Professional athletes have long been praised for their toughness, specifically their willingness and ability to play every time the coach calls their number.
Baseball is no different, as past legends like Cal Ripken Jr. and Lou Gehrig are most fondly remembered for playing more than 2,000 consecutive games. And that is quite an accomplishment. Perhaps, though, baseball should look at the importance of regular rest days even more than any other sport.
While baseball has the least regular physical contact of any sport, it has the longest schedule. And due to the relatively low success rate of baseball hitters compared to other athletes – the best hitters reach base well less than half the time – a rest day for even elite position players should have relatively low impact on game result. This is a far from exact measure, but Mike Trout’s incredible 10.5 bWAR season in 2016 with 159 games played works out to less than .07 of a win per game played.
That’s not to say you should bench Mike Trout every chance you get. However, if Mike Trout’s impact per game is that small, your team’s top players can get a breather every now and again without wrecking the season.
This concept of rest came to the forefront Monday when Yahoo published an article about the Braves’ Freddie Freeman and how he pushes his teammates to play everyday.
The story wasn’t the feel-good experience that it was seemingly intended to be for Braves’ fans, but one passage in particular stood out. It related to Dansby Swanson, who had played every game for the Braves until getting his first true day off of the year on Sept. 10. After scorching through July and August, both manager Brian Snitker and third-base coach Ron Washington noticed that Dansby was struggling in September and likely needed a breather.
There’s a lot to unpack here. To be blunt, the manager and another coach – who also managed a team to the World Series twice – feeling like they need to clear another player getting a day off with their first baseman doesn’t seem like a great dynamic.
The other layer to this is that the Braves have seen evidence on the field that this obsession with starting every day hasn’t yielded success in the end. In the last six full seasons when the Braves either made the playoffs or finished one spot outside the playoffs – so 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2018 and 2019 – there have been 14 player seasons of 155 games or more. Nine of these players had a lower OPS in September/October than they had for the season as a whole. Five of those dips were by 100 points or more.
Further, 11 of those players made it to the postseason, where 10 of them were significantly less successful at the plate than they were in the regular season. You probably already guessed this, but Ronald Acuña Jr. was the only Brave to not experience that dropoff. That was 2019, when he had an .883 OPS in the regular season that became a 1.454 in the playoff loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.
But Ronald is a freak. So if you get a chance to be like Ronald, just go ahead and do that.
To get even more specific, Freeman himself has experienced these drops. Four times in his career, he’s played 155 games or more on a playoff-caliber team. Each time, he was worse in Sept./Oct. than he was for the season as a whole, and each time, he was either even worse than that at the plate in the postseason, or the team didn’t get there.
In 2019, Freeman played 158 games but notoriously battled bone spurs down the stretch that resulted in some pretty worrying remarks later about the use of painkillers just to take the field. That season, Freeman carded a .938 OPS during the regular season, which is obviously very impressive for an entire season. But that number dipped to .754 over the game’s final weeks, and then it dropped to .673 against the Cardinals.
So, personally, I find it kind of frustrating that Freeman has not only not learned his lesson from these experiences, but that the team has allowed this stubborn streak to rule lineup management. All four of the Braves infielders have started at least 143 games with 15 games remaining. By my count, the rest of the NL playoff contenders – San Francisco, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, St. Louis, San Diego and Philadelphia – have three such players combined, all on the Cardinals. The teams that have already locked up their playoff spots – the Giants, Dodgers and Brewers – have none.
Other teams are finding success without running their top players into the ground. It’s time the Braves, and their captain, learn to do the same.