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The mystery of Kyle Freeland’s changeup

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Colorado Rockies news and links for Thursday, March 25, 2021

THIS IS A GUEST ROCKPILE BY MARIO DELGADO (@DeGenZGZ)

Kyle Freeland has been through quite the rollercoaster ride for a first round pick. After a very solid 2017 debut (which included a near no-hitter), the Denver native blew everyone’s expectations out of the water in 2018, putting up arguably the best season any starting pitcher has ever had wearing purple pinstripes. Freeland went 17-7 with a sterling 2.85 ERA across 202 ⅓ innings, finished fourth in NL Cy Young Award voting, and put the icing on the cake with 6 ⅔ innings of scoreless ball in that memorable Wild Card Game against the Cubs, on three days’ rest no less. Everyone was a Kyle Freeland guy or gal at that point, and it looked like the new ace of the franchise was here to stay. And then 2019 happened.

If 2018 was the highest of highs, 2019 was the lowest of lows. One look at the numbers tells you all you need to know:

Kyle Freeland 2018 vs. 2019

Year ERA HR% OPS vs. K% Avg EV
Year ERA HR% OPS vs. K% Avg EV
2018 2.85 2.0% .666 20.5% 86.9 MPH
2019 6.73 5.3% .909 16.7% 89.8 MPH

Yeah, not pretty. 2019 even included a move down to Triple-A less than a year after a fourth place finish in Cy Young voting. Not great. In the offseason, Freeland identified his trademark pause at the top of his delivery as a root cause for his issues, removed it, and came into 2020 trying to rebound. And rebound he did:

Kyle Freeland 2019 vs. 2020

Year ERA HR% OPS vs. K% Avg EV
Year ERA HR% OPS vs. K% Avg EV
2019 6.73 5.3% .909 16.7% 89.8 MPH
2020 4.33 3.0% .772 15.1% 86.1 MPH

Now, while his 2020 ERA doesn’t look as pretty as the 2.85 ERA he posted in 2018, it’s worth noting that it was sitting at a nice 3.69 before Freeland got rocked badly by the D-Backs in his final start. Really, anyone who watched him pitch could tell you Kyle Freeland was good again. While the strikeouts didn’t rebound, the rest of the numbers saw a significant upgrade. And while the new delivery certainly helped, it wasn’t the only thing Freeland altered in the offseason.

In 2018, Freeland had success mainly as a fastball-slider pitcher, throwing a few changeups and the once-in-a-blue-moon curve. In 2019, his pitch usage remained roughly the same. In 2020, however, that changed a lot:

Baseball Savant

Freeland not only changed his mechanics, his pitch mix was drastically altered. At the core of this was a changeup he threw almost twice as often as before, and that changeup was a very weird pitch in 2020.

First off, let’s set the stage. There were 32 pitchers who threw at least 200 changeups in 2020. Here are all of them sorted by how many they threw (Y axis) and how often those changeups were swung on and missed (X axis). I took the liberty of marking some outliers:

Baseball Savant

The graphic is courtesy of Baseball Savant’s wonderful Search feature.

Notice something weird? Freeland’s changeup is barely within the area code of any other in terms of swings and misses. In fact, I’d say his changeup is almost as much of an outlier as Devin Williams’ gorgeous “Airbender”, just the other way around. Part of this might be how hard Freeland throws it. His average fastball typically sits around the 92 MPH range and his changeup is just 6 MPH slower, at 86 MPH on the dot on average. Freeland also throws his changeup in the zone a lot, much like you would a traditional sinker. And like a sinker, it generated a ton of ground balls last year, 55.7% last year to be exact. After all, only three pitchers had more changeup-induced grounders last year than Freeland’s 39 (Hyun-Jin Ryu, Kyle Hendricks, and Zach Davies).

So if it works, why am I writing this? Not sure, other than the fact that baseball outliers fascinate me. Freeland, unlike basically any other pitcher I can think of in modern baseball, seems to be using his change to actively induce contact rather than avoiding it, hence the low velocity differential and the pounding of the zone he does with it.

With Freeland getting hurt in his Cactus League start against the A’s, here’s to hoping he’s just fine and gets healthy soon. And here’s to hoping we can see that unique changeup back in action when the games that count start to happen.

★ ★ ★

Rockies 9, Brewers 8: Brew Crew rough up Gray, bats wake up | MLB.com

It was not a particularly pleasant start for Jon Gray against the Brewers, I’d say. The right-hander seemed to be doing just fine entering the third inning, but was hit in his pitching hand by a liner and according to him, it really messed him up, with the Brewers scoring seven earned runs off of him in total, six in the inning. He was pulled after 2 ⅓ innings, but he expects the injury to be just a bruise. The bullpen then followed with 6 ⅔ innings of one-run ball. On the offensive side, the Rockies bounced back after the disastrous showing from the previous game and put up nine runs in total with Connor Joe, Raimel Tapia and Josh Fuentes all tallying two hits each.

The Rockies have their next Cactus League game scheduled for today, March 25th, against the Angels. Lefty Austin Gomber will look to build on his excellent Spring so far with another strong showing, with right-hander Dylan Bundy getting the ball for the Halos. First pitch will be at 2:10 PM MT.

Black ‘concerned’ with Freeland’s injury exit | MLB.com

Bud Black is probably speaking for all of us in this regard. Seeing Kyle Freeland go down barely a week before Opening Day arrives was a punch in the gut for everyone, his manager more than most. Harding details the injury, the reaction from the folks around the team, the early diagnosis, and who can possibly replace Freeland should the injury be long term. Also features some positive comments from Bud Black on Scott Oberg’s status.

Twists, turns and trouble: How the Rockies are building an Opening Day roster | The Athletic ($)

Freeland’s injury just added another obstacle to this Rockies season. With Brendan Rodgers also hurt, a lot of what the Rockies had planned in terms of roster construction to begin the new season has likely been changed. Nick Groke looks at the most likely combinations for every position group, including some wild cards and setbacks.