Coming off TJ surgery, Kris Medlen was a wild-card piece to the pitching puzzle to begin this past season. Much like a certain Nationals pitcher, Medlen had inning limitations, but the Braves decided to start him in the bullpen this season. After a couple injuries and a couple ineffective starters in July, the Braves moved Medlen to the rotation, and the last two months were as good as any pitcher has ever had.
Medlen’s career now consists of three seasons in a swingman role, splitting his time between the rotation and bullpen. After two average seasons, Medlen ended this season with a 1.57 ERA in 138 IP, starting 12 games and relieving in 38, adding up to 4.3 rWAR. Among all pitchers with at least 10 starts and 30 relief appearances in a season, his 256 ERA+ is far and away the best figure in history, as Jeff Fassero comes in 2nd with his 183 ERA+ for the 1993 Expos.
Medlen’s biggest asset is his pinpoint control. Along with walking nearly no one, 4.4% of hitters this season, he threw strike 1 over 65% of the time, well above the 60% average. Due to this aggressive approach, he only threw 3.63 pitches per plate appearance, below the league average of 3.83. Able to face 27-28 batters per 100 pitches, his .243 OBP against implies that he was able to get through seven innings in an average 100-pitch span.
While his K/9 rate doesn’t look great, his low BB and hit rates mask a great 23% K rate. His primary strikeout pitch was the changeup, with hitters missing it on 40% of their swings. His curveball also produced nearly 30% whiffs, and his 90 MPH four-seamer also got a fairly high 17% misses. While his walks were cut in half after moving to the rotation, his strikeouts increased from 17% to 27%. The total K/BB domination was the biggest reason for his 0.97 ERA as a starter.
An overlooked area of improvement was his batted ball profile. After allowing high line drive and average fly ball rates in ’09 and ’10, Medlen lowered the line drives and flyballs significantly this season. His LD% went from 22.5% to 18.5%, while his FB% went from 35% to 28%. These figures are the leading cause for the decreased BABIP and HR/9 rate. After allowing a .263 AVG and .419 SLG the first two years, this year brought a .208 AVG and .286 SLG. The 53% GB rate is surprising, considering the lack of velocity and sink on his two-seam fastball.
With his changeup/curveball mix, Medlen didn’t show any platoon splits in the BB and K categories. He was actually a bit worse against righties, due to the home run ball. While inducing many more ground balls against RHB, he allowed 10.6% of flyballs to leave the park, while lefties only left the park once (1.7%). Out of the 520 batters faced, he only had 12 3-0 counts and 25 3-1 counts, a tremendous rate. These are many of the reasons that he obtained all of the Greg Maddux comparisons. At the plate, he managed to not be a liability. His .121/.215/.152 line shows the four walks in 39 PA, also posting a small positive baserunning value.
Medlen is entering his first year of arbitration, and his salary will be very dependent on what position he is evaluated. Matt Swartz at MLB Trade Rumors predicts a $2.4M salary as a starter and $1.3M as a reliever. This shows the arcane nature of the arbitration system, as Medlen should not be compensated differently for the same performance. However, most believe the 27-year-old is a prime extension candidate. If the Braves want to buy out his three arbitration years, I would expect something around $12-13M in total. They could also throw a couple team option years of around $8-10M on the end.
Whether or not an extension is signed, the Braves will have a very good pitcher for cheap. His run at the end of the season was special, something unlikely to happen to him the rest of his career. However, he showed such great peripherals throughout his minor league career, so he may be able to become an elite pitcher if he stays healthy. While there are a lot of question marks in the rotation for next year, Medlen is not one of them.