PHILADELPHIA – His name keeps landing in sentences with the likes of Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Whitey Ford and Warren Spahn, and sometimes Braves pitcher Kris Medlen pauses and thinks about the remarkable roll he’s on, the conspicuous stats, the legends he’s compared to. He doesn’t pause long, because there’s not much time for that now.
When he’s not running in the outfield before batting practice, working out in the clubhouse gym, throwing a side session or going over video or a scouting report, more and more of Medlen’s between-starts time is taken up by interviews. The witty Southern California native handles those as adroitly as he’s handled hitters, and that’s saying plenty.
The numbers are overwhelming: Medlen is 8-0 with a 0.76 ERA in 10 starts since moving from the bullpen to the Braves’ rotation July 31, and he’s posted a .195 opponents’ average with 72 strikeouts and nine walks in 70-2/3 innings in those games.
In his past seven starts, he’s 6-0 with a 0.50 ERA, two complete games, and 56 strikeouts with five walks in 54 innings.
And then there is this: The Braves have won 21 consecutive games started by Medlen, and they could tie a major-league record for the live-ball era (since 192o) with a win Tuesday, when he faces Miami to begin the last regular-season homestand of the Braves’ season and Chipper Jones’ career.
“I’m not worried about the last 10 starts I’ve had,” said Medlen, who pitched eight scoreless innings of four-hit ball against the Marlins on Wednesday, one of four times he’s pitched eight or nine scoreless innings in his past six starts. “They don’t matter anymore. I could go 0 for my next 10. Which would suck. But I realize there are ups and downs.
“I’m on an extreme up right now. It’s really cool. I just look at the numbers and go, what the hell is going on?”
Extreme up, indeed. Few pitchers ever experience such an “up” in their entire careers, much less before they’ve even had 30 major league starts. For all the storied history of Braves pitching, only one pitcher in franchise history has ever had a stretch of 10 games with at least eight wins and a sub-1.00 ERA – Warren Spahn, who went 10-0 with a 0.99 ERA over 10 starts during July through September 1961.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Medlen is the first major leaguer since earned runs became official in 1912 to have a 10-start span with at least eight wins, an ERA of 0.76 or lower, and an average of at least one strikeout per inning.
In the live-ball era, the record for most consecutive wins by a team in one pitcher’s starts is 22, done twice: by the Yankees with Whitey Ford during a span of 1950 and 1953 (he missed the two seasons between for military service), and by the Giants with Carl Hubbell in 1936-1937.
If the Braves win in his Tuesday start, they’re assured of at least a spot in the Oct. 5 Wild Card game. Milwaukee’s 12-2 loss to Washington on Monday left the Brewers tied with Los Angeles for third place in the wild-card standings and reduced the Braves’ magic number to 1 to clinch a postseason berth.
The wild card-leading Braves, nine games ahead of the Brewers and Dodgers with nine to play, need either one Atlanta win or one loss by each of the current third-place teams. As things stand now, the Braves would host St. Louis on Oct. 5.
Medlen has become a big story in baseball in a short time, and with the playoffs approaching, with national media outlets are scrambling to do stories on boyish right-hander. The New York Times planned to have a reporter at Tuesday’s game.
By now, every team surely knows what he features, but it hasn’t mattered. He doesn’t overpower hitters with high-90s heat, but carves them up with an array of fastballs (two- and four-seamers), curveballs and devastating change-ups, all of which he has been able to locate with precision in most of his starts.
“I’m not going to change my approach,” he said. “I pitch effectively to where you can be real aggressive against me or you can be really patient. If I’m around the zone and you’re patient, it helps me out. And if you’re aggressive and the pitch is down in the zone, it helps me too. I don’t know. I think it just comes down to me making some mistakes and guys making me pay for it. I hung a curveball to Bryce Harper and he absolutely smashed it.
“I just try to take it a pitch at a time. I’ve done that the past 10 starts.”
The Braves have won his past 21 starts, while Medlen is unbeaten in 26 starts, going back to his third major league game on May 31, 2009. He is 14-0 with a 2.67 ERA in his past 26 starts, and 14-2 with a 2.86 ERA in 28 career starts.
Medlen also has a 2.92 ERA in 90 career relief appearances, but it could be quite some time before he sees a bullpen role again.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez adjusted his starting rotation a few days ago in order to have Medlen lined up to pitch in the one-game Wild Card playoff Oct. 5 to determine which of two National League wild-card teams advances to a division series. Veteran Tim Hudson would be in line to start the division series opener two days later, should the Braves advance.
“For them to trust me with that game is huge,” said Medlen, who’ll turn 27 on Oct. 7. “I know it’s like a one-game thing, and I’m sure if I get into some trouble it’s going to be a shorter leash than usual. I don’t anticipate that. I’ve got two more starts before that, so I’m really just trying to keep riding this wave, and if and when it gets there, we’ll get there. I’m really not thinking too much about it yet, because it’ll just probably stress me out.”
It’s exceedingly rare for a major league pitcher to come up with anything close to Medlen’s numbers in his first 28 major league starts. Among recent iconic Braves pitchers, Maddux was 8-14 with a 5.39 ERA in his first 28 starts, and John Smoltz was 11-13 with a 3.41 ERA in his first 28. Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez was 12-11 with a 3.87 ERA in his first 28 starts.
However, those pitchers were starters right away, while Medlen spent much of his first three-plus seasons in the bullpen and had the advantage of knowing hitters better and making mistakes in the ‘pen before he became a full-time starter. For that reason, a couple of more appropriate comparisons might be Roy Halladay and Pedro Martinez, who each won multiple Cy Young Awards as starters after working at least some as relievers – in Martinez’s case, a lot — early in their careers.
Martinez was 13-8 with 3.39 ERA in his first 28 starts during the 1992 through 1995 seasons, with 65 relief appearances in that period. In those 28 starts, he allowed 136 hits and 64 earned runs in 170 innings, with 168 strikeouts and 54 walks.
Halladay was 9-10 with a 5.47 ERA in his first 28 starts in 1998-2000, with 19 relief appearances in that period. He allowed 186 hits and 97 earned runs in 159-2/3 innings in those 28 starts, with a whopping 83 walks and 99 strikeouts.
Medlen has pitched 173 innings in 28 starts while allowing 152 hits and 36 walks with 153 strikeouts.