If you are a Rockies fan and you are looking for a target upon which to launch your blame arrows for a horrible season, the easy bullseye would be the top of the starting rotation. In 2018 it finally looked like Dinger’s Heroes had finally found two arms to build upon in Kyle Freeland and German Marquez. Freeland finished 4th in the Cy Young voting in 2018 – the highest finish by a Rockies pitcher since Ubaldo Jimenez finished 3rd in 2010 and the only other top 5 finish other than Marvin Freeman in 1994. Only one other pitcher in Rockies history has finished in the top 10, so yeah – it’s hard to pitch in Coors Field. Marquez broke out in 2018 as a 23 year old and it looked like he might even be the better of the two young arms at the top of the rotation for years to come. So 2019 began with high expectations for both young hurlers (Freeland is 26) who had seemingly leapt over Jon Gray as the most promising future ace for Colorado. So when Freeland’s ERA jumped nearly 4 points, the dreams of a postseason berth came crashing down upon the rocky landscape. Marquez also saw his ERA increase by nearly a full point from 2018 so he couldn’t make up for Freeland’s seeming implosion. Was Freeland permanently broken and had Marquez pitched over his head in 2018?
Kyle Freeland is much loved in Denver in part because he is a local boy, but also because he pitched like an ace in 2018 and helped the Rockies make the playoffs for only the second time since 2010. Unlike Marquez and Gray, Freeland doesn’t throw particularly hard by today’s standards with a fastball that averages about 92 MPH. Where he has succeeded in the past, and most strikingly in 2018, was his ability to limit the home run, and use his five pitch mix to keep hitters off balance enough to limit their ability to barrel the ball. One thing Freeland, or his team, did extremely well in 2018 was turn the double play. Freeland led the NL in inducing double plays with 24. He fell to 37th in 2019 mostly due to the drop off in the number of starts he made in the majors – Freeland pitched just over half as many innings in 2019 as he did in 2018 and had exactly half as many double plays so that seems to be a tool for Freeland – inducing double plays. What’s interesting is that while Freeland gets a decent number of ground balls, he wasn’t even in the top three in his own rotation in ground balls to fly balls ratio in 2018 but finished 5th in the NL in ground ball outs. In part that is due to his lower strikeout rate. Freeland fanned 7.7 batters per nine in 2018, good for 4th on the Rockies rotation. Basically in 2018 Freeland threw a ton of pitches – 2nd most in the NL, had a lot of runners on base – 33rd in the NL in WHIP, and stranded a ton of baserunners leaving 82.8 percent of runners on base – that is a really high strand rate. League average was 72.8%. Is that strand rate a “feature” of Kyle Freeland as a pitcher or a function of something else like the Rockies team defense or just luck? If you look at Freeland in 2019 his strand rate was 62.1 % when league average was 73.1% – much worse, but why?
Digging a bit deeper, Freeland’s percentage of hard hit balls allowed was 32% in 2017 and 31.6% in 2018 – pretty consistent. In 2019 the rate jumped to 40.8% so he was getting crushed for some reason. His home run rate went from 0.98 per 9 in 2017 and .76 in 2018 to an astounding 2.16 per 9 in 2019. Throughout his career in the minors and the majors he had never had a season with a home run rate over 1.00 so clearly something was going on.
Sometimes when a pitcher implodes like Freeland did, you can find a drop in velocity or a dramatic change in pitching patterns or a Blass-like loss of the strike zone. But Freeland’s velocity went up a tiny bit on all of his pitches without losing any movement, according to Baseball Savant. In fact he got more horizontal movement on his change than he ever had. His four-seamer was a little flatter (less vertical change) than it had been in 2018 as was his change. Were these changes somehow responsible for Freeland’s dramatic drop in effectiveness? It’s possible, although one might wonder if the changes had more to do with something in his delivery that made it easier for hitters to differentiate pitches coming out of the pitcher’s hand.
The concept of tunneling has gotten a decent amount of press of late. Tunneling is the concept that pitchers who can effectively repeat their delivery will get more swings and misses when they pair two different pitches that are in the same “tunnel” at the point where the hitter has to decide whether to swing or not. If a fastball and curveball are in the same place at that point and the pitcher hasn’t done anything else to tip his pitch, then the batter is more likely to miss if he thinks he is seeing one pitch but actually gets the other. Conversely, one might expect to see an increase in swing rates inside the zone, an uptick in contact rates, and an increase in the percentage of hard hit balls if batters were seeing the ball better at the decision point in the swing. With Freeland in 2019, batters were swinging more often at pitches both in and out of the strike zone, missing on balls out of the zone more often but making contact more often on pitches in the zone. His swinging strike rate was actually up a bit, but his hard hit ball rate was way up as mentioned earlier. The BABIP against him went up a little bit but really it just got more in line with league average after Freeland’s “lucky” 2018 in BABIP terms – he went from .285 in 2018 to .308 in 2019. The increase in hard hit balls could easily account for the increased BABIP as balls that are crushed are harder to field. So hitters were getting to pitches in the strike zone and crushing them. Is that a sign that Freeland was less inscrutable with his pitches? There is definitely something going on. Pitchers who don’t throw blazing fastballs are probably less likely to get away with pitches over the heart of the plate, but in 2019 Freeland was especially easy to hit when he left one over. Batters missed about 3% less often when they swung at pitches in that zone in 2019 than they had in 2018 and they hit an astounding 43 points better. They also homered twice as often, so whatever Freeland was doing when he threw a pitch over the plate, hitters had a much easier time of it in 2019 than they’d had in the previous year.
After two seasons with a similar approach to pitching in terms of pitch frequency, does this indicate a possible change is in order? Based on pitch values, Freeland’s change isn’t very effective but until last year his four seam fastball was, and it is possible that the change set up the fastball to be more effective. If Freeland were to scrap the change would that make his fastball more hittable? That would depend in part on what he did with his other off-speed pitches and whether or not he can use them to set up his fastball. Just looking at numbers doesn’t make it clear why Freeland’s fastball was so hittable last season, and that is true for all of his pitches. Freeland wasn’t fooling anyone last season and without the ability to dominate, he has to confuse hitters. He appears healthy so it will be up to Freeland and his pitching coach to make sure Freeland isn’t giving any edge to hitters. That might mean changing his pitch mix, his pitch sequencing, his arm slot, or working on repeating his delivery – something to increase his deceptiveness. The Rockies are counting on a return to Freeland’s former effectiveness – maybe not his 2018 levels where he was an ace, but something like a 3 at least.
Even though German Marquez didn’t post numbers as dominating as in his 2018 coming out party, he was still the Rockies ace in 2019 crafting a 3.4 WAR season. The 24 year old with 93 starts in the majors has a career xFIP of 3.58 with all of his home games at Coors Field. He has finished 13th and 7th in K/BB in 2018 and 2019 respectively, and even though his K’s per 9 was down from 10.56 to 9.05, so was his walk rate (2.62 to 1.81) which is why his K/BB rate improved. Like most Rockies pitchers there is a huge home/away split. Last year his home/away ERA split was 6.26/3.67 – just ouch! So imagine him throwing his nasty five pitch mix in a pitcher’s park like Dodger Stadium and competing for a Cy Young every year. That’s how much potential Marquez has. The guy is still learning his craft and is likely to make adjustments after his home run rate and hard hit rate went up last year – and he isn’t 25 yet. His control has improved each of the last two seasons as has his ground ball rate. Limiting traffic on the base paths and keeping the ball on the ground to complement his punch outs should lead to long-term success in Coors Field as well as on the road.
Marquez is young, excellent, and improving, making his 2019 much less of a concern than what happened to Freeland. Marquez also throws quite hard and can tickle the underside of triple-digits which gives him a lot more room for error over Freeland. Freeland has a lot more to figure out than Marquez this off-season. There is still a path to success for Freeland although it is probably a bit of a mystery to him and his coaches since there wasn’t anything obviously visible in the numbers last season. Marquez is the ace and Jon Gray has passed Freeland as the number 2, but the Rockies aren’t going anywhere unless Freeland finds the magic again or someone in the system takes a huge leap forward in development. That last sentence is an ominous one because there isn’t any obvious help coming for Marquez, Gray, and Freelands. Pete Lambert worked out better as a hitter than as a pitcher in 2019, and Antonio Senzatela hasn’t put it together yet after 58 starts in the majors. Yency Almonte has flashed potential, but only out of the pen at the major league level. Jesus Tinoco looked good from time to time but his overall numbers were ugly. All this is to say that the Rockies need Freeland to be effective, and Marquez to make progress if they are going to do anything in 2020 because there isn’t a lot of obvious help coming anytime soon from the other young arms in their organization.