Without a runaway winner, baseball award outcomes often come down to the players who have hot streaks occur the latest in the season. One of the most recent players to ride such a surge of late-season success is Atlanta Braves right-handed pitcher Kris Medlen, who has started hearing his name mentioned in the National League Cy Young conversation. Medlen has had an excellent season (10-1, 1.57 ERA, 138 innings), but on closer inspection it is clear he should not be mentioned in the same breath as top contenders like Johnny Cueto, R.A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez, and Craig Kimbrel.
2012 has been a tale of two seasons for Medlen. He was an effective reliever prior to July 31st. Pitching primarily in the seventh or eight innings, he made 38 relief appearances, posting a 1-1 record with a 2.48 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. He struck out 36 batters in 54.1 innings, while allowing only 1 home run. These numbers suggest a very good, but not otherworldly set-up man.
Medlen became unbeatable after being placed in the starting rotation after the All-Star break. In 11 starts he has gone a sparkling 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA and 0.80 WHIP. He has also upped his strikeout rate by punching out 84 batters in 83.2 innings. The Braves have won each of those starts, and 23 straight Medlen starts going back to 2010. Despite his magical stint as a starter, it’s also important to look deeper into what has contributed to such stellar stats besides his obvious talent.
Medlen’s 12 starts have come against the following teams: Marlins (3), Mets (3), Nationals (2), Padres (2), Astros (1), and Rockies (1). Of those teams, only the Nationals and the Rockies have offenses ranked above the league average in runs scored, home runs, team batting average, or team OPS. In the game against the Rockies, Medlen faced a lineup that was missing regulars Troy Tulowitzki, Michael Cuddyer, and Marco Scutaro. Medlen has feasted on offensively anemic teams during his impressive run, no doubt making his performance appear even more dominant.
In addition to taking advantage of poor hitting teams, Medlen has also experienced some luck since becoming a starter. He has a .255 BABIP (batting average of balls in play) as a starter, which is very low for starting pitchers (by contrast Dickey- .278, Gonzalez- .271, and Cueto- .300) and suggest that Medlen is due for a significant regression to the mean, with .300 being a typical major league average). His career BABIP of .295 has come in a reasonable sized sample of 120 games, and is a better indicator of his true ability.
Regardless of luck or opponent, Medlen has gotten the job done spectacularly since becoming a starter, but his Cy Young push has accumulated narrative like a rolling stone gathers moss. A key reason cited why he deserves consideration for the award is the 23 game winning streak the Braves have run off with him starting. However, the streak is not confined to just this year and is actually spread out over three seasons. He simply hasn’t put together a large enough body of work to be considered a serious Cy Young contender in 2012.
Finding alternative explanations for Medlen’s incredible stint as a starter is not to take away from his ability or performance in any way, but rather serves to frame his results in more realistic terms. In baseball 12 games is a small sample size and can’t be extrapolated across an entire season. Even adding Medlen’s stint as an above average reliever earlier in the year can’t push him over the top for such an award. Medlen has likely been the best pitcher in baseball since the start of August, but that is indicative of a hot streak and not the best pitcher over 162 games. It’s great to give such a great young pitcher his dues, but once it’s time to determine who will win the Cy Young, voters will hopefully look past the hyperbole and evaluate his numbers with a realistic eye.