Staying Loose

Free spirited Friedrich dominating for Asheville

KANNAPOLIS, N.C.To some, seeing Rockies lefthander Christian Friedrich picking up where he left off last year with the low Class A Asheville Tourists was a bit of a surprise. Most college pitchers taken in the first or supplemental first rounds the year before began their first full season in high Class A or even Double-A.

As Rockies farm director Marc Gustafson explained, he likes to take it a little slower with prospects, allowing them the opportunity to gain confidence by dominating a level.

"We do that for all of our players to give them a chance to have success before we move them," Gustafson said. "He got a little taste of the South Atlantic League last year, but he didn't dominate that league, so we give our guys a chance to settle in and gain confidence before we move them to the next level."

Friedrich's dominating now.

Over his first five starts, he went 3-1, 0.93 with 45 strikeouts and eight walks in 29 innings. Opposing batters who were actually able to make contact were hitting just .188 off him and the 6-foot-3, 210-pounder was generating a lot of groundballs.

Easy To Like, Tough To Hit

Friedrich hides the ball well and gets good plane on a fastball that is showing improved velocity this spring, sitting at 91-93 mph and touching 95. His curveball grades out as the best in the Rockies' system and his slider gives batters another breaking ball to watch for at 81-83 mph, often dive-bombing toward the back foot of righthanded batters. Friedrich only throws a handful of changeups per game, as it's a pitch he's still developing and learning to trust.

Friedrich readily admits the changeup is a work-in-progress for him and he's been tinkering with a new grip. It's still a circle-change, but instead of holding the ball with his middle and ring fingers running with the seams, he's now holding it with those fingers going across the seams, something he feels gives him more control over the pitch and more movement.

"He's been carving them up, as they say," Asheville pitching coach Dave Schuler said. "He's been having a good time of it—executing most of his pitches, four plus pitches with plus command the majority of the time, so it makes it very difficult on hitters when he's ahead in the count. He's an unusual talent, and I had Andy Pettitte and Eric Bedard at this point in their careers and I'm a lefthanded pitcher myself. He's got it all going on right now and the sky's the limit in relation to how hard he wants to work."

Schuler said Friedrich has shown greater maturity this year and a business-like approach to between-start workouts and bullpen sessions. He's focused on the mound but, unlike most pitchers who sit on the bench by themselves between innings, Friedrich is very loose in the dugout.

"He's a free-spirited character," Schuler said. "He's kind of jovial in the dugout in between innings. I think he stores up his energy and takes it on the mound to concentrate on the hitters. I was a little bit like that myself. The concentration is so great on the mound and when some guys might sit down and rest, I've found that he's standing up on the steps and talking to his teammates."

Undrafted out of Loyola Academy in Evanston, Ill., best known for being actor Bill Murray's old stomping grounds, Friedrich headed to Eastern Kentucky where he really blossomed. After an impressive freshman year, he spent the summer pitching for the Vermont Mountaineers where he was BA's No. 1 prospect in the New England Collegiate Baseball League.

Rare Company

Friedrich took another step forward as a sophomore and made it clear he was a premium talent in the Cape Cod League, where he was an all-star. The exclamation point came during his last inning on the Cape when he struck out Buster Posey, Jason Castro and Gordon Beckham, three players that wound up eventually joining him as first-round picks nearly a year later.

"It was probably the best baseball experience I've ever had," Friedrich said of his time on the Cape. "I mean, I played with some of the best players in the country. We had a pitching staff that was outstanding: Aaron Crow, Shooter Hunt, Luke Burnett, you could just keep going with all the names. We made it to the championship and lost the two games, but that final game that I pitched was probably the best I've ever pitched in baseball. So, it was probably the best summer I've had yet."

If Friedrich eventually makes it to the major leagues, he'll be the first pitcher from Eastern Kentucky to do so since fellow lefthander Steve Engel made his debut for the Cubs in 1985, two years before Friedrich was born.

To make that happen, Schuler said he's trying to get Friedrich to focus on making quality pitches and getting quick outs. An organizational focus with the Rockies is to get each hitter out in four pitches or less.

"He's working on keeping the ball down," Schuler said. "Trajectory is the main emphasis with him . . . and not throwing A-whips, which is what I call absolutely worthless pitches. He's been doing a great job with that. Bedard was a strikeout pitcher, he tried to strike everybody out, but Pettitte wasn't like that—he'd pitch to contact and I'm trying to sell that to Christian, so he can stick around and be out there in the sixth and seventh inning to get a win."

Despite the gaudy strikeout totals thus far, Friedrich has taken the advice to heart.

"I get myself too deep into pitches," Friedrich said. "If I go 0-2, I'll work it all the way back to 3-2, so what I'm trying to do now is trying to get guys out in four pitches or less. You know, get more groundballs or fly outs and make them make the mistake, not me. Instead of always trying to get that punchout, maybe trying to get a couple more groundballs, use the changeup a little more and keep the fastball control to get into more 1-2 counts instead of 2-1s."