Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Kyle Freeland got his Major League career off to a fantastic start on Friday afternoon, allowing just one run on four hits in six innings at Coors Field against the four-time defending National League West champion Los Angeles Dodgers. The 23-year-old lefty walked just two and struck out six, a welcome development from a pitcher who didn’t have great strikeout numbers throughout his minor league career. How was he able to have so much success?
First, and perhaps most importantly, Freeland did a brilliant job of staying away from the middle of the plate. According to data from the great people at Brooks Baseball, Freeland had zero “grooved” pitches — essentially pitches thrown right down the middle. We can see this visually from his zone profile:
You probably know this already, but staying away from that zone right down the middle is a good thing. During the 2016 season, swings at pitches in that portion of the strike zone resulted in a .346 batting average and a whopping .636 slugging percentage. At Coors Field, those results were even uglier, with a .379 batting average and .692 slugging percentage. This is a great first step, but there was more to it than that.
In addition to staying away from the middle of the plate, Freeland was also superb at mixing his pitches. Of the 81 pitches tracked by Brooks Baseball (unfortunately, 14 pitches were missed), none was used more than 35.8 percent of the time. Dodgers hitters saw 20 four-seam fastballs, 29 sinkers, 20 cutters, and 12 changeups. We can also see Freeland doing a great job of changing speeds, even though there was only a roughly 12 mph difference between his fastest and slowest pitch:
Ideally you’d like to see a larger difference between his fastest and slowest pitches, but if the Denver native is able to consistently mix speeds and pitches like he did on Friday, it should still be enough to keep hitters off balance and, hopefully, away from the barrel of the bat.
Ultimately, the returns on Friday’s start were overwhelmingly positive, but there are some other things to keep in mind. First and foremost, one start is not going to be enough data to draw any conclusions from. Freeland’s debut gives us some things to watch for going forward, but we will need to see him do it consistently before we know whether this is who he’s going to be as a big league pitcher.
It’s also worth noting that the Dodgers team he faced on Friday struggled mightily against left-handed pitching in 2016 (not to mention their only other loss in 2017 came in a game started by left-handed starter Clayton Richard of the Padres). Their wRC+ of 72 against them was the worst in the National League. Will Freeland be able to maintain this level of effectiveness against a more formidable lineup?
Right now, we still have more questions than answers when it comes to Kyle Freeland. If nothing else, his first Major League start taught us that he isn’t intimidated by Coors Field or the big stage, as he was tasked with dealing with both right out of the gate. If he’s able to keep up his strong command and mix pitches effectively, the Rockies will have found themselves another strong member of what’s becoming a very young and talented starting rotation.