How Freeland developed 'quality' changeup

August 12th, 2020

DENVER -- No player likes being optioned, but sometimes it turns out to be a necessary step back in order to progress forward. That proved true with Rockies left-hander at Triple-A Albuquerque in 2019.

Freeland eventually turned the culprit -- a changeup he had to perfect -- into his friend. Through four starts this season -- including a seven-inning, two-run outing against the D-backs in Tuesday night’s eventual 8-7 Rockies victory -- Freeland has a 2.45 ERA and is approaching his level of effectiveness from 2018, only better because he is a more diverse pitcher.

“I mean, I got the [daylights] beat out of it when I was in Triple-A when I was forced to throw it,” Freeland said. “I was giving up liners in the gaps. I was giving up homers with it. I was telling myself, ‘I’ve gotta keep throwing this thing,’ but at the same time I was telling myself I can’t throw it because every time it gets whacked.

“It was the developmental stage for me with that pitch. Looking back on it, I’m glad I went through it. Now it’s paying off with the hard work I’ve done with it.”

Just a season after finishing fourth in National League Cy Young Award voting, Freeland struggled to the point where he found himself in Albuquerque. Freeland had succeeded by challenging right-handed hitters inside with a fastball and a hard slider. His third pitch, a cut fastball, essentially worked off the other pitches. He needed something soft to the other side of the plate.

Of course, Triple-A hitters’ eyes lit up: a big leaguer of some accomplishment throwing a slower pitch that he hadn’t perfected. No wonder Freeland had an 0-4 record with an 8.80 ERA in six Triple-A starts.

But after not throwing the change more than 15 percent of the time in any of his previous three seasons, Freeland is employing it 32.9 percent of the time -- even more than the four-seam fastball, at 26.5 percent. He used it for two key outs Tuesday -- Eduardo Escobar’s fly ball to end the first inning with the bases loaded, and a double play with two on and no out in the sixth against Christian Walker, who had homered two innings earlier.

Freeland’s knack for forcing double-play grounders was intact even when his mix wasn’t as diverse. He led the NL with 24 induced in 2018, and he tops the league currently with seven. Now he has another way of doing so.

“That’s always been my go-to thing,” Freeland said. “When I’m in a jam, I’m not thinking, ‘Go strike three guys out.’ I’m thinking, ‘How can I get out of this as economically as possible?’ And that’s getting weak ground balls and turning double plays.”

It seems counterintuitive that a pitcher could make the Majors without what seems like a key pitch, but it isn’t. Elite amateur pitchers can overpower opponents, and it’s tough give a lesser player -- swinging an unbreakable bat -- a pitch more his speed. So it takes time to learn at the pro level.

After his issues last year, Freeland kept working on the pitch, along with his entire game. He changed his stance for receiving the sign from the catcher to eliminate tipping, and his new delivery made his body timing better.

“He’s had the pitch,” Rockies pitching coach Steve Foster said. “It’s all about using it more. When pitchers see and believe, they use.”

Freeland’s rough Triple-A outings may have seemed like they took forever, but in the grand scheme of things, he’s been going through a crash course.

“In pretty quick time -- basically one offseason -- this has developed into an above-average Major League pitch,” manager Bud Black said. “He has confidence to throw it in any count. It has great action down in the strike zone.”

Freeland knew all along he would have to perfect it.

“Throughout the Minor Leagues with the Rockies, everyone preaches -- whether it's coming from the scouting department, whether it's coming from developmental guys, coaches, whoever -- they preach to pitchers: learn a changeup, get that changeup down, make it a quality pitch,” he said. “So that was kind of saying to me, ‘A lot of people are saying this, and I’m going to go ahead and believe that this is true,’ which it is.”

Injury updates
• Right-handed reliever (right shoulder strain) and righty starter (right biceps tendinitis) are progressing in their treatment programs but have not begun throwing, Black said.

• Black also said righty reliever , who has been out of action while doctors and specialists try to determine why blood clots have interrupted his career for a third time, is “going through a ton of tests. He’ll be seeing specialists here in Denver, and I think there will be a time when maybe he goes back home to see specialists in and around the Philadelphia area. But he’s in good spirits.”

started Wednesday at second base but left after his second-inning at-bat with left hamstring tightness. The Rockies called the move "precautionary."