. It was easy for observers to tell Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman that he was hitting the ball hard and just needed better luck. It was hard for Freeman to be the guy smashing the ball and still getting poor results.

“I’d rather hit the ball 42 mph and get a hit,” Freeman said June 4.

As expected, Freeman kept making good contact, and the good outcomes eventually came. Freeman has hit .357 in 67 games since declaring he preferred lucky breaks to good swings that go unrewarded. That’s the best mark in the majors during that span, with Houston’s Michael Brantley a distance second at .341 entering Thursday.

Freeman’s good run reached its peak Wednesday when he hit for the cycle at the Marlins. That was the second time Freeman has hit a single, double, triple and home run in the same game. The superlative performance nudged Freeman’s average above .300 for the first time this season.

“You know me, I like the ‘3’ at the start of the batting average,” Freeman said. “I obviously didn’t like the start I had (to the season). But that’s the beautiful thing about this game. Trust your approach and trust yourself, (and) night in and night out I feel for about two or three months now, I’ve been doing pretty well.

“Still got about six or seven weeks to go to close this thing out, so I’ve got to keep going.”

Everything we know about Freeman indicates that he will keep it going. His lackluster production over the first two months was the fluke. What he’s done since then is more of a correction than a hot streak.

Freeman was voted National League MVP in 2020 after hitting .341 with 13 home runs and 53 RBIs over 60 games. His .357 average over the past 67 games includes 15 homers and 53 RBIs. Freeman is back on track to produce numbers that will look as good as they usually do at the end of the season.

Freeman’s completed the cycle in his first four plate appearances. He also hit for the cycle against the Reds on June 15, 2016. Herman Long is the only other Braves player to hit for the cycle twice, way back in 1896 and 1900. Five other Braves players have accomplished the feat once.

The list does not include Freeman’s former teammate, Hall of Fame third baseman Chipper Jones.

“Take that,” Freeman said, laughing.

Told that Jones still can hold his World Series ring over him, Freeman replied: “That’s the one thing I need, and I want.”

Not long ago it seemed Freeman wouldn’t get his shot at a ring this season. The Braves couldn’t get their record above even. MVP candidate Ronald Acuna suffered a season-ending knee injury July 10. Slugger Marcell Ozuna was arrested on domestic-violence charges in May and isn’t expected to rejoin the team this season.

Now the Braves are on a roll. Freeman’s big night in Miami sent them to their sixth consecutive victory and 13th in their past 15 games. Their turnaround has been a collective effort, but Freeman is at the center of it, as usual. Over the past 15 games, he leads the team in on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and is just behind Dansby Swanson in batting average (.387 vs. .386).

Freeman is raking and the Braves are winning, but he won’t be voted NL MVP for a second consecutive season. Slumping for two months pretty much ended his chance. The latest odds to win NL MVP have Freeman as a long shot behind the heavy favorite, Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis, as well as Phillies outfielder Bryce Harper and Dodgers infielder Max Muncy.

It’s plausible that Freeman will finish among the top five in MVP voting. If so, it would be the fourth top-five finish of his career and the third in the past four seasons. Just five active players have finished among top five in MVP voting four or more times in either league: Albert Pujols (10), Mike Trout (nine), Miguel Cabrera (seven), Andrew McCutchen (four) and Robinson Cano (four).

Pujols, Cabrera, McCutchen and Cano are in the late stages of their careers. Trout, 30, plays in the American League. Freeman has a strong case as the NL’s most accomplished hitter until Tatis and Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts add to their impressive track record.

Soon, the Braves will have to decide how much Freeman’s future services are worth. His pending free agency has loomed in the background all season. Re-signing Freeman will be the No. 1 priority for the Braves. The contract extension that Paul Goldschmidt signed with the Cardinals in 2019 is a guide.

Goldschmidt’s five-year, $140 million deal made him MLB’s highest-paid first baseman. Freeman’s current salary is about $3.5 million less. Goldschmidt’s extension kicked in when he was 32 years old and is set to expire when he’s 36. Freeman will be 32 at the start of next season.

Freeeman’s rate statistics over the past five seasons are comparable with Goldschmidt’s numbers in the five seasons before his extension. Goldschmidt’s overall production was better in those five years, but he played in 174 more games. Freeman was limited to 117 games in 2017 because of injuries and the 2020 season had only 60 games because of the pandemic.

Freeman is showing no signs of sudden decline. His plate discipline remains strong, and per StatCast, Freeman has hit the ball harder on average the past two seasons than he did from 2015-19. And now he’s driving the charge for a fourth consecutive NL East title.

The Braves swept the Nationals and Marlins, the two East teams who were never really in the race after May. The Braves left Miami with a 3 1/2 -game lead over the Phillies in the division. After an off-day Thursday, they are scheduled to complete their nine-game trip at the Orioles, the worst team in baseball.

“Everyone says you should take care of business against certain teams, but this is baseball,” Freeman said. “Anything can happen on any given night. You have to play well to beat the other side, and we’ve done that.”

No Braves batter has done it better than Freeman, whose efforts now are being rewarded with lots of hits.