Rockies starter Kyle Freeland, like so many other pitchers who’ve come before him, didn’t think he needed to throw a changeup. He didn’t want to throw the pitch. He didn’t trust it.
Now the changeup has become the left-hander’s best friend.
After four starts, Freeland is 2-0 with a 2.45 ERA. In his previous three seasons, Freeland had never thrown the changeup more than 14% of the time. This season, Freeland is using it 32.5% of the time — and throwing it on any count.
“He went through his hard knocks with that pitch, but he’s put in such good work with it, that now he’s confident in the pitch,” said bullpen coach Darryl Scott, who’s been instrumental in Freeland’s metamorphosis. “He’s seen it work, he feels it. It’s made a huge difference. I’m proud of him.”
It’s easy to understand Freeland’s resistance to change. After all, he’d done fine without it, thank you very much.
In 2018, his 2.75 ERA was the lowest for a full season in franchise history. A hard fastball, thrown inside to right-handed hitters, combined with a sharp slider and a cutter suited him just fine.
Until it didn’t last year.
“His first couple of years in the league, as a young pitcher, you’re unknown to the league,” manager Bud Black said. “And then the league adjusted to Kyle.”
In other words, the book was out on Freeland and things got ugly in a hurry. He went 3-11 with a 6.73 ERA a year ago and served up 25 home runs in only 104 1/3 innings. At the end of May a year ago, his confidence admittedly shaken, Freeland was optioned to Triple-A Albuquerque for an extreme makeover that included improving his changeup, retooling his fastball and developing a more useable curve. The results were not pretty: 0-4, 8.80 ERA and four home runs allowed in six Triple-A starts.
“I mean, I got the (crud) beat out of it when I was in Triple-A when I was forced to throw the changeup,” Freeland said. “I was giving up liners in the gaps. I was giving up homers with it. I was telling myself, ‘I’ve gotta keep throwing this thing,’ but at the same time, I was telling myself, ‘I can’t throw it because every time it gets whacked.’
“It was the developmental stage for me with that pitch. Looking back on it, I’m glad I went through it. Now it’s paying off with the hard work I’ve done with it.”
Black said Freeland has evolved from a “thrower to a pitcher,” and coming from Black, a former big-league pitcher, that’s the ultimate compliment. The changeup, as well as throwing the curveball more often, has been the key to Freeland’s turnaround.
“In pretty quick time — basically one offseason — this has developed into an above-average major league pitch,” Black said. “He has the confidence to throw it in any count. It has great action down in the strike zone.”
The keys to throwing a changeup seem simple on paper:
— The pitcher’s arm speed should appear identical to the fastball.
— The velocity should be 8% to 12% slower than a fastball. In Freeland’s case, his fastball is averaging 92.9 mph this season vs. 86.5 mph for his changeup, according to FanGraphs.
— Ideally, the changeup should have a combination of arm-side movement, known as “run,” and sinking movement.
Every organization tries to teach its young pitchers to throw a changeup, now more than ever. While big-league pitchers are throwing harder than ever before, hitters are learning how to catch up to the heat, thus requiring pitchers to vary their pitches.
As longtime Sports Illustrated baseball writer Tom Verducci wrote recently, fastball use held steady from 2010 through 2015 at between 56.8% and 57.8%.
“Then the fastball began to fall out of favor, slowly at first, but with stunning drops in the past two seasons,” Verducci wrote. “Fastball percentage starting from 2015: 56.8, 56.3, 55.3, 54.5, 51.9 and — drum roll, please — 49.7 at the start of (last) week.”
The Rockies, perhaps even more than other teams, insist that their pitchers try to work on developing a changeup because it’s a pitch that remains relatively effective in Denver’s mile-high altitude, at least in comparison to other offspeed pitches.
“For me, of the secondary pitches, it’s a pitch that isn’t nearly as movement-dependent,” Scott said. “With the changeup, you’re relying on the variance in velocity between your fastball and your changeup. It’s so important to have something coming off your fastball; something the hitters don’t pick up.”
Rookie right-hander Ryan Castellani, who made his Coors Field debut Friday night against the Texas Rangers, did not throw a changeup when the Rockies selected him in the second round of the 2014 draft out of Brophy College Preparatory High School in Phoenix. He was quickly told, however, that he needed to start throwing one.
“Coming out of high school, I was just a fastball-breaking ball guy,” Castellani said. “But as you work your way up, you realize that’s not going to work and the changeup almost becomes your most important edge.
“And for me, there were years I struggled with it. There were outings where I would not throw it and some outings when I would. And I just kind of got to the point where I would look back and see that if I threw about 15-20% changeups, it was usually a good outing.”
Still, convincing young pitchers to embrace the pitch is not easy.
“It’s really hard if you are used to pitching with a very aggressive mindset — like both Kyle and Ryan, who have aggressive fastballs and sliders — and then you are told to throw the ball straight and slow,” Scott said. “They think, ‘Why the hell would I do that?’ But you work with them in bullpens and you prepare them. When they start seeing results — guys missing on strike three or guys getting way out in front and popping the ball up — they start to understand it.”
Still, the changeup, which requires finding a comfortable, effective grip, usually takes time to learn, and even longer to trust. Ideally, the different grip cuts the speed of the pitch without changing arm speed, but it can make the changeup difficult to control.
“It takes a leap of faith, so to speak,” Castellani said. “You work on it, you work on it, you work on it, and you try to feel comfortable with it. And then, finally, you have to just dive off the high board and use it in a game and trust it.”
Freeland, finally, does trust it.
In his last start Tuesday — an 8-7 Colorado win over Arizona — he used it for two key outs. He got Eduardo Escobar to pop out to end the first inning with the bases loaded, and he induced a groundball double play with two on and none out in the sixth against Christian Walker, who had hit a home run off a fastball two innings earlier.
Freeland is striking out fewer batters this season than last — 4.6 strikeouts per nine vs. 6.8 — but he’s using the changeup more to escape trouble. After Tuesday’s game, he led the majors with seven groundball double plays.
The changeup has become a weapon that allows him to get ahead of hitters and keep them off balance, as well as a pitch that acts as an escape hatch.
“Throughout the minor leagues with the Rockies, everyone preaches — whether it’s coming from the scouting department, whether it’s coming from developmental guys, coaches, whoever — they preach to pitchers: learn a changeup, get that changeup down, make it a quality pitch,” he said. “So that was kind of saying to me, ‘A lot of people are saying this, and I’m going to go ahead and believe that this is true.’ Which it is.”
Change of Pace
Pitch utilization by Rockies left-hander Kyle Freeland
Source: FanGraphs and Baseball Solutions