The Company That Kris Medlen Keeps

There’s a sentiment that the players for the Miami Marlins have more or less given up. Not too long ago, Buster Olney wrote about it, and Ozzie Guillen fired back in fairly colorful fashion. On one hand, since June 5, the Marlins have gone 35-61, better only than the Astros in the National League. On the other hand, since the start of August the Marlins’ run differential is essentially even. There’s some evidence pointing both ways, and when uncertain, it’s probably wisest to err on the side of professionals behaving like professionals.

Wednesday, it might not have mattered whether the Marlins have given up or not, because Wednesday the Marlins went up against Kris Medlen. The Marlins beat the Braves in ten innings on Tuesday, but Wednesday they were left as Medlen’s latest victims. The Braves scored three times, which was two more times than they needed to, as Medlen worked eight scoreless before handing the ball off.

Sure, it was a depleted lineup with Carlos Lee batting fourth and Greg Dobbs batting fifth, but Medlen finished with a walk and six strikeouts, which is always a delightful ratio. Medlen has now started ten times in 2012, and Wednesday was the fifth time he hasn’t allowed an earned run. Four times, he’s allowed one earned run. In the one start remaining, he allowed a whole two earned runs. For those of you who hate the idea of separating runs and earned runs, Medlen has allowed one unearned run over this stretch. His ERA is 0.76, and his RA is a tiny bit higher.

It’s become almost impossible to ignore the run that Kris Medlen is on, because (A) this is statistical pornography, and (B) really, Kris Medlen? Ben Duronio wrote about him here, weeks ago. Carson Cistulli wrote about him here, weeks ago. Medlen hasn’t slowed down even one bit, breezing through the Marlins after having breezed through the Nationals. (The Nationals have the best record in baseball.)

So Medlen’s started ten times, spanning 70.2 innings. I’m not going to include his innings in relief, because that is a very different job. Now, 70.2 innings isn’t a whole lot of innings, but it’s also a significant number of innings, and I was curious to see how Medlen compares to other starters in recent history. I went back to 2002, split seasons, and selected starters with at least 50 innings pitched. This left me with a sample pool numbering 1,946. Here’s how Medlen ranks in just a few important categories:

ERA-: #1

Closest comp: 2011 Josh Johnson

FIP-: #4

Closest comp: 2010 Stephen Strasburg

xFIP-: #10

Closest comp: 2005 Felix Hernandez

It hardly means anything to declare that Kris Medlen’s starter ERA is unsustainable. Medlen has posted a 0.76 ERA this year as a starter, and Mariano Rivera has posted a career 2.05 ERA as a reliever. It goes without saying that Medlen’s true-talent starter ERA is a lot higher than this, or at least it ought to. There is probably somebody out there who would argue the point, because Internet.

But look at the FIP- and the xFIP-. Medlen’s other numbers compare well to rookie Strasburg and rookie Felix. Rookie Strasburg and rookie Felix were national sensations. One notes that starter Medlen is a groundball pitcher with nine walks and 72 strikeouts. Out of every ten pitches, seven so far have been strikes. People want to say that Medlen is a mirage, because he’s come almost out of nowhere to dominate everyone he’s faced, but that argument rests on his numbers not reflecting his ability, because his numbers are some of the very best that we’ve seen over a decade.

It’s relatively easy to fluke a low ERA, but it’s much more difficult to fluke a high groundball rate, a high strikeout rate, or a low walk rate. I’m not saying it can’t be done, and Medlen is presumably pushing the limits of his talent, but the argument against Medlen has to come down to his stuff, since he doesn’t throw a high-90s fastball. What he does is throw his pitches where he wants to, and if you consider command to be a component of stuff, then Medlen’s stuff is actually quite nice. He’s got two fastballs, a changeup, a curveball, and a proper idea of where they’re going. We take a sample at-bat from Wednesday, featuring Medlen and Austin Kearns in the bottom of the eighth.

Medlen begins with a low fastball:

This is a borderline strike, a strike a lot of pitchers don’t get. Brian McCann seems like a good pitch-framer and maybe McCann was the one who sold this, but this at-bat lasted four pitches, and this Medlen pitch missed the target the most. It barely missed the target at all.

Medlen follows with a low fastball:

Perfect spot in the low-away corner. It’s a two-seamer, so it looks like it’s going to be outside before it runs back into the zone. This is basically the perfect 0-and-1 pitch.

Medlen followed that with basically the perfect 0-and-2 pitch:

That’s a low-away fastball that’s off the plate by just a few inches. It hits the target dead on, and it’s so close that many hitters would feel like they had to swing to protect. In the event of a swing, there’s not a lot that can be done with that pitch. In the event of a non-swing, maybe the umpire is feeling generous. This is how to throw an 0-and-2 pitch without wasting it.

Finally, Medlen ends the at-bat with a curve:

Medlen’s best pitch is his changeup, and Kearns didn’t see it. It didn’t matter; Kearns wound up out in front of this curve, which was just about right where McCann wanted it to be. It broke away from Kearns and wound up just off the outer edge. The previous pitch was the perfect 0-and-2 pitch; this pitch was the perfect 1-and-2 pitch.

Of course Kris Medlen is presently overachieving, because he’s posting numbers at the very top of the leaderboards. Even Pedro Martinez had his best season and seasons that weren’t his best season. The issue is how far Medlen will fall, and the more you examine him, the more you want to believe. His velocity isn’t outstanding, but it’s just fine, and his movement is superb. His ability to locate is matched by few others. It was weird when Cliff Lee first turned into Cliff Lee, but we all got used to it, because Lee could put his pitches wherever he wanted. Medlen can do that too, and location can make a repertoire really play up.

Turns out that Kris Medlen probably isn’t as good as his sub-1 starter ERA would suggest. Turns out that Kris Medlen is just a little bit amazing, even after you account for the coming regression. Never bet anything on a pitcher. Don’t even make friends with one. They are not to be trusted. You just never know what they’re going to do next.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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JT
Guest
JT
3 years 11 months ago

Excellent article. I love that Kris is proving that you don’t have to be 6′ 5″ and throw mid-90’s to be a top level starting pitcher.

By the way, he smoked the Marlins last night and didn’t even have his best stuff. He did have his A+ stuff when he smoked the Nationals last week.

busch
Member
busch
3 years 11 months ago

I think another guy proved that a while back. Maddux, or something like that?

JT
Guest
JT
3 years 11 months ago

When Maddux was pitching that wasn’t the prevailing philosophy like it is now. If you read current scouting analysis of young pitchers/prospects they are immediately tagged as a reliever if they are only 5′ 10″. Kris himself was drafted as a reliever but the Braves took a chance and moved him into a starting role.

Bryan
Guest
3 years 11 months ago

This explains a very small percentage of Medlen’s success, but it’s convenient that he missed interleague play this year, as a starter, anyway. Of course, his numbers would be amazing if he’d put them up against AA lineups.

Tshane
Guest
Tshane
3 years 11 months ago

Good thing he was pitching agaisn’t major league lineups. Including some of the best offenses in baseballs (nationals).

Josh
Guest
Josh
3 years 11 months ago

Med Dog.

DD
Guest
DD
3 years 11 months ago

Medlen Man
Medlen in Hitter’s Affairs

Neal
Guest
Neal
3 years 11 months ago

You Medlen kids and that dog.

Terrible Ted
Guest
Terrible Ted
3 years 11 months ago

Rx Medlen

Desertfox
Guest
Desertfox
3 years 11 months ago

Everyone needs their daily dose of Meds.

Brendan
Guest
Brendan
3 years 11 months ago

I was at this game sitting right behind the plate. Very impressive outing by Medlen, his change up is outstanding. Good article, Jeff.

jfree
Member
jfree
3 years 11 months ago

I really like the first two gifs. They do show how well McCann frames a really difficult pitch to frame. His elbow and his final glove position are identical. The first required a glove shift downward to catch – and was probably low. But he pulled it back quickly and right into his “see it’s a strike” zone (which was where the second pitch was caught)..

Michael Procton
Guest
3 years 11 months ago

McCann often gets (perhaps fairly) knocked for his defensive skills, but the man can frame a pitch and call a game.

Greg
Guest
Greg
3 years 11 months ago

That’s a bad job by the ump. That first pitch wasn’t remotely close to being a strike. The second was low but close. Any catcher can look great with an ump who’s easily fooled by framing – or in this case, just moving your glove 8 inches up after you catch the ball.

Micah
Guest
3 years 11 months ago
Phantom Stranger
Guest
Phantom Stranger
3 years 11 months ago

Anyone that has been watching Medlen start this year knows the results are no fluke. He’s simply showing an unprecedented level of command and control with his arsenal of pitches. If he somehow can keep hitting the catcher’s mitt 95% of the time with three different pitches, he’ll be a Cy Young contender for years.

noseeum
Guest
noseeum
3 years 11 months ago

Dave Cameron in a recent fangraphs audio still projected Medlen as nothing more than maybe a number three or number four starter. I just don’t see how anyone can claim that as his ceiling any longer.

Watching a few of his outings, he seems to do the non-pitching things very well. Good pick off move. Holds guys on base. Clearly has a very good idea in terms of pitch sequencing. Using the new WAR tools bears this out as well. He’s got 1.9 FDP Wins right now, and a 3.7 fWAR.

I’m not saying anything definitive, but based on watching him, I expected him to have positive LOB-Wins, and he does. For now it’s just worth noting until we get some more seasons from him I guess.

I think he’s at least got the potential to be another “sum is greater than the parts” type pitcher.

Anon21
Guest
Anon21
3 years 11 months ago

Frankly, Dave never admits his mistakes until six months after he’s been definitively proven wrong. He’s a really good writer/analyst, but he’s got a stubborn streak a mile wide.

Dirck
Guest
Dirck
3 years 11 months ago

I have been impressed with Medlen for a couple of years now and picked him up on all of my fantasy teams ,but I always had the feeling that the Braves weren’t.They seemed to regard him as a fill in who was only to be used when all other options were hurt or pitching horribly .Too many managers,scouts ,and coaches seem to focus on what a player can’t do . The good ones focus on what a player can do well and try to put him in a position where he can succeed .I hope that the Braves have had their eyes forcibly opened to Medlen’s ability .

TKDC
Guest
TKDC
3 years 11 months ago

Do you honestly think there is any chance they aren’t open now?

Dirck
Guest
Dirck
3 years 11 months ago

There’s a stock market quote that I love ” Markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent if you try to fight them “. It also applies to governments and those in charge of almost anything .

Michael Procton
Guest
3 years 11 months ago

Dirck, if you’re talking about how he began this year in the ‘pen, you’re mistaken. Medlen, coming off of Tommy John, would have had an innings cap similar to what Strasburg had. To get around this more cleverly and smoothly than the Nationals did, they decided to start him in the pen with the idea that he’d shift to the rotation some time around midseason unless the highly unlikely case of a five-for-five in health and excellent performance from their season-opening rotation occurred. They got value from him early in the year as a high-leverage middle reliever (unlike the Nats are getting from Strasburg now), and will continue to get value from him as a starter down the stretch and in the playoffs.

Ricardo
Guest
Ricardo
3 years 11 months ago

He has a chance to be the next Dave Fleming!

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