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The possible red flag for Freddie Freeman

The Braves first baseman has a problem... that is, unless he doesn’t.

Atlanta Braves v New York Mets
The face of a man who’s whiffed one too many times.
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

No team in baseball has changed more over the past four years than the Braves. In 2013, Atlanta went 96-66 and won the NL East. By 2015, the team had plummeted to 67-95, its worst finish in 25 years. Now heading into the 2017 season, the Braves should take a step toward respectability on the diamond — FanGraphs projects 73 wins, Baseball Prospectus 76. Plus, the club’s put together the best farm system in baseball, according to BP’s Jeffrey Paternostro, ESPN’s Keith Law, and Baseball America’s John Manuel.

Through the ATL’s highs and lows, one player has remained steady: Freddie Freeman. The first baseman broke out in 2013 with a 150 wRC+ and 5.0 fWAR. From then until now, he’s been the National League’s third-best hitter (144 wRC+) and sixth-most valuable position player (18.6 fWAR). In particular, 2016 went rather well for him: He rode a late-season hot streak to a 152 wRC+ and 6.1 fWAR. The latter was the third-highest mark in the Senior Circuit and the best of his career.

But last year’s success obscured a possibly disturbing trend. Even though he excelled with the bat, Freeman got a lot worse in one area. Whether that’ll affect his production in 2017 and beyond, we’ll have to see.

Looking at Freeman’s 2016 offensive statistics, we’ll notice two things that changed from years prior: He hit for a lot more power (career-best .267 ISO), and went down on strikes a lot more often (career-worst 24.7 percent strikeout rate). Like so many hitters before him, Freeman adopted the swing-for-the-fences approach last year, which meant he had quite a few misses:

Image via FanGraphs

A high whiff rate in and of itself isn’t a death sentence. NL MVP Kris Bryant (149 wRC+) swung-and-missed at 13.0 percent of the pitches he saw for the Cubs. Tigers slugger J.D. Martinez (142 wRC+) matched Freeman’s 14.1 percent swinging-strike rate. So long as you make contact where it counts — i.e., you hit the pitches you want to hit — you can overcome a glut of whiffs.

That’s where things get tricky, though. Freeman didn’t start swinging-and-missing at pitches outside the strike zone — he became much less effective on pitches inside the zone:

Freeman whiff rates by location

Year O-Whiff% Z-Whiff%
Year O-Whiff% Z-Whiff%
2011 12.4% 10.8%
2012 12.0% 10.9%
2013 11.6% 13.2%
2014 10.9% 13.6%
2015 9.7% 13.3%
2016 12.0% 17.5%
Table excludes 2010, when Freeman had just 24 plate appearances. Data via FanGraphs

From 2011 to 2015, Freeman whiffed at 11.4 percent of out-of-zone pitches, and 12.3 percent of in-zone pitches. Come 2016, the former increased to 12.0 percent — while the latter spiked to 17.5 percent.

How bad is that? Freeman’s zone whiff rate ranked third in the majors, putting him with a group of four other hitters:

Shown are the 146 qualified hitters in 2016.
Data via FanGraphs

Freeman is one of the five dots in that isolated cluster to the right. If you prefer something a little more numeric, try this on for size:

Z-Whiff% leaders, 2016

Rank Player Z-Whiff% O-Whiff%
Rank Player Z-Whiff% O-Whiff%
1 Melvin Upton Jr. 18.8% 13.1%
2 Khris Davis 17.9% 15.2%
3 Freddie Freeman 17.5% 12.0%
4 Corey Dickerson 16.2% 14.0%
5 Chris Carter 15.7% 15.3%
Ranking among 146 qualified hitters. Data via FanGraphs

Those names are… not encouraging. Nos. 1, 2, 4, and 5 are a combination of has-beens and never-really-weres — guys who just didn’t have enough power to make up for all the Ks. The highest wRC+ of the group belonged to Freeman, obviously; after him, it was Davis at 123, then Carter at 112, Dickerson at 101, and Upton at 84.

The reason why this seems like a bad thing is pretty obvious. Last year, when hitters put a pitch outside the strike zone into play, it had an average exit velocity of 83.7 mph; that’s the same figure Ben Revere had overall. Pitches inside the strike zone? Those had an exit velocity of 91.6 mph — in line with Evan Longoria. If a batter misses when he swings in the strike zone, the thinking goes, more of his balls in play will be outside the zone, and the weak contact will sink him.

But this hypothesis may not hold water. Freeman didn’t just get lucky in 2016 — he hit the snot out of the ball. Of those 146 qualified hitters, only David Ortiz had a higher hard contact rate than Freeman’s 43.5 percent. And his performance wasn’t exactly a fluke. Since 2008 (when complete PITCHf/x data first became available), zone whiff rate actually has a positive correlation to hard contact rate:

Shown are the 1,311 qualified single-season hitters from 2008-16.
Data via FanGraphs

While a ton of whiffs in the strike zone doesn’t help a hitter’s cause, it’s not a death sentence, either. Look at 2009 Carlos Pena — his 46.3 percent hard contact rate was the best in this sample, and he swung-and-missed at 17.6 percent of pitches inside the zone. 2015 Chris Davis ran a 41.4 percent hard-hit rate and a 16.0 percent zone whiff rate; 2015 Brandon Belt was right behind him, at 39.8 percent and 15.9 percent, respectively.

One thing that’s aided Freeman is the fact that, for lack of a more elegant way of phrasing it, he’s really strong. He had an 87.3-mph exit velocity on balls in play outside the zone, and a 93.9-mph exit velocity on balls in play inside the zone. No matter where he hit the ball, he clobbered it.

Plus, despite swinging-and-missing at so many hittable pitches, Freeman put the ball in play when he wanted to, for the most part. 64.5 percent of his balls in play came on pitches in the strike zone, marginally lower than the 67.0 percent MLB average. Not only did he hit the ball hard consistently, he somehow managed to squeeze the most value possible out of his solid contact.

Still, the dramatic rise in zone swinging strikes is cause for concern. From 2008 to 2016, 31 qualified hitters had a Z-Whiff rate above 15 percent. The weighted average wRC+ of the group is 116, with Freeman’s contributions negated by the likes of Dickerson and Upton. As a general rule, it helps to capitalize on the most hittable pitches you see, and Freeman didn’t accomplish that as often as he should have.

As the Braves transform from rebuilders to contenders, they’ll rely on Freeman to steady their developing lineup. He’s certainly swung a hefty bat over the years, but in 2016 he regressed when it came to contact in the strike zone. Although he hasn’t paid a price for it yet, his failure in this regard could cut into his production, accelerating the aging process for the 27-year-old slugger.

Ryan Romano is the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles for Camden Depot, sometimes. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.