Freeman on steady ascent

LAWRENCEVILLE — It took some time, but Freddie Freeman figured it out.

He didn’t start the fastest or on top, but the Atlanta Braves prospect slowly picked up steam. Playing every day against this level of competition will make any one better. Game after game things just got better until he was where he is now.

Freeman now battles for the top spot in the ping-pong rankings in the Gwinnett Braves clubhouse. He claims to hold the title after wresting it away from Wes Timmons.

The title can change hands daily.

There is plenty of down time in a baseball player’s day. He can only take so many swings in the cages and so many ground balls. Freeman does plenty of both. But when he’s not swinging and sweating, he’s playing ping-pong.

“I don’t lose, so I am always on the ping-pong table,” Freeman said in the friendly trash-talking way guys discuss daily competitions from video games to cards.

But he remains modest: “I had played before (this year), but now that I play it every day, all the time, I’ve gotten pretty good.”

Freeman joined the G-Braves with as much pomp as surprise. Throughout the spring he appeared destined for Class AA Mississippi, but on the final days of cuts his designation was Class AAA. The first base prospect alone was a good story, but when the Jason Heyward phenomenon exploded any angle from which to view Heyward was explored. As a prospect and roommate with the budding rookie All-Star, Freeman spent the early summer months answering more questions about his friend than his swing.

Eventually the periphery interest in Freeman waned and the 20-year-old was left to another minor-league season.

Like his ping-pong prowess, things started slowly.

At the end of May, he was hitting .259. He spent the early days of June as the designated hitter and the average dipped to .247 by June 11. The dip in average came as much from mechanical and mental struggles as bad breaks. Plenty of hard-hit balls found defenders’ gloves.

“It was a little frustrating,” Freeman said. “You are going to have your ups and downs in baseball, you aren’t always going to be hitting it and they aren’t always going to fall. You just have to be sure you don’t try to make too many adjustments when you don’t need to make adjustments.”

The adjustments were small: a stance tweak, a change in his swing plane. He improved his strike zone management and put pitches in play where he could. Freeman leads the G-Braves with 16 home runs, but to dub him a slugger places unjust constraints on his aptitude. He’s also the team-leader in doubles with 31 and RBIs with 76. Freeman’s two triples trail only Joe Thurston’s three and Matt Young’s five.

“A lot of time young hitters, they have a tough time hitting the ball the other way, but to his credit he drives the ball to all parts of the field,” said G-Braves hitting coach Jamie Dismuke. “He’s made some good adjustments, very quick at a real young age.

“He is a complete hitter.”

The early June low preceded a steady climb in average over the next month-plus. Freeman ended the homestand Tuesday hitting .308. He is fourth in the International League in average. Teammate Barbaro Canizares leads the league. In his last 10 games, Freeman is hitting .333.

A look as his average since June follows the line of rising stocks. There’s a slight dip occasionally, but they’re trending up.

“He had a tough time, we can call it a tough time, but this kid he feels like nobody can get him out,” Dismuke said. “He comes in and says, ‘Man, I don’t know how I missed that pitch.’ To his credit, that’s good. He feels like he should smash everybody and I guess that’s what the good ones do.”

Part of growing into a mature hitter comes from dealing with failure and pushing through struggles. Freeman has seen the same pitchers challenge him in different ways. His adjustment timetable has shrunk from game-to-game to bat-to-bat. A bad trip to the plate does not derail his night.

“You have to deal with failure,” Freeman said. “I had my failures this year in the beginning of the year and I learned a lot. I learned how to make my adjustments to how they were pitching. It’s been a good year for making adjustments.”

The next step for Freeman may be making adjustments to major league pitching. His steady plate improvement comes just as September call-ups crest the horizon and his defense at first base never wavered. In 98 games at first base, Freeman has six errors.

On a hot day at Coolray Field on Tuesday, Freeman doesn’t shy from the heat. He takes his infield, had some fun at shortstop and did his work in the cage. He admits he considers the possibility of a big-league opportunity, but pushes it from his mind.

With the Braves’ acquiring first baseman Derrek Lee from the Cubs, Freeman’s chances of joining the big leagues before the rosters expand in September seem slim. He’s not on the 40-man roster, but the Braves only have 39 at the moment.

“It’s there obviously because it’s the end of the season, but I am not trying to think about that,” Freeman said. “I don’t want to put any extra pressure on myself to play better. You can’t really control that so I am just coming out here, sweating and getting my work in and ready for tonight’s game.”

Freeman can’t control his future this season with the Braves. But his offense is rising at the right time. The one thing he can control is ping-pong. Once former champ Timmons gets healthy the battle for dominance will continue. It’s something Freeman is ready for.

“Now he is too scared to play me,” he said of Timmons. “I have to wait for him to get healthy. He is milking that right now so he doesn’t have to play me.”