When you’re a 30-year-old relief pitcher who only became first-time eligible for arbitration this year like Sam Freeman, you learn not to take anything for granted.
So don’t suggest to Freeman that the left-hander has a spot secured in the Braves bullpen as long as he stays healthy. He’ll shake his head and cut you off before you finish the sentence.
“I don’t look at it that way,” he said, then smiled. “I’ve put my hand on the hot stove too many times, so to speak.”
Freeman had a career-best season in his first year with the Braves, posting a 2.55 ERA in 58 appearances with 59 strikeouts and 27 walks in 60 innings -- even more impressive considering he spent a month at Triple-A before being called to the majors May 4.
Left-handed batters had a .189 average, .502 OPS and just three extra-base hits in 105 plate appearances against Freeman, but he proved early that he was suited to be a full-inning reliever rather than situational lefty. Right-handed hitters hit .236 with a .657 OPS in 149 PAs against him.
He worked his way up steadily from a low-leverage role and became one of the Braves’ two or three most consistent and effective relievers in 2017. In the late innings of close games, Freeman limited hitters to a puny .130 average (9-for-69) and .382 OPS with one extra-base hit.
While a career-best season, it wasn’t the first good one for Freeman. He had a 2.61 ERA in 44 appearances for the Cardinals in 2014 and a 3.05 ERA in 54 apperances for the Rangers in 2015, only to see his career stall in 2016 with the Brewers. He spent most of that season struggling in Triple-A and had a 12.91 ERA in seven appearances in the majors.
Freeman was relegated to a minor-league deal with the Braves in October 2016 that included an invitation to big-league spring training, where he gave up six runs in just one inning over two appearances before being sent down.
So how did he get his career back on track? Freeman credited a message he got soon after being sent down from Dom Chiti, who was then Braves director of pitching and has since become the team’s farm director.
Chiti, a baseball lifer with four decades of pro experience in variour capacities, took Freeman aside at minor league camp last spring and told him he was too talented to struggle like he had been doing since 2016. He told him he needed to pitch with confidence again, to trust his ability and to attack hitters.
And that’s what he did. He throws hard (94-96 mph four-seam fastball) and has a good slider and sinker, and Freeman began to trust his stuff and be aggressive with hitters, not nibble on corners or try to trick them.
Even though he won’t let himself think he’s got a job, the amiable lefty will allow that he’s more confident now about things in general than he was a year ago.
“I do feel more confident in my approach just in how I want to attack, coming in with a plan in how I want to do things,” he said. “I feel better about that than in the past.”