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Thoughts on Freddie Freeman’s ailing wrist

Months after his hit-by-pitch, Freeman is still taking one for the team.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Arizona Diamondbacks Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

(Note: This post doesn’t really have a conclusion, or a point. It’s just a series of thoughts. Do with that what you will.)

It’s difficult to overstate just how inordinately lame Freddie Freeman’s wrist fracture, suffered in mid-May, was. Not only did it deprive Braves fans (and baseball fans) from one of the game’s most exciting hitters, but it upended what could have been a historically fantastic offensive season. Up through the unfortunate delivery from Aaron Loup, Freeman had put up an absurd .341/.461/.748 batting line, good for a 201 wRC+. While Freeman probably would not have sustained that over a full season, it’s still notable in just how good that mark was: the last full-season line to come close to it was Bryce Harper’s 2015 (197 wRC+), and no hitter other than Roidy McGee (Barry Bonds) has exceeded the 200 wRC+ threshold since the start of the new millennium.

As Freeman went to the Disabled List, I tried to console myself by doing some cursory statistical research into wrist injuries, which I summarized here. The conclusion was, indeed, amenable to the task of consolation. To quote myself:

Anyway, put all these things together and you get essentially the averages in the table. The broad takeaways are probably that wrist injuries potentially comparable to Freeman’s don’t tend to have any immediate or lingering issues on a hitter’s overall offensive production, as measured by wRC+. They may have a slight effect on power production, but this is somewhat speculative and driven by a bunch of hitters who aren’t the kind of lineup mainstays with strong power production that are comparable to Freeman himself...

So, if history is anything to go on, Freddie Freeman will be just fine when he returns. Phew.

(As a saving grace, I did note that a safer bet was a 140 wRC+ when he returned, which is a bit relevant for the stuff to be discussed below.)

Before Freeman got hurt, he had amassed 165 PAs. Coming into the weekend series against the Rockies, he had garnered an additional 192 PAs since his reinstatement. Here’s what’s changed (and what hasn’t):

* Refers to exit velocity on all readings off the bat via Statcast, rather than only the ones used by Statcast to reflect actual exit velocity, such as on its leaderboards.

The array of changes is somewhat weird. Part of what’s weird about it is that Freeman was so insanely good prior to his wrist injury that while many of his numbers look off, they’re still among the top of all MLB players. For example, 201 to 137 is a massive drop in wRC+, but percentile-wise, it’s a movement from the 99th/100th percentile to the 95th percentile. Substantial percentile drops are colored in red, while percentile gains are colored green. Essentially, here’s where Freeman has gotten worse:

  • Power output (ISO, Hard%, exit velocity, HR/FB); and
  • Plate discipline, specifically walk rate and chase rate, despite seeing more first-pitch strikes.

And, Freeman’s gotten relatively better at:

  • Hitting line drives; and
  • Making contact, across the board (though chasing pitches out of the zone has kept his overall whiff rate steady).

Part of this has a fairly simple explanation. But, don’t take my word for it: here’s Freeman himself:

It’s probably about 80-85 percent. Once I started to swinging again it hasn’t gotten any better. I have lost a lot of strength. I’ve hit some balls that I thought were home runs, and they’re not going.

That seems pretty consistent with a precipitous drop in exit velocity, hard-hit rate, and homer rate on fly balls, yeah? Meanwhile, Freeman’s climb in liner rate also makes sense, given his self-stated ability to transition seamlessly towards spraying the ball around: “But I’m a good enough slap hitter right now, keep slapping it around, get some hits and try to get some runs and help this team win any way I can.”

The chase rate, of course, is a completely separate issue. I don’t know to what extent it’s related to his wrist, but it very well may not be, at all. Freeman is seeing many more first-pitch strikes, but fewer pitches in the zone in general, and he’s been obliging opposing pitchers by swinging at them at a crazy rate. He’s not actually striking out any more, because he’s not necessarily missing the pitches.

This brings up an interesting question: to what extent is Freeman’s lowered power output a result of him swinging at worse pitches at a greater rate, and also making somewhat more contact with those pitches? If I had to guess, the answer would be “somewhat, but probably not a lot.” Still, I don’t think that we should forget this in the context of analyzing his performance: if his walk rate went back to the 11 to 13 percent range, the wRC+ would climb accordingly. So, even with a damaged wrist, a wRC+ in the 130s or 140s doesn’t have to represent Freeman’s baseline, as he should be able to push it a bit higher by reining in the hacking a bit.

But, back to the diminished contact...

When the early returns came in, I was somewhat skeptical that the wrist was necessarily being an issue. While the lack of balls traveling particularly far was notable, it’s not like he was devoid of homers, and who doesn’t have a small sample slump in exit velocity here and there? (This is an actual question: who doesn’t?) But, I decided to look into a little further, with the help of the chart below.

This chart is kinda weird, but in short, the height of the line at any point is what percentage of Freeman’s batted balls had an exit velocity of that number or higher. Fore xample, if you look at, say, the “90” on the x-axis, and scan up, you’ll see that the blue line is somewhere between 40% and 50% (47%, specifically), and the red line is somewhere between 30% and 40% (specifically, 38%). In other words, before his wrist injury, 47 percent of Freeman’s batted balls were struck with exit velocity of 90 miles per hour or greater; after the injury, this proportion fell to just 38 percent. The bigger the gap between the blue and red lines, the more exit velocity is being lost. The biggest gap occurs with balls hit 99 miles per hour or more, but you can tell that the effect is pretty consistent across most batted ball speeds, even as the gap shrinks and expands at different points along the x-axis.

The short answer is that there is indeed a very consistent and notable decline in Freeman’s ability to hit the ball hard. For a very mathy explanation, there’s only about a two percent chance that this kind of sorting of exit velocities across the two sub-samples (before wrist injury, after wrist injury) would occur naturally. Since I was curious (and for no real other reason), I used a random number generator to sort Freeman’s exit velocities for the entire season into two buckets. Again, this was purely random, and here’s how the gap looks across these four trials:

For one, as makes sense given that there’s no systematic bias, the gap, where it exists, is much smaller. But, it’s also not consistent: the blue and red lines cross. This, of course, makes sense, given that it’s not coming from real-world data of a player with a wrist injury, but just the proverbial roll of the dice. The fact that the actual chart has a consistent gap between the red and blue lines suggests a systematic difference between the two periods, in a way that these randomly-generated exercises do not. (Again, in math terms, none of differences in means for the randomly-sorted subsamples came back statistically significant, but the original dataset’s difference in exit velocity mean is significant at the two percent level.)

Another way to think about it is simply through the charts below. There are a lot of dots, but the real difference between them is that the chart on the right kind of looks like all the dots are iron ball bearings, and a weak magnet has been placed right at the end of the bat in the graphic — by which I mean, the dots are just pulled in towards the center a bit. The net effect is a sharp decrease in balls in that happy red “barrels” zone, and a corresponding increase as balls move “down” the spectrum: more solid contact, flares, routine flies, and weak contact.

Of course, what this all prompts is a set of confusing emotions. On the one hand, Freddie Freeman has exemplified this season that he is a true, team-first gamer. He moved to another position to keep Matt Adams’ bat in the lineup. He came back before his wrist was 100 percent. But, should the Braves have allowed him to do so? Should they have tried him at third base, only to quickly curtail the experiment, given that he was playing with a still-ailing wrist?

My previous research into wrist injuries suggested that they do not necessarily linger, but the timescale examined was a full calendar year following the injury. If Freeman is to be taken at his word, and should be fully recovered with offseason rest, then it does not seem that playing him now endangers his future production. However, that supposition is difficult to confirm. There have not been very many wrist fractures experienced by MLB players over the past few seasons, and where they did occur, they often kept the player out of action through part of an offseason.

In my prior article, I looked at 19 wrist injuries. Of those, 11 lasted through an offseason, either causing the player to start their season late, or have it end early. Of the 11, only one occurred in the Statcast era: George Springer’s 2015 incident, where he missed almost all of July and August, but came back for nearly a full months’ play in September. Unlike Freeman, Springer’s exit velocity did not show a similar gap in the before and after periods, though he did have an ISO drop of about .030 through the conclusion of the season. (However, his wRC+ actually went up by a few ticks, and the ISO drop dissipated to just about .005 after a calendar year had elapsed.)

Worth noting, though, is that Freeman came back very quickly: he missed just 48 days, which is 17 percent faster than the lowest in-season wrist injury since 2010 (Jeff Mathis, at 58 days), or about 34 percent faster than the average in-season wrist injury recovery time (73 days). Even if you take the complete set of in-season time missed, ignoring all the injuries that included recovery during offseasons, the average number of games missed with a wrist fracture (or generic wrist injury) is approximately 70 days. So, I don’t know if Freeman came back too fast, but he definitely came back faster than anyone else with a similar injury in the recent past, and took up the mantle at a different position, to boot. Freeman also hasn’t missed a day in the starting lineup since his return, even as the Braves have contorted themselves to play Matt Adams in left field and Brandon Phillips at third base throughout August.

For what it’s worth, Freeman went hitless in his most recent series with the Rockies, but drew four walks. He actually hit the ball pretty hard, and despite seeing few pitches in the zone (zone% for the series for him was under 30%), laid off very well, with an o-swing% even lower than before he got hurt.

Even if the batted ball authority doesn’t full return this season, Freeman is still one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball given his plate discipline and his ability to spray the ball over the infield. Plus, it’s not like his ability to turn on one is fully diminished, either: he’s hit eight homers since returning, including three in a four-game span in his fourth through seventh games back. The bigger question is what effect, if any, this ordeal will have on him going forward. I’d still bet on little to none, but you can’t help but feel just a little miffed at the way things have played out for him so far.

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