February 13, 2013 at 10:00 am by Mark Smith under Atlanta Braves
Kris Medlen was awesome in 2012.
Once he gained a foothold in the rotation on July 31st, there was no looking back for the diminutive righty. Over his 12 starts, he threw 83.2 innings (7 innings/start), had a 0.97 ERA (2.22 FIP), struck out a batter per inning (27% of hitters), walked 1 per 9 innings (3% of hitters), and had a 1.95 GB/FB rate. If the goal of a pitcher is to strike a bunch of guys out, walk very few, and keep the ball in the yard (which it is, I think), Kris Medlen did an amazing job. Just to put a few things in perspective, the best FIP in the majors among qualified starters was 2.82 (Gio Gonzalez), the 10th best K/9 was exactly 9.00 (Clayton Kershaw), the best BB/9 was 1.19 (Cliff Lee), and the 12th best GB/FB was 1.93 (Adam Wainwright). With all of that, Medlen set a major-league record when the Braves had won in 23 consecutive Medlen starts (though 11 of those were from a previous season). In other words, Medlen was really, really, really good. But you knew that already. What we want to know more about is how he did it and, more importantly, if he can continue to do it.
Our first step is to look at something Medlen is known for – pitch location. Here are his pitch locations against league-averages.
Not surprisingly, Medlen’s pitch locations back up the consensus thoughts on him. He throws a higher frequency at the corners, especially the low corners, and the pattern is much tighter than that of the rest of the league. What this indicates is that Medlen has control (the ability to throw strikes) and command (the ability to locate specifically within the zone). Though it’s a little hard to see here, Medlen does a little better at also keeping the ball down, with a stronger frequency nearer the corners than the League. These certainly help explain the low walk rate and high ground ball rate, but what about the strikeouts?
One of things I’m curious about is pitch location with two strikes. My theory coming in was that Medlen’s command allowed him to pitch out of the zone more efficiently than other pitchers. Most pitchers, in my opinion, throw a lot of 2-strike pitches nowhere near the zone. This would get some strikeouts, but it would also lead to more balls (and thus more pitches and a deeper pitch count). My thought was that Medlen stayed nearer to the zone but still outside of it, inducing swings-and-misses, caught-lookings, or weak contact. Going back to the heat maps.
On 0-2, he definitely hugs one side of the plate (in to lefties and away from righties), but he stays in the zone or just outside. The League goes a little further out of the zone and hits more of the zone.
On 1-2, Medlen shifts away from the side of the plate and to the bottom of the zone, but again, he’s hugging the border of the zone with the League still going further out of the zone. This makes sense as the count favors the pitchers, and they don’t need to be in the zone. Back to the part of the zone aspect, I find it fascinating how Medlen pitches. On 0-2, he varies his vertical pitch locations, but on 1-2, he focuses on switching his horizontal locations. As the pitching philosophy goes, he pitches up and down, in and out.
Medlen is now all over the zone, but he still tries to stay away from the middle of the zone. The League is back within the zone (need to throw strikes now) but is all over the zone, including the middle.
For giggles, let’s look at 3-2. Medlen is definitely within the zone now, with the small sample size showing some red spots way out of the zone. The League is definitely within the zone now as they don’t want to walk anyone.
This confirms my hypothesis somewhat. Medlen does, in fact, do a better job of keeping the ball nearer to the zone with 2 strikes, but those were simply against the League. What about specific players in counts that strongly favor the pitcher (0-2 and 1-2)?
Scherzer, Kershaw, and Verlander are very good strikeout pitchers, but they tend to run up pitch counts occasionally. Again, going so far out of the zone could mean a few ridiculous swings, but it also ends in a lot of balls. Verlander, a man who throws a lot of complete games, keeps the ball closer to the zone in pitcher’s counts, but even he gets way out of the zone. Actually, Medlen’s best comp might be Cliff Lee.
This is what “pitching to contact” should mean. It shouldn’t mean just throwing the pitch over the plate. While throwing strikes is certainly part of it, it’s not a very nuanced understanding. The phrase should be “pitching so there’s a possibility of contact, though not hard contact”. All of these pitchers throw strikes in 2-strike counts, but Medlen shows the ability to throw the ball just out of the zone and closer to the edge of the zone with more precision and accuracy than other pitchers. Let it go and risk strike three. Swing and miss? Strike three. Swing and hit it, and you’ll hit it weakly. Medlen’s Chase% (swings on pitches out of the zone) was 32% (against League 29%) and was in the 81st percentile. Meds isn’t messing around, and it helped him get through innings faster (13.7 against the league average of ~16) while still striking batters out. Strikeouts are good things, and if you can get them quickly like Medlen, you’ve perfected the craft of pitching.
After all this, we still have one question left – can he sustain this. This is, unfortunately, not a question we can answer. What I can tell you is that Medlen has great mechanics that he can repeat, which helps his command. I can tell you he throws a two-seam and cut fastball that keep hitters guessing which way the fastball will break, which leads to swings-and-misses and weak contact. I can tell you that he throws an excellent change-up with sink and fade, and it is 9 mph slower than his fastball, which is very good and off-sets timing. And I can tell you that the pitching models we use (FIP, etc.) all think his performance was legitimately awesome last season, though not 0.91 ERA good because that’s just absurd for a starter. If Medlen continues to throw strikes and throw quality strikes as he has, the comps to Greg Maddux might be the first comps to Greg Maddux that are actually accurate.
Now we just have to hope that he’s healthy and that MLB hitters don’t find a way to adjust against him without Meds being able to adjust back.