So we were in the visitor’s clubhouse at Tampa Bay on May 18, two days before Randall Delgado gave up his second grand slam in a span of four weeks, when I asked Kris Medlen about the difficulty level of a midseason move from bullpen to starting rotation.
Reason being, Medlen had done it successfully in 2010, moving into the rotation in May and going 5-0 with a 3.86 ERA in 14 starts before blowing out his elbow in August and requiring Tommy John surgery. Now the Braves are going to have hit do it again, only this time he’ll have a few minor league starts to “get stretched out.” (The roster move, Medlen to Triple-A and Jose Constanza to big club, was announced at about the same time I was filing this blog today. I hadn’t expected it to happen this soon.)
Medlen made that move to an injury-depleted rotation in 2010 without going to the minors to get build arm strength and stamina.
“I remember one of my first starts was against the Phillies,” he said, recalling a May 8, 2010 game Philly, his first start that season after making 12 relief appearances. “Stretching out in the middle of the season is no fun. I mean, because when you get up to 60 pitches you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I pitched against the Phillies and I gave up nine hits in four innings.”
(His recollection was spot-on – Medlen allowed nine hits but only one run in 4-1/3 innings that day in a 4-1 win, with three strikeouts and no walks in 88 pitches. The Braves got 4-2/3 innings of all-hands-on-deck relief from O’Flaherty, Kimbrel, Moylan, Venters, Saito and Wagner, in that order.)
“[The nine hits] were all singles, but my arm was hanging after 60 or 65 pitches,” Medlen said. “It definitely sucks. But once I got past the first two or three [starts] I felt ready. Everything kind of worked out for me.”
The Braves went 13-1 in Medlen’s 14 starts that season, and he pitched six or more innings in nine of the 14, falling off to 5 and 4-1/3 innings in his last two before the season-ending injury and surgery.
He was out for 13 months and returned to make two relief appearances in the last week of the 2011 season. Medlen has been in the ‘pen since, although he prepared as a starting during spring training, getting stretched out in case the Braves had a need there coming out of spring training.
Medlen pitched better than most other starters during exhibition games, but the Braves liked his versatility for the bullpen and thought they had enough starters and that he could better serve the team by helping relieve the burden that fell on the Big Three relievers last season – Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel.
The plan worked perfectly in April, and Medlen came through in several appearances in tight spots where the Braves would have gone to their workhorse trio in 2011, when by the end of the season both Venters and Kimbrel showed signs of fatigue.
But when the Braves’ offense began to falter, and the underperforming starting rotation became more exposed, the calls to “put Medlen in the rotation” that we heard during spring training increased again, both in frequency and volume.
With each poor start by Jair Jurrjens – who was eventually demoted to Triple-A – and then each stumble by Mike Minor and Randall Delgado, more and more wondered when and if the Braves would put Medlen in the rotation to provide some stability in an area that was supposed to be a team strength but hasn’t been at all.
So here we are, on May 29, the Braves mired in a terrible eight-game losing skid, their offense sputtering, their starters faltering more often than not, and Minor and Delgado both giving up runs and home runs at an alarming rate. Delgado goes tonight against the Cardinals, and he’s 0-5 with a 4.78 ERA in his past seven starts.
But wouldn’t you know it, now that there is a real need to bolster the rotation, Jurrjens has yet to show any consistency at Triple-A to make anyone confident he can return to form at the big-league level – even though the Braves might decide it’s worth letting him try again, ready or not – and Medlen has uncharacteristically struggled in a relief role, including giving up a grand slam to the first batter he faced after replacing Delgado on Thursday at Cincinnati.
(As I said, I posted this blog before we learne that the Braves had made the Medlen move.)
Medlen, after posting a 2.25 ERA and .212 opponents’ average in his first 18 appearances this season, has a 10.38 ERA and .429 opponents’ average in his past three, with nine hits and five runs allowed in 4-1/3 innings. That doesn’t include inherited runners who’ve scored, like the three on base when he gave up the slam at Cincy.
But when I talked to him 11 days ago in Tampa Bay, things were still going well for the Braves and their bullpen.
Medlen, who said several times in spring training that he preferred to start but would gladly do either role and do it to the best of his abilities to help the team win, was pleased May 18 with how the bullpen role had developed in the first 5-6 weeks of the season, and with the addition of veteran Livan Hernandez, whose sense of humor helped offset the absence of wry Aussie Peter Moylan, rehabbing his surgically repaired shoulder in Florida since spring.
“It’s awesome having him down there, too,” Medlen said of Hernandez. “He makes everything a lot funnier. But obviously results-wise, I think I’m throwing well. That makes everything a lot better. If I had a 10 ERA I’d have a different view about being down there. But it’s worked out perfectly for us, and for Kimbrel, O’Flaherty and Jonny too. I’m eating up some innings and getting some experience down there.”
Again, this interview was May 18. Just providing it to give you some perspective, from Medlen, on what it was like when he moved from bullpen to rotation at midseason in 2008, and where he was in terms of his bullpen role so far this season, or at least until recently.
I mentioned to him that he’d probably impacted more games as a reliever at that point of the season than he might have as a starter.
“More games in terms of quantity, yeah,” he said. “It’s awesome. I love how things have gone so far. Now everything’s kind of set up. I know they’re trying to help my arm, not stress my arm too much, but the bullpen’s no joke. For your arm, you’ve got to stay on top of everything every day, and that’s what I’ve done so far. I feel great.”
Flash ahead 11 days. The Braves are hurting, losers of eight in a row. Their rotation is in need. But if Medlen were to be moved from the bullpen to start, would he again be able to do so without a stint in the minors? I seriously doubt the Braves would do that without having him make at least two or three minor league starts, especially given that he only returned from TJ surgery in September.
Just something to think about, though. If things don’t turn around soon, I’ve got a feeling these are issues that will soon move to the forefront. Perhaps very soon.
(Again, I didn’t think it’d be this “very soon.” As in, even as I was typing the blog, a Braves PR person was typing up the press release to announce the move. My speculation on sending him to the minors to get stretched out was correct — Fredi Gonzalez said they have three scheduled starts for Medlen at Gwinnett, but pointed out that he also told Medlen he needed to go down there and pitch well, that it wasn’t a given he’d be brought up. Still, it’d be beyond surprising if the Braves didn’t replace either Minor or Delgado with Medlen in a couple of weeks after he’s made his three starts at Gwinnett.)
• More on pitching: First off, let me say we know the offense has been terrible lately and has at least as much to do with the losing skid as the pitching does. No doubt about that.
But we’ll focus on the pitching only because there doesn’t appear to be anything the Braves can do to improve the offense right away, other than wait for guys to return from the DL (Chipper Jones in a couple of weeks) or return to the lineup (Freddie Freeman, as soon as he can find a workable solution to his vision woes), and for Brian McCann, who missed six starts with flu or some other nasty illness, to get hot and put the team on his back as he’s done for stretches in the past.
If the Braves decide to bring up shortstop Andrelton Simmons from Double-A, it would immediately make their defense better – he’s flat-out special in the field – but I wouldn’t expect him to provide any more offense than Tyler Pastornicky has in the immediate future, and possibly less. (Some overlook the fact that until the past week, Pastornicky had been on a pretty good run for a few weeks, in terms of getting some key hits, moving runners over, etc. By the way, he’s 9-for-31 with runners in scoring position, a .290 average that’s fourth-best among the Braves.)
So let’s discuss the pitching, and just how disappointing it’s been.
Fredi Gonzalez said recently that he still believed the Braves would end up being known for their pitching this season. Well, this is not what the manager had in mind. Because right now, they’re in danger of becoming known for bad pitching.
The Braves’ 4.81 home ERA ranks 14th in the NL, ahead of only Arizona (5.00) and Colorado (5.71). Those two teams play in hitters’ parks.
The Braves have produced one quality start during their eight-game skid, and have allowed seven or more runs in the past four games, something no Atlanta team had done since July 2008, when they gave up at least that many in five consecutive games.
Atlanta has only 20 quality starts in 50 games, which ranks 15th in the NL.
“We’ve always been known for our pitching, and we will [be],” Gonzalez said after Monday’s 8-2 loss. “We’re just going through a stretch right now. Starting pitching sets the tone. It takes you deep in ballgames. It keeps you in ballgames. And for the most part, I can’t remember the last time…I guess in Cincinnati we had two good performances. But here at home, other than Huddy [Tim Hudson], we haven’t really had some performances going deep in ballgames. You get behind the 8-ball, and right now offensively we haven’t been able to recover from that.”
The Braves have hit .198 while posting a 6.75 ERA during the first four games of this six-game homestand.
“We need our guys to get healthy and to be out there, but there’s nothing we can do about it right now,” said Tommy Hanson, who was charged with six runs in just 3-1/3 innings Monday. “We’ve got to work with what we’ve got. And we’ve got to compete. A lot of our loss today was my inability to go out there and compete and give us a chance to win. Giving up six runs in three innings when we’re not playing well isn’t going to get the job done. I took a lot of the blame today. We’ve got to do a better job of competing and trying to win these games.”
So much has gone wrong recently with Braves pitching, which was supposed to be such a strength for years, what with all the young talent coming up through the system and young, established pitchers such as Jurrjens and Hanson to lead the current rotation behind veteran Hanson, and a bullpen that was arguably the best in baseball a year ago.
Young pitchers have seen their development stalled. They’re still way too young to say it’s a red-flag situation, and you’d expect one or two to struggle in their ascent, but not all of them. Delgado looked so poised and ready in his first starts in the majors last year; now he seems unable to locate a pitch in the most pressure-filled situations. At Triple-A, Julio Teheran’s ERA is up by a full run and his WHIP and strikeouts-to-walks ratio is far off last year’s pace (granted, it’s early, but the guy is averaging well under five innings per start).
Jurrjens has had a well-documented and precipitous slide since making the All-Star team a year ago, his problems possibly (probably, according to scouts) tied to his knee injury. Relievers Venters and Eric O’Flaherty haven’t been anywhere near as dominant this season as last, and in Venters’ case it’s been a struggle all of May just to get guys out.
The only young Braves starting pitcher who’s really met expectations recently is Brandon Beachy, and he’s surpassed them by a large measure.
• Consider a few other stats: With runners on base, Braves pitchers have allowed a league-high .301 average, league-high .384 OBP, and league-high .453 slugging percentage. Only Cubs pitchers have issued more walks with runners on base than Braves pitchers (91)
Only Padres starters have issued more walks (114) than Braves starters (113). Phillies starters have issued 65.
Braves relievers have allowed a league-high 18 homers.
This Braves pitching staff was supposed to be so much better than this. It just was. And maybe it still will be. After all, we’re not even a third of the way into the season. But so far, it’s been a major disappointment.
As we mentioned, the last time Braves allowed as many as seven runs in four straight games was late July 2008, during a 90-loss season in which Braves pitching finished 12th in NL in ERA (4.46). The Braves are currently 12th in the league with a 4.32 ERA, including 15th by starters (4.46) ahead of only Rockies, who play in a hitters’ haven of a home ballpark.
• OK, had some more stuff but running out of time and need to get this posted and get to the ballpark. By the way, the Braves drew more than 160,000 fans for 4 games Friday-Monday, and had a lead for total of 3 innings in those games…. Since it seems we’re at a point where this season could go either way for the Braves, let’s go with a song by that name from the mighty Wilco. You can hear it by clicking here.
“EITHER WAY” by Wilco
Maybe the sun will shine today
The clouds will blow away
Maybe I won’t feel so afraid
I will try to understand
Maybe you still love me
Maybe you don’t
Either you will or you won’t
Maybe you just need some time alone
I will try to understand
Everything has its plan
I’m gonna stay
Right for you
Maybe the sun will shine today
The clouds will roll away
Maybe I won’t be so afraid
I will understand everything has its plan
– David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog