- Kris Medlen continues to work on his changeup, which shows promise, but he doesn't use it much out of the bullpen. While his size is less than ideal in the eyes of many scouts, Medlen pitches with great confidence and has ideal makeup for a closer.
-- Baseball America 2008 Prospect Handbook
This just in: Kris Medlen might turn into a pretty good starter. And that changeup? It's only turned into one of the most lethal pitches in the major leagues.
Because of his short stature, Medlen spent his first two minor league seasons pitching exclusively in relief. Five-foot-10 pitchers are rarely regarded as starting pitching prospects, especially when they were 10th-round draft picks who also played shortstop in junior college. In 2008, the Braves gave Medlen a chance to start 17 games at Double-A Mississippi, he showed the same excellent control he possessed in the bullpen and some began to view him as a potential big league starter.
It's been four years since that breakout Double-A campaign. Medlen has yet to start more than 14 games in a major league season, but he's suddenly become the hottest starter in the big leagues. He dominated the Rockies in a 111-pitch complete game on Monday, striking out a career-high 12 and allowing just one unearned run as the Braves won, 6-1. Medlen became the first Braves starter to fan 12 in a game since Tommy Hanson struck out 14 Astros last season and it was just the 14th 12-strikeout start by an Atlanta pitcher since 2000.
Seven of the strikeouts came on Medlen's changeup, which opponents are hitting just .087 against in 98 plate appearances ending in that pitch. Needless to say, that makes Medlen's changeup one of the best in the game. Here are the lowest OPS totals allowed on a changeup (minimum 200 changeups thrown):
Fernando Rodney, Rays: .235
Kris Medlen, Braves: .262
Tyler Clippard, Nationals: .367
Felix Hernandez, Mariners: .418
It's not as simple as just having a great changeup, of course. Medlen has to successfully set up the pitch with command of his fastball and curveball to go to the changeup as his punchout pitch.
Since joining the rotation on July 31, Medlen has now made seven starts -- and allowed four runs. He has a 50/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio, allowed one home run and hasn't allowed an earned run over his past four starts. The Braves have won all seven of his starts (and, amazingly, going back to 2010 have won the past 18 games he started). How important has Medlen been to the Braves' playoff hopes? They're 18-15 since he joined the rotation -- meaning they're 11-15 in games he doesn't start.
It begs the question: Why didn't the Braves put Medlen in the rotation earlier? According to manager Fredi Gonzalez, it was all about keeping Medlen's innings down. Like Stephen Strasburg, Medlen was returning from Tommy John surgery after making two appearances last September.
Gonzalez got in a little dig at the Nationals after Monday's game. "It was all limits to innings. It was basically the number that Strasburg is facing right now, 160 to 170, because they both were coming off the Tommy John surgery," Gonzalez said. "Where do we want that 160 to 170 to end? Do we want it to end in October or do we want it to end in August?"
Of course, the Nationals can counter that by pointing out they're still 6.5 games ahead of the Braves, likely relegating Atlanta to the wild-card game (the Braves are three up on the Cardinals and four up on the Dodgers).
It's also true that the Braves liked their rotation at the start of the season: Hanson, 2012 All-Star Jair Jurrjens, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy and Randall Delgado, with Tim Hudson set to return in late April and top prospect Julio Teheran gaining experience in Triple-A. Even after the team signed Ben Sheets and acquired Paul Maholm, it didn't move Medlen into the rotation until finally giving up on Jurrjens and sending Delgado down to the minors.
In fact, it's possible Gonzalez is delving into a little revisionist history. After Medlen won his first start, Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote that Medlen was scheduled for only one more start, at which point "the Braves would have a decision to make." Schultz outlined the Braves' options at that point, with Hanson returning from the disabled list: Move Medlen to the 'pen, move Hanson to the pen, go to a six-man rotation.
Gonzalez decided to go to a six-man rotation, although that lasted only a few weeks after Sheets landed on the DL after his Aug. 24 start.
Another issue is it wasn't exactly a strong indication while Medlen was pitching in relief that he should move to the rotation: He had averaged 6.0 K's per nine innings, with a 2.8 SO/BB ratio in 54 innings in relief, hardly a dominating total for a reliever. Plus, there was the belief that Medlen was carrying an important workload and saving innings from Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters, who memorably tired during the stretch last year. But since moving into the rotation, Medlen's K rate has jumped up to 9.1 per nine innings as a starter with that phenomenal strikeout-to-walk ratio.
There's no way the Braves could have seen this coming. Certainly, if they had expected Medlen to be close to this good, they would have made the move earlier, innings "limit" or not.
As for Medlen, he explained after the game some of the reasons for his success, like using his curve more as a starter. "You can just attack guys so differently with an extra pitch, an effective pitch, too," he said. "I got a couple strikeouts with it." He also noted how starting is different from relieving. "You're not throwing as many innings, but you're getting up and warming up just as much as anybody. I love the starting part because you can get four days to prepare your arm."
Regardless of how Medlen ended up in the rotation, the Braves have an ace to replace early-season NL leader Beachy, who went down in June with Tommy John surgery of his own. If the Braves do end up in that one-game playoff, you can bet whom Gonzalez is lining up to start it. Not bad for a former junior college shortstop.
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