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Colorado Rockies starter Kyle Freeland is leveling up

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The 25-year-old lefty looks even better in his second big league season.

DENVER — Colorado Rockies lefty Kyle Freeland is taking his game to a new level in 2018 after an impressive debut last season.

Freeland finished seventh in NL Rookie of the Year voting last season after posting a 4.10 ERA and 1.49 WHIP in 156 innings, walking 63 and striking out 107. That was a solid rookie season, especially for a pitcher that only had a dozen Triple-A starts under his belt prior to 2017.

This season, however, Freeland has taken a step forward, with a 3.42 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in his first eight starts with 44 strikeouts in 47 13 innings.

“A lot of things are working,” Freeland said. “I’m filling up the zone with my fastball, slider’s been on and I’ve been able to throw quality changeups in counts that call for it.”

Freeland has been especially strong in his last four starts, in which he has allowed just five runs on 17 hits with eight walks and 27 strikeouts in 27 13 innings.

“Kyle’s bounced back from a couple early starts in April to, I think, locate the fastball in better spots,” Rockies manager Bud Black said of Freeland’s surge in results.

If Freeland can hold his 3.42 ERA for the rest of the season, it would be the fifth-best mark in Rockies history, and his WHIP would be the second-best ever for a Rockies starter, just behind Ubaldo Jimenez’s 1.16 in 2010.

The big thing that has led to Freeland’s success has been an increase in strikeouts. Since last season, he has jumped from 6.2 strikeouts per nine innings to 8.4 and from a 15.6 strikeout percentage to 22.6. The rate of hard hit balls against him has also dropped from 32 percent to 26.1 percent, facilitating a .219 batting average against him in 2018.

“I think that’s just natural growth of getting a year under my belt,” Freeland said. “Figuring hitters out and constantly filling up the zone with strikes, keeping hitters on their heels and not really knowing what’s coming.”

One thing Black noted about Freeland’s success this season was his ability to keep right-handed hitters off the basepaths. Right-handers had a .366 OBP against him last season, a number that has dropped to .304 in 2018.

“He’s pitching inside to right-handed hitters, the breaking ball’s become more consistent, the spin is better pitch to pitch,” Black said.

Freeland has been better against righties this season, but has been flat out dominant left-on-left. Opposing lefties have hit just .146/.234/.268 with 21 strikeouts in 47 plate appearances against Freeland in 2018.

The breaking pitch mentioned by Black is Freeland’s slider, which was something of his calling card coming out of college and become a go-to pitch for him in 2018, with opposing hitters batting just .148 against it this season.

“It’s continued to take steps forward and I’m learning to use it in different ways along with the back foot,” Freeland said

Freeland has also added a curveball to his repertoire this season, something he toyed with in 2017, but abandoned in the latter part of the season. Opposing hitters do not have an extra-base hit against Freeland’s curveball in 2018.

“It’s helped a lot,” Freeland said of the curve. “It’s a pitch that’s been able to have more separation off my fastball and my hard slider, where it kind of keeps them off balance and is able to get them out in front.”

Freeland will look for his fifth consecutive quality start tonight against the Giants, a team he posted a 3.22 ERA against in four starts last season. The Rockies have won three of Freeland’s last four starts, and that win is all a starting pitcher is really looking for when he takes the mound.