Is Kris Medlen Good Enough to Lead the Braves to a Shocking World Series Run?
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Facing the Colorado Rockies—with one of the most productive lineups in MLB despite their disappointing record—Medlen pitched a complete game, allowing no earned runs and five hits while striking out 12 batters.
It was the fourth straight start in which Medlen didn't give up an earned run. He has not allowed more than one run in each of his seven starts since being promoted from the bullpen. That performance earned him NL Pitcher of the Month honors for August.
Until the Rockies broke through against him on Monday, Medlen had pitched 34.2 innings without surrendering an earned run. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's David O'Brien points out, that was the longest scoreless streak in team history since Greg Maddux pitched 39.1 innings without allowing an earned run during the 2000 season.
Does it need to be said that Medlen must be doing something very well if he's mentioned alongside Maddux in a sentence other than "He's not as good as Greg Maddux"?
As a starting pitcher, Medlen has a 6-0 record, 0.54 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 49.1 innings. Opposing batters are hitting only .206 against him. Medlen has also pitched two complete games, showing impressive stamina for someone who had been pitching one- to two-inning appearances as a reliever.
(If you want a glimpse of how nasty Medlen's stuff has been, Carson Cistulli has posted some GIFs of his changeup and curveball at FanGraphs, demonstrating the sharp movement on those pitches.)
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Medlen's streak of success comes at a spectacularly opportune time for the Braves, whose starting rotation is beginning to leak oil and sputter.
Tim Hudson has allowed four or more runs in three of his past five starts. Tommy Hanson is winless in four appearances since being activated from the disabled list, only pitching past the sixth inning once. Paul Maholm is coming off a start during which he gave up seven runs in two innings and has allowed four runs or more in two of his past three outings.
A more immediate concern for the Braves is the lack of productivity from their lineup. Manager Fredi Gonzalez decided to bench second baseman Dan Uggla, who's been in a downward spiral since May and is currently batting .208 with a .711 OPS. Catcher Brian McCann is batting .228 with a .702 OPS after an August during which he hit .181.
Following Tuesday's (Sept. 4) 6-0 loss to the Rockies, the Braves are 7.5 games behind the Washington Nationals for first place in the NL East. However, Atlanta still holds a 1.5-game lead for one of the NL's wild-card playoff spots.
Can Medlen continue this success through September and into the postseason, if the Braves make it to the playoffs as a Wild Card?
It's difficult to imagine that Medlen can keep up this level of performance. That's not to say he can't keep pitching well, of course. But holding the competition to one run or less through the rest of the season seems implausible.
If Medlen stays on his current rotation, he'll have five more starts this season. He'll face the Mets, Nationals, Marlins (twice) and Pirates. Three of those clubs (excepting the Nats) are in the bottom half of the NL in runs scored and team OPS. Coupled with the robust run support he's received from the Braves offense, Medlen's chances of success against those lineups look strong.
If Medlen keeps throwing like an ace, he can be the kind of pitcher to carry Atlanta on a sustained postseason run.
The one thing that might prevent him from doing so is if the Braves had to use him in the one-game wild-card playoff. But Medlen wouldn't be available for that game, scheduled for Friday, Oct. 4, on his current pitching rotation.
However, Game 1 of the NLDS—slated for Oct. 6 or 7—lines right up with Medlen's schedule. That would make him available for at least two starts in the series.
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Something else to consider is that Medlen is pitching through his first full season since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010. In this year of the Stephen Strasburg shutdown, could the Braves face having to cap Medlen's innings toward the end of the season or into the postseason?
The Braves likely won't have to face that decision since they worked Medlen out of the bullpen to begin the season, even sending him to Triple-A Gwinnett at one point to stretch his arm out for a starter's workload. (Gonzalez admitted that was a concern before the season, however.) He didn't appear as a starting pitcher until July 31.
For the season, Medlen has thrown 104.1 innings, 52 fewer than Strasburg's 156.1. If Atlanta was to keep Medlen restricted to 160—originally thought to be Strasburg's innings limit—he would still likely be available for eight remaining starts.
With a 120-inning season in 2008 on his resume, however, Medlen probably won't be restricted to that number.
Between now and the end of the season, the Braves have three off days, which would allow Medlen to get an extra day of rest or skip his turn in the rotation, if needed. If there were any concerns about Medlen tiring out and requiring a break, the schedule allows for that.
With no true favorite emerging (Nationals fans might disagree), the NL pennant will be up for grabs this postseason. Under such circumstances, Medlen will provide the Braves with an edge in a given playoff series.
Making two to three starts could be the difference between winning or losing a trip to the World Series.
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