DENVER -- Rockies left-hander Kyle Freeland's playoffs started last February. Hoping to impress new manager Bud Black, he showed up in Scottsdale, Ariz., close to midseason form, and earned not just a job in the rotation but a start in the Coors Field opener -- in his hometown, no less.Freeland
DENVER -- Rockies left-hander Kyle Freeland's playoffs started last February. Hoping to impress new manager Bud Black, he showed up in Scottsdale, Ariz., close to midseason form, and earned not just a job in the rotation but a start in the Coors Field opener -- in his hometown, no less.
Freeland won that one and earned 11 wins to tie teammate German Marquez for the Major League rookie lead before learning how long a Major League season can be. Like fellow Rockies rookie starters Antonio Senzatela and Jeff Hoffman, Freeland struggled in the second half, posting a 2-4 record with a 4.81 ERA after the All-Star break, and admitted, "I got a little tired both mentally and physically."
This year, Black and pitching coach Steve Foster are having pitchers save their arms now in hopes they will be at full strength toward the end of the season, when Colorado hopes to make a run at its second consecutive postseason appearance.
In 2017, the Rockies' rookie quartet made 93 starts. The results were solid. Senzatela had 10 victories and finished tied for second (with the Angels' Parker Bridwell) to Marquez and Freeland in rookies wins. But Freeland, Hoffman and Senzatela made just 22 combined starts after the All-Star break, as Black skipped them, and used brief demotions to the Minors and time in the bullpen to spare the innings load. The 2018 plan is to make sure the young starters are ready when the games count, and not so much before.
For example, Freeland began throwing just before the holidays, about two weeks later than in 2017. It's the same for Hoffman, who got married on New Year's Eve and honeymooned in the Republic of the Maldives -- an understandable reason to delay his throwing program. After making just seven starts at Double-A Hartford in 2016 because of a shoulder injury and the death of his mother in Venezuela, Senzatela made up for the time in instructional ball in the Dominican Republic and kept in shape for his Spring Training push.
"We had to see what they could do through February and March, and part of their success was when the season started, they were truly at the top of their game," Black said. "But as the season wore on, you saw the effects of being ready in February. It's very hard to maintain that level of physical performance."
Now that the Rockies know what each of the talented now-second-year pitchers can do physically against big-league competition, they want them to use their heads as much as their arms while preparing for 2018. The arm care will continue when pitchers and catchers begin workouts in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Feb. 14 and during the Cactus League schedule.
"It's all part of growth," Black said. "It's all part of mentally how you go through a season. When can you take a little bit of a blow? It's part of becoming a tenured player."
Senzatela's velocity dipped around midseason. Some of it came back after rest and after being used in shorter bullpen stints. Freeland was hit in the jaw by a J.D. Martinez line drive Sept. 11 -- which ended a five-start period that saw him give up 29 hits in 22 innings. Hoffman simply lost command of his fastball, which took his curveball out of the equation.
"As the marathon came to the last few miles, it became a matter of pitching on straight wit and will as opposed to stuff, because the stuff started diminishing," Foster said. "That's no strike against any of the guys. It's experience."
Marquez pitched to the end, but he had less-than-stellar numbers (1-2, 5.28 ERA in 30 2/3 innings over six starts). However, his velocity and pitch action were fine. His struggles were due to learning adjustments at the Major League level.
The Rockies have given their pitchers specific goals, which are more important than what happens during a given Cactus League game. And it's not just the second-year guys. Ace righty Jon Gray is entering his fourth big league season, and lefty Tyler Anderson is preparing for this third. Righty Chad Bettis, who didn't pitch last season until August because of a bout with testicular cancer, will be the oldest starting pitcher, turning 29 on April 26.
"The younger guys specifically, it comes down to consistency, and there's some action on their pitches that we have to make sure that they make the right adjustments," Black said.
Having a clear path to improvement increases Hoffman's confidence.
"When the fastball is in the right spot, that's when it becomes fun -- a lot of punchouts in a game and everything follows through with that," Hoffman said. "Because, really, the curveball is always there."
But all the individual improvement assignments are against the backdrop of competition. Gray, Anderson and Bettis plus four second-year hurlers equal seven -- two more than the rotation can hold. The Rockies also have a beefed-up bullpen and might not have room to carry a starter in the 'pen.
"There is going to be tons of competition for our rotation spots -- I don't think anybody's rotation spot is secure right now," Freeland said.
The test, then, is for the pitchers to be secure enough to adhere to the new preparation timeline.
Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb and** like his Facebook page**.