Kristopher Medlen has been in the organization since the Braves picked him in the 10th round of the 2006 draft. He was drafted as a reliever, but was converted to starting last year in AA, and he proved himself more than up to the challenge, with 9 K/9 and a fantastic 4.5 K/BB. Though his year has had its ups and downs -- shelled in his first two starts and brilliant in his third before Tommy Hanson took his spot in the rotation; only 4 ER in August, and already 6 runs (4 earned) in September -- with regard to strikeouts, he's better than ever, as he's recorded 10.5 K/9. While he's been a lot more hittable than Hanson (who's benefiting from a BABIP of .276, while Medlen's is .356), he's also gotten a lot more whiffs. Despite his hype and stiffer fastball, Tommy's way behind in the K department, with just 7.5 K/9.
As befits an occasional starter, Medlen has several different pitches. On September 1, PitchFX recorded him throwing a four-seamer, two-seamer, changeup and slider; on September 2, he rolled with a four seamer, changeup, and curveball. He's really had three roles with the Braves this year: spot starter, long relief man, and most recently 7th inning man. His usage pattern has likewise been a little funky: after pitching on back-to-back days only three times all year (June 24-25, August 7-8, August 27-28), Bobby pitched him back-to-back-to-back on September 1, 2, and 3, with disastrous results: a scoreless frame the first time out, then two ER in each of the next two outings, with only three total outs recorded.
Still, even as he gave up runs -- including the crushing ones that put last Thursday's game out of reach -- he racked up strikeouts. He's recorded strikeouts in 15 straight relief appearances, and now has 67 in only 57 2/3 innings. He's behind Soriano and Gonzalez, but ahead of everyone else in the pen. His terrific strikeout numbers -- and the impending free agencies of Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez -- are a major reason that some are mentioning him as a possible future closer candidate.
While it's clear that the Braves shifted him from relieving to starting on the farm because they wanted to see if he could join the rotation some day, it's also clear that the Braves' rotation will be awfully crowded in 2010, particularly if the Braves pick up Tim Hudson's option -- and considering the way he's been pitching, it's likely they will. So the pen may be the only place to put him, and with the number of bats he misses, he belongs at the back. Moylan may be ahead of him on the depth chart for now, but closers have traditionally been strikeout artists rather than sinkerballers. (That's one reason Derek Lowe isn't a closer any more.)
Medlen isn't a finished product, but he doesn't have to be. The Braves' starting depth means that he can stay in the pen and refine his command and control, while continuing to blow people away. Bobby's initial reluctance to pitch Medlen on back-to-back days may be Bobby's version of rookie kid gloves, but it's clear that Bobby doesn't feel nearly as reluctant any more. While back-to-back-to-back isn't good for anyone, it will be good to see Medlen get into some more high-leverage situations over the next month, without the pressure of a pennant race and all the bodily wear and tear that entails. Blow 'em away, kid.