This player preview was written by Peter Hjort, who posts here as PWHjort, and can also be found at Capitol Avenue Club.
Kris Medlen was drafted by the Braves in the 10th-round of the 2006 first year player draft. Due to an otherwise mostly poor draft, Medlen stands a good chance of being the best Braves' selection from that year -- the only others that still loosely resemble prospects are Lee Hyde, Cody Johnson, and Cole Rohrbough. He signed quickly and his professional career began shortly thereafter. He was used exclusively as a reliever in 2006 and 2007 across four levels -- the Appy league, the Sally league, the Carolina league, and the Southern league -- where he was met with outstanding results. He spent time both as a reliever and a starter in Mississippi the following year, then made six starts and two relief appearances at class AAA Gwinnett in 2009 before being called up in May to take the spot of Jo-Jo Reyes in the Atlanta Braves' rotation. He's been with the big club ever since.
Medlen throws three pitches, a low-90's fastball, a high-70's curve ball, and a plus low-80's change-up. The change-up presumably led to a drastic platoon split, as left-handers hit only .183/.291/.278/.568 off of him (as opposed to right-handers, who hit .328/.386/.509/.895 off of him) in 2009. His '09 usage pattern suggests the Braves noticed this, as he had a 49% platoon advantage -- an abnormally low figure for a right handed pitcher, though apparently advantageous for Medlen. It's also entirely possible that this is simply a small sample size aberration, and the .153 point BABIP differential by platoon split is consistent with that.
As a starter, Medlen didn't perform too well in 2009, but eighty two batters faced is hardly a sufficient enough sample size to draw any conclusions from. The eleven walks he issued in 18 and 1/3 innings were his biggest problem as a starter, but that's out of character for him and can easily be chalked up to nerves. In his 49 and 1/3 relief innings in 2009 he posted a 3.47 ERA, a 1.358 WHIP, and a 53-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His game is somewhat similar to that of Javier Vazquez in that he's a generally hittable control pitcher who racks up a ton of strikeouts and issues few free passes. He walked only 2.0 batters per nine innings in his 227 inning minor league career against 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings, which is usually indicative of a bright future.
Medlen pitched only 105 and 1/3 innings in 2009, fifteen fewer than his 2008 career-high total. His arm doesn't have a whole lot of mileage on it -- just under 300 total professional innings -- so there's at least some reason to think he may get a bit better, but his 5'10", 190 LB frame doesn't have much room for future projection. At 24-years old, we've probably seen all the stuff we're going to from Medlen. Still, he's got enough stuff/approach/control/make-up to pitch in the middle of most rotations or at the back end of most bullpens in baseball.
I expect Medlen to post a better walk rate in 2009, though perhaps a more modest strikeout rate. Apart from that, he could stand to improve his batted ball peripherals, seeing as twenty one per cent of the batted balls in play he surrendered were line drives and he was below-average at inducing ground balls last year. He was probably a bit hit unlucky (.335 BABIP) and a bit home run lucky (5.0% HR/FB), but some of the BABIP can be explained by all the line drives and fly balls.
Given his versatility, it's anyone's guess what Medlen's primary role will be to begin 2010. Mine is that of a long reliever, pitching multiple innings in medium-to-low leverage situations, though he's perfectly capable of being a useful single-inning reliever, high leverage situational reliever (mainly against lefties, I'd think), or starter. He'll likely be used in every aforementioned role at some point in 2010. He's currently sixth on the starting pitching depth chart and, barring an unprecedentedly healthy starting rotation, will make multiple starts next season. If a starter goes down long term, the Braves should have little reservation about inserting Medlen in the rotation full time -- where I suspect he'll pitch well enough to make the Braves think twice about putting him back in the bullpen.
So long as Medlen stays healthy and doesn't get fundamentally worse or isn't paid a visit by the bad luck fairy, Braves fans should be very pleased with him in 2010, no matter the role. A guy like Medlen -- who serves as both a useful bullpen arm and the team's emergency starter -- is a fairly necessary piece, and it's nice for that guy to be a young one with upside instead of a run of the mill AAA veteran.
He racked up 137 days of service last season and will most likely qualify for super two status in the 2011-2012 off season -- giving him four arbitration years rather than three -- if he spends all of the next two seasons on the major league roster or disabled list. An extra twenty or so days in the minor leagues could save the Braves a lot of money in two years and beyond, especially if he's really as good as I think he is, though if I were his agent and the Braves optioned him to the minor leagues, I'd file a grievance.
Nice work by Peter, who always does a good job with sabermetric analysis.