Freddie’s Frustrations: the struggles of a modern hard-hitting lefty

Notice how many of Freddie Freeman’s at-bats this season result in hard-hit line drives, which are then immediately swallowed by the defense for a soul-crushing out? You can almost see the glimmer of hope die in Freddie’s eyes as he turns back towards the dugout with a disappointed head-shake. Why is our reigning NL MVP putting so many balls in play that look great off the bat, but then immediately wilt into unproductive outs? A caught line drive will not advance base runners under any circumstances, and carries a severe risk of a double play, so from a purely tactical perspective it’s worse than a strikeout. Despite Freeman’s impressive average exit velocity of 92 mph, ranked 18th in the MLB, he’s been coming up empty on many of his hardest hit balls.

I think there’s a pretty clear explanation for this phenomenon, and the best piece of evidence is to contrast Freeman’s spray charts for hits between the 2020 and 2021 seasons. Below is the 2020 hits spray chart. Note that this does not show balls-in-play, but just hits: 

The distribution clearly shows that in 2020, Freddie got hits all over the ballpark in roughly equal amounts. This does not mean that a batted ball to the right side of the field resulted in a hit as frequently as one batted to the left, because this chart does not indicate the proportions of balls-in-play that turn into hits; rather, the chart only indicates that Freeman had a roughly even scattering of hits. Note the cluster of 4-5 hits that landed in mid-to-shallow right field: that will be important later. On the other hand, shown here is Freddie’s hit spray chart for the 2021 season, through 6/3/21:

Notice how empty the right side of the field is? You can draw a straight line from home plate to the “375” label in right-center, and see only two non-home-run hits to the right of that imaginary line, both of which were right down the foul line. Now there are two possible explanations for the lack of hits in this area: the first is that Freddie is no longer pulling the ball, which is not entirely false. His 2020 pull percentage was 39%, and in 2021 it’s currently 29%; however, the quantity of home runs on the right side of the field indicates that Freddie’s not having too many issues pulling. The other explanation is that Freddie is still cranking the ball all over the field, but the defenses are somehow… better this season. Specifically, more and more defenses are shifting, and the shifts themselves are evolving. In 2020, defenses shifted against Freddy 68.4% of the time, according to https://baseballsavant.mlb.com. In 2021, that number is up to 77.3%. By looking at the spray chart, you can see that these shifts have effectively cut off Freddie’s most powerful ⅓ of the field. 

However, teams aren’t just shifting more; they’re also shifting better. What makes a shift better? Well, for as long as the shift has been around, defenses have shifted primarily to account for anticipated batting direction, based on the notion that left-handed hitters tend to pull the ball to the right side of the field. (The default fielding orientation could be considered a “shift” that accounts for the tendencies of right-handed hitters.) However, in very recent years, defenses have also begun shifting for anticipated velocity in addition to expected direction. They specifically do this by placing an infielder in shallow right field rather than somewhere along the edge of the grass between first and second base. As an example, seen here is a 2018 shift used by the Astros, who have long been on the forefront of applying advanced analytics to baseball, before of course venturing into the blatantly illegal area of, shall we say, “real-time film analysis.”

(photo credit: https://twitter.com/AndrewSimonMLB/status/995099582576189442)

What separates this from a traditional left-handed shift is how far back Correa, the shortstop, is playing. Rather than standing at the edge of the grass somewhere between first and second base, he’s legitimately in shallow right field, prepared to catch any line drives that may come that way. This extra depth in shifts serves to mitigate one of Freddie’s key strengths: exit velocity. The average ball in play that comes off of Freddie’s bat travels at 92 mph, and he often hits line drives at over 100 mph. For a 100 mph line drive, an infielder who is playing 20 feet farther back than normal will gain an extra 0.14 seconds of reaction time due to that distance. While that extra 0.14 seconds won’t do a damn thing to prevent me from pulling my hamstring diving for the ball, to an MLB infielder that amount of time is the difference between catching a line drive in midair and watching it sail over your head for a base hit. 

More teams than ever are using analytics and ingenuity to perfectly position their players in custom alignments based on the tendencies of each individual hitter. The more traditionally-coached Braves did not start using shifts this aggressive or unorthodox until this season, in which they’ve often put a third baseman out in shallow right field against high-velocity lefties. Another non-traditional defensive alignment we’ve seen a bit this season is Tampa Bay’s four-outfielder strategy against batters who have a very high fly-ball percentage, or in tight situations where any ball that touches the ground in the outfield would lose the game. The vast majority of teams are no longer afraid to try an unorthodox alignment, because the effectiveness of the velocity-based shifts has been made clear over the past few seasons. Unfortunately, hard-hitting lefties like Freddie are suffering the most from it, because you will not often see an equivalent overcompensation for velocity in the default orientation against right-handed hitters. Giancarlo Stanton, the Yankees’ right-handed DH who often tormented the Braves during his stint in Miami, is the hardest-hitting player in the MLB right now, and probably in all of baseball history. (In the Statcast era, 12 balls league-wide have been hit harder than 120 mph, and Stanton has hit 10 of them.)  However, you won’t often see a shortstop standing 15 feet deep in the outfield grass when Stanton’s at the plate. Instead, they often play at the edge of the dirt in a fairly normal orientation. While velocity is only one of the variety of hitting tendencies that determine where to position the fielders, meaning it’s not entirely accurate to draw defensive-alignment comparisons between Freeman and Stanton based solely on their exit velocity, it is at least worth noting that many hard-hitting right handers don’t get the same depth treatment as the lefties.  

Are these creative, analytics-driven, velocity-mitigating shifts ruining the game of baseball? No. Instead, they’re doing something that hasn’t been done in a long time: making baseball defense interesting. It’s exciting to sometimes see five infielders, or four outfielders, or to see defenses line up in a way that exposes an entire half of the field. The whole point of playing defense is to prevent the other team from scoring in whatever legal way you can. The beauty of this game is that there are only three defensive requirements before any given pitch: one player must have his foot on the pitching rubber, one player must be located in the catcher’s box, and seven other players must be fully within fair territory. That’s it. The majority of baseball’s defensive strategy hinges on a team’s ability to position those 7 players in a way that minimizes the opponent’s ability to score runs. There have been a variety of proposals to reduce the aggressiveness or creativity of shifts, such as requiring four or more fielders to have at least one foot on the infield dirt before every pitch, and I think those proposals frankly make the game of baseball dumber. Any such proposal that seeks to reduce the opportunity for the defense to apply strategic thinking inherently hinders players and coaches from applying their baseball IQ and cognitive abilities. So while eliminating the shift would certainly let us see a lot more of Freddie’s million-dollar smiles, that alone is not worth the cost of making the game of baseball objectively less strategic. 

As for Freddie? He’ll be fine. He’s still batting around 0.230 with an OPS of 0.807, but getting out of this recent downward streak might require some tactical adjustments that necessitate sacrificing velocity for direction. While telling left-handed hitters “just learn not to pull the ball” is an oft-overused, oversimplified cliché used by ardent supporters of the shift, it does hold some merit. I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing Freddie send a bunt or two towards the entirely open left side of the field, or try for some chip-shot infield hits. While hard-hit line drives can be great, getting runners on base is far more important than exit velocity, and when the defense tries to out-smart you, sometimes you just have to out-smart them right back.

36 thoughts on “Freddie’s Frustrations: the struggles of a modern hard-hitting lefty”

  1. Great contribution to this esteemed bar, Michael.

    A few thoughts from the bar curmudgeon.

    I’ve long thought that Freddie’s mental neurons which asked him to hit the ball the other way a seeming high amount of time were counterproductive and not a viable long term strategy. Very few stars and good players have made hitting the ball to the opposite field the focal points of their game. And for good reason. IT IS HARD to do.

    I’m not in favor of MLB banning shifts. It’s a viable strategy and the fact that it works, shouldn’t be a good enough reason to stop them. What I would like to see is to have MLB stop tinkering with the ball, have them crack down on average pitchers like Bauer loading the ball up ala Gaylord Perry to become way above average and then some of these balls batters are hitting toward the shift become hits again instead of looping LDs that peter out in the glove of 2B and 3B playing short field.

    Unrelated… when the story of the 2021 Braves is ultimately written, I don’t believe that the inherent failures of this team will be laid by Braves Nation at the feet of AA, but instead should (will) be laid at the feet of ownership. It’s bloody embarrassing for a franchise that has been this successful both recently and historically with this level of fan support nationally and regionally to be this damned frugal. A pox on Liberty Media.

  2. Michael, great collection of and presentation of data. I don’t know if Freddie will radically change his approach by trying to beat the shift, however. That seems to be something elite hitters simply aren’t interested in doing.

    I feel like I’m seeing a few things. Exit velo is there, check. Consistent spray chart, a hallmark of Freddie’s approach, is there, check. Home runs are there, check. But we don’t have data to track spin direction of the ball off the bat just yet. My suspicion is that his swing plane may have changed just enough to turn backspin off the bat into front spin. So instead of launching a ball into the right-center field gap, he’s getting front spin into the ground.

    And this matches his flyball/groundball/line drive data. He’s 7% down on line drive rate, 8% up on groundball rate, and he’s 2% down on fly ball rate. A great way to not ground out to second is to get a little more back spin on the same exact hard hit ball, and it goes over the second baseman’s head and not into his glove. I feel like that’s clearly what the spray chart is saying. His exit velo hasn’t changed, he’s still barreling at a high rate, and his hard hit percentage is still very high. I think the man’s swing plane has changed a very small amount, and the better shifting is punishing him dearly for it.

    8% higher on his groundball rate may not seem like much, but that’s based on 173 batted ball events, which means 12-15 less line drives and 12-15 more groundballs, presumably into the shift. If he had 10 more hits out of those 12-15 changes in the batted ball event, he’s looking at a .273 BA vs. his .228 BA. If those are doubles into the gap instead of outs into the shift, he has about a .900 OPS instead of a .797 OPS. It’s amazing what 10 balls going in the opposite direction can do to our outlook. Do we have 2 more wins if Freddie has 10 more XBH? Really interesting to think about.

  3. Great stuff, Michael. Welcome.

    My real problem with changing your swing, or your approach to a pitch to beat a shift is that:
    (a) it may not be in your skill set;
    (b) even if you can do it, you may be sacrificing more than you gain;
    (c) pitchers will adjust and worsen your outcomes.

    To point (a), some players are clearly better at it than others. Not sure where Freddie fits there.
    To point (b), this is less important for Freddie than others. For guys who are mostly mistake hitters, though, it seems like a terrible idea to get a few extra singles and be unable to pound the mistake pitches. (Swanson comes to mind.)
    To point (c), pitchers won’t adjust on Freddie until they have to. If the shifts work better, Freddie’s going have to work out how to beat it.

  4. If it’s happening on nearly 80% of his plate appearances, and pretty much every opponent does it – and does it increasingly the same way – I’m not sure I find these defensive shifts as “interesting” as others do. If we truly want strategic, interesting defense, there shouldn’t be such an easy and obvious tactic for managers.

  5. Anyone know whether teams shift differently with different pitchers? In the article’s picture of the Astros’ shift, it seems like how the pitcher finishes his delivery would make a big difference in how easy a bunt down the third base line would be. If he falls towards first, there’s almost no way he could get to the ball in time, so all the batter would have to do is keep the ball fair and tap it hard enough that the catcher couldn’t get it.

  6. Mr. Freeman deserves we want until the end of year to judge. The team, manager and coaches deserve the same.
    Ownership we don’t need further time to know they don’t give a damn.
    On my way to Miami to witness in person the plight of the Atlanta Braves as I have done for 69 years. For better or worse I remain faithful.

  7. Whatever other teams do defensively with shifts we need to copy that since we get beat on our shift constantly. But then again, some of our pitchers don’t command the zone and leave the ball outside for the slap hit the other way with two strikes while our opponents don’t seem to make the same mistakes.

  8. Great article!! I had never thought about it that way. Would love to see Freddie bunt once or twice just to get the defense to back off a little. I know it would be difficult, but…..

    @2 Totally agree Chief on all points. Can’t understand the blame being placed on AA right now, given that the owners cut the payroll to an extreme before the season. He had no money to build the bullpen or add depth to the bench. I knew before the season started this team would have trouble with close games ……but I had no idea they would be this disgustingly bad.

  9. I understand there’s an opportunity cost for a slugger to bunt, but what would the success rate have to be to get teams to come out of the shift? 30%? 40%? Ted Williams would be proud of .400.

  10. Awesome work Michael. Your explanation of Freeman’s issues were incredible. I have to say that I’m often tempted to leave this blog for a while after a few close losses and predictable”sky is falling ” posts. Insightful articles like yours make me glad I stick around.

  11. The self inflicted wounds are tired. Hit by pitches with 2 strikes, passed balls, wild pitches, errors… Such a poorly disciplined team

  12. Thanks Ryan, and thanks everyone for the kind words & warm welcome, I’m very glad to be here and I hope this is the first of many statistics articles to come!

    @2 Definitely agree, hitting the ball the other way is HARD, and the retraining to get his brain doing that, and the subsequent boost in BA, might not be worth the subsequent drop in SLG %. I also would like to see the “sticky stuff” cracked down on, but it seems like they’re gonna do that very soon!

    You’d think they’d at least try to invest in another closer right now…

    @3 That is a GREAT insight about swing plane, it makes a lot of sense! 8% is a big deal, especially considering how many of our games have been so close. Of 27 at-bats with RISP, I think either 3 or 4 of them have been sharp ground balls into the shift for outs. I don’t remember exactly, was looking at it earlier today, but any of those could change the course of a game!

    @4 Agree, Freddie could stop pulling and find himself with a better BA and OPB, but not a much worse SLG %… I’d rather him just drop down a few bunts once in a while! Even if it doesn’t reduce the amount of times they shift against him, it’ll still get him on base (or advance runners) once in a while. But, there’s always tradeoffs… not sure if it’s always worth having your MVP slugger bunt.

    @5 Totally understand that viewpoint, I just don’t know what other solutions there are… I’d rather give the fellas more freedom and more strategy than less. I have yet to hear an anti-shift argument that I find IMPROVES the game of baseball rather than just helps the hitters, if you know what I mean!

    @11 and @12, I saw the Phillies players do this exact same thing yesterday! I forget exactly who it was, but one of their lefties tried bunting against the shift and I sat there watching saying “exactly!!” Even if bunting doesn’t necessarily break the defense of their shifting habit, it’d still be good for getting him on base once in a while. Again, it’s painful to ask such a hard-hitting slugger to try and bunt… but sometimes getting runners on base is most important, that’s the Moneyball way! I don’t think teams will ever stop shifting against Freddie, but it’d be interesting to see how they adjust it.

    @13 and @14 thank you both so much!

  13. As best I can tell pinch runner Drew Smyly has been on base a total of 2 times in his career. I guess he’s expendable anyway.

  14. Yeah, Riley is broken again. K rate has been skyrocketing lately, and 0 for his last 12. Maybe just being extremely streaky is his thing.
    Not that anyone else has been doing much lately.

  15. team plays bad fundamental baseball. They don’t do any of the little things that win games. As much as I think Snit is a terrible strategic manager, nobody can win with Adrianza, Heredia, Ender and Almonte making up 1/3 of the lineup on a regular basis. As much as the pitching staff is prone to nightly episodes, the black holes in the lineup are the undoing.

  16. Freddie’s line out in the 9th is a perfect example of a line drive with top spin ending in an out.

  17. @28 The lineup is terrible. This isn’t a lineup that’s going to win at a .600 rate.

  18. @30 try Arcia or Demeritte. The clowns I listed above turned into pumpkins. Trying those two doesn’t cost any extra money so Liberty can’t get mad.

    Is it time to move on from Snit? It’s not all his fault but they need a kick in the ass and his low key approach isn’t the magic it once was

  19. 2 for 12. At least ii was not the.pen. Morton lived up to his ERA.
    Lineup is a joke?
    Does the Ray’s lineup impress you?
    Didn’t think so. How about their ownership? Didn’t think so.
    How about their record? Thought so.
    Tomorrow beach time, Joe’s Stone Crab for lunch, than hopefully a better result.
    Oh by the way, Riley is on his way down to 260.

  20. I don’t think Snit’s the problem; I also don’t think that firing the manager is a bad idea when your season is spiraling away from you. The problem is firing the manager when what you really should be doing is spending money to get better players.

  21. @32 sounds like the perfect day in Miami. Good for you.

    Late to the party, thanks Michael. What a great and intersting piece.

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