Three Cuts: Will Phillies superstar treatment of Freddie Freeman foreshadow 2018 campaign?
The Atlanta Braves opened the 2018 season in dramatic fashion, highlighted by an Opening Day comeback with the first-ever walk-off home run of a 34-year-old outfielder’s career, another come-from-behind effort that fell centimeters short thanks to an unfortunate go-ahead slide attempt and the franchise's first 15-run explosion since May 2012. It was a busy weekend at SunTrust Park, particularly for the Phillies' pitching (and managerial) staff.
With Atlanta walking out with a season-opening series victory for the first time since the pitching trio of Julio Teheran, Alex Wood and Shelby Miller shut down the Marlins in 2015, here are three observations from the weekend:
1. Freddie Freeman walks the superstar walk
Freddie Freeman’s post-Phillies batting line reads as follows: .333/.635/.778 with one home run, one double and seven walks. Atlanta’s first baseman, long known for his first-pitch aggressiveness, drew 68 pitches in 16 plate appearances. He whiffed on only two pitches the entire weekend, and one was a 3-0 green light that painted the black. He worked counts back from early holes, continually spitting on low breaking and high fastballs, and generally forced Gabe Kapler & Co. to choose the strike zone — and danger — or free passes.
Freddie Freeman received a free pass in nearly half of his opportunities in the opening series.
The question moving forward is how many teams follow Philadelphia’s blueprint.
Freeman enters the 2018 season as Atlanta's lone bat with a documented history of damage. In terms of weighted runs created plus over the past five-plus seasons, he trails only Mike Trout, Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt, Giancarlo Stanton and Josh Donaldson in terms of offensive production among active players, and he’s tied with Bryce Harper. He’s a bona fide National League MVP candidate.
Last season, Freeman hit 28 of the 88 home runs on the current active roster and despite a stellar start from Nick Markakis in the cleanup role, including that stunning Game 1 winner, opponents could continue to take their chances with a player slugging .387 in a Braves uniform. Aside from Phillies starter Aaron Nola’s Opening Day dominance, offensive issues did not arise in the opening series due to Markakis equaling Freeman in home runs and plate discipline, Preston Tucker’s strong start and the bottom third of the lineup rattling off 17 hits and a “Kris Bryant faces JUCO pitching” slash line. Perhaps there are some answers buried in that small sample size, and the rise of Ronald Acuña Jr. and a healthy Tyler Flowers and Johan Camargo will only help.
“I don’t know if we’re going to get 19 hits every game, but we’re not going to hit the ball over the fence. That’s how we’re going to score runs,” Freeman said, referencing the franchise’s focus on manufacturing runs this season following Atlanta’s 15-run series finale. “We were doing everything, put the pressure on them from inning No. 1 and we never let up. That’s what we’ve gotta do all year.”
Still, that strategy’s success remains tethered to one of the best hitters in baseball producing, and given his propensity to punish anything that enters the strike zone pitchers may elect to nibble more … or intentionally be rid of the Freeman threat altogether, as Kapler chose to do twice in the first three games.
Freeman’s career-best walk rate sits at 12.8 percent, the year he finished sixth in the MVP voting. His plate discipline keeps improving and, judging by the first series, teams are going to be more motivated than ever to not let his bat beat them. Take the over.
2. Braves pitchers' metrics to track considering improved defense
Lost in the midst of Opening Week festivities, two Brian Snitker ejections and the managerial circus following the Phillies’ new regime was the fact that the gap in defensive efficiency likely cost Philadelphia the series.
Kapler’s group was horrid with the glove through the first three games, exacerbating an already problematic pitching situation through errant throws and fundamental mistakes. In terms of defensive runs saved, the Phillies were docked three runs — tied for the worst mark in baseball through Saturday’s games.
Meanwhile, the Braves are near the very top of the list, which should please Alex Anthopoulos and the front office after an offseason spent emphasizing a leap in that department. Even while rotating three different starting catchers and waiting on Acuña, who will immediately provide a significant upgrade defensively in left field, Atlanta’s defense did not gift scoring opportunities.
From the pitching perspective, working with an improved defense not only makes life easier and innings shorter but it also places added emphasis on not robbing defenders of opportunities. This can be difficult in a three true outcome offensive environment — although strikeouts should be considered the kindest form of larceny here — but improvement is possible.
Monitor walk and home run rates, for instance.
Last season, Atlanta pitchers ranked 26th in walk rate and 13th in home runs allowed per nine innings in addition to hitting 70 batters. What this means is that through walks, "painful walks" and homers, more than 13.2 percent of the 6,306 batters the Braves faced were successful without even challenging the fielders … and the opposing hitters who did put the ball in play (within the field’s dimensions) faced a bottom-10 defensive unit. For comparison, MLB’s best pitching staff (Cleveland) forced batters into the field of play on all but 10.6 percent of plate appearances and it was backed by a top-five offense.
Braves starters Julio Teheran and Mike Foltynewicz served up the only three home runs the team allowed in the opening series — a positive development for veteran Brandon McCarthy and the bullpen — but the 15 walks in 29 innings will need to come down.
It’s far too early to make any sweeping judgments on Atlanta’s pitching metrics, but with the offseason’s primary emphasis in action it will be worth monitoring the rate that baseballs get put into the field of play.
3. Back half of Braves lineup off to fast start
Ryan Flaherty barely hit in his seven seasons in Baltimore. Chris Stewart has enjoyed an even longer career despite a largely ineffective bat. Preston Tucker could not break back into the majors with the world champion Astros last season after his bat sputtered in 2016. And aside from his possession heroics with the Dodgers, Charlie Culbertson has never made headlines at the plate.
Atlanta’s newcomers altered the script against Philadelphia.
The top of the lineup in Ender Inciarte and Ozzie Albies struggled to reach base consistently, but the back half encountered no such issue. Tucker tallied five hits, including two game-tying knocks, from the 5th spot. Flaherty tied a career high with a four-hit game. Dansby Swanson looks like a different player so far. Here's how the numbers stack up by batting order position:
This is (obviously) largely unsustainable but a welcome early development.
Even as veterans and Tucker regress back toward to career averages, though many enjoyed fantastic spring numbers, it goes without saying that a dramatic uptick from Swanson would change the potency of this lineup in 2018.