In the first inning of Thursday’s game against the Giants, Kyle Freeland struck out Tyler Austin by getting him to swing over three sliders. Each breaking ball was perfectly placed below the zone as were the two-seamer and curve that Freeland. Austin never had a chance.
If that was the only batter you had seen Freeland pitch to the entire year, you would think that 2019 was business as usual for the Colorado native.
Freeland finished fourth in Cy Young voting lasting season for a campaign that saw him pitch to a 2.85 ERA. It’s a feat that’s more impressive when you remember that Freeland pitched roughly half his games at Coors Field, a ballpark so heavily skewed toward the hitter that the Rockies haven’t figured out how to beat it in nearly 30 years. That 2.85 ERA is the best mark by a qualified Rockies starter in their history.
The advanced run estimators all figured some regression would happen for Freeland. His DRA was over a run higher but still at a respectable 3.89. He strikes out around 20 percent of the batters he faces which isn’t close to elite. However, the baseball gods have over-corrected, and after a five-run outing on Thursday, Freeland’s ERA sits at an unsightly 5.84. His DRA has also risen to 4.52 and his FIP is up to 5.44.
Freeland is part of the vaunted Rockies rotation that appeared to have solved Coors last year, but even pitchers as talented as Freeland and Germán Márquez can be susceptible to the spacious outfield and thin air. Just eight starts into the season, Freeland has already given up over half the home runs he allowed in 2019. In 2018, Freeland allowed just 17 home runs with a HR/FB percentage of 8.5. He’s up to nine already this year.
In Austin’s second plate appearance on Thursday, Freeland left a fastball at the belt and Austin hit it 441 feet. That Freeland struck out Austin in his first appearance and surrendered a dinger in his second says as much about Austin’s game as it does Freeland’s, but it’s a fitting example of how Freeland’s season has gone so far. In many ways, he’s the same pitcher. His strikeout and walk rates haven’t moved. He’s getting the same number of ground balls and swinging strikes. He’s just making more mistakes, so when hitters make contact, they’re hitting the ball a lot harder.
His slider was an indispensable tool for him last year. It’s probably still his best pitch, but when hitters aren’t waving through it, they’re crushing it. During his 2018 breakout, Freeland kept his slider on the armside part of the plate. The heatmap below is from the pitcher’s point of view.
Freeland is throwing it to the gloveside now, but he’s not getting it out far enough where lefties have to reach for it or righties get jammed by it.
It also doesn’t help that in his most recent start against the Diamondbacks, in which he gave up eight runs in six innings, Freeland had the lowest average fastball velocity of his career. In that outing, Freeland’s average fastball was thrown at just 90.8 mph.
Freeland could survive a drop in velocity if he was locating the ball, but he hasn’t been doing that. He was back up to 91.4 mph on Thursday, and that’s a point that he hit last year, too. One start doesn’t mean that we should freak out about his velocity, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
Freeland hasn’t been as bad as his ERA suggests. His 18.6 HR/FB percentage is bound to come down while his left on base percentage of 63.1 is bound to go up. His dreadful start to 2019 has been made worse by some bad luck. However, if we can admit that the last month and a half has been a mirage, we’ll have to admit that 2018 may have been a mirage, too.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.