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Rookie starters aim to hone put-away pitches

Freeland, Senzatela ready for next step in learning curve
MLB.com @harding_at_mlb

DENVER -- Rockies rookie left-hander Kyle Freeland's strikeout of Willy Garcia to end the eighth inning of Sunday's 10-0 victory over the White Sox might have been his Major League "got it" moment.

The 2-2, two-seam fastball left Garcia twisting his upper body and hands enough that the eighth of Freeland's nine strikeouts Sunday registered as a swing. The pitch eliminated the chance of a foul-off, much less hard contact. Becoming consistent with put-away pitches is Freeland's important next step. On Sunday, he ended strikeouts with sliders and fastballs, mostly four-seam.

DENVER -- Rockies rookie left-hander Kyle Freeland's strikeout of Willy Garcia to end the eighth inning of Sunday's 10-0 victory over the White Sox might have been his Major League "got it" moment.

The 2-2, two-seam fastball left Garcia twisting his upper body and hands enough that the eighth of Freeland's nine strikeouts Sunday registered as a swing. The pitch eliminated the chance of a foul-off, much less hard contact. Becoming consistent with put-away pitches is Freeland's important next step. On Sunday, he ended strikeouts with sliders and fastballs, mostly four-seam.

If Freeland, who went 8 1/3 hitless innings before yielding a Melky Cabrera single on his final pitch, truly has grasped the art of the strikeout, then the lessons of the first half are learned. Also, the next-gen stats that have so far attached a "yeah, but …" to his accomplishment aren't as relevant.

Righty Tyler Chatwood is the only current rotation member beyond his second full season, so most pitchers are learning. But Freeland and righty Antonio Senzatela, who never threw a Major League pitch before this year, must learn this skill in a playoff race. The Rockies begin the second half 7 1/2 games up on the Cubs for the second National League Wild Card.

Freeland, 24, is 9-7 with a 3.77 ERA in 18 starts; Senzatela, 22, is 9-3, 4.63 in 18 games (15 starts). Both win with the ground ball -- Freeland forces them 57.4 percent of the time, Senzatela 46.5 -- but can use the strikeout to eliminate unpredictable contact.

"I'm getting there," Freeland said before Sunday's start. "In college and the Minor Leagues you can get away with stuff you can't here. That's a learning curve I'm still on, really bearing down and getting a strikeout."

Freeland and Senatela have the lowest strikeouts per nine innings on the starting staff -- 5.5 for Freeland, 6.9 for Senzatela, who had his last three appearances in the Rockies' bullpen and will start Friday for Triple-A Albuquerque, before returning to the rotation.

The bullpen appearances may have helped Senzatela, who fanned five in five relief innings.

Video: CWS@COL: Black discusses Senzatela's move to Triple-A

"We put the hitter away quick, and I was thinking, 'Get out of here in two or three pitches, and dominate,'" said Senzatela, whose strength is he can hit his fastball at all quadrants of the strike zone, uses a slider for weak contact and might develop his changeup as a swing-and-miss pitch.

Additionally, according to Statcast™, with two strikes, the pair gives up the highest percentage of hard-hit balls in play (exit velocity minimum 95 mph) among Rockies starters -- 33.96 percent for Freeland, 31.82 percent for Senzatela. The MLB average is 19 percent.

It would be nice for everyone to enter the Majors immediately finishing hitters the way lefty Tyler Anderson (who hopes to return soon from a left knee injury) did last year, with 7.79 K/9, but that's not the norm.

Righties Jon Gray, German Marquez and Jeff Hoffman all took their lumps into the offseason and had time to improve. A rough experiment in the bullpen in 2014 educated righty Chad Bettis, who made his first Minor League rehab start Thursday night after battling testicular cancer during the first half of this season.

And with a former pitcher as manager, in Bud Black, plus pitching coach Steve Foster and bullpen coach Darren Holmes, the Rockies could possibly shorten the learning curve for Freeland and Senzatela.

"Once a pitcher identifies who he is, what type of pitcher he is, how he gets his outs, pitch selection and all those things become clearer for them," said Black, who said he wants to help Minor League staffers teach pitchers to identify their strengths quicker. "Some pitchers, it takes a while."

Happily for Freeland and Senzatela, they can learn from the current rotation.

• Gray (9.0 K/9) yielded a.269 slugging percentage with two strikes when he was called up for nine starts in 2015, but dropped that to a team-leading .229 last season. It's at .240 this year. He has become aggressive with his slider, which is his best finishing pitch.

• Marquez (7.0 K/9) saw opponents slug .643 with two strikes in three starts last year, but reduced it to .261 this year. He had forced hitters to swing over his slider and curve with two strikes, but has used the fastball outside to avoid being predictable. Like Freeland, Senzatela and even Gray, he is developing a changeup that could make him even tougher.

• Hoffman (8.0 K/9) gave up a .446 two-strike slugging percentage in six starts last year. By making his curve and slider appear like strikes out of his hand, only to see them dive, he has reduced the figure to a team-best .186 this season.

Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb and Daniel Kramer contributed.

Colorado Rockies, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela