At a glance, Colorado Rockies starter Kyle Freeland has had a great start to his major league career. Despite already pitching in Coors Field four times, including once against both the Dodgers and the Cubs, Freeland has an ERA south of three and a respectable 3.54 FIP. He hasn’t looked like an ace, per se, but the first place (!) Rockies haven’t necessarily needed him to; it’s been a pleasant surprise for him to be a real contributor at all.
With that said, you would probably better off not buying into Freeland’s long-term future just yet. He’s a former top-ten pick and top prospect, sure, but these early results are misleading. Freeland still has a lot to figure out, and a nice seven-start stretch shouldn’t distract us from that fact.
So what’s Freeland doing a little too well at the moment? There are a few different places we could start, so let’s just pick one. How about his unsustainable home run per fly ball rate? That seems fair.
Currently, Freeland’s HR/FB is 4.3 percent. The league average at the moment is 12.8 percent. In other words, he’s been almost four times better at avoiding homers on balls hit in the air than your average pitcher. That’s almost always the product of luck, and not something most pitchers can sustain for longer than a month or two.
Playing into that statistic is the fact that Freeland’s groundball rate currently sits at 65.9 percent, best in the major leagues among qualified pitchers. Freeland simply hasn’t allowed many fly balls, and because it’s still early in the season, that HR/FB figure hasn’t had much of an opportunity to stabilize just yet.
Just as his HR/FB is sure to increase, Freeland’s groundball rate is a near lock to decline in future months. He is unquestionably going to be a groundball pitcher — his minor league groundball rate is comfortable north of 50 percent — but "best in the league” is probably not any player’s true talent in a given category. Those guys are, by definition, outliers, and it’s too early to think that Freeland falls into that category, especially given his unexceptional track record in the minors.
As those two figures regress to the mean, Freeland’s surface stats will likely begin to balloon. More balls will be hit in the air, and more of those fly balls will find their way over the fence. That’s inevitable, especially considering Freeland’s home ballpark. Unfortunately, outside of getting groundballs on a regular basis, it’s unclear what else Freeland does that he is a) good at already and b) is likely to continue to be good at in the future.
Both Freeland’s strikeout and walk rates are fairly abysmal right now, despite the solid results. Less than six strikeouts and over four walks per nine innings just isn’t going to cut it. The gap between Freeland’s strikeout and walk numbers is one of the smallest in baseball at the moment. You rarely want to be compared to 2017 Ubaldo Jimenez, but at least in this sense, Freeland is making that comparison seem apt.
As those strikeout numbers reflect, Freeland doesn’t exactly have great stuff to fall back on. His velocity is mediocre, and has already taken a noticeable step back in May as compared to April:
Plus, as we’ve seen, Freeland isn’t commanding those pitches particularly well. If he can’t succeed by missing bats or avoiding walks, all while getting some tremendous luck on balls in play, what is there to be optimistic about for Freeland?
Perhaps the answer is “not much,” but I’m always hesitant to reach conclusions like that. Perhaps Freeland’s command is underperforming just as much as his HR/FB is overperforming. He’s had seven major league starts, after all. It’s still too early to reach any significant conclusions on what he’s good at or what he’s bad at.
Regardless, the fact that Freeland is out there at all is a positive development. The knock on him, going back to when he was still an amateur, was that he’s always had trouble staying healthy. He certainly lived up to that reputation in the minors, missing the majority of 2015 with shoulder problems. He was a quick mover when healthy, but not healthy enough to actually move quickly.
And despite the mediocre stuff overall, Freeland does seem to have a legitimate weapon in his sinker, which he’s currently throwing about a third of the time. At the moment, that’s a pitch generating a groundball 81 percent of the time it is put in play. Again, that number is probably a bit high, realistically, but the second-best figure in the league is 74 percent. Even if Freeland’s sinker regresses toward fewer groundballs, it’s still going get a ton of them, and because he leans very heavily on the pitch, it might offer him a way to sustain some of his current performance. That will serve him well, now and in the future.
Still, that’s just one thing. There are several other areas Freeland will have to address before he can compile surface stats like he has now and we can believe in the results. At 23, he certainly has the time to do that. But if the Rockies remain competitive and Freeland comes back to Earth, they’ll have a decision to make: let him figure it out in the midst of a playoff race, or send him back down to the minors. The choice seems fairly obvious to me, but this is the Rockies we’re talking about. Anything could happen.
As inevitable as that looming decision seems at the moment, Freeland will continue to be put out there every fifth day. Maybe he’ll figure some of this peripheral stuff out in the meantime. It would be fun if he does; I just wouldn’t count on it.
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Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.