Big League Stew

We’re Going Streaking! Baseball, meet Freddie Freeman

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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The Stew goes through the quad and into the gymnasium to look at some of the hottest players in baseball and their chances of keeping it going.

Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves

The Naked Truth: .279/.349/.474, 15 HR, 51 RBIs, 2 SB, 3 CS, 34 BB/88 K

Having a nice little Saturday: Before the season, the sexiest Rookie of the Year prospect at first base was Brandon Belt of the San Francisco Giants. But while Belt has killed Triple-A after an early demotion and been blocked by the anemic hitting of Aubrey Huff, Freddie Freeman has firmly established himself as one of the better first basemen in the league.

Yes, he's still running behind his teammate Craig Kimbrel in the ROY race, but being overshadowed is nothing new for Freeman. When Jason Heyward was coming up through Atlanta's farm system as the team's top prospect, Heyward started to room with Freeman, whom the Braves had taken exactly one round later in the 2007 draft. All of the big Braves stories over the past two seasons have highlighted Heyward, but with a 1.092 OPS this month, it'll be hard for the spotlight to avoid Freeman for much longer. {YSP:MORE}

You're my boy, Blue!: Freeman and Heyward were so close in the minors that they were nicknamed "salt and pepper," and while Freeman wasn't quite as precocious as Heyward, he arrived in the majors as a starting first baseman at age 21. In each whistle stop of his minor league tour, Freeman typically started slow, made adjustments, and ended fast.

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His first full major league season has gone in much the same fashion, as his OPS by month has been as follows: .695 in April, .802 in May, .819 in June and 1.092 in July. He has been red-hot this month with six homers and 17 RBI in 17 games this month. He also appears to have improved his walk rate, which was right around a league-average 8.3 percent before July, and which has been over 10 percent this month. That's not Heywardian, but it's still above average, and it's a step in the right direction for a young player on his first tour of the league. His power will likely increase as he gets older — he won't turn 22 until Sept. 12 — but if he can keep improving his walk rate, he'll have a chance to be truly elite.

Think KFC will still be open?: Freeman started out slow, but everything has been in the right direction since then. He may experience a sophomore slump next year like Heyward is having this year, but as the year has worn on, he has appeared to improve his power and plate discipline simultaneously. That's a great sign for the future.

What other players are currently streaking?

Aramis Ramirez, Chicago Cubs .302/.345/.514, 17 HR, 58 RBIs, 0 SB, 1 CS, 19 BB/51 K
Ever since arriving in Chicago, Aramis Ramirez was one of the most consistent hitters in the National League, with an OPS+ between 126 and 138 each year from 2004 to 2009. Last year, a freak collapse in his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) pulled his numbers down across the board. But the North Siders need not have been concerned. He's back to his old offensive standards this year, and he's absolutely killing it in July, with a 1.148 OPS, seven homers, and 18 RBI in 17 games this month. Ramirez isn't a perfect hitter; his walk rate has always been subpar, with a below-average 7.1 percent rate for his career and a horrid 4.9 percent mark this year. But his strikeout rate has declined too, and his Isolated Power, BABIP, and homer rate are all relatively close to his established career standards. This is the Ramirez we've gotten used to seeing for a long time. He's still a really good hitter, though if the walk rate stays this low, he could be vulnerable to a streak as cold as his current hot streak.

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Nick Markakis, Baltimore Orioles .290/.340/.392, 9 HR, 42 RBIs, 8 SB, 1 CS, 26 BB/40 K
After a horrid start to the season — two and a half months in, on June 12, Markakis was hitting .242/.299/.320 — Nick the Greek finally started hitting like the 24-year old who appeared on the verge of superstardom in 2008, rather than the offensively stagnating quarter-lifer who disappointed Baltimore fans in 2009 and 2010. He capped his hot month with his 1,000th career hit and an AL Player of the Week award for July 11-17. However, as is his wont, Markakis has mostly been doing it with a high batting average; since June 12, he's got a .943 OPS but it's largely pumped up by a .393 Batting Average on Balls in Play. His patience and power have not been impressive: his walk rate during the streak has been an awful 5.5 percent, and his Isolated Power has been a mediocre .146. (While Ramirez and Markakis have had similar reluctance to walks, Ramirez has far better power and a far better track record.) Markakis's career BABIP is .325, so he's due for some of those balls to stop finding holes soon. Unless he finally starts showing a greater willingness to take a walk, Nick is due to crash back to earth.

Jeff Karstens, Pittsburgh Pirates 8-5, 2.28 ERA, IP, 4.40 FIP, 1.04 WHIP, 3.21 K/BB
Why are the Pirates in first place? A big reason is the almost unthinkable success of Jeff Karstens. Coming into this season, Karstens had a 12-27 career record with a 5.07 ERA, a 1.60 K/BB, and he averaged 1.3 homers per nine innings. He was replacement-level cannon fodder. This year, his ERA is miniscule and he's the reigning NL Player of the Week. He has been absurdly hot of late: he has given up zero or one earned run in seven of his last nine starts, with a 1.26 ERA since June 1.

He's still giving up homers, but nothing else: his walk rate has declined by half and his BABIP is an almost certainly unsustainable .237, 41 points lower than his career average. Moreover, he's stranding far more runners than ever before, another sign of luck rather than skill: his strand rate is 86.6 percent this year, far higher than his 70.4 percent career rate. Nearly all of the statistical indicators — including the fact that his FIP is more than two runs higher than his ERA — point to this recent success being a fluke. But not completely all. This year he's throwing more strikes than ever before in his career, getting into more 0-2 counts and fewer 3-0 counts than ever before. If his control is truly improved, then Karstens might actually be somewhere in between his historic performance and his current performance  — something like a third or fourth starter. But if his vastly improved walk rate is just as fluky as everything else about his campaign, he'll go back to getting bombed in short order.

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