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Kyle Freeland’s rookie year was the Rockies’ best narrative of 2017

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The Denver high school product became the hometown hero we didn’t know we wanted

Welcome to the 2017 edition of Ranking the Rockies, where we take a look back at the in-season contributions of every player to don the purple this past season. The goal wasn’t and isn’t to quibble with order. Instead, it’s to get a snapshot of a player along with a look forward. For that reason, we simply sorted by Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (rWAR) and will start at the bottom and end up at the top.

No. 3, Kyle Freeland (3.3 rWAR)

It’s a shame that the word “narrative” has lost some of its potency. It’s been overused and abused, a product of the modern sports analysis trend of “hot takes” and fan bases looking for immediate emotional gratification. It’s become a way for the old sportswriter to set up an outdated morality play on a game quickly passing by.

People try to fight narratives and claim that opinions on players are shaped by them, that they’re boosting otherwise unworthy players into stardom. But still they exist. And, sometimes, they have the powerful resonance of a good story that’s ultimately at the core of any “narrative.”

Kyle Freeland’s narrative didn’t win him any awards or accolades. He wasn’t showered with a parade or even given an All-Star berth. But it was important. Kyle took the mound on April 7th as a graduate of the Denver public school system, a kid who grew up a fan of the team he now wore a uniform for. His narrative was already settled. Freeland was a hometown kid starting the home opener. Even if he failed, this moment would be great.

But he didn’t fail.

Kyle Freeland’s success reclaimed “narrative.” Freeland’s hometown success actually was something larger than the game and reclaimed the idea that the narrative benefits the sport at large. Without Freeland’s connection to us, would we care so much? Would we remember without the narrative?

His success strengthened this story. Before the season, Freeland was never expected to be a rock in the starting rotation, and he was never supposed to be one of the most important players on a playoff team. But he was.

With a 4.10 ERA boosted by terrific contact management (53.9% GB rate), Freeland was able to turn in one of the better rookie seasons in franchise history. His 3.3 rWAR ranked second in the NL behind Cody Bellinger (you might’ve heard of him). Freeland’s year was good enough that when he wasn’t a finalist for NL Rookie of the Year it made some of us mad online.

Freeland’s story seemed to build with each start. From hometown hero on Opening Day to contact minimizer to Coors Field conqueror. On July 9th, with the Rockies desperately hoping for some momentum heading into the All-Star break, Freeland had one of the best moments anyone has had in a baseball stadium.

In front of his mom, his girlfriend, and a city of people he had always known, Freeland tossed eight and one third no hit innings. Finally surrendering a hit to Melky Cabrera and finishing with just a Coors Field shutout. A no hitter would have been legendary, but we still remember this blowout victory for a reason. For many, it was amazing to see a Colorado kid pitch so well in front of us. For some, it was Freeland’s emotions and the shots of his family living the ups and downs with us. For others, it was the moment they started to realize that maybe the Rockies had finally figured out Coors Field. Maybe it wasn’t so scary after all. Maybe this team could develop a pitcher or two (or three, or four).

Freeland’s career may never grow past that moment on July 9th, and he may never have a season as good as 2017, but it’s hard to fault anyone who gets caught up in the narrative. It’s hard to fault anyone who asks for his jersey this holiday season or argues that he should’ve finished second in the RoY voting. Rarely does a player represent something more than he is—that narrative is often unfair to push on a single player—but Kyle Freeland’s best moments this year felt bigger. The Rockies need a lot of things, but we didn’t know they needed this hometown kid to do amazing things.

2018 Outlook

Freeland looks to be a lock for the middle of a rotation that the Rockies will rely on in 2018. Freeland should slot behind Jon Gray and Germán Márquez, finding his home next to Tyler Anderson and Chad Bettis somewhere in the Rockies rotation.

With all the good from 2017, Freeland did show areas to improve throughout the year. His K-rate was, at times, low enough that you’d have to expect it to be unsustainable success. But as the season moved on, you could see growth on his slider that allowed him to miss bats more consistently. Improved strike throwing could also help Freeland, he missed the zone often enough that he would push himself out of games earlier and limit his ability to get out of jams.

If he can improve in his problem areas, 2018 should be an outstanding season for the young Coloradan.