SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies left-hander Kyle Freeland looked to be coming out on the other side of a rough 2019 before MLB halted Spring Training amid real-life concerns about COVID-19.
In normal times, Freeland would be nearing the regular-season games during which he will show what he has learned. For now, as we be safe and look ahead to when baseball returns, Freeland can feel better-educated -- no small pleasure.
“It’s just really being able to continue to learn,” Freeland said. “You can never stop learning in this game and you shouldn't stop learning in this game. That's one thing that my dad taught me at a young age is never stop trying to learn about this game in every aspect.
“So, for me, learning somewhat of a new delivery at the highest level is interesting, and I'm learning stuff about myself and about my mechanics that I haven't had to really think about for the past three years.”
German Márquez and Jon Gray are healthy and coming off solid years, and Antonio Senzatela is maturing. Add to that Freeland finding his form, and just maybe a still-young rotation can turn the clock back to 2018, when the Rockies led the National League in innings pitched and the team went to the postseason.
Freeland led the rotation by going 17-7 and finishing fourth in NL Cy Young voting and fourth in the league ERA race (2.85) in ‘18. Last year’s 3-11, 6.73 ERA that included two trips to the injured list and one to Triple-A Albuquerque is forgettable, except for the lessons.
Two Cactus League starts -- two innings, one run against the Athletics on Feb. 27 before his back tightened; three innings, one run, four strikeouts against the Indians on March 8 -- suggest Freeland learned from last year and applied it. Since last season, he has been removing some hesitation from his windup in hopes he will locate pitches better.
Freeland said his first spring start, when the only hit was a Chad Pinder home run, was his graduation into a new and bright 2020.
“Obviously, the back injury didn't help but I think [I was] seeing the results in those two innings, minus the home run,” Freeland said. “The execution of pitches -- seeing the swings I was getting -- the action I was getting on my pitches, the velocity of my pitches. It was very pleasing to see that.
“We worked all offseason with this. And we got it to a point where now it's working in a game situation in a competitive environment.”
Freeland, 27 on May 14, plans not just to turn back to 2018 but to evolve.
Freeland’s key throughout his career has been working glove side -- inside to right-handers/outside to left-handers. In 2018, the four-seamer held opponents to a .248 batting average and .391 expected slugging percentage. It set up a slider that yielded just a .203 BA and .324 XSLG.
Last year, however, opponents feasted on the four-seamer -- .295 BA, .562 XSLG. The slider numbers were elevated -- .250 BA, .421 XSLG. His location was slightly off, and opponents adjusted to his style.
The key will be using his fastball on both sides and opening up the arm side with his changeup -- a soft counter to the hard four-seamer and slider.
“Fastball-slider is his best stuff, and an emerging slider that he is gaining confidence in,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “He feels great. He got three strikeouts on changeups [against the Indians] in a Spring Training game.”
Freeland’s education brings fond memories of learning by hanging out with a brother three years older, watching, learning and eventually bringing out his own talent. After possibly trying to do too much, first by pausing as he strode toward the plate and last year by pausing at the top of his windup, Freeland is throwing like a kid again.
“Going back and watching the video, I can actually see a lot of that delivery from when I was in high school in college,” he said. “I remember the kind of pitcher that I was back then, and it relates to the pitcher I was my first two years in the big leagues -- an aggressive, in-your-face kind of pitcher.”