When Kyle Freeland pitched at the University of Evansville, he thrived on defying convention. College pitchers are often discouraged from throwing inside because the hitters use aluminum bats, but Freeland did the opposite.
“We decided we’re going to flip it, we’re going to go in on these guys — and it worked, it paid off,” said Freeland, who does it with precision as the ace of the Colorado Rockies. “It isn’t something new to me; it isn’t something I was timid at first doing. It was completely comfortable.”
Something else was strange about Freeland in college: He really, really wanted the Rockies to draft him in 2014. He grew up in Denver rooting for them, cheering for their sluggers at the hitters’ haven Coors Field. As a professional, Freeland yearned to be a firefighter running into the blaze.
“The Rockies called my agents and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got these guys on our list ahead of Kyle, and if they go before him, we will take him at No. 8 at a discount,’ just because on draft day, there was some speculation about my elbow, whether it was going to break down or not,” Freeland said. “Once Aaron Nola went at 7, that was the last guy I needed to go before me.”
Nola, an All-Star for the Philadelphia Phillies, is one of only a handful of pitchers who have been as effective this season as Freeland, who is 15-7 with a 2.95 earned run average while staying free of elbow trouble. Only one other pitcher in the Rockies’ 26-year history — Ubaldo Jimenez in 2010 — has made 30 starts with an E.R.A. less than 3.00.
Freeland, 25, may not win the National League Cy Young Award, which will probably go to the Mets’ Jacob deGrom or Washington’s Max Scherzer. But given his degree of difficulty, he should at least be considered.
“He’s doing a pretty unbelievable job,” Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado said. “If you’re going to hold it against the hitters, you’ve got to really give credit to the pitchers — and I think you’ve got to give him a little more credit for what he’s doing. It’s hard to pitch in Denver, but he likes it.”
Freeland’s E.R.A. is just 2.36 at Coors Field, where Rockies starters are raised to be undaunted by the thin air and wide-open outfield spaces. Every Rockies starter this season has spent his entire major league career with Colorado. Only two other teams in the last 50 years — the 1982 Baltimore Orioles and the 2011 Tampa Bay Rays — have gone a full season without using a starter who pitched elsewhere, according to TheRinger.com.
“It’s partially by design,” General Manager Jeff Bridich said, adding that the Rockies had been encouraged by the quality of arms in their farm system. “If we could kind of rally around them and codify some of the ways that we were going to do things in terms of starting pitching, we wanted to go down that road.”
The Rockies have leaned heavily on their rotation, which ranked fifth in the majors in innings through Wednesday. They have followed the leaguewide trend of reducing their usage of sinkers, even though the pitch could theoretically mitigate the impact of Coors Field by producing ground balls. This year’s staff has produced the most strikeouts and the lowest WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) in club history.
“The spin rate, the swing-and-miss, those things are important to us,” said the pitching coach Steve Foster, who also emphasizes mental toughness. “Our mantra is that altitude matters, but attitude matters more.”
Freeland was 11-11 with a 4.10 E.R.A. as a rookie last season, but now he is throwing more changeups, fewer sinkers and locating masterfully on the corners; he entered September with the majors’ lowest percentage of pitches down the middle, according to Fangraphs.
“If I want to go in, it’s a mentality of setting my mind to throw it in, almost like you’re going to will it there,” Freeland said. “It’s a matter of having a feel on both sides of the dish, trusting my catcher, executing our plan and just feeling where those pitches are going out of my fingertips.”
Freeland is also staying strong after fading last season and falling off the Rockies’ wild-card roster. He realized that the toe-tap in his delivery was keeping him from properly loading his weight, and now he pauses during his leg lift to keep a balanced foundation. He is also pitching from the third base side of the rubber again, which keeps him from throwing across his body and makes it easier to hit the corners.
Beyond the mechanical changes is a competitive streak that shows up on the mound and off.
“It’s funny, we were playing cornhole at a teammate’s house, and he needed to make a few shots and it was just — boom, boom, boom,” catcher Chris Iannetta said. “He’s one of those guys you just don’t want to play any type of sport against. He’s going to just rise above and find a way.”
Rising above is a fitting term for Freeland, who has “5280” tattooed on his right arm in reference to his hometown’s elevation, in feet, above sea level. He also has a lyric from “Victory Music,” a song by Machine Gun Kelly: “My city told me they needed me, so I’m grindin’ for that,” it says, with the script trailing off to form a mountain range.
Major League Baseball came to Denver in 1993, the year Freeland was born. He hopes to finish the season with something the city still lacks: an N.L. West title.
“We’re playing to make the playoffs in any way, shape or form,” Freeland said. “But it would be very exciting to be part of the first team to do that for Colorado.”
Coming a Long Way From the Bronx
Jim Edmonds won eight Gold Glove awards for his excellence in center field, including six with the St. Louis Cardinals. Yet Edmonds envies the Cardinals’ rookie center fielder, Harrison Bader.
“I wish I had half that speed,” said Edmonds, now a Cardinals broadcaster. “He’s pretty awesome to watch.”
Bader’s emergence as the starting center fielder has been one of the biggest reasons for the Cardinals’ second-half turnaround. Bader, 24, had a sprint speed of 30.1 feet per second through last week, as measured by M.L.B.’s Statcast system. No major leaguer on an active roster was faster, yet Edmonds was just as impressed with Bader’s will.
“Probably the best thing that he does, above and beyond most people, is he tries,” Edmonds said. “He wants to be good out there, and defense is just all about effort. It really is. You have to want to be good at it, and he’s one of those kids. You don’t see it very often, and that’s why it shines.”
Bader, a New York native and a graduate of Horace Mann School in the Bronx, plays with a relaxed intensity he learned as a member of the New York Grays, a youth organization consisting mostly of city children, many from the Dominican Republic.
“Understanding the type of game they play and what they bring to the field every day, how they go about their business on and off the field, it’s something I’d never been exposed to — and I loved it,” said Bader, who later played at the University of Florida. “I absolutely loved it, because it was very free, it was very relaxed. We were really just playing a game, like, ‘It’s all good, just go out and play with your boys.’ You’re going to be at your best when you’re at your most relaxed.”
When he wasn’t playing baseball, Bader had another New York experience any young sports fan would envy: His mother, Janice, was a marketing executive at Sports Illustrated, giving him behind-the-scenes access to a trove of archives when he tagged along in the summer.
“The offices in New York were great,” Bader said. “It was like a playground.”
Major League Baseball has a commissioner named Rob — as in Manfred — and so does the West Coast League, an 11-team, wood-bat, summer college circuit that stretches from British Columbia to Oregon. Its commissioner is the writer Rob Neyer, who lives in Portland, Ore. After impressing a club official with a speech at a banquet last winter, Neyer found himself in an unexpected role.
“I never thought of myself as an insider, but all of a sudden, I was an insider in almost every way possible,” Neyer said. “Not only did I go inside an actual mascot’s costume and get to appreciate how sweaty it is and all that, but I’ve also been privy to conversations about expansion and disputes between owners, territorial disputes, you name it. Almost anything you can think of that you’ve observed from Major League Baseball, I’ve been in the middle of it.”
Now he is back on familiar ground. Neyer’s seventh book, “Power Ball: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game,” will be published by HarperCollins next month. It examines a game between the Houston Astros and the Oakland Athletics from last September, essentially updating a format executed brilliantly by Daniel Okrent in “Nine Innings,” an account of a 1982 game that was published three years later.
Neyer, who has read “Nine Innings” several times and spoke with Okrent before beginning his project, uses the A’s-Astros game to analyze what baseball has become in the decades since.
“So much of baseball now, far more than any previous era, is all about power,” Neyer said. “It’s about power hitting, power pitching and power in the front office as well. The front-office staffs are immensely larger than they were 20 or 30 years ago, with dozens and dozens of employees, because the money’s so much bigger and the data’s so much more powerful.”
The Astros now stand at the forefront of the data revolution, as the A’s did in the “Moneyball” era of the early 2000s. The teams are now competing for the American League West title, with Oakland thriving despite a rotation of veteran spare parts.
“At some point in the book, I suggest that they have no immediate prospects in the near future,” Neyer said of the A’s, who are coming off three successive last-place seasons. “If there was one thing I could change, at least analysis-wise, it would be to somehow envision their rise this season. But I would challenge anyone to tell me how they could have seen that.
“In the book, I write a little bit about their young hitters and how they need to develop, and most of those guys have gotten a little better or stayed the same. But the story of their pitching this season is one for the ages. The fact that they’ve been able to thrive with their starting pitching all getting hurt is just bizarre. Nobody could have predicted that part.”
As he watches the pennant races unfold, Neyer is also preparing for the off-season meetings of his summer league. The job was more challenging than he had expected, he said, but every good story needs some sort of conflict.
“There were probably more difficult moments than enjoyable moments, but even in the difficult moments, I always had this sort of detachment where I’m observing from outside myself thinking, ‘Wow, this could make a great story someday,’” Neyer said. “I’ve taken extensive notes and saved everything, so if I ever decide to write a book, I’ll have tremendous source material.”
Going Out Swinging, Not Bunting
Last season, the Toronto Blue Jays somehow hit only five triples, the fewest of any team in major league history. This season, they seem poised to set another new low: Through midweek, they had just five sacrifice bunts, which would also be the fewest ever. (The 2016 Boston Red Sox had eight, and this year’s Red Sox, Angels and Athletics all have fewer than 10.)
The Blue Jays’ manager, John Gibbons, is not exactly a devotee of analytics, which tend to discourage the bunt. But the Blue Jays, wrapping up another fourth-place season, are not built for the play.
“You’ve got to remember about sacrifice bunts: You’ve got to have a guy on base that can run a little bit,” Gibbons said. “Or maybe we’re down enough that you can get a runner in scoring position, but you need more than just that one. It’s not that I’m anti-that by any means, like, ‘I’m never going to bunt.’”
In fact, Gibbons said, the Blue Jays actually do have a bunt sign.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “Nobody knows it, though.”
Gibbons, 56, is one of the more good-natured people in baseball, with the toughness of a former backup catcher but a charming lack of pretension. The Blue Jays, a team in transition, plan to replace him after the season, and Gibbons has tried to savor his final games at the hallowed sites of the A.L. East.
“I’m a fan of baseball and the history of baseball,” he said in the visiting manager’s office in New York last week after a trip to Boston. “This is a new stadium, but it’s still Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. You think back to the first time you were there. I managed a lot of games in those spots. You never know if you’ll ever get there again.”
“Josh Towers,” Gibbons said, smiling. “I’ll never forget him.”
A weekly notes column focused on the news, issues and personalities in major league baseball.
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