Freddie Freeman leads Braves with quiet authority, on the field and off

Just a few hours before the Braves are set to play the Cubs in Chicago, Freddie Freeman almost wordlessly beckons a few of his teammates to join him for pregame chapel. It’s an impromptu session because they’re on the road, and the usual fill-in chaplain isn’t available, so Freeman is taking charge. Dansby Swanson and a few other teammates follow him in.

Freddie Freeman leads Braves with quiet authority, on the field and off

Freddie Freeman leads Braves with quiet authority, on the field and off

At only 28, Freeman is already the battle-worn veteran presence on the Atlanta roster, and he’s become the quiet leader of an upstart Braves squad that finally appears ready to win again. The last winning season was 2013, and not long after that, the first baseman became the de facto veteran.

“I kind of felt veteranish at 24 years old with the way the organization went,” Freeman told Sporting News.

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By that age, Freeman was already in his fourth full season in the majors. He’d made his debut just shy of his 21st birthday in 2010, joining fellow rookie Jason Heyward in a tandem expected to lead the Braves back to the postseason for the first time since 2005. They went to the NLDS in Freeman’s and Heyward’s first year, but after consecutive postseason appearances in 2012 and 2013, the Braves went 79-83 in 2014. And then the band was broken up.

Heyward went to the Cardinals while Freeman stayed on the Atlanta squad that lost 95 games in 2015. But now, he sees the same kind of excitement that he and Heyward once brought repeating itself in the duo of Swanson at shortstop and Ozzie Albies at second. Now, however, it’s Freeman’s role to mentor them. An honor, as he calls it, and it’s probably no accident that his locker in the road clubhouse in Chicago sits right between those two.

Albies debuted last August, and so far he his putting together a breakout second season. Of his 20 hits so far, 14 of them are for extra bases, and he’s already worth nearly a full win above replacement. The 21-year-old second baseman typically bats just ahead of Freeman, a spot he said he enjoys because he appreciates the opportunity to observe Freeman at his craft, usually from a vantage point somewhere on base.

“He’s always making adjustments, always looking to make contact,” Albies said. “I always see him driving the ball oppo, always staying through the ball, so that’s what I’m looking to do, the same.”

That’s the way Freeman leads. He unassumingly demonstrates, they follow.

“It’s not really anything I’m doing; they’re coming in with good heads on their shoulders,” Freeman said, unsurprisingly downplaying his role. “You just kind of offer the word of advice if they need it, but most of the time, they already know what they’re doing.”

His teammates tell it differently. Swanson, like Albies, learns a lot just by watching. Now in his third season with the Braves, Swanson is having his best season to date. Batting .357 with seven doubles, he sometimes hits ahead of Freeman too, making for a formidable opening trio in the Braves lineup.

For both Albies and Swanson, Freeman doesn’t have to offer a lot of verbal advice.

“You’d never know if he’s doing good or bad, just because he can keep everything in check,” Swanson said. “His ability to show up everyday and do the same thing, play every day, and understand that he’s going to play hard. It’s something that definitely inspires me. I know it does other people.”

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Brian Snitker, the manager of the Braves since 2016 and a coach in the organization since before Freeman was born, knows the value of his first baseman riding the ups and downs of a season on an even keel.

“He’s steady; there’s no highs or lows, which is what you have to do to survive in this league and be successful,” Snitker said.

The baseball season is a grind, so a composed and unexcitable veteran is invaluable.

“He’s not going to be in here raising hell and rah-rahing,” Snitker said of Freeman. “He’s a quiet leader, which to me is the best kind. Guys who just play their game, do their thing, and guys gravitate to them.”

As good as Freeman is, his greatest pride is in his consistency. He wants to be there every day, at first base, for his teammates.

“Put me in the lineup every day, lean on me. I’ve been through it all, I’ve been through winning, I’ve been through losing,” Freeman said. “I just want to be that guy that you see in the three hole every day, and just count on me.”

During Freeman’s early years in the organization, Atlanta was still home to a lot of winning, but a stretch of four consecutive losing seasons from 2014 to 2017 tested even his patience. Those are the kinds of seasons that test the mettle of fans and players alike, and Freeman wasn’t shy about expressing his fatigue with losing. But now things are trending upward.

“The culture’s changed around here. You could see that in spring training. You got a lot of exciting young guys that every game will wow you with something,” Freeman said. “It’s been a frustrating four years, let me tell you that, but we’re on the up.”

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Freeman’s team is off to a good start in 2018. For that to continue, the young talent around him will have to keep paying attention to what he does.

This season, they have watched his walk rate soar, and his swing rate drop — down to 38 percent from his usual 50 — on the way to a NL-leading on-base percentage close to .500. Freeman insists that there is no special trick going on, just that he feels no pressure to chase when he’s at the plate.

“They’re just nibbling, so I’m just not swinging,” he said.



Freeman likes being aggressive at the plate, but he knows swinging too much can lead to slumps. So despite not going to the plate looking for a walk, Freeman said he’s content with taking free passes for the time being. He’s too seasoned to be seduced into expanding his zone, and the approach is working. He’s making more contact than ever, and like Albies has noted, he’s driving the ball to the opposite field more as well. There’s no emphasis on launch angle or exit velocity, just an approach honed over almost a decade in the majors.

From 1991 to 2005, the Braves went to the postseason every year — only the 1994 strike could interrupt this streak — and since 2011, Freeman has played nearly every game, compiling a .290/.378/.497 career slash line. They were dominant for years, and Freeman has been the same — just in his own, quiet way.

Now, a new crop of Braves looks to Freeman for direction as the team looks to return to dominance. As the small group of players walked out of chapel at Wrigley Field, Swanson stayed close to Freeman, the two sitting down in front of their lockers in silence.

Freeman, again, leading quietly, while others watch and follow closely.

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