Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/18/14

On March 5th, Christian Friedrich was inducted into the annual Best Shape Of His Life club thanks to this MLB.com article from Thomas Harding:

Even worse, he had bulked up to 240 pounds by the latter part of the season, partly because of his off-base workouts and partly because he had fallen into the habit of late-night meals.

But this winter, Friedrich spent a week and a half training with Phillies standout Cliff Lee. Friedrich, who said he was floored by Lee’s physical conditioning, dropped to 205 pounds, and he hopes to be in that vicinity during the season.

A 35 pound weight loss is certainly a drastic change, but as has been often chronicled, many of these off-season workout stories turn out to have little to no impact on a player’s performance on the field. In fact, so many players are noted to report to camp in the “Best Shape Of Their Life”, the story has become something of a running joke. However, getting in better physical condition can occasionally lead to significant changes, and it’s looking like Friedrich might just be an example of why these stories keep getting written.

A first round pick out of Eastern Kentucky in 2008, Friedrich was supposed to be a polished college lefty who could get to the big leagues quickly, but after a successful first year in A-ball, Friedrich hit a wall in 2010. He started the year in Double-A as a 22-year-old with hopes of ending the year in the Majors, but he struggled with elbow problems that led to decreased velocity, and in turn, his results weren’t particularly good. His strikeout rate dropped by 1/3 while his home run rate nearly tripled, and Friedrich ended the year with just 87 innings pitched due to skipped starts and poor performance.

Last year was more of the same. He returned to Double-A Tulsa, but was still sitting in the high-80s with his fastball and regressed even further, seeing his strikeout rate drop once again while his home run rate continued to rise. He managed to stay healthy enough to make 25 starts, but his results were still going in the wrong direction, and he was essentially an afterthought in the team’s plans after two lousy seasons.

However, Friedrich changed his workout habits over the winter after training with Lee (who he shares an agent with) and impressed the staff with his new physique and a 10/1 K/BB ratio in eight spring training innings. The work earned him a promotion to Triple-A to start the season – even though he never really conquered Double-A during his two stints there – where Friedrich showed that his off-season changes weren’t just a spring training mirage. In 30 innings in the PCL, Friedrich ran a 27/4 K/BB ratio while only allowing one home run, which is kind of incredible given where he had to pitch – two games in Colorado Springs and one in Reno, two of the most dramatic offensive environments anywhere in the sport. He also started two games against a Fresno Grizzlies team that is hitting .299/.358/.456 as a group, so his success in Triple-A demanded recognition, and when the Rockies needed an arm at the big league level, Friedrich got the call.

He got the softest possible landing in his debut, getting to make his first big league start in San Diego against a Padres offense that can only be described as lousy. Still, even accounting for the context, it was a strong start: 6 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 7 K. Last night, he moved up the California coast to make his second career start in San Francisco, against another not good line-up in a pitcher’s park, but this time, he was even better: 7 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 10 K.

In his first two big league starts, Friedrich has now struck out 17 of the 51 batters he’s faced, and he’s done it with swinging strikes; opposing batters have made contact on just 72.8% of their swings. His results through two starts: 1.38 ERA, 1.81 FIP, 2.17 xFIP. Not bad for a kid who couldn’t get Double-A hitters out last year.

Now, obviously, it’s just two starts, and it’s two starts in pitcher’s parks against bad offenses. If you look at his play log, the names of the strikeout victims aren’t exactly going to impress you.

Andy Parrino (x2)
Angel Pagan
Anthony Bass (x2)
Brandon Crawford
Charlie Culberson (x2)
Gregor Blanco
Jesus Guzman
Melky Cabrera (x2)
Nick Hundley
Orlando Hudson
Ryan Vogelsong (x2)

4 of his 17 strikeouts have come against pitchers, and even among the position players, you’re only looking at a couple of decent big league hitters. Friedrich is not going to keep getting to face offenses like this every night, and he’s not going to keep striking out 30 percent of the batters he faces over the rest of the season.

However, it’s worth noting that there have only been 34 games this season (out of 1,060 total) where a starting pitcher racked up 10+ strikeouts in a one start, and it’s not like the Padres and Giants have a monopoly on bad offenses. The list of pitchers with 10+ K starts in 2012 reads like a who’s who of quality MLB starters: Felix Hernandez, Jered Weaver, Matt Cain, Stephen Strasburg, CC Sabathia, David Price, Roy Halladay… Yes, there’s a few surprising names on the list – James McDonald, Jason Hammel, and Aaron Harang aren’t what you might consider dominating hurlers – but nearly everyone in the group is a quality starter. Even McDonald and Hammel, while not true aces, would represent a pretty dramatic step forward for Friedrich.

Of course, all of those guys have a track record of success, while Friedrich’s ability to get hitters out is something recent, and the lack of a large sample means we have to be significantly more conservative in projecting his future. However, we can look at things that stabilize quickly and note that Friedrich has made real changes from what he was throwing in Double-A the last few years. Here’s his Pitch F/x plot from his first two big league starts:

The fastball has consistently sat between 90-94, well above what he was throwing in the minors, and back in line with the type of fastball he showed in college. He’s also working in a change-up between 80-84, a slider between 82-85, and his trade big slow curve at 74-77. Four pitches with distinct movement, a fastball that runs up into the mid-90s, and an out pitch breaking ball? This is the kind of stuff you’d expect to get Major League hitters out. This isn’t what Friedrich was throwing in the minors the last couple of years.

While you don’t want to go overboard extrapolating on the results of his first two starts, it’s worth noting that the physical changes were noted before he had any kind of success this season, and the increase in velocity gives a legitimate explanation for why Friedrich’s results have done a 180 degree turn seemingly overnight. He’s still going to have to figure out how to survive as a fly ball pitcher in Colorado, and opponents will begin to adjust to him as the scouting report gets around the league, but Friedrich has put himself on the map with his first two starts, and all the work he put in over the off-season seems to be paying off in spades.

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