(BaseballStL) — The fraternity of Major League Baseball players is exclusive.
Millions have tried. Eliminated at various levels by ability, injury or age, nearly all of them fail. The plain truth is that making it to the majors is nearly a statistical impossibility.
Some claw to the top on sheer talent or reinvent themselves to climb that final hurdle. A few dip into the murky pool of chemical enhancement to cross the threshold.
Many more, like St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Sam Freeman, fight their way to the MLB through a combination of skill, maturation and refinement. For these players, the journey is tense and victory is tenuous. Any injury, any misstep puts the hard-fought success in jeopardy.
Freeman made his fourth career trip to the big club in three years this season. A tall, athletic lefty, the 27-year-old had major league stuff, but could never put the whole package together long enough to stick. When Kevin Siegrist was injured, Freeman’s window opened once again. In his fourth chance at The Show, it was time to cement his place on the club or risk fading for good.
“The urgency has been there since the get-go,” he said. “It’s more just figuring out what works for me and sticking with that instead of searching.”
What has worked for him is a heavy fastball and a fierce change-up that flummoxed both righties and lefties. What was missing was the most essential tool for any major leaguer: consistency. For Freeman, it was a conversation with Jason Motte that got the concept to finally click.
“You talk about high-leverage situations; for a guy like me coming in, the way he worded it was perfect. Every situation is high leverage when you’re trying to establish yourself,” he said. “I wasn’t really aware of it. You know tight game, OK I have to be “this.” With a five-run game, I would be more relaxed compared to a one-run game, mentally. The reality is for someone like me who’s trying to stick, giving up runs in either situation isn’t really a good look. Whenever he said that, I reflected on it a good amount. I think that approach has really helped me in terms of keeping things in the right perspective.”
Finding the right perspective has done wonders. Since arriving on May 13, Freeman has tossed 16.1 innings. He has allowed three earned runs (two of which were in one game), struck out 15 and surrendered just 10 hits. He has six holds to go with his win, and has an ERA of 1.65. No matter where he was asked to fill in, Freeman has pitched like it was audition day.
“Every situation is big up here. Especially if you are a young guy, or even a guy like me coming back. Every situation you get put into you’re showing what you can do and can’t do,” Motte said of Freeman’s approach. “When you come up you want to make an impression. You want to say ‘hey I can do this,’ and show everybody what you can do. I think sometimes guys try to do more than what got them here. I did that early on. I thought I could come up here and throw mid- to upper- nineties and blow everyone away and I got a rude awakening real quick.”
With Freeman’s top-notch fastball, it was perhaps easy to turn to pure velocity, especially when the situation didn’t feel as critical. That, Motte said, is a mistake that is all too easy to make.
“These guys know what’s happening, they know what’s coming. If you throw a ball down the middle you’re going to get hit whether it’s 91 or 100,” he said. “I’ve seen guys turn around on Aroldis Chapman-102-and it’s like, ‘how’d they do that?’ Well, middle, middle. That’s what these guys are paid to do.”
Harnessing his tremendous talent with an unrelenting focus, Freeman did not waste this opportunity. In such a results-oriented profession, the chances afforded to players on the brink are limited. Fans know it, management knows it, and above all, the player knows it. How a player handles that pressure ultimately defines him.
“I wouldn’t completely ignore that there’s an edge there,” Cardinal manager Mike Matheny said when asked whether Freeman seemed to be responding to the disappointment of multiple trips back down I-55. “When you’re that guy that goes back and forth and you feel like you’ve done the things that you need to do to stick - maybe haven’t been given the opportunity, or maybe you didn’t maximize that opportunity - you just can’t wait to get back and prove people wrong.”
This time, Freeman has proven he belongs in St. Louis. He has found peace in simplicity, approaching each moment in a vacuum.
Still, for those still on the edge, there can be no rest. Freeman will be forced to constantly reaffirm he belongs, and that will keep him sharp.
“I would never use the word comfort. I would never use that with this game,” he smiled. “The goal for me is to throw up a zero. Regardless of the situation, throw up a zero. Everything else can take care of itself.”