Early last season, BtBS alumnus Joe Clarkin wrote an article about then Rockies’ rookie Kyle Freeland. He wrote a well-reasoned article on why we should not have bought into Freeland’s excellent performance early in the season. For the record, I agreed with what Clarkin wrote. Now here is another story in an abundance of volumes in the ‘You Can’t Predict Baseball’ category.
At the time that article was written, Freeland had a 3.38 RA9, which was outstanding given he pitched in Coors Field, but as Clarkin pointed out, he really was not pitching very well. Freeland’s control was not very good, and he had a poor 15.1 strikeout percentage. He had given up only one home run in his seven starts, four of which were at home. Also, four of those seven starts were against teams that made the playoffs. That was seemed awfully unsustainable.
Freeland succeeded despite his poor peripherals by limiting hard contact. He had allowed only a 30 percent hard-hit rate, and a stellar 66 percent groundball rate.
Coming up through the minors, Freeland had always been a groundball pitcher thanks to his twoseamer, but sustaining the highest groundball percentage of his pro career in the majors seemed unlikely. The most optimistic prediction one could make at the time is that his walk rate should improve. He walked less than six percent of batters faced in the minors.
Unsurprisingly, Freeland did regress after that was article was written. He had a 4.89 RA9 the rest of the season, which is likely better than average when factoring park effects, but is obviously far worse than his previous 3.38 RA9. His strikeout rate continued to remain poor, but at least his walk rate improved to league average. Predictably, his home run rate shot up, and his groundball rate regressed to 50 percent, too, which is more in line with what he showed in the minors. Still, after all was said and done, it is hard to be disappointed with a rookie pitcher who delivered 3.2 WAR for a playoff team.
The 2017 season is a nice result from a player that was drafted eighth overall in 2014. It is even more so when you consider that he was not a top prospect. If he regressed to “only” a two-win player in 2018, that would be a huge win for an organization that has had so much trouble developing pitchers for through the years. Furthermore, an average player is more valuable than they get credit for, especially when Freeland is still on his pre-arbitration.
Well, not only has Freeland not regressed, he has completely broken out into a strong pitcher. He has an outstanding 3.02 RA9. His 6.1 WAR is nearly double his season total from last year, and it is only mid-August. That WAR total ranks fifth among all starting pitchers and tenth among all players. He has the highest WAR on the team, even higher than Nolan Arenado’s (4.4)!
Freeland’s strikeout rate went up to about 20 percent, but that is still below average. His batted ball profile looks very similar to what it was after his great start last season. He has some BABIP and stranded rate luck, but nothing that explains a 3.02 RA9 in Coors Field.
Even more surprisingly, according to Brooks Baseball, Freeland is relying less on his sinker than ever he had previously. He threw it nearly a third of the time last year, but that has dropped to below 14 percent this year. He has not ramped up the usage of another pitch, either. He has spread out the difference between his fourseamer, slider, and changeup.
The biggest problem that the left-handed Freeland had last year was with right-handed hitters. They knocked him around to the tune of a .275/.366/.437 line while striking out only 12 percent of the time, which is only barely more than they walked. This year that has improved to a line of .244/.314/.393 and a 17 percent strikeout rate.
It appears that Freeland is using his cutter to greater effect against righties. He appears to be locating it better down and in on them.
Of course different pitches play off of one other over the course of a plate appearance. That being said, right-handed hitters are hitting only .185 with a .370 SLG against Freeland’s cutter this season.
Given Freeland’s velocity and stuff, it is hard to believe that he can sustain a 3.02 RA9 or even a 4.02 RA9 going forward. If the Rockies make the playoffs, though, he will be the biggest reason why.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.