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Kyle Freeland rebounds big from 2019 struggles

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New pitch, new delivery, new pitcher

Welcome to the 2020 edition of Ranking the Rockies, where we take a look back at every player to log playing time for the Rockies in 2020. 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 lowest rWAR and end up with the player with the highest.

★ ★ ★

No. 2, Kyle Freeland: 2.2 rWAR

Kyle Freeland didn’t plan to have to reinvent himself in just his fourth season in the majors, but after a terrible 2019 campaign, the Rockies left-hander had no choice but to go back to the drawing board. So Freeland entered this season with a new delivery and a new pitch, both of which propelled him to success in a 2020 season otherwise full of woe.

The stats might not showcase the success — Freeland finished the abbreviated year with a 2-3 record and a 4.33 ERA — but one REALLY bad outing to finish the season skewed things terribly. Take away his six earned runs over 2 13 innings against the Diamondbacks on September 27, and Freeland would have had a 3.69 ERA over 12 starts. Not too shabby for someone who struggled so badly in 2019 that he was sent down to Triple-A Albuquerque, where he struggled even more.

After finishing fourth in the 2018 Cy Young race, Freeland went 3-11 with a 6.73 ERA in 22 starts for the Rockies last year. He then went 0-4 with a 8.80 ERA at Albuquerque. So expectations for this season were tempered, to say the least.

“His first couple of years in the league, as a young pitcher, you’re unknown to the league,” manager Bud Black told the Denver Post in August. “And then the league adjusted to Kyle.”

But the southpaw spent the majority of this offseason working on his delivery — as seen in slow motion below — and an equally important new pitch, his changeup.

Freeland’s changeup proved to be quite effective for him this season. In fact, it was the pitch he relied upon most in 2020, throwing it at a 25.3-percent rate. Compare that to 2019, where Freeland threw the changeup 12.5 percent of the time. The change in velocity from his fastball to changeup also went from 5.4 mph in 2019 to 6.1 mph this season. Hitters still batted .304 off Freeland’s changeup in 2020 (down from .367 last year), but their slugging percentage dropped from .837 to .405 this season with just one home run off the changeup.

“He went through his hard knocks with that pitch, but he’s put in such good work with it, that now he’s confident in the pitch,” Rockies bullpen coach Darryl Scott told the Denver Post. “He’s seen it work, he feels it. It’s made a huge difference. I’m proud of him.”

Freeland addressed those “hard knocks” in the same Denver Post article, and conceded that it was his performance in Triple-A that convinced him he had to alter his changeup.

“I mean, I got the (crud) beat out of it when I was in Triple-A when I was forced to throw the changeup,” Freeland said. “I was giving up liners in the gaps. I was giving up homers with it. I was telling myself, ‘I’ve gotta keep throwing this thing,’ but at the same time, I was telling myself, ‘I can’t throw it because every time it gets whacked.’

“It was the developmental stage for me with that pitch. Looking back on it, I’m glad I went through it. Now it’s paying off with the hard work I’ve done with it.”

Now the question is, which Kyle Freeland shows up in 2021? As he enters his third year of arbitration, this is the key question for Freeland and the Rockies. The league figured him out once, so can it do it again? But one thing is clear — Freeland isn’t opposed to adjust back to whatever comes his way, and that’s proven to be the pedigree for staying power in Major League Baseball throughout its history.