ATLANTA – Dansby Swanson, the dynamic Atlanta Braves shortstop who had gone on a tear after the All-Star break, was in a slump. An OPS over .800 through the first five months of the season had given way to a 3-for-27 stretch as the calendar flipped to September. With his team sitting precariously atop the volatile NL East, Swanson started pressing. Which, of course, only made matters worse.
“When you have high expectations, you feel like you can succeed every time, even though it's not reality,” Swanson said recently. “So it's hard to maintain perspective when those times come.”
For Swanson — who sees a direct correlation between his careful mental prep every morning, including a stretch of silence and a daily devotional, and his on-field success — a loss of perspective posed a real problem.
“Mentally is probably the most taxing,” he says, “because baseball is such a hard game and it's a failure-oriented game, so the mental component is tough.”
His manager, Brian Snitker, had started to notice it, too, watching Swanson’s face as he sat in the dugout between futile at-bats.
“You just get a feel sometimes,” Snitker said, “rather than what some heatmap can tell me.”
So did Ron Washington, the Braves’ 69-year-old third-base coach who leads famously exacting infielder drills before each game.
“Normally I don’t like to use the word frustration, but you could see when he was at the plate … you could see the dejection,” Washington said. “And when you see that, that's when you make a move and give him a break.”
At that point, Swanson was one of three players in baseball who had appeared in every one of his team’s games this year. (He didn’t start once in mid-July, but came in as a pinch-hitter and finished the game.) But mental fatigue at this point in the season, with the way Swanson was playing, necessitated a day off.
On the evening of Sept. 9, coaches called Swanson to ask how he felt about being left out of the lineup the next day.
“Which I appreciate,” Swanson said. “It wasn't like, ‘You're gonna do this.’”
They stressed to him that he would only come in if it was an absolute emergency. He was to take the day and decompress, watch some baseball, get his perspective right again.
Once it was cleared with Swanson himself, there was one more person left to call: Freddie Freeman.
“I got a call at one o'clock [in the morning] to take it easy on Dansby,” the reigning NL MVP and undeniable captain of the club recalled recently.
“And I said, ‘Oh, that's fine, I'll take it easy.’ So I didn't say anything.”
But the next day in the clubhouse: “I just took his jersey down, I took his pants down, and put his little sweatshirt up. And right when he walked in, I was sitting at my locker, he just looked at me and he goes, ‘I've been, unfortunately, not waiting for this moment today.’
“Because everyone knows I'm going to get on him.”
The origin of Freeman’s work ethic
Baseball is a grind. Six months of regular season, plus spring training, October if you’re lucky, and a winter regimen designed to give guys the stamina to survive all that. Recently, increasingly, the rub-some-dirt-on-it mentality has been replaced with a more nuanced understanding of cost-benefit analysis of playing through pain. Buster Posey and the rest of the resurgent veterans in San Francisco serve as successful testimony to taking time off. Whether it’s for load management, platooning, playing the matchups, or the rise in soft-tissue injuries, the average player has more days off than ever before.
And so it’s striking to look at the games-played leaderboard and see three-quarters of the Braves infield in the top 10. Freeman, Swanson, and third baseman Austin Riley have each appeared in all but one of Atlanta’s games. Ozzie Albies, the only member not in the league-wide upper echelon, has missed just three at second.
“They play every day. I mean, it starts with that guy right there,” Snitker said, gesturing at Freeman fielding grounders from his knees off Washington’s fungo bat.
“He kind of wills them out there.”
If you ask the 65-year-old Snitker a question that characterizes him as “kinda old school,” he’ll correct the record: “I’m way old school.” He’s been with the Atlanta organization for over 40 years — from a playing career that stalled out in the minors through being named manager of the big-league club at 60. He’s kept up as the team has gotten more analytically minded under general manager Alex Anthopoulos, but he doesn’t mind Freeman enforcing the values of an earlier era.
“You know, I think it's good for them. Goes against what a lot of other people think,” Snitker says. “It’s kind of like the culture here with the Braves.”
“That culture is a culture that's been in the game of baseball,” Washington says. “It didn't just come here. It was already here, you had the Chipper Joneses, and those guys. You know what I'm saying? It was already here.”
Chipper Jones played 2,499 regular-season games with the Braves, plus another 93 across 12 postseason appearances. He never played 162 in a single season but veterans like Terry Pendleton instilled in him the importance of durability, or at least reliability.
“It's a conversation that I had with many young players through the years and it's nice to see it carrying over,” the Hall of Famer said.
“I think what I tried to get across to Freddie early on in his career, and what he's passing along now, is that those guys being out on the field every single day does more for the confidence of your team and hurts the confidence of the other team. If they were taking days off, that other team would be like, ‘Phew, I don’t have to worry about Freddie today. Or I don't have to worry about Ozzie, or Dansby.’”
Maybe that culture of grit was already a part of the Braves organization when it drafted Freeman in the second round in 2007, but he brings a uniquely fanatical level of commitment that has nothing to do with baseball at all. Instead, it stems from watching his father, Fred, a CPA who left PricewaterhouseCoopers to start his own business.
“He had no health insurance and all that,” Freeman says. “He had to do it all.”
And after Freeman’s mother, Rosemary, died when he was 10 years old, Fred had to do it all while raising three boys alone.
“He did everything he possibly could to provide for us and he never took a day off,” Freeman said. “I don't know, that kind of came into me that my job is to play baseball, and if there's a game that day, I'm playing. I don't understand coming to the yard and not playing. That's just who I am, and I instilled that into every single one of them.”
‘You can still change the game’
Sitting in the dugout on a recent rainy afternoon in Atlanta, Freeman tells a story about Adeiny Hechavarría. Two years ago, after Swanson hit the IL with a bruised heel, the Braves signed Hechavarría mid-season to fill the gap at shortstop. One day, he made a game-saving, diving catch and landed hard on his elbow and considered sitting out the next game. The following day, Freeman found him in the trainer’s room and explained to Hechavarría that he had to play.
“I know it hurts, but you're not injured,” Freeman told him.
That night, Hechavarría hit a two-run home run in his first at-bat (one of just nine he hit that whole year.) When he got back to the dugout, Freeman was waiting for him.
“I said, ‘You're welcome.’”
“If you're not injured, I expect you out there, that's just how it is,” Freeman says now. “There's a difference between injured and hurt, in my opinion. If you're hurt, I expect you to be out there playing — because you at 80%, you can still change the game.”
Not every team adheres to that same logic. So often a season is determined by the depth of a particular roster, the way a front office fills in the gaps between and behind superstars. None of the other first-place teams has a single player in the top 30 for most games played this year. (Neither do the Dodgers, whose sustainable strength seems to lie in their infinitely replenishable phalanx of contributors.)
Which is not to say it’s always a choice. Injuries derail even the most dedicated athletes and can have an outsized effect for teams that lack the flexibility to work around absences. But neither are the Braves themselves immune to injury.
On July 10, Ronald Acuña Jr., former Rookie of the Year and two-time Silver Slugger, suffered a season-ending ACL tear while attempting to make a jaw-droppingly acrobatic catch. It would be a devastating loss for any team, and for the Braves was just one in a series of losses that has caused their outfield to completely turn over twice since opening day. Thirteen players have appeared in the Atlanta outfield this season. Ten have played at least 20 games.
The infield, then, provides stability to a team that’s trying to hold onto a postseason spot without its most impactful player.
“I wouldn't say it's pressure,” says Swanson, who will play more than 144 games for the first time this year and who has a higher OPS in the second half of the season than he did in the first despite that recent slump. “It's kind of like our responsibility, this is who we are. And this is who we’ve become as players. We want to be those people that can be counted on every day.”
“Freddie, he’s the captain of the team and if you’re not playing that day, you better be extremely hurt. It's just the way he's wired. He expects us to play every day and we're going to,” says Riley, who is generating MVP buzz in his first season playing more than 80 games at the big-league level. He credits the consistent reps for helping him to build confidence.
Captain, that is, for now. Unless something changes, Freeman will be a free agent for the first time at 32 this winter, when the eight-year extension he signed in 2014 expires. At the time, it was the biggest financial commitment in club history. Since then, he’s played 162 games twice, made four All-Star teams, and won an MVP award.
He also solidified a legacy of accountability that’s been indelibly ingrained in the rest of the homegrown infield. His teammates praise that leadership — which is both explicit and implicit. Freeman is as tough on himself as he is on anyone else. But he might be too hard on everyone.
“Sometimes it’s too much,” he admits, “because some of these guys are hurting sometimes, but they go out there because they don't want to hear me. Cause I will be all over them from the minute they get into the clubhouse.”
At the end of August, Albies fouled a ball off his own knee and had to be carried off the field. He missed the next two games, the most rest anyone around the horn has gotten this year.
“He got two days, there's his two days,” Freeman says. “Now you're out there every single day the rest of the way.”
To be fair, Albies homered in his first game back.
The Braves are proud of what they see as a defining part of their club’s unique culture. Maybe it’ll backfire someday, maybe it already has and their best players would be playing better with built-in days off. But they’re not going to find out now. Atlanta has a three-game lead in the NL East with just two weeks to go in the regular season — no time to rest your starters.
“Shoot, it’s hard to win major-league games,” Snitker says. “If you want to win, you want to put your best team out there.”