One of 2018’ s best starters has been one of this year’s worst.
Kyle Freeland was one of the best stories in baseball last year. For a Rockies organization that has understandably always struggled to develop pitching, they came out with a pitcher who was in the running for the Cy Young award.
Despite mediocre peripherals, Freeland posted a 2.85 RA9 over 202 1⁄3 IP last year. When adjusting for league and park effects, a very important factor for someone pitching in Coors Field, Freeland’s run average ranked fifth in the majors.
The Rockies’ ace accumulated 8.4 WAR on the way to fourth place in a very competitive NL Cy Young race; Freeland probably would have won most other years. Heck, if the Rockies were in the American League instead of the National League, he might have won — I would have voted for him.
Freeland easily had the best-ever season for any Rockies’ pitcher, though it was hard to explain how he accomplished it. His peripherals were not great, as reflected in a 3.89 DRA that is over a run higher than his RA9. His .285 BABIP is normal, and though his strand rate was a little high, it did little to explain how he allowed so few runs. He succeeded by limiting hard contact, but one had to wonder how long he could get away with that given his repertoire and Coors Field. However, it was unfathomable to think that he would perform so badly that the Rockies had no choice but to demote him.
This season, Freeland regressed to an extreme that has rarely been seen, with a 7.58 RA9 over 12 starts this season. His walk rate is worse than average, and his already subpar strikeout rate from last year has sunk down to a lowly 18 percent. Unsurprisingly, the juiced ball has been death to the Rockies’ pitcher. He has given up a league-leading 16 HR on a whopping 5.9 percent of batters faced (league average is 3.5 percent).
The Rockies do not have great playoff odds right now, sitting at just 18.5 percent at FanGraphs. Projections, and the eye-test, all agree they have little chance to take over the Dodgers for the division, but they are three games over .500 with two-thirds of season left to play, could contend for a wildcard.
Colorado needs to do everything they can to try and make the postseason for the third consecutive year, which the franchise has never done. I am sure it was a hard choice, but they could not continue to trudge out a sub-replacement level player every fifth day, so they sent him to Triple A to try and figure things out. It was the second consecutive year that they had to demote a pitcher who was so effective the year before, having done so last year with Jon Gray.
As alluded to earlier, Freeland has mediocre velocity and lacks a good out-pitch, so he has to get by on limiting hard contact. The reason behind his dramatic decline is that he seems to have lost that ability. According to Statcast, his exit velocity allowed is at about 90 mph, which is still better than the league average, but is 4 mph higher than it was last year. Even more telling is the fact that his hard-hit rate is at 38.6 percent, which is 9.5 percentage points higher than it was last year.
A major struggle for Freeland going into the 2018 season was pitching to right-handed hitters, but he was able to find better success against them by using his cutter and locating it down and in on them. This year righties are killing him, hitting .269/.341/.542 with 13 HR. According to Brooks Baseball, he is throwing his cutter a little more and his changeup a little less, though it is hard to believe that such a change is resulting in such dramatically different outcomes. Righties are hitting both pitches harder, but they are absolutely destroying his fourseam fastballs, which is the pitch that he throws the most. Bearing in mind that pitches play off of each other, right-handed hitters have been hitting .333 and slugging .647 against the pitch.
(If anybody points out to me Freeland’s reverse splits this season despite the fact that he has faced a not-even-a-small sample size of 46 left-handed hitters, I’m going to fine you.)
Freeland pitches his fourseamer inside to right-handed hitters frequently, more so in fact than he did last year.
The problem appears to be that opposing hitters are getting wise to this. Righties hit .291 and slugged .370 on fourseamers on the inner third of the plate last year. This year they are hitting .429 and slugging .643 when those pitches are located in the same area.
I am sure that many baseball fans share my disappointment in Freeland because of last year’s dominnace — it such a great story for the Rockies and for baseball-at-large. I’ll be rooting hard for him to figure things out in Triple A and hope he joins the big league rotation again soon.
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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.