ST. LOUIS -- What's the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of David Freese?
Right, that's an easy one: the epic home run in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series to send it to Game 7. Freese objected, though, when I asked him if he thought it was strange to be known as a home run hitter.
"I don't even know if I'm known as a guy who hits home runs," Freese said.
I reminded him that there is, you know, that famous one.
"Right, yeah," he acknowledged with a laugh. "There is that one shot."
Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak, who traded fan favorite Jim Edmonds early in his tenure for Freese, then a minor leaguer, is under no illusions about how his third baseman is perceived.
"I would imagine [he is]," Mozeliak said of the perception of Freese as a home run hitter during a telephone interview Wednesday. "I mean, that's what made him famous."
In the interest of historical accuracy, Freese was a home run hitter for the entirety of the 2011 playoffs, when he hit five of them over 71 plate appearances. He slugged 1.091 en route to being named NLCS MVP. And then, right, there was that one shot in the World Series.
According to Freese, who became an inner-circle October hero at age 28, that moment continues to be a constant part of his day-to-day life.
"All the time," Freese told me about how often it comes up as we chatted just beyond the Cardinals' indoor hitting cage prior to Thursday's game against the Dodgers. "Doing it in a baseball city like St. Louis, you know, Cardinal fans are everywhere."
They are, by the way. If it wasn't a majority of the St. Louis residents I saw that were wearing Cardinals attire, it was a substantial minority.
"I'm gonna relish that moment for the rest of my life," Freese continued. "It was a great experience."
For those inclined to expand their thinking outward, there's also Freese's 2012, which seemed to solidify Freese as a home run threat. He hit 20 home runs, earning a trip to the All Star Game.
So when Freese struggled out of the gate in 2013, missing the first week of the regular season with a back injury, putting up a .529 OPS through May 16, and totaling only six home runs all season, many assumed there was something wrong.
But what's wrong isn't with Freese, especially now that he's healthy again. What's wrong is expecting David Freese, known for one of the home runs that will forever play in World Series highlight reels alongside those of Bill Mazeroski and Joe Carter, to hit many home runs at all.
"Home runs are not something I'm looking for. They're nice to get. But I've always, I think my whole life, I've been a ground ball hitter," Freese said. "I think you strive to hit line drives, but the way my swing is, I've just always hit ground balls."
That's certainly been the case in 2013, with ground balls accounting for 56.7 percent of his balls in play. He's hitting fly balls just 22.8 percent of the time, which is the seventh-least among qualified hitters in baseball this season, surrounded by players like Michael Bourn (four home runs), Norichika Aoki (six home runs) and Elvis Andrus (zero home runs).
But Freese is right, this isn't anything new. Freese produced fly balls just 26.2 percent of the time in 2012, the sixteenth-lowest total among qualifiers and just ahead of non-sluggers like Rafael Furcal and Jose Altuve. What did change was that more of his fly balls left the park, with his 20 percent home run rate on his fly balls also sixteenth-best in the league, right between sluggers Dayan Viciedo and Carlos Beltran.
So which is it? Well, ground ball rates tend to remain pretty static. Home runs per fly ball tends to fluctuate wildly. Accordingly, expecting Freese to be a home run hitter doesn't make much sense.
For their part, the Cardinals are under no illusions about what Freese is, and they're quite happy with him.
"I just expect David to be David," Cardinals hitting coach John Mabry told me, just after Freese's batting practice session. "I don't have any expectations as far as home runs go. I just expect him to keep putting together quality at-bats. He's a gap-to-gap hitter."
Mabry said he and Freese aren't looking to fix Freese's home run production. In fact, they're more concerned with keeping him hitting balls on the ground and on a line. There's nothing to fix.
"Get him here, that's all," Mabry said of his approach to Freese. "Good players, that's really all you need to do."
And the numbers support this as well. Since May 16, Freese has a season line of .292/.375/.449, which is remarkably similar to his full-season line in 2012 of .293/.372/.467. The home runs are down, but the doubles are up. And with National League third basemen putting up a combined line of .256/.324/.395, that is more than enough production for Freese to be an offensive plus.
Freese credits getting fully healed from his back injury as a contributing factor in his renaissance since mid-May.
"I've just been trying to find my stroke," Freese said. "I've been battling here. But I think ever since the first six weeks of the season, I think I've been right where I needed to be."
But as Freese navigates the second year of a post-iconic moment that will almost certainly be what people who recognize him talk about for the rest of his life, he said the day-to-day regular season doesn't feel anti-climactic to him. The level of concentration required to succeed in the major leagues doesn't allow for that. The postseason, though, actually feels kind of normal.
"I think playing in the postseason was huge," Freese said. "It gave me a sense of calmness, if you ever get back there, like [the Cardinals did] last year. It was obviously different, more relaxing, being in there after going what we went through in 2011."
And if Freese gets another crack at a moment like that Game 6 2011, final out, does he think the fans, despite his being a ground ball and line drive producer, will be expecting a home run?
"Sure! That's just the way it goes," though Freese, smiling, didn't sound like he thought that was a bad break. Nor would that change his plan at the plate, even then.
"Nah, I'll be looking to do exactly what I did, which is go up there and have a good AB," Freese said. "The home run was the effect, the cause was having a good approach, and putting a good swing on the baseball. It was just the right place, the right time to hit a homer."