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Kyle Freeland’s 2019 season was the Rockies’ 2019 season

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It wasn’t supposed to be like that

You’re reading the 2019 edition of Ranking the Rockies, where we take a look back at the season had by every player to play for the Rockies in 2019. The purpose of this list is to provide a snapshot of the player in context. The “Ranking” is an organizing principle that’s drawn from Baseball Reference’s WAR (rWAR). It’s not something the staff debated. We’ll begin with the player with the least amount of rWAR and end up with the player with the most.

★ ★ ★

No. 44, Kyle Freeland (-0.8 rWAR)

If any player served as a metaphor for the 2019 Rockies, it was Kyle Freeland.

Freeland’s 2018 season was the stuff of Rockies legend. A hometown kid, he finished fourth in Cy Young voting with a 2.85 ERA (a Rockies record), doing even better, 2.40, at Coors Field. He had a 1.25 WHIP in 202 1⁄3 innings with 173 strikeouts and 17 wins. His greatest moment was the Wild Card game in Chicago. Jordan Freemyer described it as Freeland’s pièce de résistance. It was a good time to be a Kyle Freeland Guy, Gal, or Fan.

The Rockies planned to begin 2019 where they’d left off in 2018, as Freeland took the mound in Miami. He got the win that day, but his success would be short-lived. In early June, after 12 starts, having gone 2-6 with a 7.13 ERA , and giving up 16 home runs, the most in the National League, Freeland was sent to Albuquerque. He worked there for about six weeks — 44 days. (Nick Groke has provided the best accounting of Freeland’s time there.)

When he returned to Coors on July 13 to face the Cincinnati Reds, the game began after a three-hour rain delay that resulted in a 17-9 Rockies loss. It took almost four hours, seven with the rain delay. That day, the Rockies were at .500, hoping to build momentum into the second half of the season. Freeland, they hoped, would lead them just as he had in 2018. It never happened, and Freeland’s pitching was, at best, mixed until he went on the IL on August 20 with a groin strain. He went on to throw about 100 pitches in the final week of the season to build his confidence going into the off-season. The results of those two appearances were encouraging.

He would ultimately go 3-11, earning a 6.73 ERA in 22 starts with 104.1 innings pitched, 79 strikeouts, and a WHIP of 1.589. He was not 2018 Kyle Freeland.

Here’s how Groke compared Freeland’s 2018 and 2019 seasons:

Freeland’s strength last season, as he worked from a four-pitch mix with deft control, was his ability to aggressively pitch inside to right-handed hitters, where bats go to break. He lived on the inner edge of the plate.

His pitches this season, though, crept out over the plate for home runs. And when he over-compensated by pitching even farther inside, hitters caught on and stopped swinging. Takes can speak to a pitcher too. Freeland’s home run rate nearly tripled this season, from 0.8 per nine innings to 2.3.

While Groke has explained Freeland’s mechanics, Thomas Harding has done the best job of describing what Freeland was experiencing emotionally, writing that Freeland “listened to a myriad of coaches and advisers and lost himself.” Freeland had to find his way forward. Harding continued, “It’s not that Freeland will plug his ears. But he has developed a system for knowing what to do with the information.” (That the Rockies apparently overwhelmed Freeland with data is a troubling subject for another day.)

I am not sure any Kyle Freeland moment stayed with me as much as watching him in a June 23 game the Isotopes played against the Reno Aces. In the third inning, Freeland allowed back-to-back walks, with the second forcing in a run. After complaining about the call, Freeland was ejected by the first base umpire. While the umpires and coaches sorted it all out, Freeland walked to the dugout, his frustration and anger clear in every step he took, even as he acted like he did not care. He was, after all, the pitcher who had gotten the Rockies through the Wild Card game, and here was some Triple-A umpire ejecting him after a bad call?

It must have been impossibly hard. He must have wondered what had gone wrong and if it could ever be repaired. He must have been furious with a universe that took him from the celebrity of shooting free throws at a Nuggets game to dealing with bad calls in minor league baseball. It had all been very public: His demotion was a leading sports story. Jon Gray’s 2018 was Kyle Freeland’s 2019 — without the nasty “head case” stuff. And he had to wonder if maybe the critics were right, and he wasn’t really that good, and 2018 was just an aberration, and 2019 Kyle Freeland was the “Real Kyle Freeland.”

If I could tell Kyle Freeland anything — besides hoping that he’ll follow Gray’s example and visit Driveline in the offseason — I would tell him to hang in there because that this is when the real learning happens, the moments that shape you and teach the lessons that take. That doesn’t make this any easier, but it turns out that the best learning is the most demanding. I know that as a person, and I know that as a teacher.

A long time ago, I learned that one of the most powerful things I can tell a student who is struggling with an assignment is that I know they can do it. That seems like such a minor thing — a vote of confidence from their instructor — but I can see the moment when they choose to believe me. Actually (and they don’t see this yet), they’ve decided to believe in themselves and take on the challenge and do the hard work that needs doing. Desire is not enough. And mostly, they succeed.

Kyle Freeland doesn’t need me to say I know he can do it. I suspect he needs to hear that from Bud Black — and Black has been clear in his comments to the press that he believes Freeland will be back. But for the record, I don’t think 2018 Kyle Freeland was an anomaly; I think 2019 Kyle Freeland was. I know he can do it. And there’s a Coors Field of Kyle Freeland Guys, Gals, Fans, and Freaks that agree.