Are there changes or tweaks that the Atlanta Braves’ top three pitchers in the NLDS need to make when facing the Los Angeles Dodgers? I’ll take a brief look at their recent outings, successes and failures they’ve had, and the choices they’ve made in pitches that may correlate to success or failure. Pitching is an art, and it’s never as simple as plotting pitches on a graph. Nonetheless, this type of analysis does aid us in trying to understand how minute changes in pitch choices can positively or negatively impact the outcome of a pitching performance. Let’s get started.
Kris Medlen (RHP)
For all the talk about how good Clayton Kershaw has been all year, (and who can disagree?) Kris Medlen has been every bit as good the latter part of this season. In the month of September, Medlen is 4-0, and has delivered an amazing 1.00 ERA and 0.917 WHIP. During the same month, Kris delivered 33 strikeouts with only 8 walks, and gave up just 4 runs with 0 homers. In short, he’s gotten increasingly better as the season has progressed and is now pitching like the Medlen that amazed us the last three months of the 2012 season.
Are there obvious reasons why Medlen is suddenly back to that amazing form he had on the tail end of the 2012 season? It’s not as simple as Kris just getting that form back. As the graph below shows, in those white-hot last few months of the 2012 season, Medlen increased the use of his sinkers and four seamers, decreased the use of his curveball, and maintained a steady use of his changeup. The results were spectacular.
A quick look at Medlen’s percentages of pitches for the last few months of this season show that while he’d been spectacular late this season as well, his pitch usage has changed some. That change indicates more than a simple return to form, but an evolving Kris Medlen who is even more capable of the kind of command that Kershaw displays. Unlike last season, Kris has actually figured out that his sinker is not as good and has decreased the use of it. He has developed a much better change up and four seamer and has dramatically increased his use of those pitches. Medlen has even improved his curve, but has learned not to use it too much.
This season, only Skip Schumaker (3 for 6), Yasiel Puig (1 for 3), and Tim Federowicz (2 for 6) have had any level of success against Medlen, and while there are other dangerous hitters in the Dodger lineup, if Medlen maintains his control of late, he has a good chance to baffle and set a good tone for the series.
Mike Minor (LHP)
Minor has been pretty good this year, and for much of the season was probably the best starting pitcher for the Atlanta Braves. Lately, he’s been struggling with giving up runs early, and home runs in particular. An analysis of the pitches he’s been using may give us a clue to his struggles. In the graph below, you’ll notice that Mike’s fastball use has dropped dramatically in the last month, while his cutter and curve ball usage have increased slightly. It’s hard to argue generally with Mike’s pitch decision except early in the game. Once he settles in, he generally pitches well and holds batters to few hits. The question is what in those changes might be the culprit early. It could be simply that Mike’s arm is a bit tired, but he may need to try and throw more four seamers, and less cutters and curves early in games. I realize it’s not that simple, but his changes in pitches lately has not worked early in games.
Julio Teheran (RHP)
Teheran has been pretty good all year, and a pleasant surprise in the rotation for a player in his first full year as a Big Leaguer. That said, his month of September was not quite as good. In July in August, Teheran’s ERA was below 3.00, but his September ERA ballooned to 4.44. As we’ve been looking at each of Atlanta’s NLDS starter’s pitch selections, we’ll take a look at Teheran’s as well. The graph below shows a sharp increase in a number of Teheran’s pitches, including his slider, sinker, and changeup. We also see a marked decrease in his use of the four seamer, and a smaller decrease in the use of the curve ball. Baseball is never as simple as a pitches plotted on a graph, but the plot may well show that what Teheran needs to do to be more successful is to increase the use of his four seamer, and level off a touch on the use of his sinker and slider.
Keep Your Eyes Open
Again, baseball is never as simple as merely plotting a graph and making changes as needed. If it were that simple, you could plot changes, show the graphs to the pitchers, and just tell them to make the changes. Ballparks, conditions, hitters, injuries, fatigue, and a host of other intangibles play into the kind of pitches and decisions about pitches that pitchers and catchers and managers make. That said, I always find it interesting how often these graphs are accurate. I’ve often seen a pitcher begin to pitch much better, and then when pitch choices are plotted on a graph, you see outcomes improve.
Medlen has been white hot, and probably shouldn’t change a thing. As for Minor and Teheran though – let’s assume they need to make some of the changes I’ve suggested. Keep your eye on them when they pitch in this NLDS, and look for the following:
Minor: Look to see if he throws a good amount of controlled, four seamers early in the game, and decreasing his reliance on cutters and curves. One simple way to do that if you are not an aficionado of pitch types by eye test only, is to use MLB’s Gameday while you watch the game. They generally do a good job of telling you what a pitcher is tossing.
Teheran: Similar to Minor, look to see if Teheran increases the use of his controlled four seamers, and decreases the use of his sinkers and sliders. Again, I realize it’s not quite that simple, but it’s a starting place, and an interesting experiment. All three of Atlanta’s starters I’ve profiled here are good pitchers, but every pitcher has to be willing to make small changes when it’s late in the season, arms are tired, and you’re facing the best hitters and best teams in the league. Hopefully, whatever changes Atlanta’s pitchers need to make will be made. It’s vital that the Braves hang with the Dodgers in terms of pitching, at least in the first couple games.