Kyle Freeland has been quite good on the mound throughout his MLB career. The lefty, a Denver native, has a really good 4.27 ERA (114 ERA+) in 828 2⁄3 innings since his debut in 2017, and his exceptional 2018 season (17 wins, 202 1⁄3 innings, and a sparkling 2.85 ERA) is likely one of the two best in franchise history. Over the past three seasons, he’s been a metronome; his ERAs have been 4.33, 4.33 and 4.53, and he projects to be a steady fixture in the middle of the rotation for years to come.
Of course, it hasn’t all been steady. Rockies fans will remember Freeland’s disappointing 2019 season, when blisters and pitch mix issues, mixed with the extremely juiced baseball, led to a sharp decline not even a full year after finishing fourth in NL Cy Young voting. However, Freeland didn’t simply dismiss 2019 as an anomaly, instead making changes not only to his mechanics, but also to his pitch mix:
Whereas he had previously relied heavily on his four-seam/slider combination (the switch to four-seamers was one of the main catalysts for his incredible 2018), from 2020 onwards he’s transformed himself into a hurler who throws the kitchen sink at batters, and then some. I wanted to take the time to point this out and praise Kyle for doing it, because it would have been very easy for a pitcher, who not even 12 months prior had been one of the best in the majors, to shrug his struggles off as just random bad luck. Instead, he took the plunge and completely changed how he tries to get batters out, and he should be commended for that. Many pitchers (and batters) have refused to makes changes and slipped out of the Majors as a result, after all.
Kyle Freeland, Nasty Curveball and Slider. pic.twitter.com/TgiEcfjDV4— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 8, 2022
Today, as part of our Gameplan series, we’re going to break Kyle Freeland down as a pitcher: what he does well, what he doesn’t do as well, his general profile, and gameplan/pitch mix related things I believe he could change for the better. The previous entries are down below:
- Crafting a Gameplan for Antonio Senzatela
- Crafting a Gameplan for Germán Márquez
- Crafting a Gameplan for Austin Gomber
- Crafting a Gameplan for Ryan Feltner
- Crafting a Gameplan for the Rockies Bullpen (Recap & Links)
With that being said, let’s get into it!
What Kyle Freeland Does Well
As always, we’re going to kick things off with what the athlete does well. These will be the pillars of our gameplan.
The evolution of Freeland’s curveball has been remarkable. Back when he first came up to the majors, his curveball was a non-factor, and it stayed a poor pitch with short break through 2019. But he made changes entering 2020, gained depth while staying over the 80 MPH threshold, and since that year it’s been his best pitch by a good amount. It has a .249 wOBA against over the past three seasons, and that’s almost 100 points lower than his next-best pitch (his four-seamer at .338). With a 37% strikeout rate against, it’s been his primary strikeout pitch against both lefties and righties.
Because it’s a mostly vertical curveball with good velocity, we can expect relatively neutral platoon splits moving forward. The role it fills in his arsenal is quite clear: this is our main swing-and-miss offering against both hands, and our best pitch period. It’s a really hard curveball for Kyle’s fastball velo, too, and the separation it has with the heater is noticeably smaller than the typical fastball-curve combination. In other words, and relatively speaking, this is a power breaking ball. We’ll get into some minor changes as far as usage and gameplan go later, but for now we have our first plus: a quality curveball we can use against both lefties and righties.
Freeland throws two different fastballs: a sinker with solid depth and a four-seamer with a tiny bit of cut and poor hop. This opens up the possibility to pitch different batters in different ways, and the lefty does just that: he tends to throw a lot more four-seam fastballs to righties, and does a great job locating up and in. Combined with this fastball’s shape, this plan of attack has given his four-seamer a noticeable degree of reverse splits so far: lefties have a .363 wOBA against it, compared to a .323 wOBA for righties. And, of course, we know that hand-on-hand sinkers are much better than against the opposite hand, so you can see the distinction in fastball usage we can theoretically make right away; more sinkers to lefties, more four-seamers to righties.
We’ll dive further into this dynamic in the Gameplan section, but having two different fastballs we can use is always a nice weapon to have. Now, neither of these fastballs have bat-missing shape (though Kyle does spin them a lot, pushing 2400 RPM on average), and both have low velocity, so in a vacuum they’re subpar heaters, but as a unit I believe they can be a good tool, and you all know how much I advocate for fastball utility.
Freeland has always been great at locating his pitches and hitting the edges of the zone. We can measure that in many ways, of course. His Edge% (the rate of pitches at the edges of the zone) is 44.1% for his career, well ahead of the mid 42% that tends to be MLB average, and he does a good job keeping pitches out of the very heart of the zone (5.9% vs 7.2% MLB average). Public pitcher grading systems (such as Cameron Grove’s, for an easy example) have consistently graded his command as plus, and simply watching Kyle work will probably convince you of this as well. Why is this important? Aside from the obvious fact that it helps keep walks down, it also gives us a high degree of confidence in suggesting changes, because Freeland has the touch and precision to locate where he needs to. This is a lefty who pitches inside and throws a lot of back-foot breaking balls, after all, and we all know the fine line one walks when approaching hitters that way.
So, we have a lefty (another plus, by the way, when the overwhelming majority of pitchers are right-handed) with a quality curveball, multiple fastballs and good command, especially of his fastballs. I barely mentioned his slider here, but that’s for a reason; I’ll be going over it and its role in detail in the Gameplan part.
What Kyle Freeland Doesn’t Do Well
Now, for the weak points (in my estimation) of Kyle’s game. These are things we should ideally either work around or correct. Let’s see what we have:
LOW FASTBALL VELOCITY
Kyle has never been a hard thrower for modern standards (the hardest he’s thrown on average on fastballs has been 92 MPH back in 2017), but in 2022 his velocity took a downturn. Whereas before he’d never gone below 91.4 MPH on fastballs, this past season he averaged 90 MPH between his four-seam and sinker. Velocity is always important, but even more so for soft tossers, for whom every single tick can be huge. Freeland is no exception:
Kyle Freeland Fastballs (since 2020)
|Velocity||wOBA||xwOBA||EV (mph)||Run Value|
|Velocity||wOBA||xwOBA||EV (mph)||Run Value|
|>= 91 MPH||.321||.341||86.3||-3.7|
|<= 91 MPH||.433||.398||91.0||11.5|
Now, the lefty does get down the mound well, which makes his velocity play up ever so slightly, but you can see how crucial crossing the 91 MPH barrier is for him. He can still be effective if he sits 90 MPH, but reaching 91+ with consistency would make things a lot easier for us, especially considering how Kyle likes to pitch inside (against righties in particular). Even so, he’d still have subpar velocity for MLB standards, and when combined with his fastball shapes, we can’t expect our heaters to be reliable strikeout offerings. While velocity is not the only thing that matters for a pitcher, it’s an incredibly important element of being a hurler.
Good velocity affords more room for error within the zone, and it’s usually correlated with good off-speed velo on top of it, making it twice as important (velocity is extremely important for secondaries as well). Freeland is a unique case here, of course, because while his fastball is in ‘soft tosser’ range, his slider and curveball are both harder than MLB average. This is yet another reason why throwing very few fastballs is the way to go in Kyle’s case.
Here’s a question: when you think of a ‘crafty left-hander,’ what’s the first thing that comes to mind? For me, it has to be a good changeup. Kyle ticks most of the boxes to be a crafty lefty (though he has a much better, harder breaking ball than is usual for that type), but his change has never been all that good for him. Even in his magical 2018 season, batters had a .316 wOBA against it, and the only other time the wOBA has dropped below .410 was the shortened 2020 season. As a whole, his changeup has been hit to the tune of a .343/.389/.536 slash line, with only a 8% strikeout rate. Its run value of +27.3 since his debut is also the worst of his pitches by a country mile, over three times as bad as his next two worst pitches in that span combined (sinker and slider at +4 and +4.6, respectively)
The interesting thing here is that Freeland has always done a good job when it comes to taking spin off his fastball, as his changeup has averaged below 1500 RPMs (700-800ish below his fastball) throughout his career. It’s a hard change of pace, however, typically in the neighborhood of just 5-6 MPH and 10 inches of vertical separation off his fastball. I’ll leave the mechanics aspects of his changeup (arm speed, posture, extension, possible tipping) to pitching coaches who have more experience and detailed film to study than I do, but this cambio doesn’t work from a pitch specs standpoint; it’s basically just an 85 MPH sinker. It doesn’t have the depth to miss barrels, and it’s an adjustment we could work on.
Our two main issues here are fastball velocity and the lack of a legitimate changeup. It’s unlikely that fastball velo will ever be a plus or even average, but we can work around that. The lack of a changeup is a bit of a bigger problem, but even if it’s not a fatal flaw (Kyle has the tools to be effective without it), a reworked changeup would provide us with another valuable weapon. Let’s see what our gameplan shall be.
As we typically do, let’s go over each pitch type and dive into the adjustments and general plan of attack I believe would be best employed moving forward. I’ll also take the liberty of talking about his slider a bit more in detail when we get to it, because it’s a crucial pitch for him. Let’s see what we have:
We know a few things about Freeland’s four-seamer already. We know it does not have bat-missing shape (Kyle spins it a lot, but not efficiently), we know it has a little bit of cut, and we know Kyle is very good at locating it up and to his glove side. We also know that, due to all these factors, his four-seamer tends to have reverse splits. Therefore, the choices to be made here are quite obvious:
- Keep throwing up and in to RHH. This pitch achieves many things. Not only does it set up the back-foot breaking balls Freeland likes to throw (and is good at spotting), it also creates a good amount of soft contact in general. Up and in is a difficult spot to get the barrel of the bat to, and you can beat even great hitters there if you can spot a heater with precision. This also opens up the down and away corner for our hopefully improved changeup. I wouldn’t fall in love with our four-seamer, of course, because it remains a subpar pitch on its own. Its value here is in setting up everything else we throw to righties. No reason to change this strategy, which Kyle has been using since his 2018 breakout.
- Get back up over the 91 MPH threshold. As you saw in the chart above, crossing that barrier is extremely important for Freeland. I’m no pitching coach or biomechanics expert, so I won’t suggest anything in detail outside of my area of expertise in order to get to where Freeland needs to be, but I do know it’s crucial for him to gain back that tick he lost in 2022. It will improve all aspects of his fastball, and apply to his sinker as well.
- Be cautious against LHH. Lefties have always done pretty well against Freeland’s four-seam, and last year in particular they destroyed it to the tune of a .504 wOBA against. They have stopped whiffing at it in recent years, and since we have not only our sinker but also our slider and curveball to throw to lefties, I see no reason to throw many four-seamers against southpaws. When we do, I wouldn’t hesitate to throw up and in to them either, but this is more of a change of pace than anything. It’s (at best) our fourth-best pitch against LHH, and we should use it accordingly.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll skip the ‘add velo’ advice. What do we have for his sinker?
- It’s our main fastball vs LHH. Again, don’t fall into the trap of overusing it, but it will do just fine if we target southpaws with it. If we assume we can get back to the 91 MPH threshold, we should expect fine results left-on-left. It was not the case in 2022 (.396 wOBA, with expected stats even worse), but throughout his career Freeland’s sinker has given lefties lots of trouble when it comes to squaring it up, with average exit velos in the low-mid 80’s and solid expected numbers. Pitching lefties in with your sinker is a good idea, so let’s keep doing just that.
- Be cautious against RHH. Kyle’s sinker actually had better expected numbers against righties than lefties in 2022, but that has not been the case at all throughout his career, as RHH have hit the heck out of it more often than not. As we all know by now, sinkers against the opposite hand aren’t a great idea in general, and even more so when they’re not high-velocity turbo sinkers. As with the four-seam, we need to use this pitch in the right spots for it to see success, but with Freeland’s command that’s more than doable.
- As always, we can target flat swing paths. Some of the situations where the whole ‘keep the sinker away from RHH’ mandate can be a bit more loose is if we find ourselves in situations where we’re facing a righty with a flatter swing path (think a José Altuve or a Brendan Rodgers, for example), because in those cases, occasional sinkers might do just fine. Always remember, of course, that breaking ball profiles also matter in the matchup against certain bat paths, so our sinker is not the only way to get flatter swings to smack the top of the ball. Both our slider and curveball are well suited for that as well with relatively vertical profiles.
This one’s going to be a bit different, because Freeland’s slider is an interesting pitch in terms of its place within his pitch mix and the way he tends to use it. It typically averages around 86 MPH, only five ticks or so below his heater, and it has short, mostly vertically-oriented break. That type of movement is mostly a result of its spin profile, as it tends to lean more towards the gyro slider (24% spin efficiency last season) than the average slide piece.
Because of that short vertical break and the small velo and depth difference between it and his fastball, Freeland’s slider acts, looks, and performs much more like a cutter than a traditional slider, and its usage reflects that. Kyle usually throws it inside and off the plate against righties, but he also back-doors it often for called strikes, and the swing-and-miss rates on it (frequently in the 25-30% range) are in between a slider and a cutter. I think we can fairly treat it as a cutter, especially now that Freeland has a legitimate swing-and-miss curveball with good power, and now that his slider is being thrown less and less when the batter is behind.
And if we consider it a cutter as far its role goes, even if we call it slider for the sake of clarity, we know that velocity is a crucial component in cutter success. This is no different for Kyle’s slider:
Kyle Freeland Sliders (‘17-’22)
|Velocity||wOBA||xwOBA||EV (mph)||Run Value|
|Velocity||wOBA||xwOBA||EV (mph)||Run Value|
|>= 87 MPH||.256||.232||85.1||-7.7|
|<= 86 MPH||.367||.321||87.1||16.8|
I didn’t put the swing-and-miss rates there because they were both very similar, around 28% in both instances. And while the difference in performance was big against righties (.266 wOBA when 87+ MPH, .357 wOBA when 86 MPH or less), the gap when facing lefties is absolutely massive: lefties have produced a .396 wOBA when facing Freeland sliders 86 MPH or less compared to just a .239 wOBA when those same sliders have been 87+ MPH. So, with all this we just talked about, what about the gameplan?
- Let’s try to get that slider as close to 87+ MPH as we can. It’s a consistent trend in my Gameplan pieces, but that’s for a good reason: adding velocity to a breaking ball tends to be a good idea. In Freeland’s case, his slider’s short break and usage patterns turn it into somewhat of a cutter/slider hybrid, and cutters have to be thrown hard. If we can maintain 30+ inches of average depth and get that slider up to 87, we’re going to be in a good place. Clayton Kershaw, Robbie Ray and others are great examples of what throwing a hard lefty slider can do.
- Slider is our main pitch against LHH. You know how Austin Gomber has thrown his slider almost half the time against southpaws to great success? We can do a similar thing with Freeland’s slider. Now, considering that our curveball is a good pitch, we don’t want to lower its usage too much (22.3% vs LHH last year), but we can subtract from our fastball usage here (well over 50% in 2022) and introduce more, harder, sliders. This is not a new strategy, of course; the slider has been Kyle’s most-used pitch vs LHH throughout his career by a solid amount, but its usage has dipped over the past few years in favor of more curveballs (good) and fastballs (not as good). We can and, in my opinion, should get that slider usage vs LHH back to at least 35% and probably higher.
- No major changes vs RHH. The profile here is the same: inner-third sliders for soft contact, back-foot sliders for whiffs, called strikes on sliders on that come back over the outer third of the plate. Freeland already differentiates between these spots, by the way: for his career, when he’s thrown a slider on the inner half vs RHH, he’s averaged 87 MPH. When he’s thrown a slider on the outer half, however, he’s averaged 85.7 MPH, which tells you he probably wants bigger break for those called strikes and harder, sharper sliders to induce chases on the inner third. At the risk of small sample bias (just 173 instances), however, when he’s thrown a 87+ MPH slider on the outer half vs RHH, the results have been excellent so far: a .177 wOBA and a strikeout rate pushing 40%. Of course, this comes with a difference in swing decisions: those harder sliders on the outer half get swung at a lot more than usual (41.2% swing rate vs 32.3% swing rate on average for those outer-half sliders), which makes sense given their shorter break. I won’t say do one thing or the other, but I wanted to put the numbers out there. I’m fine with Kyle’s slider gameplan vs RHH.
As we’ve explained, the curveball is arguably Kyle’s best pitch right now. It has both the velocity and depth to create both chases and swings and misses, and it profiles well against both righties and lefties. How do we go about deploying it?
- Throw it a bit more! Since Freeland reworked his pitch mix and revamped his curveball entering 2020, the breaking ball has consistently lived in the 18-20% usage range. He threw it a bit more to lefties and less to righties in 2022 than he had in 2020-2021, and in both cases he tends to throw it more as a chase pitch, with zone rates below 40%. I don’t hate the idea, because that’s what the pitch is best suited for, but we can probably throw it a bit more regardless, and flip a few more in the zone here and there. Its role is as our chase pitch, no doubt about it, but keeping batters honest never hurts.
- Less predictable usage. While it is our strikeout pitch, it’s also our best pitch period, and we can throw it in early counts more than we do now. Freeland barely threw curveballs when batters were ahead in the count in 2022 (11.1%), but that usage pretty much tripled when batters fell behind (32%), and there weren’t many first-pitch curves either (9.5%). Since Freeland needs to be a kitchen sink lefty who throws any pitch in any count (and has the command and moxie to do that), telegraphing pitch usage is an issue. His fastball usage on first pitches and hitter counts has been rising a bit over the past two seasons, and that danger is always there. It’s more of a reminder than anything.
- Keep throwing it hard. Again, more of a reminder, but it’s part of the gameplan and I can’t just skip over it. Freeland’s curveball averaged 80.9 MPH last season, and he can throw it as hard as 84+ MPH at times while still keeping solid depth on the pitch. This is fantastic velocity compared to his heater, and will make the curveball keep profiling as his best and most reliable strikeout pitch.
The change is the only pitch of Kyle’s that, in my opinion, requires active pitch design work. He already takes raw spin off the ball just fine, so I’d go more towards the lane of trying to help Kyle shift the spin axis down from its current 10:30 position (thus, creating more side spin and removing some backspin), taking velocity off the ball (it’s currently just about 5 MPH slower than his fastball) or both. Now, a disclaimer: I don’t have access to precise high-speed cameras for footage of how Freeland releases his change, nor active feedback from the athlete himself, so all I’m doing is pointing towards the general direction I believe we could take. Freeland has tinkered with his changeup in the past, of course, so this wouldn’t be news to him.
In the case of a hypothetical changeup fix, the gameplan to follow is so simple I don’t even have to explain it: keep it away from lefties unless you can create outlier movement and throw it down and away to righties. Super basic stuff, of course. I’d also like to point out that Kyle has the tools to be just fine against righties without a good changeup: his four-seam and slider work well on the inner half, and his curveball has more than enough depth and velocity to dip beneath the barrel of a right-hander. As with Germán Márquez, a good changeup isn’t a must for good overall performance, but it would undoubtedly be a nice boost.
More often than not, Rockies pitchers don’t get the credit they deserve. Kyle Freeland has a career 114 ERA+ across well over 800 MLB innings, and he’s navigated the challenges of moving in and out of elevation better than the overwhelming majority of pitchers that have pitched for the Denver franchise. Going into his age-30 season as one of the team’s veterans, he’s already a steady presence in the middle of the rotation. But as I explained in this piece, I believe there is more a bit more potential to be reached.
Many of the pieces are already in place, however, which speaks well of Kyle’s process and willingness to adapt. All we did here was expand on what he already does, really. We see him as someone who can pitch righties inside and put curveballs below the zone to finish them off, and throw a ton of breaking balls to lefties. Any pitch, any count. We need to hide his fastballs, but that only brings his two quality breaking balls to the forefront. There’s still progress to be made with his changeup, of course, but pitching development isn’t linear (see: old friend Anderson, Tyler). I look forward to watching Freeland pitch for years to come, and his stabilizing presence in the pitching staff should not be overlooked.
This is a study made through my own research and conclusions. In order for it to be truly complete, it would require things such a biomechanical breakdown and some feedback from the pitcher himself, among others, all of which is data I don’t have access to. Please take what I present more as a suggestion than a stone-cold fact.
★ ★ ★
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