The Local Kid Made Good: Freeland Ready to Rebound for His Hometown Team
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When Rick Sutcliffe became a free agent following the 1984 season, there was speculation that the native of suburban Kansas City would come home, and pitch for a Royals team that was one of the elite teams in the game, capped off by a world championship in 1985, the seventh time in 10 years they reached the post-season.
In the end, however, Sutcliffe never gave the Royals serious consideration, opting to re-sign with the Cubs instead of their rival St. Louis Cardinals.
"I can fly home on an off-day (from Chicago or St. Louis) in less than an hour," he explained. "If I signed with the Royals there would be so much going on. The barber would want tickets and if I couldn't get them, he'd think I big-leagued him. I don't think people realize the outside pressure that comes with pitching in your hometown."
Rockies left-hander Kyle Freeland understands. Think about it, he was born just down the road from where Mile High Stadium once stood, 39 days after the Rockies played their first ever regular season game against the Mets at Shea Stadium on April 5, 1993. He was a regular at Coors Field during his days at Thomas Jefferson High School. And then, in June of 2014, he became the first-round draft pick of the Rockies, the eighth player selected overall, after three years at Evansville University.
But he welcomes the chance to pitch for the team he grew up rooting for, hanging out with his old friends, and in 2017 and 2018, playing a key role in the Rockies advancing to the post-season. The good times are better at home. And he acknowledges the bad times, like last year, can be worse at home because not only are the fans disappointed, but Freeland feels he is letting the home-town folks down.
"There is a pressure for sure," said Freeland. "I don't want to let the city down. I feel I have chip on my shoulder. I am proud to be from Denver and play for my hometown team. I understand that it is an honor that is rare. It is an opportunity I embrace."
It's also a situation that became part of Freeland's off-season motivation to rebound from the disappointment when the Rockies had to rally to avoid a last-place finish, winding up a game ahead of the Padres in the NL West. After a solid rookie season and then an eye-opening 2018 when he finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting while going 17-7, one win shy of the club record, and with a 2.85 ERA overall that included a Coors Field record-setting 2.40 ERA at home, Freeland's world went topsy turvey in 2019.
The encore for that dominating effort in 2018 saw Freeland open 2019 by working seven innings and allowing one run to claim a win in the Rockies season opener. He, however, went 3-11 with a 5.95 ERA in the next 22 starts in a season that also included a trip to Triple-A and a stint on the injured list.
It was, said Freeland, a wake-up call. It prompted him to reevaluate his approach to pitching, and has resulted in him getting rid of a gimmick in which he held his leg in the air during his wind up, in what manager Bud Black described as a "flamingo moment." It was something that started in his rookie season of 2017 with a subtle delay just before he sat his foot down , and expanded to where a year ago he was stopping high in his delivery.
"This game can be humbling," said Freeland. "But I have proven to myself and the league that I can pitch well and have a lot of success. Then 2019 came along. It hit me in the mouth. I learned from that. ... I was able to learn about myself and what I need to listen to and don't need to listen to, and to listen to someone who knows what's right and wrong for me."
And he has reworked not only his mental approach, but also his physical effort. He has dumped his hesitation in his delivery, . Early indications are positive. Oh, he gave up a solo home run in Thursday's two-inning effort against the A's, but he retired the six other batters he faced on six pitches -- one for each batter before a low back issue led to him coming out of the game an inning ahead of schedule.
Black and Freeland both seemed unconcerned about a long-range impact of the back soreness. Black decided to be cautious, knowing that there is still a month before the regular season starts, and not wanting to take any chances with Freeland.
"He's going to be fine," said Black. "
Understand, the Rockies see Freeland as a critical part of the franchise rebounding from the disappointment of 2019 to regain the post-season status they enjoyed the two previous years -- for good reason. Freeland did skip his scheduled start on Tuesday. It, however, was just a precaution. He is back on the mound, getting in non-game work, and got in some work against the minor league players on the back fields at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.
The lower back tightness notwithstanding, Freeland felt his effort last week against the A's bodes well for what is ahead.
"I worked in the off-season on pitching with a new delivery and it paid off," said Freeland.
He worked on it at the Rockies Salt River facility, where the Rockies are based in the spring. Rockies new bullpen coach, Darryl Scott, who had been Freeland's pitching coach at Triple A Albuquerue in 2016, and served the Rockies as a minor-league pitching coach at the higher levels in the system the past three years, oversaw the rebuild. Scott lives in the Phoenix area in the off-season, and oversees workouts for pitchers at Salt River, which fit perfectly with Freeland, who also has made the Valley of the Sun his off-season home.
"He is a great asset for us," Freeland said of Scott. "He has helped me leaps and bounds. Last year was a struggle. I was not able to repeat my delivery (with the hesitation). I started to question what kind of pause I should have, where I should pause, how long I would pause. (The delivery) got in the way. I decided to get rid of it, straighten everything out and be more consistent on the mound."
Freeland and the Rockies staff are confident that last year was an aberration for the lefthander.
He proved in his first two seasons in the big leagues he was competitive -- and then some.
After battling hitters, injuries and frustrations in 2019 he is ready to regain his stature as one of the better pitchers in the NL.