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Should Kris Medlen Strike Out More Batters?

Kris Medlen followed up his unsustainable 2012 breakout with a very solid 2013 campaign for the Atlanta Braves.

On the surface, his rate stats got worse, but that’s almost entirely a case of a 1.57 ERA and 2.42 FIP being largely unsustainable. The strikeouts took a slight dip, the walks inched up, and the BABIP and strand rate regressed closer to league-average levels.

Even still, Medlen was great, rating out as the 27th most valuable starter in fantasy and adding just shy of 200 innings of above-average pitching for the Braves.

What’s interesting about Medlen for 2014 is that you can look at some peripherals and reasonably hope for an increase in strikeouts – his strikeout rate fell from 23.1 percent to 19.2 percent this year even though his swinging strike rate improved, jumping from 10.1 percent to 11 percent – and you can look and fear for a drop, because he doesn’t throw nearly as hard as pitchers who coax a comparable amount of whiffs.

In fact, that 11 percent swinging strike mark was 12th among all starters with at least 100 innings pitched. Melden had the third lowest strikeout rate of any pitcher with a double-digit swinging strike rate and had the lowest strikeout rate among the top-25 in swinging strike rate.

However, at least some of that is due to velocity – with a fastball that averaged just 88.9 MPH, Medlen isn’t blowing anybody away. Like his strikeout rate, his velocity is the lowest among the top-25 in swinging strike rate.
Back in May, I was able to use a two-factor model to predict strikeout percentage (with an R-squared of 0.75). Using this simple model, which uses just whiff rate and fastball velocity, we could have expected Medlen to post a 17.7 percent strikeout rate.

So yes, Medlen’s velocity may limit his strikeout potential. But that’s not that worrisome because he relies more on location and deception than overpowering stuff.

To wit, Mike Podhorzer was able to improve on my model, using a three-factor formula that spit out an R-squared of .89. He used looking strikes, swinging strikes and foul strikes as his predictors.

Using this model, instead – one that should better account for location and deception – Medlen would have been expected to post a 19.9 percent strikeout rate, just a hair above his actual rate.

Based on Pod’s formula, Medlen’s increase in foul strikes and swinging strikes couldn’t make up for a five-point drop in looking strikes, but his strikeouts were right around where you’d expect them to be. Overall, Medlen’s strike rate went from 69 percent to 66 percent which makes sense since he moved from pounding the zone to throwing just a league-average number of pitches over the plate.

So Medlen’s throwing fewer strikes, players are swinging more and their contact rate remains below-average against him. It might not be overpowering, but it’s definitely effective. His changeup, in particular, induces plenty of whiffs, per Brooks Baseball, speaking to the efficacy of his pitch mix:
If Medlen can stay right around the 20 percent strikeout rate mark, there’s little to suggest he won’t once again be a valuable fantasy commodity.

His 157 strikeouts might leave him at a disadvantage against some other top-30 names, but his ERA is one of the safer bets to be under 4.00 – he plays in a moderately friendly pitcher’s park and does a good job limiting fly balls. He also playing in front of Andrelton Simmons, who will one day force DIPS to evolve into Simmons-Independent Pitching Stats.

If 2012 was an unsustainable breakout, 2013 was regression to his expected baseline. Medlen’s not an ace, but the carriage turned into a gourmet cornucopia rather than an everyday pumpkin.