The Atlanta Braves have already punched their ticket to the postseason, and the St. Louis Cardinals may not be far from doing the same.
With a week to go in the regular season, the Cardinals entered Wednesday's action with a 3.5-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers for the second spot in the NL wild-card chase.
The Braves are still technically chasing the Washington Nationals in the NL East, but the four-game deficit they're facing in the division makes it more likely that they'll have to settle for the NL's top wild-card spot.
The Braves already have plans for the next step in the event that they do end up settling for a wild-card berth. The one-game playoff would be in their backyard on Friday, October 5, and the word from David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal Constitution is that the Braves' plan is to use Kris Medlen as their starting pitcher when the time comes.
The Cardinals haven't thought that far ahead just yet. There's a chance, however, that they could counter with a guy who has only made two starts so far this year: Chris Carpenter.
Earlier this week, ESPN's Jim Bowden proposed Carpenter as a possibility to start the play-in game for the Cardinals. Mike Matheny would have to rearrange his rotation to make it happen, but it's not too outlandish to think that he could do just that.
Carpenter has a microscopic body of work this season, but he's the guy who posted a 0.38 ERA in three starts down the stretch last September before going on to post a 4-0 record in the postseason. When you think of clutch pitchers, his name is one of a select few that comes to mind.
Let's pretend for a moment that Carpenter pitching in the wild-card play-in game is a legit possibility. If so, we'd be looking at a Kris Medlen versus Chris Carpenter matchup that has all sorts of ins, outs and what-have-yous.
Here's a handy breakdown of said potential matchup.
What Medlen's Got
Kris Medlen doesn't have the familiar trappings of an ace pitcher. He's only about 5'10", and he doesn't throw the ball in the mid-to-upper 90s. He gets by largely on location and deception.
But boy is he getting by. Medlen has made 11 starts since he was moved into Atlanta's rotation in late July, and in these starts he's 8-0 with a 1.04 ERA and a .196 opponents' batting average. In 77.2 innings, he's struck out 80 and walked only nine.
If you're scoring at home, that's a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 8.9. A good word for a ratio such as that would be "absurd."
What's scary is how efficient Medlen has been in his starts. Despite the fact he's lasted at least seven innings in seven of his 11 starts, he's only averaging 91.7 pitches per outing. He's crossed the 100-pitch plateau only four times.
Naturally, good control is largely responsible for Medlen's efficiency. He's throwing 70 percent of his pitches for strikes, and he certainly knows which pitches to throw depending on the situation.
Per FanGraphs, the pitch Medlen throws more often than any other is his two-seam fastball, which he throws roughly 50 percent of the time. The pitch that makes him especially lethal, however, is his changeup.
Opponents are only hitting .083 against Medlen's changeup this season, and he's used it to rack up 35 of his 116 strikeouts. FanGraphs has its PITCHf/x value at 16.5, which would rank Medlen's changeup as the second-most effective changeup in baseball if he had enough innings under his belt to qualify among the leaders.
What makes Medlen different from most other pitchers who get by with their changeups is that most of them don't feature other top-notch weapons. This is not the case when it comes to Medlen, as his two-seamer, four-seamer and curveball all have positive values, just like his changeup.
It's never a good idea to get too carried away with lofty comparisons, but it's hard not to think of Greg Maddux when you think of Medlen. He was a Braves pitcher who got by without great velocity because he could locate and keep hitters guessing better than anyone, and that's the kind of bill that Medlen fits.
A comparison like this sounds too good to be true. But then again, the hot streak Medlen is on at the moment comes off as being too good to be true in its own right, yet it just keeps going and going.
So maybe, just maybe, Medlen really is that good.
What Carpenter's Got
When you think of Chris Carpenter, you think of a pitcher with a Cy Young award and two World Series titles among his accomplishments. He has a record of 95-42 and an ERA of 3.06 since joining the Cardinals, and he's generally been one of the more reliable pitchers in baseball when he's managed to stay healthy.
However, none of us should be naive enough to associate the Chris Carpenter of 2012 with the Chris Carpenter of years past. It's not realistic, and it's not really fair to him either.
The data we have from Carpenter's first start says a lot. He didn't have his usual velocity, particularly on his sinker. Per FanGraphs, it was coming in at an average of 89.4 miles per hour, about three mph slower than where he was with his sinker in 2011.
Given his diminished velocity, it's no surprise that Carpenter got only three swinging strikes against the Chicago Cubs last Friday. For that matter, he only collected two punchouts.
It's doubtful that Carpenter will be able to regain his old velocity before the end of the season, so he's going to have to adapt his game to fit his stuff. He'll need smoke and mirrors more than ever before, which means fewer sinkers and more curveballs and changeups.
Fortunately, he looked like he was up to the task against the Cubs. They hit a lot of balls in the air against Carpenter, but none of them left the yard. As long as that's the status quo, Carpenter should be able to get by OK.
The elephant in the room here is that there's a pretty huge difference between the Cubs and a team like the Braves. The Cubs rank toward the bottom of the league in runs scored, batting average, OBP and slugging. The Braves rank seventh in the NL in runs scored this year, and they feature an offense that can give pitchers fits in a variety of different ways.
To beat them, Carpenter is either going to need his usual velocity to return to him, or he's going to need to battle like he's never battled before.
For reasons that we'll discuss in a moment, it's not hard to have faith in his ability to do so.
Medlen's Biggest Advantage and Disadvantage
The biggest advantage that Medlen has over Carpenter—and indeed, a lot of other pitchers—is that he's really, really hot right now.
Medlen hasn't lost since moving into Atlanta's rotation, and the Braves haven't lost any of the games that he's started. For that matter, they haven't lost any of Medlen's last 22 starts dating back to the 2010 season. He's as close to automatic as a pitcher can get.
However, there's one thing Medlen lacks on his resume, and that's postseason experience.
Medlen has yet to pitch in the postseason in his brief career. He would have pitched in the 2010 postseason, but his season ended in August when the Braves discovered a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
Thus, the closest he's come to pitching in the playoffs to this point were the two relief appearances he made late last season when the Braves were desperately trying to earn a wild-card berth.
Medlen's work during the stretch run this season is as good a sign as any that he won't be totally overwhelmed if he does indeed end up starting the play-in game for the Braves, but there's no denying that the pressure will be unlike anything he's ever had to deal with before.
Carpenter's Biggest Advantage and Disadvantage
Carpenter's advantages and disadvantages are essentially the exact opposite of Medlen's advantages and disadvantages.
Carpenter's biggest advantage is the fact that he's no stranger to high-pressure games. He was pitching in high-pressure games pretty much constantly for two months at the end of the 2011 season, and he ended up producing seven wins and three complete-game shutouts combined between September and October.
For his career, Carpenter has a 9-2 record and a 3.05 ERA in the playoffs. He's 3-0 with a 2.00 ERA in World Series play, and 4-1 with a 2.72 ERA in NLDS play.
In the event that Carpenter does get the nod for the play-in game, his performance could very well reflect his track record. Even if he doesn't have his best stuff—and he won't—it's not hard to imagine Carpenter lasting six, seven or even eight innings using little more than sheer force of will.
This said, the pessimist in me would advise people against getting their hopes up. Carpenter's reputation is fine and dandy, but he's in uncharted waters right now. His right arm can't be trusted to produce miracles.
Complicating matters is the fact that the Braves have traditionally given Carpenter trouble during his career. In 10 career starts against Atlanta, Carpenter is 3-3 with a 6.06 ERA and a 1.49 WHIP. Braves hitters have compiled an .815 OPS against him.
It gets worse. Carpenter has an ERA just south of 7.00 in his career at Turner Field, where Braves hitters have compiled a .948 OPS against him in his career.
So if Matheny tabs Carpenter to start the wild-card game, he'll be taking a huge leap of faith.
Who'd Have the Edge?
Come on, how am I not supposed to give the edge to Kris Medlen in this little exercise?
I've got nothing but respect for Carpenter, but Medlen is pitching like he's a cross between 2000 Pedro Martinez and 1997 Greg Maddux. He has all his pitches working, and nobody can hit his changeup.
We also shouldn't ignore the fact that Medlen will be pitching at home. He actually has better numbers on the road this season than he does at home, but his home numbers are still absurdly good. There's no downplaying the positive effect a roaring crowd could have on his performance.
I'll say this, though: If he finds himself matched up against Carpenter, my guess is that Medlen wouldn't walk away with an easy victory. Carpenter would make him fight for it, and Medlen's lack of postseason experience could cause him to be the first man to flinch.
Thus, I'd leave a Medlen vs. Carpenter showdown alone if I were a betting man. Instead, I'd just sit back and enjoy the show.
Note: Stats come from Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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