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Freeland’s best pitch ever: his 2021 curveball. Is it different in 2022?

Colorado Rockies news and links for Tuesday, April 12, 2022

If you throw both a curveball and slider, they are generally better if they have different movement profiles. This was definitely the case for Kyle Freeland in 2021, where those breaking pitches were separated more than ever:

Data courtesy of Baseball Savant

The above charts represent vertical and horizontal break, and the light blue circles show the curveball Freeland has thrown since 2018 (in succession, right to left). Pay attention to how far those blue and yellow (slider) circles have grown apart.

Freeland throws five pitches (curveball, sinker, slider, fastball and changeup). His curve featured a .229 opposing wOBA last year, the best full-season figure of any single pitch type of his career. Opposing batting average, slugging percentage and whiff percentage will agree: Freeland’s curveball in 2021 was his best pitch ever.

On Opening Day 2022, he threw more curveballs than any other pitch. The margins were slim — curveball, 24.3%; sinker, 23.0%; slider, 21.6% — but if that curveball and slider look similar as they did in 2019, he’s suddenly throwing nearly half of his pitches (curveball and slider) with near-equal break and only a few ticks of velocity in separation. It’s a lot easier to predict what is coming if two pitches are working in the same range, and that gets a lot more predictable if it’s coming almost half the time.

Vertical and horizontal break from Opening Day shows that Freeland’s curveball looked more like did before 2020:

Data courtesy of Baseball Savant

He only threw 18 of them on Opening Day, yes — but is that enough to paint a picture of the past six months of training?

Movement has regressed, but not to 2019 territory where it featured the worst curveball wOBA of his career (.405). This is a good thing, and perhaps it’s just Opening Day adrenaline shaking up those numbers to an extent.

The curveball velocity last Friday was also harder and closer to his slider, which could mean one of two things: 1. Freeland was more fired up than usual to rack up some Opening Day punchouts, or 2. it’s looking even more like his breaking pitches are two of the same.

The success of Freeland’s curveball could depend on the situation it is used. When he mixes five different pitches at a somewhat-equal pace, movement profile is not as serious as it would be for a reliever with only two or three pitches.

It’s still a big deal when Freeland picked up over half of his strikeouts in 2021 with his curveball.

Mix in some Denver altitude, and unnecessary contact can be the difference between a quality start and an early call to the bullpen.

Raw Numbers: RPM’s, Active Spin, Inferred/Observed Axis

Judging by spin rate alone, we can presume Freeland reworked his curveball during the 2019-2020 offseason:

Baseball Savant does not have public spin axis data from before 2020, but the below info will paint a relative picture for how the 2021 version of Freeland’s curveball was most effective:

Data courtesy of Baseball Savant

(Note: Spin rate generally increases with velocity, so 2022 isn’t automatically ‘better’ from a spin rate perspective.)

A low active spin percentage is not always bad — a really good gyro slider will have a figure close to zero — but a regression from last year’s 67% suggests Freeland’s curveball could be growing more like a slider as a product of gyro angle. This is likely the cause of the HB/VB near-overlap in 2018 and 2019.

Fortunately, the axis on Freeland’s curveball, both inferred and observed, is still the same. Maybe all it takes is a microscopic adjustment to get that active spin back — or maybe it’s even something that reverts back with more starts. (This could be the case if his curveball velocity dips back to its 2021 average.)

Freeland collected five strikeouts on Friday, three with his slider and two with his curveball. We can’t paint a full picture from a single start, but we can follow to see as this journey of vertical and horizontal break continues through 2022.

Maybe the curveball break will come back as soon as this week. Maybe Freeland didn’t feel the need to work on that pitch this winter because it was his best ever last year. Maybe a new animal has been crafted elsewhere in his five-pitch mix — and only time will tell if that 2022 product will push his career to new heights.

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On the Farm

Monday, April 11: League-wide off day for all minor league affiliates

New series starting today:

Triple-A: Tacoma Rainiers at Albuquerque Isotopes (home opener)

Double-A: Hartford Yard Goats at New Hampshire Fisher Cats

High-A: Spokane Indians at Eugene Emeralds

Low-A: Fresno Grizzlies at San Jose Giants

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