Kyle Freeland isn’t satisfied with last year’s breakout season. That’s bad news for opposing hitters. The 25-year-old Colorado Rockies southpaw is coming off a 2018 campaign where he finished fourth in the NL Cy Young Award voting after going 17-7 with a 2.85 ERA and a 3.67 FIP. His 202.1 innings pitched — a workhorse total by today’s standards — were fifth-most in the senior circuit.
Continuing to get better is every player’s goal, so while Freeland isn’t looking to reinvent himself — that would be senseless— he does have a few new tricks up his sleeve. While his repertoire will remain static, where his talented left arm aims those offerings will have more variance than in the past.
“I’ve been working on new locations for pitches, kind of different ways to attack hitters,” explained Freeland. “I’m working on getting comfortable throwing left-on-left changeups, and on throwing a two-seamer inside to righties — that front hip shot. Throwing those two pitches will expand my arsenal a little more.”
The Denver native spoke primarily of his same-sided approach when describing the planned changes: “If you look at video from last year, you’re going to see a heavy amount of fastballs and sliders down and away to lefties. That’s the book on me. We feel that giving them another look won’t allow them to sit on that so much.”
The second side of that “we” is Chris Iannetta. Toward the end of last season, the veteran catcher suggested that becoming less predictable could be to a boon to the young pitcher. The idea was preemptive, rather than reactionary. By adjusting to hitters before they adjusted to him, Freeland could stay two steps ahead.
“It’s just a matter of how he can get better,” said Iannetta. “We’ve seen what he was able do with his current repertoire, and adding a few more wrinkles can maybe take him to another level. None of this detracts from what he’s already doing. We’re not trying to add any earth-shattering pitches. All he’s doing is throwing pitches to different locations, in different counts.”
In a sense, a different location can be a same location. Down-and-in to a lefty is the same spot as down-and-away to a righty, so Freeland simply needs to key in on the target and hit the glove. Right?
It’s not that simple. While the lefty has displayed solid command, both glove side and arm side, his M.O. has been to work away. Deviating from that, even in incremental doses, requires an altered mindset.
“It’s a mentality thing,” agreed Freeland. “You’re throwing a pitch that’s coming back to them, so it’s somewhat dangerous. If you leave that pitch up, and it kind of floats in there, it’s a pretty easy pitch for a lefty to hit. Same thing with a sinker in to a righty. It’s a matter of comfortableness, and what you’re used to doing.”
Visuals play a role. A changeup that Freeland throws away from a righty is obviously tailing toward an empty batter’s box. His mind’s eye is thus thrown off — the subconscious is a powerful thing! — by having it tailing toward the batter. As he pointed out, there is a danger zone lurking nearby.
“There’s definitely an impact,” admitted Freeland. “You obviously see which side the batter is standing on. Throwing that pitch and trusting that it’s going to do what you want it to do — in your mind, knowing that you’re going to get the same action you would with a righty in the box — is what you’re after. But again, it’s something that I need to get used to.”
Freeland doesn’t expect that to take very long. Nor does the person who prompted the augmentation. Suggesting new methods of attack isn’t something the Rockies’ receiver does at the drop of a hat.
“It’s something that’s going to depend on the pitcher,” Iannetta told me. “It depends on his ability to actually grasp something like that. Sometimes when you add another pitch, or add another thought, guys go in the opposite direction. But Kyle is a guy who can handle it. He can process it, and thrive on it. I see no reason that this won’t help him become an even better pitcher.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.