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2016 Season Preview: Kris Medlen

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The Tommy John surgery survivor could be a pivotal part of the season.

Jason Miller/Getty Images

We begin our look at Royals starting pitchers with former Braves pitcher Kris Medlen. Medlen missed half of last season after returning from Tommy John surgery, but returned to pitch effectively in the second half of last season both from the pen and in the rotation. He is a safe bet to break camp as the #4 starter, but a terrible spring could put his spot in jeopardy.

Kris Medlen ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 WAR
2015 season 4.01 4.13 58.1 6.2 2.8 0.5
2016 Steamer projection 3.97 4.23 140.0 6.1 2.4 1.4
2016 PECOTA projection 4.22 4.72 127.2 6.1 2.7 0.5
2016 ZIPS projection 4.54 4.41 109.0 6.3 2.3 0.8

Everything has gone to plan thus far in Medlen’s Royals tenure.  As expected he was eased in with relief work, and capped off the regular season with eight starts with a mixed bag of results.  He was signed to a two-year deal expected to take on a bigger work load in 2016.

As Starter 4.45 4.58 1.34 5.3 2.7 1.0 .266 .289 64.8%
As Reliever 3.13 3.46 1.05 8.8 3.1 0.6 .200 .257 80.9%

All of the surface stats could paint you the wrong picture. Medlen’s fastball velocity only dropped a tick as a starter, but that can be taken with a grain of salt because he is not a max effort reliever out of the pen. The shape of Medlen’s pitches improved as a starter, gaining almost an inch of rise on his four-seam, as well as more fade on his fastball, sinker, and changeup as you can see below.

As a Starter

Fourseam Sinker Change Curve
2015 -4.26 -8.32 -8.27 5.77

As a Reliever

Fourseam Sinker Change Curve
2015 -3.43 -7.67 -7.43 5.71

Since the sample is small, I thought I’d see how his pitches fared in comparison to average pitches for his entire body of work.

Note: Fangraphs data

Average RHP Velocity xMovement zMovement
Fastball 92.4 -4.2 8.9
Sinker/2-seam 91.9 -8 6.1
Curveball 77.8 6.1 -5.8
Changeup 83.7 -6.7 4.1
Kris Medlen Velocity xMovement zMovement
Fastball 90.8 -4.9 10.1
Sinker/2-seam 90.9 -8.6 7.1
Curveball 78.5 5.4 -7.4
Changeup 84.3 -8.5 7.2

There are plenty of takeaways from this data. Working in his favor is that his curveball drops roughly two inches more than league average, as well as his extra inch of rise on his fastball.  His changeup has almost two inches more fade. What isn’t working in his favor? His two-seam fastball and changeup look identical, and the separation in velocity isn’t ideal.  His curveball almost one inch less fade.

Horizontal movement is a crucial element to getting whiffs, and Medlen’s changeup is his signature pitch to miss bats. Last year he had 16% swinging strike rate with it. His curveball induced 14% whiffs, which is well above average. I wouldn’t count on it to anything more than average for whiffs moving forward since his career rate is 12% and the shape looks about the same.

Recipes for Success

I am all in favor of Medlen developing a cutter or slider to utilize against righties. He has nothing to overpower them with. He is leaning on command to induce weak contact.  Against lefties he has plenty at his disposal, as solid changeups and curveballs can fend off platoon splits.

I would also love to see him substitute more rise fastballs for two-seamers. His ground ball rate would take a hit, but Royals outfield defense would vacuum them up. His secondary pitches induce ground balls, so double play balls are always in play. If his first-strike percentage regresses closer to his career norm, that would be a plus. Last year he was sitting at 58%, while league average was 61%.

Fourseam 214 43 13 6 1 3 1 0 0 .093 .116 .023 .133
Sinker 387 106 12 8 1 27 3 0 4 .321 .462 .142 .333

Medlen won't light up a radar gun or blow anyone away so he seems like a better fit in the rotation based on repertoire. Whether he can carry a heavy workload or not remains to be seen, but the Royals can not handle him with kid gloves anymore if they want to accrue the value they intended when they signed him.  I don’t see why he can’t soak up meaningful innings at a slightly above average rate with either a little good fortune or some minor adjustments.

What do you expect out of Kris Medlen in 2016?