Well, this is a headline that I didn't expect to be reading this year:
For the first 6 weeks of the season, I was not shy about voicing my displeasure with having Freiman on the roster. He seemed too raw to contribute to a contending team. He seemed too limited to fit into this versatile roster. His swing seemed too long, and his defense seemed non-existent. However, it turns out that Bob Melvin is in fact a wizard who knows exactly how to squeeze production from a limited player, and so we have gotten these numbers out of Freiman so far:
Freiman, 2013: .271/.350/.433, 8 BB, 14 K's, 119 wRC+
Freiman, 2013 vs LHP: .346/.417/.577, 7BB, 11 K's, 171 wRC+
Freiman, May 2013: .351/.415/.514, 3 BB, 9 K's, 159 wRC+
Now, this has all come in a total of 80 plate appearances (60 against lefties), so there is still plenty of time for things to fall apart for Nate. The league could find a hole or three somewhere in his swing, and it could all be over. However, there are reasons to think that Freiman might just be able to keep succeeding in his specialized role:
1. He's making good contact.
When a player is hitting way better than you think he should, a natural place to start is by looking at his BABIP. Is he just getting lucky with a bunch of grounders and duck snorts poking through holes in the defense? In this case, no. Freiman's BABIP is .309 (and was consistently over .300 in the minors), which is slightly high for a slow-footed flyball hitter, but not so crazy when you consider that...
2. Seriously, he's making really hard contact, like, all the time.
Freiman's batted ball profile looks like this:
28.1% line drives, 45.6% fly balls, 26.3% ground balls
Now, these batted ball stats get a lot of criticism for the subjective line between what constitutes a "line drive" versus a "fly ball," but even if you allow for a large margin of error, Freiman is still hitting a ton of line drives. I would consider 20% to be good, while only six qualified hitters in all of MLB have managed a 28% LD rate in 2013: Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, James Loney, Freddie Freeman, Joe Mauer, and Matt Carpenter. That's a list of good hitters and James Loney, who is apparently also good now. Not bad company. Jed Lowrie is 7th in the Majors at 27.8%.
Regardless of what you think about the usefulness of looking at line drives rates, the point is that Freiman is getting the ball in the air. His offensive game is based around elevating the ball and using his power to drive it, so when he hits it on the ground he's more or less failed at his game plan. Considering that his ground ball rate is the lowest in the Majors for hitters with at least 80 PA's, I'd say that he's succeeding at his game plan of putting the ball in the air.
There is a downside: He has hit quite a few infield popups already. Infield popups are basically like strikeouts because they are converted to outs at about the same rate, and about a quarter of Freiman's fly balls have stayed in the infield. However, in this small sample size, that means that he has hit a total of seven popups. This is not yet a concern, especially considering that...
3. He's also making a lot of contact.
A big guy with a big strike zone and a long swing? I'll bet he strikes out a lot. Probably strikes out all the time. He just struck out while I was writing that sentence, didn't he?
Freiman: 8 walks (10.0% of PA's), 14 strikeouts (17.5% of PA's), 9.3% swinging strikes
2013 MLB Average: 8.0% BB rate, 19.9% strikeout rate, 9.2% swinging strikes
Oh. Really? Turns out that Freiman has pretty good control of the strike zone, and actually makes a lot of contact. In fact, he's slightly better than an average Major Leaguer in that regard, even though he completely skipped AAA. I genuinely didn't see that coming. Thinking about contact rates reminds me of this one other player who used to be on the A's recently. I wonder how Freiman compares to...
4. Freiman might be better than Chris Carter.
Well, there, I said it. Actually, I'm going to get a little bit more specific: Freiman might be better for this team than Chris Carter. Remember, the role he is filling, and that Carter filled last year, is as the platoon 1st baseman against left-handed pitching. Carter wasn't specifically a lefty-masher, so he was somewhat miscast in that role. Carter is also showing that, while his power is very real, he can't really make enough contact to be more than an average hitter as an everyday player. Consider this:
Freiman vs LHP: .346/.417/.577, 7BB, 11 K's, 171 wRC+
Carter vs LHP: .200/.328/.380, 10 BB's, 21 K's, 98 wRC+
Freiman's numbers have come in 60 PA's, and Carter's in 61 PA's. Those are both tiny samples, but at least they are equally tiny samples. You could make an argument that Carter is the better hitter overall, since he can at least post high home run totals on the rare occasion that he makes contact, but in this case Freiman is a better fit on the team. He's utterly failed to hit right-handers so far (1-for-18), but he doesn't have to. The A's have Brandon Moss for that. Freiman only has to bat against lefties, and the second that a righty comes in to face him, Moss can come in to pinch-hit. So, the A's don't need the best hitter, they need the best hitter against lefties. So far, Freiman has been better than Carter in that department.
Thanks to Freiman's success, Oakland has been getting pretty good production out of 1st base. Last year, they got 31 homers out of the position thanks mostly to the Moss/Carter platoon, but that power came with .240/.340/.461 slash line. Here is Oakland's 1st base production this year:
Note: This only counts stats while the player is playing 1st base
Their combined slash line is .260/.350/.433, which represents a drop in power from last year but is still a respectable line. The A's replaced Carter with a AA slugger and have so far watched Moss fall off a bit from last year, and yet are still receiving virtually identical production out of 1st base. When you put it like that, it's almost like they got Jed Lowrie for free, especially when you consider that Freiman was only available from Houston because Carter took his spot on the roster.
What should we expect out of Freiman for the rest of the season? That's impossible to say, but there are a lot of reasons to believe that his current success is not a fluke. His power is real, his plate discipline is real, and he's not just getting lucky bounces to pad his small-sample batting average. He's spraying liners around the field and occasionally getting ahold of one and depositing it in the seats. After being extremely apprehensive about using a roster spot on Six-Eight Nate, I now find myself completely satisfied with a Moss/Freiman platoon.