The Particular Skill of Kyle Freeland

As I write this, there are 115 different pitchers this year who have thrown at least 100 innings. Among them, Kyle Freeland ranks tied for seventh in ERA-, at 62. The pitcher with whom he’s even: one Clayton Kershaw. The next pitcher down the list: one Justin Verlander. Now, we’re a site that loves its peripherals, and, indeed, if you sort by, say, FIP-, Freeland doesn’t look quite so good. But he still looks strong. According to a peripheral-based version of WAR, Freeland has been a plus. According to a runs-based version of WAR, Freeland is a viable candidate for the NL Cy Young.

I don’t hesitate to say that Freeland has been overlooked. He doesn’t get the attention of rotation-mate Jon Gray, because Gray throws that sexy power stuff, and he gets those sexy strikeouts. Freeland doesn’t do as much of the basic stuff that analysts look for, so he’s flown for this long under the radar. But if you’ll allow me some freedom here, I’d like to invoke a couple all-timer names. The images might be able to speak for themselves.

It’s been a while since we had the pleasure of watching Mariano Rivera, but he still feels fresh in my memory. Rivera pitched into the early years of the pitch-tracking era, and there’s something about him that always stuck with me. Rivera was the best closer in history, and yet he leaned predominantly on one single pitch. How did he do it? Here’s how he located his pitches:

No one has ever solved the mystery of how to measure command. Command can take different forms. Guys like Cliff Lee and Clayton Kershaw have thrown a lot of pitches just plain over the plate. Rivera had a different kind of pinpoint command, where he’d just go back and forth between edges of the zone. Hitters didn’t know where they ought to look. You can tell from that image alone that Rivera knew how to locate. It conveys a certain message.

That’s one guy who came to mind. But since this is a post about Kyle Freeland, there’s another, maybe more suitable comp. I know that Tom Glavine is in the Hall of Fame. I do not want to suggest that Kyle Freeland is absolutely as good as Tom Glavine was. But, Glavine got one year into the pitch-tracking era before hanging them up. Here’s how he located, even at 42 years old:

It’s a similar idea. Compared to Rivera, Glavine had a fuller repertoire, and he had it out of necessity. But his whole game was bouncing around between edges. And I’ve mentioned Rivera and Glavine, and I’ve shown you their heat maps, because this is what you find when you look up Freeland’s performance:

The visual parallels are evident. Freeland has attacked to the glove side, and Freeland has attacked to the arm side. There’s no easy way of checking for similar heat maps, but this kind of split is not very common. Somewhat frequently, you’ll find guys who live on one side or the other. Freeland lives on both sides; he doesn’t live down the middle. No starting pitcher in baseball this year has thrown a lower rate of pitches over the middle of the plate. Freeland is staying away from the barrels.

It’s not very easy to write about pitchers who generate soft contact, because it’s not a skill that’s very well understood. But for whatever it’s worth, here’s every starter who’s allowed at least 500 batted balls over the previous two seasons combined. Freeland is the point in yellow. On one axis, you see actual wOBA. On the other axis, you see expected wOBA, based on Statcast.

Freeland has been a soft-contact pitcher, and he’s been a soft-contact pitcher while working half the time in Coors Field. His stuff isn’t so good that he’s racked up the strikeouts, but still he’s been unquestionably successful. What’s been Freeland’s key to success? I think it’s actually kind of intuitive. He throws a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a changeup, and a slider. He throws to both sides, and his locations are remarkably consistent, when broken down by pitch type. You’ve heard batters say that, when they go up, they don’t really have a prayer of covering the whole zone. Hitters look for certain pitches. Freeland seems able to read his opponents and keep them off balance.

I’m going to hit you over the head with images, now. This year in particular, Freeland has taken to favoring his four-seam fastball. This is where he’s thrown them, while viewing from the catcher’s perspective:

Consistent blob, glove side. Freeland has been able to get under the hands of right-handed hitters, and that helps to set up his sinkers:

A great pairing with the sinker: an improved changeup.

And then there’s the slider. To convey this properly, I’ll split by handedness. Here’s where Freeland has thrown his slider against lefties:

And here’s where he’s thrown his slider against righties:

The best place to pitch, in theory, is low and away. With the sinker, slider, and changeup, Freeland is able to remain low and away. But the glove-side four-seamer keeps hitters honest. It keeps them from leaning, as they did last season down the stretch when the book got out. In 2017, Freeland leaned a little too heavily in the low-away quadrant. The four-seam fastball is now a more conspicuous weapon, so hitters have to protect both sides. It’s not an easy thing to protect both sides.

Let’s quickly walk through a recent seven-pitch plate appearance. I know that Rene Rivera isn’t the best hitter in the league, or even the hundredth-best hitter in the league, but this should still give you a taste of Freeland’s approach. First-pitch sinker, outer edge:

Followed by a changeup, down and slightly away:

Ahead 0-and-2, Freeland missed just away with a slider:

That’s when he went to the inside four-seamer that caught a little too much of the plate:

He doubled up with another, better four-seamer in:

Then Freeland tried to back-foot a slider:

Three pitches away, then three pitches in. The at-bat ended with a low-away sinker:

Batters don’t always look that defeated. Freeland does make mistakes. But he tends to minimize them, and, when he makes them, he seldom makes them over the plate. He seldom makes them in especially hittable spots. This has been true of Freeland for a while, which is what’s allowed him to thrive despite a fairly unremarkable strikeout rate. It’s not the most comfortable skillset to bank on, but, honestly, after looking at Freeland with a microscope, I have become a believer in his ability to move the ball around.

Usually you figure good-command pitchers will be low-walk pitchers. Freeland has a walk rate of 9%. But to go back to the well, Glavine had career strikeout and walk rates of 14% and 8%, respectively. Freeland, in a different era, is at 18% and 9%, and — just this year — 21% and 9%. Glavine, over his career, worked around hitters, refusing to give them hittable pitches. That’s essentially what Freeland’s done as well. Freeland has a long, long way to go before anyone thinks about him as an all-time pitcher, but following the Glavine model is how he’s succeeded. I don’t know if he can do it for 15 or 20 years. He’s done it for 55 starts.

Kyle Freeland’s a guy who spots all of his pitches. He moves those pitches around. Plenty of pitchers say that’s what they’re trying to do. Few have done it like Freeland has. He’s an under-the-radar member of an under-the-radar rotation, a rotation that might just pitch the Rockies back into the playoffs.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

Great write up, as always.