The Regression of Kyle Freeland

Kyle Freeland has to be one of the most interesting pitchers in all of baseball right now. How it is that a pitcher can go from finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting to recording a plus six ERA and eventually be sent down? How Kyle Freeland regressed to this extent is mind-boggling.

Freeland made his major league debut in 2017 and now has three full years of experience under his belt. His ascent to the bigs wasn’t a long one as he spent three years in the minors before making it to the bigs. Freeland is homegrown and was selected by the Rockies back in 2014 with the eighth overall pick. Seen as a top prospect, Freeland’s career progression makes sense, well, except for last season.

Freeland’s 2019 season wasn’t a great one. It was downright awful, to be honest. The only reason that he got as many chances as he did was because of his past performances in previous seasons.

Freeland never even had a bright spot during his 2019 campaign. Early on in the season, he was put on the IL for a blister. A month after being reactivated he was sent down to the minors. He spent about a month and a half at AAA before being recalled. His time in AAA was even worse. Through almost 30 innings he carried an 8.80 ERA. He didn’t deserve to be recalled but I imagine the Rockies were simply hoping that maybe things would be different this time around. Another month passes and he finds himself on the IL again, this time with a left groin strain. By the time he returned from that injury he only appeared in two more games before the season came to a close.

All of this comes after finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting the year before. This form of regression is just unbelievable. So, how did this happen? How did Kyle Freeland get here?

When I began taking a look at every single number attached to Kyle Freeland’s name I couldn’t seem to find an answer as to why he fell off in performance. His numbers showed what you would expect. There is a huge increase in barrel%, hard hit%, and average exit velocity. All signs that connect to his spike in ERA. However, there were no changes in things like spin rate, chase%, or pitch velocity. The metrics that usually indicate why there is a change in performance showed no connection at all.

Soon I realized that I had the wrong approach at trying to solve Kyle Freeland. Yes, Freeland did regress significantly in 2019 but not as much as one may think. Freeland’s performance in 2018 was simply a fluke. In 2018 and 2019 both numbers are overaly inflated and after a closer look, you can start to see Freeland for the pitcher that he really is.

The key takeaway from the numbers above are the big differences between ERA and xERA each season. In 2018, Freeland wasn’t as good as his numbers showed and in 2019, Freeland wasn’t as bad as his numbers showed. If you pair those numbers with his Statcast metrics, you can get a clear picture of the type of pitcher that Kyle Freeland is.

In truth, Kyle Freeland isn’t even an average pitcher. He is well below average who somehow managed to put together a Cy Young campaign in 2018. Those rankings don’t change much in 2018 either as there are no noticeable changes in velocity and spin rate.

When Kyle Freeland is able to be successful it’s because he creates weak contact. In 2018 he was in the top 9% of hard hit%. That took a turn in 2019. It seems clear that the Kyle Freeland we saw in 2018 was a fictional character. Although, I did find one way that Freeland may be able to turn it around. This solution won’t get him back to receiving Cy Young votes, but it can turn him around enough to remain at the big league level. The answer lies in his slider.

Kyle Freeland is a pitcher that heavily relies on his fastball. The past two seasons he throws it about 40% of the time. Between his fastball and his slider, that makes up for 70% of his arsenal. He also throws a changeup, sinker, and curveball.

I have included several images below depicting where Freeland throws his pitches. In each section the image to the left depicts his 2018 season and the image to the right depicts his 2019 season.

Kyle Freeland Total Sliders

Kyle Freeland Slider Whiff Rate

Between the two seasons being compared, there wasn’t any sort of noticeable difference as to where he threw his fastball. However, when looking at the changes in where Freeland throws his slider, a change can be seen. In 2018, Freeland used his slider more fluidly throughout the strike zone. In 2019, Freeland seemed to primarily throw his slider in the bottom left-hand corner of the strike zone. Freeland completely abandoned where he recorded a lot of whiffs on his slider a year before. The bottom right-hand corner of the strike zone was crucial for Freeland and his slider.

The change is rather significant. Out of the nine different squares that make up the strike zone, the square in the bottom right speaks volumes about Freeland’s change in locating his slider. In 2018, Freeland recorded an 18.75% whiff rate and the very next year that number dropped to zero.

If Kyle Freeland wants to be effective on the mound again then he is going to need to change how he uses his slider. In the end, it is highly unlikely that we will ever see another season out of him like we did in 2018 but Freeland can still be a big-league pitcher. The answer to Freeland’s issue is here and the impact that it can have on his performance is up to him.