DENVER — When you talk to Kyle Freeland about pitching, one thing becomes abundantly clear in the first seconds of that conversation: he has conviction about his craft. His tone is resolute.
Words like “attack” and “relentlessly” are part of the dialogue. So when he explains how he is doing what he is doing, he makes you believe it will happen again very soon.
He became convinced of something else recently, too.
“I belong here,” said Freeland, speaking of the elite category of pitchers in Major League Baseball. “I realized I could hang with these guys (the deGroms and Scherzers of the league). I knew going in that I had been consistent going into the All-Star break, but I wanted to make sure the second half didn’t turn out like last year, where I was just up and down and you never really knew; I wanted to maintain that consistency.
“And once I started to do that after the All-Star break, I knew that I had figured out the things I needed to figure out in my second year, and how to apply them.”
The kid from Denver who grew up a big Rockies fan and was drafted by his hometown team eighth overall in 2014, is on the verge of completing the finest season by any starting pitcher in Rockies history. But that’s not nearly all of the story.*
Freeland celebrates being drafted 8th overall in 2014 by his hometown Rockies.
Freeland won’t win the National League Cy Young Award this season, but it’s not because he isn’t utterly qualified.
Freeland’s 2018 has been nothing short of elite: His 8.0 bWAR is fourth in baseball behind only Jacob deGrom (9.8), Aaron Nola (9.8) and Max Scherzer (9.0). And his ERA+, adjusted for ballpark and opponents to convey how much better a hurler’s ERA is than the league average in a particular season, is 165. That’s fourth in the NL behind deGrom (219), Nola (170) and Scherzer (168).
Now, a caveat: Baseball-Reference determines pitcher WAR differently than other resources, FanGraphs in particular. FanGraphs uses FIP (fielding-independent pitching) as its baseline, while Baseball-Reference uses runs allowed and adjusts for the quality of the defense behind a pitcher. The result is a much higher bWAR for Freeland than fWAR (4.0), because Freeland is not a big strikeout guy, and his 3.71 FIP is nearly a full run higher than his 2.84 ERA.
Nevertheless, and without going into a debate over which WAR calculation is better suited to give us the value of a starting pitcher, the results Freeland has gotten, especially at Coors Field (where he has a 2.36 ERA this season), speak for themselves.
Freeland’s 165 ERA+ tells us that he has been 65 percent better than the league average. And therein lies an interesting barometer of just how great Freeland’s performance has been. The Cy Young Award is a context-driven honor, as all league-wide awards are. You can have a Cy Young-worthy season and not win the award, because someone else had a better one.
While who wins the Cy Young Award is dependent on the quality of other great pitchers in any given season, if you take Freeland’s 2018 in a vacuum, the question arises: how many pitchers throughout baseball history have won a Cy Young Award with an ERA+ lower than 165? In other words, how many pitchers have won a Cy Young Award when their performance that season was less than 65 percent better than the league average?
More than it’s reasonable to mention here. Among them:
Warren Spahn in 1957, Sandy Koufax in 1963 and ’65, Steve Carlton in 1977, ’80 and ’82, Roger Clemens in 1987, 2001 and ’04, Tom Glavine in 1991, John Smoltz in 1996, Roy Halladay in 2003, Clayton Kershaw in 2011, David Price in 2012, Max Scherzer in 2013 and ’16, Corey Kluber in 2014, and Dallas Keuchel in 2015.
That’s heady company.
“Having my name put in that mix of upper-echelon pitchers, Hall of Famers, that’s pretty special,” said Freeland.
Since the turn of the century, 30 starting pitchers have completed seasons with an adjusted ERA of 165 or better. With one start remaining in the regular season, Freeland is looking to join that group.
The number of pitchers who finished with a 165 ERA+ or better, as well as a bWAR of 8.0 or better since 2000? Nine.
We saw glimpses of what Freeland could do in his rookie season last year. He even took a no-hitter into the ninth inning against the White Sox at Coors Field in July 2017 (no Rockies pitcher has ever thrown a no-hitter at Coors Field).
But 2018 will be remembered as the year Freeland came into his own. So how did he do it?
One of the big keys has been slider command. Year-over-year in comparison with 2017, Freeland has increased the swing-and-miss rate at his slider from 28.2% to 32.0%. He’s also reduced the hard contact against the pitch, lowering his hard-hit rate (percentage of batted balls with exit velocity of 95 mph or greater, per Statcast) from 30.8% to 26.2%.
“I wouldn’t say my slider is better this year, just more consistent,” said Freeland. “I’ve been able to place it where I want to on both sides of the plate and down in the zone more than I was able to last year.
“Repeating my mechanics, staying back on the mound and keeping my load back, and driving down the mound [has helped], driving the ball where I want it to be rather than letting it go and hoping it goes where I want it to go.”
Another key, mechanically, has been the timing of the hitch in his windup.
“It’s made life a lot easier for me on the mound,” Freeland said. “Last year, when I had the hitch at the bottom of my delivery, it completely de-loaded and I had to kind of fall down the mound and use a lot of arm. With the pause I have now at the top, I’m really able to hold that load and drive down the mound in control, and use my legs to guide where the ball is going.”
An example of Freeland putting the slider where he wanted to, when he wanted to, and in a big spot, was in his last start. Last Sunday in Arizona, pitching in a game with [as all of them have been over the past couple of weeks] huge implications for the Rockies’ season, Freeland tossed seven scoreless innings to help Colorado sweep the series. In the bottom of the seventh, he was in a jam. With a 2-0 lead, the D-backs put runners on first and third with two outs, bringing Eduardo Escobar [who may, depending on the outcome of this Rockies campaign, become part of Rockies lore with his walk-off home run against the Dodgers on Tuesday night] to the plate.
Freeland threw Escobar five sliders, getting him to pop out and end the threat. As catcher Chris Iannetta said, “Freeland lives on the corners.” Here’s the chart:
It took some work to get there.
“This year, it was about me and Iannetta, we realized early on what my strengths were coming off last year, where I got hurt on pitches, but really focusing on how to really use those to our advantage,” Freeland said, “and figuring out the weaknesses of our opponents, and attacking that relentlessly.
Freeland keeps track of an enormous volume of information on hitters in, well, a little black book.
“Throughout the first part of the season, it’s a lot of video,” Freeland said. “You’re writing up new reports. A lot of writing, for me at least. Figuring out hitters, writing down what I think will work against them, and then communicating with the coaches and our catcher about what they think, and putting it all together.
“Obviously throughout the season, guys will make adjustments, so that’s where you might scratch some things out or add some things. Once you get into the second half, face teams multiple times, you see whether guys made adjustments.”
Freeland won’t win the NL Cy Young Award in 2018. But that’s thanks to some tremendous performances from other pitchers around the league, one of them of historic proportions. Still, Freeland is only 25, and has a long career ahead of him.
“Scherzer’s been as consistent as you can be. deGrom’s having a year that, you look at the numbers and you’re blown away minus the win-loss record,” Freeland said. “Nola, same thing, similar to me, same draft class, really exploded onto the scene.
“It’s a good starting point. Obviously I’d love to win a Cy Young at some point in my career.”
The way his career has begun, that may be sooner than later.
*Big thanks to ESPN Radio’s Michael Klahr for sparking the idea that led to this post.