Prospect Retrospective and Career Profile: Kris Medlen, RHP, Atlanta Braves
Atlanta Braves pitcher Kris Medlen is having an outstanding season: after missing most of 2011 recovering from Tommy John surgery, Medlen is 9-1, 1.51 ERA this year with a 108/22 K/BB ratio in 125 innings, allowing just 95 hits. Since moving to the starting rotation, he is 8-0 in 10 starts with a 0.76 ERA. He certainly wasn't on any pre-season "outstanding pitcher " lists, so let's take a look at Medlen, where he came from, and where he may be going.
Kris Medlen was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 10th round in 2006, from Santa Ana Junior College in California. He did not have much pre-draft hype and signed for just $85,000. There was nothing wrong with his arm strength, and he was a very good athlete who also played shortstop in college. However, his 5-10, 175-pound size turned some scouts off and caused them to project him as just a reliever.
His pro career got off to a good start with a 0.41 ERA and a tremendous 36/2 K/BB ratio in 22 innings for Danville in the Appalachian League, with 10 saves. I gave him a Grade C+ entering 2007 and noted that he could move very quickly through the system if he continued throwing strikes like that.
Medlen did move quickly in 2007, blowing away Low-A (0.87 ERA, 33/3 K/BB in 21 innings) and High-A (1.13 ERA, 28/7 K/BB in 24 innings). He finished with two innings in Double-A, then pitched brilliantly in the Hawaiian Winter League (remember that?). I gave him another C+ and projected him as a bullpen contributor in the new future.
Medlen began 2008 in the bullpen for Double-A Mississippi, but moved into the starting rotation and performed very well. Overall, he posted a 3.52 ERA with a 120/27 K/BB in 120 innings with 121 hits allowed. By this point in his career, he was showing a 90-94 MPH fastball along with an above-average curveball and changeup. I raised his rating to a Grade B- entering '09.
2009 was split between Triple-A (1.19 ERA, 44/10 K/BB in 38 innings) and the majors (4.26 ERA, 72/30 K/BB in 68 innings, mostly in relief). 2010 was solid (3.68 ERA, 83/21 K/BB in 108 innings) until the injury.
Overall in his major league career, Medlen has a 2.88 ERA with a 265/73 K/BB ratio in 303 innings, with 269 hits allowed. He has a 139 ERA+, and a 6.2 WAR in those 303 career innings. Up until this year. . .heck up until the last month. . .Medlen wasn't a huge name outside of Atlanta fandom, but he's been an excellent pitcher since reaching the majors.
If you look at his pro track record, it doesn't look like a fluke: he was outstanding in the minors, too, with a 2.55 ERA and a 275/57 K/BB ratio in 240 innings with 209 hits allowed. His major league FIP (3.06) and xFIP (3.33) are higher than his career ERA, but still well within the strong category.
Carson Cistulli wrote up a nice breakdown of Medlen's repertoire earlier this month over at Fangraphs, evaluating his quality changeup, curveball, two-seam and four-seam fastballs. Cistulli's piece includes video of Medlen that shows how his combination of location and movement has been making hitters look silly.
As a prospect, Medlen was very effective in the minor leagues, often outstanding, and had few problems (no problems really) adjusting to better competition as he moved up the ladder. Although he doesn't have blazing heat, he's not a genuine soft-tosser, working his fastball in the low-90s. I think he would have received greater notice as a prospect if he had more classic pitcher size.
Nobody should expect him to keep throwing nothing but goose-eggs, but Medlen (when healthy) has always been effective.