Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman working through rare slump at the plate

Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman working through rare slump at the plate

LOS ANGELES — Freddie Freeman tried something different Saturday morning. The Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman and former MVP is fastidious about his routines. Tweaking something, anything, requires something drastic.

Yet there he was, doing what he rarely does. Freeman took part in on-field batting practice ahead of the Dodgers’ day game against the New York Mets, looking to find an answer to an obvious problem. When he finished his round and the group shuffled, Freeman stayed for another.

“I’m getting closer,” he yelled over to Miguel Rojas.

Freeman meant closer to something he has been searching for since the middle of last September. He was in the midst of perhaps his best full season, a record-setting campaign that ended in a third-place MVP finish. By its end, however, he felt like he was pulling off the baseball. His hips became “very rotational,” limiting his bat’s ability to stay through the strike zone. As a result, he’s pulled groundballs on the types of pitches he often lined to left field. His margin for error diminished.

“I’m in the zone for at least two inches, that’s about it,” Freeman said. “So all I can really do is hit an offspeed pitch down the right-field line or foul balls like you saw tonight or swing-and-miss.”

That issue, he said, was partially responsible for an October in which he went 1-for-10. Freeman was vocal about his frustration with his swing during a productive spring training and even after he slugged a home run in his second at-bat at Dodger Stadium this season.

His discontent with his swing has only escalated. When Freeman waved reporters over to his locker Friday night, he found himself in a rare position since he’s arrived in Los Angeles: a slump.

“It’s very unusual for a guy like Freddie,” manager Dave Roberts said. “He’s clearly kind of searching right now. And then he’ll get through it. But it’s just kind of one of those things. … Hitting is difficult, even for Freddie Freeman.”

He went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts Friday. Over his past two weeks entering Saturday, he was 9-for-52 (.173) with two extra-base hits and 13 strikeouts. His OPS entering play sat at just .723.

The symptoms are easy to see. Freeman has struggled to produce hard, lined contact to the opposite field — typically his strength. After being one of the best hitters in the sport against fastballs a year ago (ranking fourth in Run Value against the pitch, according to Baseball Savant), he’s floundered against them this year (10th-worst, entering Saturday).

A first-inning liner for an out the other way against Mets lefty Sean Manaea had shown a glimmer of a turnaround. “I thought it was there,” he said. But it didn’t chart a positive course for the rest of the night.

Freeman’s problem is with his hips flying open, similar to the early-season struggles he’s had in years past with Atlanta. There, he perfected his way of getting out of it. Freeman centered much of his hitting work around the “net drill” — setting up about arms’ length from the netting in the batting cage, pulling an L-screen over to create a target and then attempting to hit flips the other way through the target. He brought that drill over with him to Los Angeles.

“I do my net drill and I stick to my routine and trust that I know it’s going to work,” Freeman said. “It will. I trust my work. I trust myself. I know what I’ve accomplished in this game, and I know it’s gonna work. Like my dad said on FaceTime last night, it will come.”

The Dodgers don’t have a reason to believe otherwise. Ever since the 34-year-old signed with them two springs ago, he’s been the turnkey member of one of the most productive lineups in the majors. Saturday showed some signs. Facing Mets starter José Buttó, Freeman ambushed the first pitch he saw, rocketing a fastball back up the box for a run-scoring single. At 110.0 mph, it marked the hardest Freeman has hit a ball this season.

But as the club has slid, losing five of seven and revealing cracks in its glitzy roster, Freeman’s dip provides a stark reminder of how much the club has and will rely on its premium talent. The Dodgers’ defense has been shaky. Their rotation has taken body blows due to injury. Their bullpen appears thin and unsettled. Their lineup has been top-heavy.

Getting Freeman going will at least help settle things.

“I take pride in being consistent and I’m not being consistent right now,” Freeman said.

(Photo of Freddie Freeman: Kiyoshi Mio / USA Today)

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