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Kyle Freeland Was Born to Break Coors Field

The Colorado Rockies’ second-year starter grew up watching the pitchers of his hometown team get pummeled. Here’s how he learned to conquer the altitude.

Kyle Freeland pitching Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Kyle Freeland can’t say he wasn’t warned. The Rockies’ second-year starter, who turned 25 in May, was born in Denver a little more than a month after the Rockies’ inaugural game as a franchise, which means that his formative years as a fan coincided with one of baseball’s cruelest pitching environments ever: pre-humidor Coors Field at the height of what was then the most extreme home run era in the history of the sport. In 1999, when Freeland was 6—around the time he was forming his first memories of rooting for the Rockies, as he told me and FanGraphs writer Jeff Sullivan on the Effectively Wild podcast earlier this week—the Rockies’ staff collectively recorded a 6.03 ERA, the highest of any modern-era NL team except the prewar Baker Bowl Phillies. Exclude those abysmal Baker Bowl clubs, and six of the seven worst team ERAs in NL history belong to teams that played in Freeland’s hometown before he turned 12.

One would think that watching pitchers be punished like that would convince an impressionable young southpaw to pursue another career. But when the Rockies drafted Freeland with the eighth overall pick in the 2014 amateur draft, he wasn’t deterred by the prospect of pitching in the same place where the idols of his youth surrendered run after run. “It’s something that I was happy to take on and go see what I [could] do battling that, and hope to come out on top,” said Freeland, whose father (who works for the city) and mother (who works for Freeland’s old elementary school, where he handed out backpacks last week) attend all of his home starts.

A baby wearing a Colorado Rockies onesie
An infant Freeland wearing a Rockies onesie
Courtesy Freeland family

Although Coors is a kinder place to pitch now than it was in the Blake Street Bombers days, it still has a healthy lead over Globe Life Park in Arlington on the list of the toughest parks for pitchers. But one wouldn’t know it from looking at Freeland’s stats, which stand out even prior to park adjustments. The lefty’s latest outing, a six-inning, six-strikeout, one-run performance in Anaheim on Tuesday, lowered his ERA to 2.90, which would be impressive anywhere. At altitude, it’s especially good, tying him for the seventh-lowest park-adjusted ERA of any pitcher with a minimum of 100 innings.

Because of the endurance-testing, pitch-flattening, and confidence-sapping effects of Coors Field, the Rockies have historically struggled to develop high-performing pitchers and keep them on the mound. As the graph below (based on data from Baseball Prospectus) shows, no franchise has generated less value—either for its own team, or for any team—from its pitching draft picks since 1993.

Chart showing pitcher WARP produced by drafting team since 1993

Pitchers drafted by the Rockies in the past 25 years have combined to produce just 17 wins above replacement player for any team and, almost unbelievably, -6.0 WARP while with the Rockies—and WARP, at least in theory, doesn’t penalize players for pitching in Coors. This year, though, the Rockies are bucking that trend, which has helped them stay within two games of both a wild-card berth and first place in the NL West. None of the pitchers who’ve started for the Rockies this season have ever started for another major league team. If that remains true through the end of the season, the Rockies will finish with the first rotation to do that since the 2011 Rays and the fifth to do it in the past 50 seasons. They will also be only the third in that span (along with those Rays and the 1982 Orioles) not to have started someone who’d previously pitched in any role for another team. For a team that resorted to imposing a limit of 75 pitches on its starters as recently as 2012 in an attempt to counter Coors, assembling an all-homegrown rotation that ranks in the top 10 in the majors is an incredible accomplishment.

That rotation has kept the Rockies in contention despite poor-to-middling performances from their offense, defense, and bullpen, which has put their run differential in the red (-14). Freeland, who leads the staff in innings pitched, is the team’s most reliable run preventer, and has pitched 13 2/3 more innings and allowed 50 fewer runs than the combined free-agent trifecta (Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw, and Jake McGee) that the Rockies are paying $30.5 million this season to pitch out of the pen. If Freeland has a decent September, he’ll finish this season—which, again, is his second—with the second-highest career Baseball-Reference WAR with the Rockies of any pitcher drafted by the organization behind only Aaron Cook, who pitched 10 years for the team. That stat is a testament to how poorly the Rockies have developed pitchers prior to the arrival of the current homegrown group, but it also reflects Freeland’s excellence in 2018 and since he made it to the majors.

Freeland’s 6.6 WAR (including his “hitting”) this year—which is the fourth-highest among NL pitchers, higher than any AL pitcher’s, and a top-10 figure among players overall—trails only Ubaldo Jiménez’s 7.3 in 2010 on the all-time Rockies single-season leaderboard. And while he’s pitched well on the road, his results in Colorado have broken the Coors curve: Freeland’s 2.27 ERA at home this season is the best ever (by almost half a run) of any Rockies pitcher with at least 50 innings thrown at altitude.

That success hasn’t yet translated into a ton of attention beyond Denver. Maybe that’s because Freeland plays for a team that often seems to lag a little on the national stage, or maybe it’s because fans and media members tend not to make mental adjustments to Rockies pitching stats as readily as they do when downgrading Rockies hitting stats. (“It’s a bit of a double standard,” Freeland said.) But it also could be because Freeland doesn’t have the pedigree, the pure stuff, or the peripherals that one would typically associate with such dominance. Freeland appeared on top-100 prospect lists the year after he was drafted, but only in the bottom half, and he dropped off entirely after an injury-shortened 2015 and stayed off after a healthy but not overpowering 2016. Last spring, Baseball America ranked him eighth among Rockies prospects, behind, among others, Riley Pint (who has a career 5.33 minor league ERA and has walked more batters than he’s struck out in A-ball this year), Jeff Hoffman (5.88 ERA through 139 1/3 MLB innings), Ryan Castellani (5.40 ERA in Double-A), and Tom Murphy (an occasional big league backup catcher who’s 27 and stuck in Triple-A).

Freeland’s average four-seamer speed this season, 91.6 mph, is a hair below the league average for lefty starters, and his K-BB percentage (12.1 percent) is below the league average for all starters (13.4 percent). On the plus side, he does get grounders, ranking 11th of 112 pitchers in that category with at least 200 innings pitched since the start of last season. Even though ground-ball pitchers tend to allow unearned runs at a higher rate than fly-ball pitchers, Freeland has yet to allow one this season. If he sustains that streak, he’ll be the first Rockies pitcher ever to allow zero unearned runs while qualifying for the ERA title, and only the third to do so in more than 90 innings pitched. Some of that is likely luck and good defense—it doesn’t hurt for a left-handed ground-ball guy to have Nolan Arenado at third—but it may also be a product of a subtle skill: an apparent ability to induce soft contact. The lefty has allowed an average career exit speed of only 85.2 mph, which ties him for fourth among pitchers with at least 500 batted balls allowed since the start of 2017.

Inducing weak contact tends to be a less stable skill than, say, racking up strikeouts, which means that all else being equal, pitchers with Jon Gray’s bat-missing skill set are better bets than grounder-getters like Freeland in the long run. In all likelihood, there’s some correction coming for Freeland, but he has made a few major changes that have helped him keep batters off balance even though he’s no longer new to the league. For one thing, he’s reverted to pitching from the third-base side of the rubber, where he used to set up until the Rockies encouraged him to shift to the first-base side during his first big league spring training. Late last season, when Freeland was scuffling and fatigued and was briefly moved to the bullpen, he went back to what worked for him before, which he says has felt much more comfortable. The image below shows him on the left side of the rubber last August and the right side this August.

Side-by-side images showing Kyle Freelance pitching in 2017 and 2018

Neither edge of the rubber is any closer to sea level, and Freeland doesn’t think that being a native of Denver gives him any immunity to the elevation’s debilitating effects. “You do feel it,” he said. “Your recovery definitely is not as quick in Colorado.” In an effort to avoid suffering the same fatigue this season that he did down the stretch last year, Freeland and his pitching coaches adjusted the timing of the hitch he has in his delivery. “Last year the pause was at the bottom of my leg kick, similar to what [Clayton] Kershaw does,” he said. “But [last] offseason we discovered that I was de-loading, and I was using much more of my body than I should’ve been, and that’s probably part of the reason why I got tired last year.”

The difference is easy to spot. In this GIF from last season, Freeland takes a sort of stutter step at the conclusion of his leg kick.

In this GIF from 2018, the pause comes at the top of the kick.

Freeland thinks his new motion can disrupt the timing of hitters, especially those with large leg kicks of their own. But the bigger benefit, he said, comes from keeping his weight on his back side before he drives down the mound, which helps him maintain momentum toward the plate, avoid becoming “rotational instead of directional,” and conserve his strength. Freeland’s OPS allowed increased by 122 points in the second half of last season, but this year it’s decreased by 69 points. Thus far, the grind hasn’t gotten to him; he just keeps soaring through thin air, like Wile. E Coyote if he never looked down.

Both of those differences precede the release of Freeland’s pitches, but he’s also altered the pitches themselves. The knock on Freeland last spring was that he still lacked a viable weapon against righties to complement his four-seamer, sinker, and slider, all of which are more vulnerable to opposite-handed hitters. As Baseball America wrote in its 2017 Prospect Handbook: “The big step for Freeland will be becoming [more] consistent with his changeup,” a pitch that often yields a reverse platoon split. This year, Freeland said, he’s “revamped that pitch,” and he’s thrown it more than twice as often.

Chart showing Kyle Freeland’s pitch type usage in 2017 vs. 2018

Freeland’s increased changeup, four-seamer, and slider usage have come at the expense of his sinker, which isn’t an accident either. “Last year we discovered after the first half that guys were looking for sinkers down and away, because they knew I would be throwing them, and I started getting hurt throwing those pitches,” he said. This spring, he decided to put a crimp in his opponents’ plans by throwing the sinker less often and aiming both of his fastballs toward the opposite part of the plate. Putting the ball where he wants to isn’t an issue for Freeland. According to STATS LLC’s “Adjusted Command+” metric, his command ranks 11th out of 155 pitchers with at least 1,000 pitches thrown this season. That ability to pinpoint his pitches gave him and the Rockies the confidence to have him start pitching inside, and the difference has been dramatic.

The table below shows the rates at which Freeland has thrown his fastballs to righties inside and outside in 2017 and 2018, along with his percentile ranks among lefties who’ve thrown at least 200 pitches to righties in each season. This year, he’s thrown inside fastballs to righties about as often as he threw outside pitches to them last season, and vice versa.

Outside In: Freeland’s 2017-18 Fastball Locations vs. RHB

Season Inside % Inside Percentile Outside % Outside Percentile
Season Inside % Inside Percentile Outside % Outside Percentile
2017 31.3 30th 51.8 75th
2018 52.7 95th 34.3 16th

The heat maps below of Freeland’s fastball locations to righties makes the adjustment even more obvious.

A heat map showing Kyle Freeland’s fastball locations to righties in 2017 vs. 2018

“Getting in on their hands is going to induce a lot of weak contact, especially if they aren’t able to get that barrel around,” Freeland said. “And then once you do that, it opens up options to where you can throw your changeup down and away, and it comes out of your hand looking like a fastball, and then the next thing they know it’s off the end of their bat for a weak ground ball or a weak fly ball.” Freeland’s willingness to establish his fastball on the inside part of the plate has made his overall pitch distribution to right-handed hitters less tightly clustered and, in turn, less predictable, and he’s done a better job of controlling the count against righties, raising his K-BB percentage from a lowly 1.9 last year to a much more tolerable 9.7 this year.

Throughout Freeland’s fairly brief time in the big leagues, the Rockies have been on the bubble, and the knowledge that he’s always pitching for a playoff spot has helped spur him on. “Having the success that we’ve had over the past two years, you go into the clubhouse, you go into the game, wanting to get better and knowing that the better you get, the more success this team is going to have,” he said, adding, “I’ve learned so much about myself, about my team, about this league, about pitching at this level.” Although Freeland has fared almost a run per nine innings better at home in his career, that split will likely even out, and he doesn’t think he has the code to Coors. If he has an advantage in Denver, it’s that he doesn’t dwell on the disadvantage. “The mentality, for me, doesn’t change,” he said. “I still throw my pitches the same way.”

Someday, he hopes, everyone will. “I’d love to see everything dead even, where Coors Field is just another baseball park,” he said. As long as sports are subject to the laws of physics—and the Rockies don’t splurge on a pressurized dome—we won’t see that. But almost every time he’s taken the ball in 2018, Freeland has shown the world what it would look like.

Thanks to Rob McQuown of Baseball Prospectus, Dan Hirsch of The Baseball Gauge, and Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads of STATS LLC for research assistance.