All the talk surrounding the Atlanta Braves' offseason this winter was about how they were going to improve on an offense that ranked 22nd in runs scored in Major League Baseball the previous year.
There were discussions with a few teams involving right-hander Jair Jurrjens that might have landed Atlanta the left field bat they coveted. All those talks fell by the wayside as general manager Frank Wren eventually pulled Jurrjens off the table prior to spring training.
Many baseball analysts felt Jason Heyward returning to his rookie form of 2010 was the key to drive the offense from the doldrums of previous seasons. Most of the emphasis when talking about Heyward was put on the work he had done with new hitting coach Greg Walker to revamp his swing.
Even prior to Walker joining the Braves' coaching staff, Heyward was working on his swing with long-time personal hitting coach C.J. Stewart to get back to the basic fundamentals of hitting.
Then as spring training was coming to a close, Chipper Jones announced that the 2012 season would be his last in a Braves' uniform as a player. With his knees becoming more troublesome than normal, the question of how many games Jones could play in his final season became the center of attention.
Even the mildly discussed topic of Michael Bourn’s impending free agency and his relationship as a Scott Boras client garnered more consideration than anything second-year first baseman Freddie Freeman was doing to prepare for the season.
It was almost a side note that Freeman had been lifting weights this offseason for the first time.
“I’ve never lifted weights before,” Freeman told ESPN.com senior writer Tim Kurkjian. “I started out benching 160. Guys gave me a hard time. But by the end of the winter, I was benching 265.”
Freeman went about his preparation for the upcoming season quietly, confident in his own ability, while also understanding that the league will make adjustments to him in his second season.
When asked this spring about the pressure of avoiding the dreaded “sophomore slump,” he told MLB.com, "I just do what I do. I think everybody hears that and then tries to avoid it, and they try to do too much.”
"Obviously I have my own plan, my own hitting ways, and hopefully I can stick to it and try not to do too much this year. Everybody's going to have their ups and downs. I've just got to minimize those downs as much as I can, try to stay consistent and obviously stay healthy."
After watching friend and teammate Jason Heyward struggle through a shoulder injury during his sophomore campaign, Freeman knows how health can play a key part in navigating the rigorous MLB schedule.
"If I can stay healthy," Freeman continued, "I think everything will show for itself."
Through the first nine games of the season it seemed the “sophomore slump” was raising its ugly head as Freeman started the season hitting .162 and slugging a minuscule .189, which included only one extra-base hit.
In the 22 games since then he is 29-86 (.337) with 14 extra-base hits.
In fact, heading into this weekend’s series with the National League Central leading St. Louis Cardinals, Freeman leads the Braves with six home runs and 26 RBI. His .512 slugging percentage is second on the team to Jones (.526), who has 45 less at-bats than Freeman.
In the midst of a hot streak that includes being named National League Player of the Week twice in the past three weeks, somehow Freeman has managed to quietly become Atlanta’s three-hole hitter.
The third spot in the lineup is normally reserved for the best hitter on the team.
With Freeman hitting .284/.333/.526 with 5 home runs and 21 RBI during his 24 games batting third in the order, that is all the more reason he should be slotted in that spot ahead of the more recognized names of Chipper, Brian McCann, Dan Uggla, and Heyward.
“I think the biggest compliment that anybody could give Freddie Freeman was Chipper the other day, he came in and said, ‘I think this is your 3-hole hitter for a long time,’” manager Fredi Gonzalez told David O’Brien of the AJC.
There are a few telling stats in Freeman’s transformation into a legitimate run producer.
According to Fangraphs.com, a line drive produces 1.26 runs per out, while fly balls produce 0.13 runs per out and groundballs produce 0.05 runs per out.
Understanding 31 games is a small sample size, his line drive percentage of 38.5 is up from last season’s total of 23 percent and well above last season’s league average of 19.6 percent.
Also, Freeman’s Isolated Power (ISO), which is a measure of a hitter’s raw power, is at .228 this season compared to .166 in 2011.
His ability to hit to all fields is probably the most impressive quality he has shown thus far, especially with defensive alignments trending towards shifting according to hitters tendencies.
He has put 80 batted balls in play thus far via hits, outs or errors. Of those batted balls, he hits 25 percent to left field, 40 percent to center field and 35 percent to right field.
Backup catcher David Ross recently spoke about the Braves underrated first baseman, “I don’t know that he gets the hype that most [other budding stars] guys do, but that guy’s a really good player,” – the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Freeman goes about his business of baseball quietly, even playing gold glove caliber defense at first base, but don’t be surprised if his name begins to be whispered around some MVP discussions as the season progresses.
Jim Pratt is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, MLB contributor for MLBDepthCharts and BravesWire. Follow Jim on Twitter, @2OutSacBunt
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