Key to the Rockies Bullpen Improving? It Starts With a Return of Kyle Freeland

© Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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As the 1985 Kansas City Royals were finishing up a second-half rally from third place in the AL West to a division championship that would result in the franchise's first world championship, the late Dick Howser, manager of the Royals, was asked the key to the success of the team's bullpen.

"The rotation," said Howser.

Say what?

"It's about a team effort," said Howser. "You don't win because of one thing. You win because of how the pieces fit together, and each area taking care of business."

It's a message Rockies manager Bud Black, who at the age of 27 was the second oldest member of the 1985 Royals starting five, repeats in so many words frequently when asked about the importance of a certain play or certain part of the ballclub.

"It's not about any one thing, it's about the team," he will explain.

And it's the truth.

Think about it.

Those 1985 Royals built a world championship out of a rotation in which five pitchers 28 or younger started in 158 of 162 regular-season games. It was a rotation that ranked second in the AL with 1,077 innings pitched and a 3.43 ERA, taking the load off a bullpen that ranked 12th out of 14 teams with 384 innings pitched, but fifth in ERA at 3.66.

Black started Opening Day that year at the age of 27. Bret Saberhagen, who the year before jumped from Double-A to the big leagues along with Mark Gubicza, won the AL Cy Young Award at the age of 22. Gubicza and Danny Jackson, both in their second full seasons, were both 23. And the elder statesman was Charlie Leibrandt, who was 28.

Steve Farr started three games -- twice in the second game of a doubleheader, and the third time because two days earlier two members of the rotation started in a doubleheader. Mike Jones started the final game of the regular-season.

The Royals had clinched the division title the night before. The only regular in lineup for Game 162 was outfielder Darryl Motley, who was the DH that afternoon.

So what's that have to do with the 2019 Rockies, who head into their final series before the All-Star Break with a three-game visit to Arizona beginning on Friday?

Plenty.

Much has been made about the bullpen concerns, and there are cries from the fan base for the Rockies to add a reliever or two for the stretch. They might be able to do that, but the bottom line is for the bullpen to truly get better the Rockies need the rotation to step up, more than anything else.

What the Rockies need is Kyle Freeland regaining the ability to pitch like Kyle Freeland, and there are growing signs that in his stint at Triple-A Albuquerque he is ready to return to the big leagues and be a key factor in the franchise's second-half drive for an unprecedented third consecutive post-season appearance.

Yes, Freeland is 0-4 with an 8.80 ERA in six starts at Albuquerque. Look beyond the raw numbers. The eyes tell a different story. Scouts who have seen Freeland's recent efforts have been impressed with his movement and location, the two key factors for the lefthander's success.

And the Rockies do have a luxury that Freeland could make one more start -- July 11 at El Paso -- and be in line to start the team's fifth game back from the All-Star Break, July 16 against the Giants at Coors Field.

Now that's not to say he will be the savior.

But he could provide needed help.

The Rockies have been trying to stay afloat with only three dependable starters -- German Marquez, Jon Gray and Antonio Senzatela -- so even with the addition of Freeland they could use another.

It, however, is not out of the question that Peter Lambert, pushed back into that No. 5 slot with the return of Freeland, might take a deep breath and prove to be a contributor to a post-season run while getting an extended big-league baptisim.

Not only are Marquez, Gray and Senzatela a combined 24-13, but the Rockies are 33-19 in the games they have started. Meanwhile, the rest of the rotation is a combined 5-16, and the team is 9-23 when one of the six others who have started a game throw the first pitch.

And that does take a toll on the bullpen.

Consider that in 2007, when the Rockies made the late-season surge to not only claim the NL Wild Card, but made the only World Series appearance in franchise history, a rotation that compiled the sixth-best ERA in franchise history set the stage for a bullpen that finished with a 3.85 ERA, the third best in the franchise's first 26 seasons.

In four of the five seasons the Rockies have advanced to the post-season they have had a rotation with an ERA that ranked among the six lowest in franchise history. The lone exception? The first year of Coors Field, 1995, before the humidor was installed, and the Rockies rotation still had a 5.19 ERA that ranks 12th in franchise history.

Today, the Rockies have a rotation ERA of 5.48, which would rank 17th in franchise history, and has played a role in a bullpen ERA of 4.71, which would rank 15th.

A year ago, when the Rockies advanced as a Wild Card, and knocked off the Cubs in the Wild Card Game, the Rockies rotation led the NL in innings pitched, and the bullpen compiled a 4.62 ERA, the 11th lowest in franchise history.

As Howser liked to say, "A bullpen is good when you use it because you want to, not because you have to."

The relievers with the Rockies this year have been called on more for need than want.

And for all the struggles Freeland dealt with this season, Opening Day in Miami he reinforced what he has the potential to accomplish. He pitched seven innings in that 6-3 victory, allowing just one run (a Jorge Alfaro home run), two hits and a walk. He struck out five. He threw 93 pitches, 62 for strikes.

He was the pitcher the Rockies need to give their pitching staff a second-half lift.

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