DENVER -- Kyle Freeland is the kind of pitcher who draws in the audience. You see the steely glare, the Colorado mountains tattooed along his arm, the will to win. In 2018, he peeked into the batter's box, dissected the stance, the swing, the sign and knew he had an app for that. His four-pitch mix bedazzled hitters, leading to a fourth-place finish in the Cy Young voting in one of the best seasons in franchise history.
But what happens if there's a glitch in the software? What happens if an error message appears? Freeland suffered a system crash in 2019, a season you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. He spiraled from 17 wins to three, suffering the indignity of a six-week minor league demotion. As pitchers and catchers report Tuesday in Scottsdale, Freeland's future performance hangs over the franchise. If the former Thomas Jefferson prep star rebounds, talk of a winning record and contending can be rationalized. If not, well, there's a problem.
"I can say very quickly (last year) was out of the picture (this offseason). It’s something that for the rest of my career it should stick with me and be a learning point. It was a serious rut I was in, one of the lowest lows I have ever been in in my life," Freeland admitted. "And it’s something that I came out on the other side. I fought through it and fought through injury. ... Being in the position that I am in, you never want to ultimately let down your city. I wear that on my shoulder. Denver is something proud of. I am proud to play for this organization."
Humbled and hard-working, Freeland rolled up his sleeves beginning in November. After posting a 3-11 record with a 6.73 ERA, the left-hander decided to change his delivery with the help of bullpen coach Darryl Scott. For three seasons in pro ball, he used a hesitation -- "A flamingo pause," manager Bud Black called it -- to stay balanced over the rubber and prevent him from drifting on the mound. It worked well in 2017 and 2018. Last season, it was part of the problem, along with his inability to pitch effectively inside to right-handers and a changeup that never became a weapon.
New year, new motion, and, Freeland hopes, new and improved results.
"We wanted more of one fluid motion that would allow me to repeat my mechanics easier and more often," Freeland explained. "I have been working with (Scott) since I got sent to Triple-A in 2016. There's no cookie-cutter type of pitching. They understand that and understand it very well."
For Freeland, his delivery could work better than Amazon Prime and it won't be enough. He has to command secondary pitches. Tweaking his curveball could go a long way in fueling his revival, one that Black believes will unfold.
"He's going to be back. I don't the know numbers, but I am telling you he's going to be back," Black said, before explaining why. "Well first of all, the talent, primarily for me. The pitcher for me. His stuff. How he’s wired, his desire. This past season was a learning experience -- '18 was a great year and he made it through. I think you are going to see a little different delivery with momentum building, it will be more athletic. He’s working on his breaking pitches. There’s some spin stuff that Kyle really has taken a hold to. He's a confident, convicted pitcher. I think things just line up for him to bounce back."
The Rockies' nosedive mirrored Freeland's. After posting back-to-back playoff berths for the first time in franchise history, the Rockies won 71 games last season. Their pitching became the equivalent of the Broncos' offense the past four seasons -- uninspired and ineffective. The Rockies posted a 4.33 ERA in 2018, and sank to 5.56 a year ago, ranking 29th overall.
Freeland was hardly alone in his struggles. German Marquez's ERA inflated from 3.77 to 4.76, and the bullpen trio of Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee combined for a 6.00 ERA with a 4-10 record. Any chance of a U-turn centers on the mound and intertwines tightly with Freeland's fortunes.
"Buddy says all the time that great teams start around pitching, especially starting pitching. We are a core of guys who have known each other for a long time. We are young, still hungry," Freeland said. "I believe as a staff and, especially for me, this will be a bounce back year. Last year is over now. We have stuff to get done. We know what we can do."