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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?

Maybe.

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?

What if?

Kris Medlen’s first start as a Royal did not start out in storybook fashion.  His first pitch was ripped by Manny Machado (who is pretty good, by the way) to the wall in right-center.  Lorenzo Cain, as he is known to do, ran about four miles only to have the ball go into and out of his glove, off the wall and back into his glove.  Seven minutes later the umpires in New York figured out what everyone else knew after the first replay and Medlen got to throw a second pitch.

After inducing a groundout, Medlen gave up a complete bomb to Adam Jones (who is pretty good, by the way).   It was not a particularly bad pitch, a curve ball down,  and was really more of Adam Jones being a good hitter.  Funny thing about Medlen’s curveball, after that it was almost unhittable (to everyone but Jones, who would single his next time up) and the ‘out pitch’ on four of his six strikeouts.

While the reaction to Jones’ home run was predictable, because it is 2015 and we hyper-react to everything or, even better, react to the hyper-reaction by indicating how little we are reacting (get off my lawn, kids), cooler heads prevailed.  Specifically, Kris Medlen had the coolest of heads.

He struck out Chris Davis, who was the only Oriole to get to a three ball count against Medlen all evening, and then struck out Clevenger to end the first and then just got silly good.  It took Kris just 8 pitches to work around an infield single in the second.  Fourteen to get through the third and eleven to escape the fourth allowing just one run thanks to two strikeouts and a Steve Clevenger base running vapor lock.   Seven pitches got Medlen through the fifth and just eleven more to get through the sixth.  After the first inning, Medlen never threw more than three balls in any inning.  Hell, he even managed to get Adam Jones out once.

How consistent was Medlen?  Here’s a very boring release point chart for you:
Release-Medlen

 

While repeating his delivery well, Medlen was also giving hitters a wide variation of speed:

Medlen-Speed

When you combine the variation of speed with the ability to throw all four pitches for strikes, well, you saw the result.

After a seven run explosion in the bottom of the sixth, Ned Yost went to his bullpen to finish off the game even though his starter had only thrown 69 pitches. No harm with being cautious with Medlen, who had not gone more than four innings since being added to the major league roster.  That is the luxury of being thirteen games up in August.

The last time Kris Medlen was a full-time starter (2013) he went six innings or more in 24 of his 31 starts and allowed three runs or less in 22 of those.  This was just one start, but if the Royals have added a pitcher that in any way resembles the 2013 version of Kris Medlen to a playoff rotation that will start with Johnny Cueto.  Well, folks, October just got even more exciting.

Well, last night was the first time the Royals scored seven runs or more in a game and lost.  Given Monday night was Kansas City’s 91st game of the year, that’s not bad.  You would like to think that it would never happen, but it does.  Even to good teams with great bullpens.

The Royals, after an early first inning lead, were in a hole all night courtesy of starting pitcher Yordano Ventura. A weird night for Ventura who needed 92 pitches to get through four innings (plus one batter) and gave up 10 hits.  Yet, he also struck out seven and walked only one.  The velocity was back and Ventura was throwing strikes (maybe too many strikes?), but the results were – being kind – mixed.

If Ventura had been enjoying the type of season we were all hoping for this year, I might just chalk this up to ‘one of those nights’.  Given Yordano’s odd season to date, you wonder if this is not just ‘one of those nights’, but going to be ‘one of those years’.  One untrained thought might be that Ventura, whose fastball velocity was dancing just under 100 mph most of the night, is throwing too hard and, as has a tendency to happen, too straight.  That is untrained eyes and ten minutes of thought (interrupted by a yogurt and coffee) and could be totally off base.  Here is Ventura’s strike zone plot from last night:

Ventura Strike Zone Plot

You have swinging strikes right next to balls in play (no outs) in the middle of the zone.  You also have a good number of swinging strikes out of the zone, which to me indicates that Ventura has some stuff going last night and might well invalidate my observation two sentences before.  I don’t know, boys and girls, just one of those nights?

As the Royals tried to comeback, as this team seemingly always does, we also got a look at Kris Medlen.  If you did not catch the game last night, you awoke to a box score that made you grimace, but Medlen really did pitch better than his line indicates.

Medlen entered with a runner on second and no one out, struck out two batters, then gave up a home run to Kang.  I refer to him only as Kang, because I think it sounds cool.  I’m not sure I realized this before, but if there is a team that is as much fun as the Royals are, it might well be the Pirates.  I digress, however.

A groundout and two more strikeouts by Medlen comprised the next inning and that was followed by a lead-off single that eventually came around to score via a stolen base, fly ball and ground ball.  To be fair, Ned Yost has done a very good job of managing his pitchers this year, but I thought going to Medlen for a fourth inning was probably wrong.  Kris left with two on and just one out and then had his line lit up thanks to a Luke Hochevar allowed triple to the next batter.

All in all, I was encouraged by Medlen’s outing, but you do wonder if it was him tiring in that fourth inning or the Pirates’ hitters having a better idea seeing him the second time around?  That is something worth monitoring the next few outings if, like myself, you have this hope of Medlen being a consistent STARTING pitcher yet this season for Kansas City.

We can probably forgive Luke Hochevar as well, who gave up three hits in just under two innings of work.  Those were the first hits Luke has allowed in nine innings, spanning nine outings and going back to June 23rd.

Like I said, one of those nights.

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