The Atlanta Braves carefully lined up their rotation to ensure that they would send Kris Medlen to the mound in Friday’s Wild Card elimination game, and with good reason. Medlen last started a game the Braves ultimately lost way back on May 23… of the year of our lord 2010.
Since then, Medlen has been demoted to the bullpen, been reinstated as a starter, torn his UCL (causing a lost year after the subsequent Tommy John surgery), pitched 40 more games in relief, and finally, found a permanent home not among the Atlanta starting pitchers, but above them. Of the teams who qualified for the postseason this year, only the Tigers have so clear an ace.
Now, some caveats need to be noted. Medlen’s 12 opponents in games started this season are as follows: the Marlins (three times), the Mets (three times), the Padres (twice), the Astros, the Rockies, and the Nationals (twice). The anemia of that set (other, of course, than Washington) explains not only Atlanta’s unblemished record in the contests, but also (in some part) Medlen’s historic 1.57 ERA in 138 innings this year.
Obviously, the weakness of his opponents might explain some part of Medlen’s dominance, but it can’t nearly explain it all. He has been genuinely excellent this season, his fundamental skills (a 120:23 strikeout-to-walk ratio, for instance) supporting his top-line numbers for the most part. He has good stuff on scouting terms, too. This is no Josh Collmenter or Mike Fiers or JA Happ.
So how can Medlen be beaten? How can the St. Louis Cardinals, sending an only somewhat less qualified Kyle Lohse to the rubber to answer, terminate Medlen’s tenure as the Braves’ good-luck charm?
It starts with not giving away scoring chances. Cards manager Mike Matheny ordered 96 sacrifice bunt attempts this season, fourth-most in the National League.
In a game against the Cubs in September, lead-off man Jon Jay cracked a double in the first inning, against Chris Volstad. Matheny asked Carlos Beltran (!) to bunt him over. Beltran did, and Jay eventually scored, but the Cardinals went on to lose the game by a single run in extra innings.
That tactic was counterproductive, but Volstad kept giving St. Louis chances, and they scored three runs in his five innings that day. With Medlen, the margin for error will be much smaller, and far, far too small to give away outs.
For one thing, a team misses early opportunities against Medlen at their own risk. Opposing batters have a .614 OPS against him in their first plate appearance when he starts, but that plummets to .356 the second time around, and rebounds only slightly (.501) the third time.
You may be thinking that this is nearly unprecedented, and you’d be right. Very few pitchers avoid giving ground to hitters as they face them multiple times in a game. Medlen’s career splits are not quite as drastic (.627/.628/.700), but it’s clear that waiting for him to tire in order to pounce won’t work. His strikeout-to-walk ratio improves each time through the order, even looking at his full career.
Matheny needs to resist the urge to play for a single run early, especially given the quality of the Braves’ bullpen. But “get to him early” is not a platitude needed only on an inning-to-inning or batter-to-batter basis.
The Cardinals need to dig in ready to hit Medlen’s first pitch as often as possible. He has allowed a .963 OPS to batters who lanced his initial offering into play in his career. Batters who don’t, though, have a futile fight ahead, and a .608 OPS in over 1,000 plate appearances. The effect has been even greater this season, with first-pitch assailants notching a .900 OPS, but all others flailing to a .480 figure.
We have established the path to scoring on Medlen. A team must enter the game with a game plan for scoring within the first two frames, and a batter must enter the box with an idea of the pitch Medlen will throw first, and with the tools at hand to punish that pitch.
In doing so, it’s important to understand Medlen’s repertoire and his tendencies. He has a three or four-pitch arsenal, depending on whether one counts his two- and four-seam fastballs as distinct pitches. They are for most pitchers, and Medlen certainly seems to be throwing them situationally, so four it is.
Medlen devastates left-handed batters with his change-up, a pitch with terrific movement and one he locates low and away to those batters in a singular, stunning way. His distribution of location with that pitch, in fact, is smaller than that of virtually any other pitcher’s secondary offering.
That’s mostly good for Medlen, as the area into which he throws the large majority of his changes is between the upper shin and very low thigh on most batters, and within six inches of the outside edge of the zone.
On the other hand, because he locates so well and so consistently, lefty batters who know the change-up is coming and are able to wait on it use the predictability of the location to hit the ball hard the other way. Batters have an OPS over 1.000 when they hit the ball to left field against Medlen this season, and left- and right-hitting batters share equally in that benefit.
It’s crucial for lefties to let Medlen take his aim at the lower outside corner of the zone, and shoot the ball the other way. They see mostly the change-up and breaking ball, while righties see mostly two-seam heat starting off the outside corner and tailing back toward them. They should start their swing a tick sooner, knowing even many pitches that will look like balls outside as they leave Medlen’s hand will end up in their hitting zone.
Medlen has a small negative platoon split both this season and over his career, a fact reflective of his curveball-change secondary mix. Righties aren’t helpless against him, which is good news for the right-heavy Cardinals lineup led by Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, David Freese and Yadier Molina. Focus on fastballs makes Medlen somewhat more vulnerable to power against righties.
Jon Jay and Carlos Beltran should accept that Medlen’s ability to locate off-speed at the bottom of the zone makes him a ground-ball machine against lefties, and work on hitting the ball hard the other way, regardless of trajectory.
This set of maxims–be aggressive early in the game and the count, aim for left field–is a good one, but of course, Medlen can undo it and dominate with good execution. If the Cardinals start with the right philosophy in the manager’s office and dugout, though, and take it with them to the plate, they have a chance to be the bane of the Braves for a second straight year.Next post: Notes on a Quadrupleheader, Pt I