Medlen and Venters Providing Relief for Braves

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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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

16 Responses to “Medlen and Venters Providing Relief for Braves”

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  1. Temo says:

    Actually, Venters until very recently was still the 4th guy in the pen, with Peter Moylan being the 3rd guy. Then Saito went on the DL with a hamstring pull, and Moylan moved up to the set-up role and Venters moved up to the third spot. Now Moylan’s in kind of a funk, where he can’t find the plate, especially against LHB. So Venters started getting the set up leverage innings.

    And somewhere in all of this is Craig Kimbrel, supposed Billy Wagner-from-the-right-side, the Braves’ supposed closer of the future, and thrower of 99 MPH fastballs who has been bouncing to and from the minor leagues.

    And even before Jurrjens comes back they still have to decide on Chris Resop, who, if not traded, will either push Medlen back to the pen or himself join the pen.

    It’s a messy yet pleasant problem to have if you’re a Braves fan.

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  2. Andrew says:

    Michael Dunn has been sensational at AAA as well.

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  3. DonCoburleone says:

    Great article. As a big time Braves fan I’m completely aware of the huge contributions from these two pitchers, especially Medlen. Yesterday’s game against one of the better AL Lineups was a thing of beauty. Span-Mauer-Morneau is probably the best Lefty-Lefty-Lefty trio atop a lineup in the game, and yet the right handed Medlen and his nasty change-up had no problem with them.

    And just as an additional point to the article i’ve been hearing (Dave O’brien of the AJC and the website Capitol Avenue Club both believe this to be true) that once Jurrjens is back healthy that Medlen will be moved back into the bullpen in order to keep his innings down. He only threw 105IP total between AAA and the majors last year and only 120IP in AA in 2008. Capitol Avenue Club is speculating that the Braves brass don’t want him throwing more than 130IP this year.

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  4. Kevin S. says:

    The funny thing about Medlan’s HRs is that he was actually giving up more fly balls out of the bullpen, but his HR/FB was unsustainably low. Now he’s got his fly-ball rate down to a very manageable 35% as a starter (in line with his brief career), but the HR/FB vagaries have kicked him in the nuts a bit, as it sits over 15%. I think we could reasonably expect that to come down somewhat, and that coupled with his zone-pounding tendencies makes him worthy of a starting rotation spot on a contending team.

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  5. Bronnt says:

    What’s funny to me is the ridiculous .137 WPA he got for his appearance on June 11th. That’s not a incredible total, but he earned that for coming in to face a single player, striking out Jason Kubel in a tie game with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 8th. He also earned a “win” for that.

    The Braves don’t seem to have gotten any offers for Resop, or if they have, they’ve been extremely unsatisfying since they seem poised to promote him into their major league bullpen. This is a rehash of the “problem” they had at the end of last season, where they had 7 viable major league starters, which forced Kenshin Kawakami into the bullpen.

    With the success of Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, and the aforementioned Arodys Vizcaino, the organization is up to its collective ears in pitching. They might become the only first place team in recent memory to be selling at the deadline.

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    • Temo says:

      Trading away young players is known more as “buying” than “selling”, no? Unless you think they can unload some of their vets (which I don’t think they can).

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      • Bronnt says:

        I don’t agree. A buyer is a team that has needs to fill, and spends resources to improve the big league team. A seller is a team that has assets which it doesn’t need, usually because they have fallen out of contention. In the Braves case, they may be driven to trade some of their pitching not because they have a gaping hole (maybe they could use a center fielder, but Melky’s bat is waking up and Matt Diaz will be back eventually) but because they have excess pitching.

        And what they ask in return may be prospects rather than big league talent-usually the teams receiving prospects are seen as the “sellers.” Certainly, they’d like to trade Chris Resop but the market doesn’t seem to have developed for him. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kenshin Kawakami or even Jair Jurrjens shopped around at the deadline. They’d love to find someone to take on Derek Lowe’s salary, but if they couldn’t find a taker in the off-season it’s unlikely they will now.

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      • Anon21 says:

        Bronnt, I’m certain that nobody in the org is particularly happy with the production they’re getting out the outfield right now. Whether the CF/LF mess is a “gaping hole” is a matter of opinion, I suppose, but aside from Hinske they’ve been getting replacement-level production out of those slots, and should be looking to buy a bat or two for the major league club to upgrade at those positions. I would be pretty surprised if the front office chose to rest on its laurels in a fiercely competitive division race like the NL East.

        Pitching-wise, the Braves surely have an embarrassment of riches, which makes it all the more frustrating to see Derek Lowe trotting out to the hill every fifth night. But it’s definitely not an area of concern; the Braves may be one of the only orgs in baseball who really couldn’t use another arm (or at least for whom the cost-benefit of another arm doesn’t make sense).

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      • Beer me! says:

        I have to agree with Anon21. The addition of a real OF bat seems nearly inevitable if they’re still in it at the deadline (likely).

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      • Bronnt says:

        Well, Anon21, you’re overstating the problem. I don’t think they want to acquire anyone who’s going to reduce Eric Hinske’s playing time, as well as he’s been hitting. So in left, all they need is a right-handed platoon mate, which they already have on the disabled list in the form of Matt Diaz. Perhaps if he continues to play as poorly as he did prior to his injury they might be looking for a left fielder, but for now, that problem has already been solved by using Eric Hinske.

        They might look for someone who can play center with more production than Nate McLouth, but it’s questionable whom they could reasonably acquire. Most guys who can play center and have solid bats have long term deals, solidly entrenching them where they are. They might be able to get Michael Bourn, but it’s debatable whether the pieces they’re interesting in dealing would be enough for the Astros. Chris Young is probably more expensive than they care to acquire. Nyjer Morgan has been likewise below replacement level, and names like Jim Edmonds and Mitch Maier are really unsatisfying. Who does that leave? Maybe Mike Cameron, and the Red Sox have anything but a surplus of outfielders.

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      • Tim says:

        David DeJesus is a perfect fit for Atlanta. 1.5 more years of club control and the organizations know each other well (Moore, Schuerholtz).

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  6. KJ says:

    Great article. However, Medlen was a 10th round draft pick, not a 19th round draft pick.

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  7. spike says:

    One minor nit – I am not sure how you can describe Jurrjens as having “pitched terribly in his first four starts”. 1,3 and 4 are certainly a lot better than “terrible”

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  8. Tomas says:

    And don’t forget they have Chris Resop. The guy has been awesome in AAA, as a starter, so they have depth. Jair is coming back soon. Kenshin Kawakami doesn’t deserve to have an 0-8 record, but he hasn’t been worth 7 million. Derek Lowe believe it or not has been better this season. 6 of the last 7 starts he has been worth the 15 million, he just looks much better.

    Big dissapointments: Jesse Chavez, Chipper Jones, and Nate Mclouth

    Yunel Escobar has played great defense, and his hitting has improved throughout the season.

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  9. ExileInCle says:

    I’m a die-hard Phils fan, but the Braves should be looking for a bat. I mean the Cubs are letting Nady rot on the bench, he wouldn’t be expensive and word is he’s healthy. McLouth is a joke although he did start real slow last year as well and the LF situation is blah.

    As for Medlen I am fan. I picked him up a few weeks ago in my NL only league. He was my Ely concilation prize, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I have a bad feeling that Jurrjen and Kawakami will fill the last two spots upon Jairs return. They will both have short leashes for sure.

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