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Royals should put Kris Medlen in the rotation

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If Kris Medlen is healthy enough to pitch this season, it should be as a member of the Royals' starting rotation.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Since signing with with the Royals in December, Kris Medlen's recovery from a second Tommy John surgery has progressed as expected. After throwing three innings that "felt great" in yesterday's simulated game, Medlen remains on pace to join the club in July. While returning from Tommy John surgery can sometimes feel like a fait accompli, recovery doesn't always go as smoothly as expected. Just ask Medlen’s former teammate Jonny Venters, who had to get cut for a third time before even making it back from his second TJ. Or you could watch what happened to Jarrod Parker during his attempt to comeback from a second surgery earlier this season, although I wouldn’t recommend it.

If and when Kris Medlen joins the Royals this season, it should be as a member of the starting rotation. While he remains an asset to protect for 2016 (and has a mutual option for 2017), the Royals are in contention now. Tomorrow is promised to no team -- just ask the 2012 Washington Nationals -- especially one that could lose Alex Gordon to free agency in the offseason. Should they put Medlen in the rotation no matter the health implications? Of course not. But the rotation is clearly where the Royals have the greatest need and they shouldn't treat him with kid gloves.

While it’s true that few who have undergone a second Tommy John surgery have returned to The Show as starting pitchers, most weren’t starters to begin with. Sure Daniel Hudson has been used mostly out of the pen since he rejoined the Diamondbacks, but there are also success stories like Chris Capuano and Randy Wolf who both returned from their second TJ to start games in their first season back.

Over his career, Melden has posted good numbers. Numbers that you'd like to see over as many innings as possible. Atlanta used Medlen as both a starter and reliever, but he’s no Wade Davis. As Andy McCullough noted, he’s pretty much the same pitcher regardless of his role. While he’s been hit a bit harder as a starter, he’s managed to maintain his strikeout rate, while cutting down on his walks.

BF K% BB% HR% WOBA
as Starter 1542 20.8% 5.4% 2.3% .297
as Reliever 538 21.2% 7.1% 1.1% .285

Managers will sometimes pull a pitcher, even when they’re cruising, because they typically get worse with each subsequent pass through the lineup as hitters grown more familiar with their repertoire. While Medlen has been no exception, he’s still better his third time through the order than the league average starter is during their first (.345 wOBA). Look at  the outcomes over which he has the most control and you'll see he’s managed to walk fewer batters with each subsequent trip through the batting order while maintaining a consistent walk rate.  The jump wOBA the third time through the order can be mostly attributed to a rise in the number of doubles he's allowed which is something the Royals' defense could help suppress. While past performance in this areas has been shown to lack predictive power, Medlen may have some advantage the second and third time he faces batters thanks to his five-pitch repertoire (though the Royals may put restrictions on some pitches upon his return).


BF K% BB% HR% wOBA
1st PA in G as SP 549 21.1% 6.0% 2.6% .297
2nd PA in G as SP 541 21.1% 5.2% 2.0% .276
3rd PA in G as SP 420 20.0% 4.5% 2.4% .323

So, if you agree that Medlen belongs in the rotation there’s another side to that coin. Who should come out? The Royals rotation currently looks like this:

BF K% BB% HR% wOBA
Yordano Ventura 246 19.9% 7.3% 2.8% .240
Edinson Volquez 249 19.3% 8.4% 1.2% .256
Chris Young* 140 19.2% 7.8% 2.1% .283
Jason Vargas 155 14.8% 7.1% 3.2% .336
Jeremy Guthrie 240 8.3% 7.1% 4.2% .381

*Stats for Young as a starter

Jeremy Guthrie, you got to go! Not only is he the worst pitcher on the team, he’s probably the worst starting pitcher in baseball. He’s how he stacks up:

  • Strikeout rate: Last. At 8.3% it’s not even close. Mark Buehrle has the next worst rate at 10.6%. Striking guys out is pretty important.
  • Home run rate: Tied for sixth worst. He’s currently sitting at 4.2%. Home runs are bad. (Fun fact: James Shields is tied for third worst with 4.8%.)
  • xFIP: Last. Strip away the Royals defense and Guthrie’s 5.57 xFIP lands him in the basement.

Add four below average pitches and you’ve got yourself a mop-up man.

Well that was easy… except that Danny Duffy is also on his way back from the DL. If he and Medlen both return, and Young and the Killer V’s all remain healthy, then what? Chris Young was signed to a minor-league deal, and would be the easiest to move back to the bullpen but (until last night) he’s looked like the Royals' best starter since joining the rotation. Volquez has picked up where he left off with the Pirates and Ventura isn’t going anywhere. Vargas has been mercurial and is yet to crack the 6 inning mark in a start, but it seems unlikely that Royals would put both his and Guthrie's  salary in the pen. If you want to talk about protecting an asset by moving an arm to relief, it should really be Duffy who the Royals control through 2017, and whose list of injuries is longer than the hair he just shaved off his face.

One option is the six-man rotation, which the Mets are currently using to manage their (mostly) young staff’s innings. In Kansas City, this would give Medlen extra time to recover between starts and would also benefit Duffy and Vargas who have already seen time on the DL already this year. It would benefit Ventura as well, as the diminutive fireballer logged 208.1 innings last season thanks to the Royals’ deep postseason run. It sure would be nice to save some bullets for the fall.

Of course, it almost surely won’t come to that. These are pitchers were talking about. We’ve seen many a team fret over what to do with their rotation depth only to have the injuries take care of the problem for the them. Having six above replacement level starters is a good thing and the Royals need Medlen in the rotation, if only to start against the Cubs in their make-up game so he can show off his switch hitting prowess.