Kris Medlen Getting Stretched Out

The Braves official website announced on Tuesday evening that the team is optioning Kris Medlen to Triple-A Gwinnett in order to stretch him out and convert him from reliever to starter.  The hope is that he’ll be stretched out and ready to start for the parent club by mid-June.  It’s unclear who he’ll replace in the rotation, but the top two candidates for removal from the starting five are Mike Minor and Randall Delgado.  What should fantasy owners expect from Medlen?

Medlen has spent his entire professional career shuffling between relieving and starting.  He has had success in both roles, and thankfully, he has experience starting in the majors (18 starts) which should provide an idea as to what he might be capable of.  In fact, he has nearly an identical number of innings pitched as a starter in the majors, 102.1 innings, as he does working in relief, 103.2 innings.  His ERA as a starter, 4.31, is roughly one full run higher than his ERA as a reliever, 3.30.  The difference is less dramatic between his xFIP, which is 3.74 as a starter, and 3.38 as a reliever.  Medlen’s formula success is the same being utilized in either role.  He pounds the strike zone, actually walking fewer batters as a starter, 2.37 BB/9, than as a reliever, 2.69 BB/9.  His batted ball data is nearly identical in both gigs.  The biggest difference is felt in his strikeout rate, which is 7.12 K/9 as a starter, and 8.07 K/9 as a reliever.  All-in-all, he has a 3.00 K/BB rate, a rate that will play well in either role. 

As soon as news broke of Medlen moving back to the rotation, I began to wonder how dramatically different his stuff looked as a starter.  My comparison of his stuff in both roles was imprecise, as there is no simple filter available to split his pitches thrown as a starter from those thrown as a reliever.  Instead, I decided to do what I deemed the next best thing.  I compared his PITCHf/x data from June 2010 to that data available from 2009, parts of 2010, and this season.  The reason I chose June 2010 is because it was one of only two months in his entire major league career where he started exclusively.  The other month that was the case was May 2009.  Unfortunately, he made just three starts that month, and one was a short three inning turn against the Rockies in his big league debut.  My reasoning for selecting a variety of periods of time in relief was that it would hopefully provide the most informative view of things.  Surprisingly, his fastball velocity was largely unchanged regardless of his usage.  His average fastball is around 90 mph in both roles.  Medlen’s fastball velocity is up a bit this year, more than a year and a half removed from Tommy John surgery, and it will be interesting to see if he’s able to carry that over to starting. 

He is credited with throwing two types of fastballs, a four-seamer and a sinker.  During the month of June 2010, none of his pitches were classified as four-seam fastballs.  That warrants mentioning because it partly helps explain his lower strikeout rate as a starter.  His sinker rarely gets empty swings, and he used it 64 percent of the time that month.  Also helping explain his lower strikeout rate is a significantly reduced whiff/swing rate on his curveball.  With two below average swing-and-miss offerings as a starter, Medlen is left with just his change-up to punch batters out.  His change-up is a good one, though, and it remains his best option to coax an empty swing from opposing batters.  New to his repertoire this year is a slider.  He has thrown it 12 times resulting in five balls, one called strike, one foul ball, two whiffs, and three balls in play (information provided on his Brooks Baseball player card).  If he finds success using the slider, it will bode well for him improving upon his career strikeout rate as a starter. 

The team reportedly would like to keep Medlen under 150 innings pitched this season.  That is plenty of innings for Medlen to provide value to large mixed league and NL-only league owners.  His upside isn’t great enough to run out and grab him in most leagues at the moment, but if he pitches well at Gwinnett, scooping him prior to a promotion is reasonable.  For now, add him to watch lists and keep tabs on his progress in the minors.