When he signed with the Royals, we all knew that Kris Medlen was a bit of a calculated gamble. After 335 innings of outstanding work in 2012 and 2013, Medlen had gone through Tommy John surgery for a second time, sat out all of 2014 and would not be ready at the start of 2015. Anything the Royals got at the major league level out of Medlen in 2015 would be a bonus.
What the Royals got was 58 innings of decently okay regular season work and one good, if short, start in the post-season. That did not re-establish Medlen as a major league pitcher on par with what he had been in 2013 or even assure him a spot in the 2016 rotation (although he does have an inside track).
To begin with, Medlen’s 94 total innings (minors, majors and post-season) in 2015 does not give anyone any assurances that he is ready to take the ball every fifth day and pitch effectively for most, if not all of the 2016 season. More importantly, what we saw out of Medlen in 2015 was not the Kris Medlen of 2012 and 2013.
You want to give the 2016 Kansas City rotation a shot in the arm? Have Medlen pitch like it is 2013.
To be honest, I thought the key might be Medlen’s changeup. After all, while using that pitch roughly as often as he had in 2012 and 2013, opposing hitters were swinging and missing far less. In 2012, swung and missed 27% of the time. That number went up to 30% in 2013. In 2015, however, batters whiffed on just 16% of Medlen’s changeup. More swings and misses with the change and more success, right?
Except opposing hitters hit just .180 against the Medlen change in 2015, after hitting .206 in 2013 and a microscopic .102 in 2012. Sure, more whiffs is a good thing, but it is not like opposing hitters were destroying Medlen when he threw a change.
They were, however, destroying him when Medlen threw a curve. In 2015, opposing hitters posted a .286 average and slugged .595 against Medlen curveballs. FIVE HUNDRED AND NINETY-FIVE. By comparison, in 2013, batters managed just a .160 average and slugged just .280. The year before that, .184 and .245.
The reason is fairly obvious: it’s all about the break.
In 2013, a Medlen curveball averaged a horizontal break of 6.69 inches. In 2015, the break was just 5.76 inches. The vertical break of his curve in 2013 was a -9.36 inches compared to a 2015 drop of -7.87 inches. Listen, I still play a little ball and a couple of inches different in the break of a curveball does not make it any more hittable for me, but for Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout or, hell, Jackie Bradley Jr. or Wilson Ramos would certainly notice the difference.
Now, not lost in all of this, Medlen’s velocity was up across the board. Fastballs up a solid mile per hour from before, curve ball up a two as was the change (up four from 2012). That is not unusual, I hear, for pitchers to have more velocity post-surgery and, probably, less touch.
So, is the change we need to watch (i.e. hope?) this spring or the curve? More likely, it is both. The secondary pitches take more time, be it post-injury or just getting going each spring and it seems quite possible that Medlen simply did not get the innings to get the ‘feel’ back.
Of course, maybe the ‘feel’ just isn’t going to come back. It has happened to more than one pitcher, even in these modern sports medicine times.
Oh, my friends, but what if Medlen does get it back? What if the 2016 Kris Medlen is the guy we saw pitch in Atlanta in 2012 and 2013, with this Royals’ defense and bullpen behind him?