You remember Kris Medlen, don’t you? He of the 10-1 record last season with the ridiculous 1.57 ERA and 0.91 WHIP, world-beater Kris Medlen? You kind of have to squint, don’t you?
2013 hasn’t been nearly as kind (dare I say fortuitous) thus far. Medlen is still in the arena of respectability with a 3.78 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP, but his strikeout rate has fallen six percent to a ho-hum 17.1%, his walks are up, and in general, he’s been far easier to hit this year. What’s more, his last five starts have been just disastrous. Over his last 27.2 innings pitched, Medlen has posted a 6.51 ERA, 1.73 WHIP, with a strikeout rate of just 14.7%. His recent misfortune has resulted in whispers of moving back to the bullpen if/when Brandon Beachy returns from the disabled list (although this little conundrum might have been just solved by Eric Young). How has his star fallen so rapidly?
First things first, and this is perhaps the most obvious — we all might have expected too much from Medlen on a true-talent level. You didn’t expect a 1.57 ERA when you drafted him, but you were probably hoping for something sub-3.00 as Bill James and Oliver projected prior to the start of the season. And over the first couple months, that seemed like a real possibility. Over his first 13 starts, Medlen had a 2.87 ERA, holding batters to a .252/.318/.389 slash line. Since then, he’s had a 5.53 ERA and hitters have averaged .324/.361/.518. Yeeks.
Taking a gander at the usual suspects, there’s no perceptible chance in velocity for Medlen. But as you know, the velocity of his fastball really isn’t all that important as it was his change that did all the damage in 2012.
What is pretty clear is Medlen has more than just tinkered with his repertoire, he’s made a pretty dramatic change in his approach to right handed batters. There could be some quibbling about respective pitch classification systems, but I’ll use Brooks Baseball solely for consistency. And according to Brooks, Medlen’s repertoire in 2012 looked like this:
|Pitch Type||Freq||Velo (mph)|
And with this repertoire, he demonstrated one of the nastiest change ups in baseball, at 4.43 runs above average per 100 pitches, producing a 41% whiff rate per swing. His change set up his pretty average fastball, which also registered at 2.5 runs above average. His pitch usage so far this season looks like this:
|Pitch Type||Freq||Velo (mph)|
No real red flag as far as velocity goes and no real surprise that he’s gone to his best pitch a little bit more. But there’s a cutter tossed in there that appears new, even if it’s only 6% of his overall usage. The change is still difficult to his opposition — producing over 44% whiffs per swing, but his fourseam fastball is getting torched to the tune of a .295 batting average and .590 slugging percentage. Looking at his arm angle from last year to this year, it doesn’t appear demonstrably different. It could be his arm speed, but I’m not aware of any PitchF/X gnomes tracking that quite yet.
But the repertoire issue gets more interesting the further we go into the season. His last 30 days referenced above have been unbearable for Medlen owners. And looking at his repertoire since his June 14th start tells an odd tale:
For the visual learner:
That’s a pretty dramatic change towards more cut fastballs. To take this even further, it’s really an approach he’s gone to versus right handed batters (apologies for the flip flop of categories in the two graphs):
Across the board, he’s throwing righties more cut fastballs, and he appears to use it frequently as an out pitch. And why is this increased use of the cutter a bad thing? Opponents are hitting .467 and slugging .700 with a .233 ISO against his cutter since June 14. Prior to June 14th, he only threw a handful of them, so that’s pretty much his results on the season with this particular pitch.
Why the change? I have no facts, but a suspicion. His slider was getting hit hard this season, and the move to the cutter versus righties has come almost entirely at the expense of his sinker. But the results really haven’t been very desirable.
I’m not against chalking some of his struggles up to dumb luck. His BABIP by month has gone .282, .270, .317, to .403 in July. But based on his hit trajectory allowed this month, he’s earned a lot of that as his xBABIP sits at near .360 with a line drive rate sniffing 30%. This change in approach could be to adjust for some arm discomfort. Could be a blister. Could be he lost a bet. We’ll probably never know. But the new Kris Medlen just isn’t as good as the old Kris Medlen, and being as objective an observer as I possibly can, I’d say he might want to go back to the 2012 well and use the tried and true K.I.S.S. method.