Rockies left-handed pitcher Kyle Freeland has cooled off after burning with frustration during a 2023 that saw little go right.
Last season, Freeland went 6-14 with a 5.03 ERA. The losses, his 5.13 road ERA, the 29 homers he gave up and his .300 batting average against were career highs. The 3.64 run support average he received from his offense was the seventh lowest in MLB. He also missed two weeks when he sustained a right shoulder injury while fielding a ball in his final start before the All-Star break, and then he started his offseason early because of a slight oblique strain he sustained in mid September.
But as the lost season continued, Freeland found some keys that could lead to better times in 2024:
• Freeland experienced a noticeable drop in fastball velocity and briefly tried to remake himself. But in discussions with strength coaches and the training staff, Freeland pinpointed muscles that had weakened. His velocity climbed in the end.
• By September, Freeland’s stats were beyond a turnaround. He experimented with a new changeup grip and saw immediate results.
• Freeland began using a pitch taught to him by former Cardinals star Adam Wainwright, his teammate with Team USA during the 2023 World Baseball Classic. His new one-seam sinking fastball -- which has more direct and dramatic downward movement than his usual two-seamer -- became a project this offseason.
Freeland, 30, has struggled more than thrived in two seasons under a five-year, $64 million contract (15-25, 4.77 ERA in 60 starts). Last year’s struggle coincided with the Rockies losing rotation members Germán Márquez and Antonio Senzatela to right elbow Tommy John surgeries. Márquez is out until midseason and Senzatela is not expected back this season, so Freeland will have to lead a revamped pitching staff as Colorado attempts to rebound from a 59-103 finish last season.
“It still stings, and it’s going to sting until we step on the field for Game 1 of 162,” Freeland said while in Denver for Rockies Fest in late January. “It leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It’s nothing that any team wants to go through. But we’re ready to take on this season.”
After spending time in his hometown, Freeland returned to Scottsdale, Ariz., where he maintains his offseason home so he can work at the Rockies’ training center. Before a bullpen session at the team’s new performance lab -- “It was done right,” he said -- Freeland delved into the physical improvements and new pitches.
Shoulder health: Freeland’s left arm didn’t rebound from his outings, and thus the velocity dip. He insisted then, and continues to insist, there was no injury he was trying to keep hidden. He said he might have been “a little lax” in his between-starts program, but part of it was simply figuring out the specific muscles that were weakening. Improvement came quickly after the problem was pinpointed.
“We have a tool in our training room that restricts blood flow and you do arm exercises as it’s restricting the blood flow to your arm,” Freeland said. “It allows you to strengthen it with very low weight and low volume, so you’re not putting stress on your arm at all. When I started doing that last year, I could tell after a week or so of doing that, my velocity started picking up.
“Like I said when I was in Denver, my body and arm haven't felt this good in a couple of years. It’s a positive for me, something I can continue to build.”
Changeup changes: Freeland was with a 2017 club that made the postseason and he finished third in National League Cy Young voting in ‘18 when the Rockies qualified again. But during a 3-11 mess that led to an option to Triple-A Albuquerque, it exposed the fact he had not mastered the changeup, and he has tinkered with it throughout his career.
The adjustment in 2023 -- with his middle and ring fingers splitting a seam and with the ball deeper in his hand than before -- gave him control and downward movement. He threw it in a strong September start at Arizona, two days after testing during a throwing session.
“We're very excited with this grip and the movement profile on it. It's been going well, you know, throwing bullpens for the past few weeks down in Scottsdale, getting in our new lab, being able to see the numbers on it,” he said.
Putting lessons to use: Freeland looked at the action on a one-seam fastball -- he places his index finger on the seam -- although it does not show up on Statcast readings as being different from a two-seamer. Freeland said he would have to match video to personal notes to pinpoint when he used it last season. But the experiments went well.
“When we’re at sea level, we’re going to have a little more action on our pitches,” he said. “So, like my two-seamer, I used it a little bit more when we were on the road at sea level to create that depth. It’s still one I’m learning.
“I believe it’s very usable at home. At Coors Field, the plan always is to keep the ball on the ground as much as possible with how large our outfield is and how the ball can fly there. That’s one pitch that will allow me to hopefully get some more ground balls.”
Each one-seamer Freeland throws will be a tribute to Wainwright, who completed his 18-season career in 2023.
“He’s so great for the game,” Freeland said. “He’s an open book. He’s out there trying to help guys, like, ‘Hey, I have all this information. You can take it however you want, but I’d love to teach anyone, whether they have 10 years in The Show or if they’re a Minor Leaguer.’”