Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 9/20/12
There’s a sentiment that the players for the Miami Marlins have more or less given up. Not too long ago, Buster Olney wrote about it, and Ozzie Guillen fired back in fairly colorful fashion. On one hand, since June 5, the Marlins have gone 35-61, better only than the Astros in the National League. On the other hand, since the start of August the Marlins’ run differential is essentially even. There’s some evidence pointing both ways, and when uncertain, it’s probably wisest to err on the side of professionals behaving like professionals.
Wednesday, it might not have mattered whether the Marlins have given up or not, because Wednesday the Marlins went up against Kris Medlen. The Marlins beat the Braves in ten innings on Tuesday, but Wednesday they were left as Medlen’s latest victims. The Braves scored three times, which was two more times than they needed to, as Medlen worked eight scoreless before handing the ball off.

Sure, it was a depleted lineup with Carlos Lee batting fourth and Greg Dobbs batting fifth, but Medlen finished with a walk and six strikeouts, which is always a delightful ratio. Medlen has now started ten times in 2012, and Wednesday was the fifth time he hasn’t allowed an earned run. Four times, he’s allowed one earned run. In the one start remaining, he allowed a whole two earned runs. For those of you who hate the idea of separating runs and earned runs, Medlen has allowed one unearned run over this stretch. His ERA is 0.76, and his RA is a tiny bit higher.
It’s become almost impossible to ignore the run that Kris Medlen is on, because (A) this is statistical pornography, and (B) really, Kris Medlen? Ben Duronio wrote about him here, weeks ago. Carson Cistulli wrote about him here, weeks ago. Medlen hasn’t slowed down even one bit, breezing through the Marlins after having breezed through the Nationals. (The Nationals have the best record in baseball.)
So Medlen’s started ten times, spanning 70.2 innings. I’m not going to include his innings in relief, because that is a very different job. Now, 70.2 innings isn’t a whole lot of innings, but it’s also a significant number of innings, and I was curious to see how Medlen compares to other starters in recent history. I went back to 2002, split seasons, and selected starters with at least 50 innings pitched. This left me with a sample pool numbering 1,946. Here’s how Medlen ranks in just a few important categories:
ERA-: #1
Closest comp: 2011 Josh Johnson
FIP-: #4
Closest comp: 2010 Stephen Strasburg
xFIP-: #10
Closest comp: 2005 Felix Hernandez
It hardly means anything to declare that Kris Medlen’s starter ERA is unsustainable. Medlen has posted a 0.76 ERA this year as a starter, and Mariano Rivera has posted a career 2.05 ERA as a reliever. It goes without saying that Medlen’s true-talent starter ERA is a lot higher than this, or at least it ought to. There is probably somebody out there who would argue the point, because Internet.
But look at the FIP- and the xFIP-. Medlen’s other numbers compare well to rookie Strasburg and rookie Felix. Rookie Strasburg and rookie Felix were national sensations. One notes that starter Medlen is a groundball pitcher with nine walks and 72 strikeouts. Out of every ten pitches, seven so far have been strikes. People want to say that Medlen is a mirage, because he’s come almost out of nowhere to dominate everyone he’s faced, but that argument rests on his numbers not reflecting his ability, because his numbers are some of the very best that we’ve seen over a decade.
It’s relatively easy to fluke a low ERA, but it’s much more difficult to fluke a high groundball rate, a high strikeout rate, or a low walk rate. I’m not saying it can’t be done, and Medlen is presumably pushing the limits of his talent, but the argument against Medlen has to come down to his stuff, since he doesn’t throw a high-90s fastball. What he does is throw his pitches where he wants to, and if you consider command to be a component of stuff, then Medlen’s stuff is actually quite nice. He’s got two fastballs, a changeup, a curveball, and a proper idea of where they’re going. We take a sample at-bat from Wednesday, featuring Medlen and Austin Kearns in the bottom of the eighth.
Medlen begins with a low fastball:

This is a borderline strike, a strike a lot of pitchers don’t get. Brian McCann seems like a good pitch-framer and maybe McCann was the one who sold this, but this at-bat lasted four pitches, and this Medlen pitch missed the target the most. It barely missed the target at all.
Medlen follows with a low fastball:

Perfect spot in the low-away corner. It’s a two-seamer, so it looks like it’s going to be outside before it runs back into the zone. This is basically the perfect 0-and-1 pitch.
Medlen followed that with basically the perfect 0-and-2 pitch:

That’s a low-away fastball that’s off the plate by just a few inches. It hits the target dead on, and it’s so close that many hitters would feel like they had to swing to protect. In the event of a swing, there’s not a lot that can be done with that pitch. In the event of a non-swing, maybe the umpire is feeling generous. This is how to throw an 0-and-2 pitch without wasting it.
Finally, Medlen ends the at-bat with a curve:

Medlen’s best pitch is his changeup, and Kearns didn’t see it. It didn’t matter; Kearns wound up out in front of this curve, which was just about right where McCann wanted it to be. It broke away from Kearns and wound up just off the outer edge. The previous pitch was the perfect 0-and-2 pitch; this pitch was the perfect 1-and-2 pitch.
Of course Kris Medlen is presently overachieving, because he’s posting numbers at the very top of the leaderboards. Even Pedro Martinez had his best season and seasons that weren’t his best season. The issue is how far Medlen will fall, and the more you examine him, the more you want to believe. His velocity isn’t outstanding, but it’s just fine, and his movement is superb. His ability to locate is matched by few others. It was weird when Cliff Lee first turned into Cliff Lee, but we all got used to it, because Lee could put his pitches wherever he wanted. Medlen can do that too, and location can make a repertoire really play up.
Turns out that Kris Medlen probably isn’t as good as his sub-1 starter ERA would suggest. Turns out that Kris Medlen is just a little bit amazing, even after you account for the coming regression. Never bet anything on a pitcher. Don’t even make friends with one. They are not to be trusted. You just never know what they’re going to do next.
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