During the off-season the Braves had the most wonderful of problems. In a league where starting pitching comes at a premium, having six solid starters under contract becomes a huge advantage. The Braves could choose to carry all six, keeping one in the bullpen in case one of the starting five needed time off. Conversely, they could afford to deal one of the starters to fill a hole. The Braves chose the latter, though they only nominally filled a hole. While Melky Cabrera can be a serviceable outfielder, the real return was top pitching prospect Arodys Vizcaino, who has impressed so far. Still, that left the big league team a little lighter on the pitching front.
We so often see teams with heralded pitching depth come up dry. Last year the Red Sox not only had a strong starting five heading into the season, but they had John Smoltz on the comeback trail and Clay Buchholz waiting at AAA. That depth thinned quickly, leaving them searching for pitching later in the season. The Braves have faced a similar, though not as dire, situation this year. While Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson have pitched admirably, both Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami have been below average to date. Even worse, Jair Jurrjens, one of their rotation pillars in 2008 and 2009, not only pitched terribly in his first four starts, but he left the fifth with hamstring tightness. He has been on the DL ever since.
The Braves had some flexibility at that point and didn’t require a fifth starter until May 8, and then not again until May 18. For those starts they turned to Kris Medlen, who had been pitching quite well out of the bullpen in his second major league season. In 12 appearances covering 17.2 innings, Medlen struck out 16 to just three walks, allowing five earned runs along the way. He also pitched very well out of the pen in 2009, striking out 53 to 19 walks in 49.1 innings. The problem was, he hadn’t shown much during his brief stint as a starter.
Medlen, a 10th round pick in 2006, actually started his career in the bullpen. He absolutely dominated the lower minors, earning a spot in AA by 2008. There he split the year between the bullpen and the starting rotation, starting in 17 of his 36 appearances on the year. That kept his innings, 120.1, in check and allowed him to show his stuff. In his 92.1 innings as a starter he struck out 90 to 21 walks and just four home runs. He then started 2009 in the AAA rotation and was even better, striking out 40 to 10 walks and no homers in 34 IP. That earned him a call-up, though he stumbled out of the gates. The Braves then moved him back to his native bullpen, where he was, again, pretty excellent.
In the rotation full-time since mid-May, Medlen has pitched his way into the Braves’ future plans. In 42.2 innings during his six starts he has struck out just 27, but has shown plenty of control, walking just seven. The only downside, it seems, comes from the seven home runs he has allowed. It’s not all bad, though. Three of them came in one appearance, easily his poorest of the year. Two also came in his second start, against the Mets, and both were solo shots. He’s been such a pleasant addition that the Braves will have to think hard about what to do once Jurrjens is ready to return.
Of course, once Medlen entered the rotation he also exited the bullpen. The Braves had a solid back end of Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito, but what about the pitchers before them? Medlen played a prominent role, not one that can be easily replaced. I’m sure the Braves didn’t think that Jonny Venters would step into a primary setup role when they called him up in mid-April, but sometimes crazy things like that just work out. The emergence of Venters probably made it easier for the Braves to move Medlen from the bullpen to the rotation.
As R.J. wrote at the end of May, Venters’s performance has been special enough to warrant a mention. At the time R.J. wrote it Venters had a 60 percent groundball rate and a 14 percent swinging strike rate through his first 17 innings. He has since added another 10.2 innings to that total, and things are actually going better. His swinging strike rate is up to 15.5 percent, which is second in the majors among pitchers with at least 20 innings. (First is a subject of a previous post, Luke Gregerson.)
This improvement is even more remarkable because he has done it in higher leverage situations. From his debut on April 17 through R.J.’s article on May 25 Venters had faced just two situations where his pLI was above 1.00. The first came on May 8, in relief of Medlen, in which he succeeded in holding the game. The other came against Pittsburgh on the 23rd, in which he also succeeded in recording the one out with which he was charged. Yet in three of his last four appearances he’s faced a pLI of over 2.00. His stats in those three high-leverage situations: 2.1 IP, 3 H, 3 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 6 K.
The three unearned runs and two walks came in the same appearance against Arizona. He struck out two in the inning but also walked two. After the second strikeout a runner reached on an error, which meant that Venters picked up no earned runs on the ensuing bases-loaded double. He did, however, allow the D’Backs to tie the game. His offense later bailed him out. Otherwise Venters has pitched brilliantly, even when the situations get tough.
Neither pitcher is perfect. Venters still walks too many guys, and as he showed during that meltdown against Arizona, that can haunt you. Medlen has seen one of his biggest advantages, a low home run rate, evaporate as a starter. He has already allowed eight this year, in 61.1 IP, than he did in all of last year’s 67.2 IP. Yet both have given the Braves hope for the future, both in the immediate and long-term. Both their rotation and their bullpen look stronger with Medlen and Venters.
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