When reliever Sam Freeman was sent to minor league camp after struggling mightily in major league spring training – we’re talking six runs allowed in one inning over two appearances -- it seemed uncertain whether the well-traveled left-hander would ever wear a Braves uniform in a real big-league game.
But sometimes, the right words said in the right way from a person with the gravitas to get his point across can do wonders for a person. And for Freeman, the message came from Dom Chiti, the mustachioed Braves director of pitching, who took Freeman aside and spoke to him as someone who had more than four decades of pro-ball experience as a player, scout, front-office official and bullpen coach with three major league teams.
He expressed to Freeman, whose career had stalled with a disappointing season in the Brewers organization in 2016, that he was too talented to struggle like he was, that he needed to pitch with confidence again, to trust his ability and to attack hitters. That was how the 30-year-old lefty was going to be successful again.
Freeman was called to the majors by the Braves on May 4 and has been one of the team’s three best and only consistent relievers this season, posting a 2.80 ERA in 53 appearances and allowing one run in 20 appearances since the beginning of August.
“Dom Chiti,” Freeman said, when asked what the biggest difference has been since his spring struggles. “Whenever I got sent down in big league camp, we had a conversation and he said some things that hit home, that I kind of said, OK. Even when it happened, I was telling close friends and family that was going to be a turning point, just because it resonated so much with me.
“So I would say, just interacting with him for the few weeks or whatever (at minor league camp), those conversations have probably been the biggest thing in that regard.”
Chiti is changing roles for the Braves, moving up to become farm director in place of Dave Trembley, who as farm director and head of minor league field operations had been more of a hands-on field coordinator anyway. The personable and energetic Trembley will keep the latter title -- head of minor league field operations.
Braves top officials saw the Chiti move as a natural one, given the emphasis they’ve put on pitching in their ongoing rebuilding process and Chiti’s pitching-intensive background and experience.
“Dom brings three things that everybody can respect -- lots of experience, brutal honestly, creativity and destire to help players improve,” Braves general manager John Coppolella said. “It’s not cuddly or sweet all the time, but Dom cares greatly and gets results.”
Freeman would certainly agree with that assessment. He turned 30 in June and is having a career resurgence of sorts.
“Well, (the season) is not over yet,” he said, cautiously. “Up to this point it’s been a positive experience. It’s kind of proven to myself that I can be consistent at this level. We’ve still got about (two) weeks to go. I’ll feel more confident telling you how this year went at that point, but up to this point it’s been a positive experience, for sure.”
Before his spring-training chats with Chiti and subsequent progress, it was beginning to seem that Freeman’s best days were behind him. He had a 2.74 ERA in 88 2/3 innings during 111 major-league appearances over a three-season stretch through 2015 with the Cardinals and Rangers, but Freeman spent of 2016 in Triple-A and posting a 12.91 ERA in his only seven big-league appearances for the Brewers.
Now look at him. Freeman has a .222 opponents’ average and .604 opponents’ OPS, which includes a stingy .170/.455 by left-handed batters, who have just two extra-base hits against him in 88 at-bats with 27 strikeouts and five walks. In the late innings of close games, hitters are 8-for-57 (.140) against him with one extra-base hit and a .415 OPS.
And in 20 appearances since Aug. 1, Freeman has 0.53 ERA, .145 opponents’ average and .393 opponents’ OPS, allowing eight hits, one run and five walks with 14 strikeouts in 17 innings over that span.
A reporter mentioned to Braves manager Brian Snitker than Freeman credited Chiti with helping him in the spring to restore his confidence and pitch aggressively again.
“You can tell,” Snitker said. “He’s very confident. The results speak to that. He’s got good stuff. You never know when guys are going to (emerge). You talk to old-timers and they say left-handed pitchers come later sometimes. Takes them a little longer. Sam’s legit.”
Freeman is quiet, small in stature for a reliever but wiry-strong like a cornerback. The first time folks see him pitch they’re often surprised by how hard he throws.
“That’s easy 96 (mph) and 97 sometimes, and good off-speed stuff,” Snitker said. “He’ll get down in the count and has the ability to come back and get a decision. You like what you see. He just quietly does his job.”
He's been one of the Braves’ three best relievers, along with closer Arodys Vizcaino and setup man Jose Ramirez. And they signed Freeman as a minor league free agent in October, a deal that included an invitation to spring training.
“You bring a guy in, get good reports from Triple-A, we brought him up and you pitch him, then you see him, all of a sudden it becomes an instance of a little more responsibility and a role, and a guy does it and he’s been really good,” Snitker said. “We might have gotten Sam Freeman at the right time of his career. He’d been around a little bit, experienced some things, now he’s getting an opportunity and making the best of it.
“He’s learning as he goes and drawing on some prior experiences and making the most of his situation here.”
And making the most of time spent with Dom Chiti in the spring.
• Seems a good day to go with a song by a lefty, so here's one of the best by the legendary Lefty Frizzell , a 1963 hit that was later covered by Johnny Cash and Bobby Bare, among others.
"SAGINAW, MICHIGAN" by Lefty Frizzell
I was born in Saginaw, Michigan.
I grew up in a house on Saginaw Bay.
My dad was a poor hard working Saginaw fisherman:
Too many times he came home with too little pay.
I loved a girl in Saginaw, Michigan.
The daughter of a wealthy, wealthy man.
But he called me: "That son of a Saginaw fisherman."
And not good enough to claim his daughter's hand.
Now I'm up here in Alaska looking around for gold.
Like a crazy fool I'm a digging in this frozen ground, so cold.
But with each new day I pray I'll strike it rich and then,
I'll go back home and claim my love in Saginaw, Michigan.
I wrote my love in Saginaw, Michigan.
I said: "Honey, I'm a coming home, please wait for me.
"And you can tell your dad, I'm coming back a richer man
"I've hit the biggest strike in Klondike history."
Her dad met me in Saginaw, Michigan.
He gave me a great big party with champagne.
Then he said: "Son, you're wise, young ambitious man.
"Will you sell your father-in-law your Klondike claim?"
Now he's up there in Alaska digging in the cold, cold ground.
The greedy fool is a looking for the gold I never found.
It serves him right and no-one here is missing him.
Least of all the newly-weds of Saginaw, Michigan.
We're the happiest man and wife in Saginaw, Michigan.
He's ashamed to show his face in Saginaw, Michigan.