The mystery of Coors Field and Kyle Freeland's dominance

Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Kyle Freeland throws to the plate during the first inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels. (AP)
Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Kyle Freeland throws to the plate during the first inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels. (AP)

ANAHEIM, Calif. – If the place is a hitters’ paradise, make it the hitters’ paradise, and therefore Larry Walker isn’t a Hall of Famer (yet), and Todd Helton wasn’t an MVP (though Walker was, once) – and without getting too tedious, the place is a graded-on-a-curve graveyard for those sorts of accommodations – should the scale not slide equally in both directions?

If Coors Field spits out home runs and batting-average points and WAR dust like they come from XL T-shirt cannons, if it really is that simple, shouldn’t we be carrying even ordinary Rockies pitchers around on gilded litters, and shouldn’t the good ones get a little something for the effort?

This is not to say Kyle Freeland is better than Max Scherzer or Jacob deGrom or Aaron Nola, just as it’s not to say Nolan Arenado has been or is the best position player in the National League, not because they’re not, but because there’s another 4½ weeks before we have to decide. It is to say, however, that if Arenado is to be dinged for his home-road splits, and he presumably will be because Rockies hitters typically are, then Freeland should be granted a bit more love for knocking down 75⅓ Coors Field innings at a 2.27 ERA.

“The pitchers,” Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta said, “should get a bonus for that, right?”

Some perspective:

When Ubaldo Jimenez won 19 games for the Rockies in 2010 and was third in the Cy Young voting, his home ERA over 101⅔ innings was 3.19. When Aaron Cook was an All-Star in 2008, his home ERA over 109⅔ innings was 4.19. And in 1999, when Pedro Astacio was winning 17 games for the Rockies, his ERA at Coors Field was 7.16. Jorge De La Rosa, the franchise’s all-time wins leader, had a career 4.38 ERA at Coors Field. His record there was 53-20.

It is perhaps the only ballpark in which a starting pitcher’s sole objective is to mop up as much blood as possible in the shortest amount of time, to simply try not to pass out before the other guys’ starting pitcher, and yet along comes the lefty Freeland – 25 in May, in his second big-league season – to tame the beast. Again.

In all, Freeland is 12-7 with a 2.90 ERA across 27 starts and 164⅓ innings. Which is good. Fine. Better than fine, even. The numbers beneath the numbers – strikeouts, WHIP, FIP, other fancy stuff – also are good, if not quite with the National League’s aforementioned elite starters. They also pitch where they pitch while Freeland pitches where he pitches, not just occasionally (deGrom allowed an earned run in eight innings at Coors in his lone start there), but all the time, where the weight of all that hardball vulnerability hangs like storm clouds and has felled more than one previously impenetrable young man.

“I don’t want to be real long-winded here, because I know you have things to do,” Rockies manager Bud Black said, “but from – I can’t pinpoint the start, but somewhere from early May until now – it’s been really, really consistent.”

From the end of April to today, Freeland has a 2.54 ERA. From mid-June to today, 2.25. Fastballs at 92 around cutters and changeups, the occasional slider, not overpowering but clever, and precise. He’s learning to pitch deeper into games. He allowed five singles and a run in six innings to the Los Angeles Angels on Tuesday night, a key sequence coming in the bottom of the fifth when he threw a slider he hated – David Fletcher lined a two-out, RBI single – and followed that four pitches later with a fastball that froze and struck out Mike Trout.

Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Kyle Freeland throws to the plate against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the first inning of a baseball game. (AP)
Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Kyle Freeland throws to the plate against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the first inning of a baseball game. (AP)

“Just the consistency in performance has been as good as anybody in the game,” Black said.

Then he ticked off all the pitching coach – in this case, former pitching coach – stuff:

Disrupting timing. Use of changeup. Committing to the slider, both sides of the plate. Fastball command. Consistent delivery. Repeating release point and arm slot.

“All the things that go into successful pitching,” Black said, “he’s doing it. Like the good ones do.

“So, to your point, in a park that has proven to be a park where there’s a little more runs to be had, he’s performing, and that’s not talked about nationally, in relation to Kyle. To your point, some of our guys should be talked about in reverse of that.”

All I’m saying.

Why he’s pitched better at Coors Field than everywhere else would be more of a mystery if he hadn’t done the same last year – 3.72 to 4.57 – while pitching 18 more innings at home than on the road. Maybe it just fits his eye. Maybe he’ll be the one, and this staff has more like him, who will not scare.

Even on Tuesday, when his slider wasn’t behaving, he seemed to actually miss Coors Field.

“The slider was really big here at sea level,” he said. “There was quite a bit of moisture in the air. … It was hard to control at times.”

Meantime, the Rockies, going on a quarter of a century – which covers the life of the franchise – without an NL West title, have a shot. They’re imperfect, but so too are the teams even with and just behind them. Thirty games will sort it out, with all the precision and randomness that comes with it. And why not them? They’re the ones with the negative run differential. The funky bullpen. Bright side, while only the Miami Marlins have a worse bullpen ERA, no National League team has used their bullpen less. They have seven games against the Arizona Diamondbacks left, and six against the Los Angeles Dodgers. And they have the players for it. Maybe an MVP type or, with Trevor Story, two. And, if not that, then they must have a Cy Young Award candidate. Has to be one or the other.

Freeland grinned.

“At the same time,” he said, “I still have a lot to learn. It’s definitely a confidence booster to have my name mentioned with theirs. At the same points in their careers, I’m sure they were learning all the same things I am.”

Throws strikes. Timing. Changeups. Sliders, both sides. Fastball command. Delivery, release point, arm slot…

And try to avoid Coors Field.

Unless you can’t. In that case, go get ’em.

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