I often like to say that success is the result of talent meeting opportunity. That’s what makes Kris Medlen‘s breakout so surprising.
The talent has always been there. After a late start to his pitching career (he was converted to the position in college), Medlen has quickly mastered his craft. His control has always been impeccable, walking just 2.13 batters per nine innings in his minor league career, and in his first three years in the Braves’ minor league system he gained significant prospect status. By 2009 Medlen had earned a permanent spot on Atlanta’s 25-man roster…that is until his 2011 season ended after 2.1 innings.
Back at the beginning of the 2012 season, the Braves had one of the deepest rotations. Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Mike Minor, and Brandon Beachy were sure to form one of the best rotations in the National League, and Tim Hudson was set to join that group just a few weeks into the season. Toss in a bevy of near-ready pitching prospects — Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, Arodys Vizcaino to name three — and, well, remember what we said about opportunity?
It didn’t happen exactly like the Braves planned, but Medlen finally found his way into Atlanta’s rotation. Opportunity knocked, and Medlen answered. Nine starts, a 7-0 record, a 0.86 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, and 66 strikeouts to just eight walks in 62.2 innings as a starter. And, unlike most stretches of dominance, Medlen’s doesn’t appear to be fueled by luck. He’s not going to pitch to a 1.62 ERA from here on out, but his 2.34 FIP, 3.00 xFIP, and 2.87 SIERA all scream, “This is what happens when you finally give me a chance!”
Always on the search for the next breakout arm, I decided to see exactly what makes Medlen the stud starting pitcher that he is. It’s pretty basic, actually. He has a high strikeout rate, low walk rate, and a high ground ball rate. That’s pretty much your basic recipe for success, but can we use Medlen’s peripherals to pinpoint future breakout candidates? Yeah, I think we can.
What follows is the result of many hours of spreadsheet sorting, column filtering, and general Googling. Thousands of minor league players were narrowed down to just 12 starters that most fit the Medlen mold. But before I unveil the names, we have to lay down the peripherals used to filter out the chaff. What follows is two of Medlen’s recent seasons (to use as guides) and the peripherals I used to filter our minor league aces-in-the-making.
Medlen’s 2008 stats (read: his breakout minor league season)
- K% – 24.4
- BB% – 5.5
- GB% – 42.6
Medlen’s 2012 stats (read: his actual breakout season)
- K% – 23.0
- BB% – 4.7
- GB% – 53.8
Criteria used to evaluate minor leaguers (minimum 50 IP)
- K%: 23.0
- BB%: 7.0
- GB%: 42.0
And now, for your viewing pleasure, the 12 pitchers whose 2012 stats fit this very strict criteria:
Some names you might recognize (Patrick Corbin). Others might be completely foreign (almost anyone other than Patrick Corbin). Terry Doyle took an offer to play in Japan so he’s irrelevant for our purposes. That brings our list down to 11.
The stats can only take us this far, though. Medlen is a 5’10, 190-pound right-handed starter that throws in the low 90s and works with a devastating change-up. In fact, Medlen’s change-up rates as the second best in the league this season among all pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched. His curveball has actually been the best curve in the league.
From a physical perspective, Medlen is shorter than the 6-foot-plus behemoths on this list, and it would make sense, intuitively at least, to focus on the right-handed pitchers. For my money, Clayton Blackburn is the most exciting name on this list. Blackburn is a 225-pound horse at just 19 years old and features 92-plus heat that batters either whiff on or beat into the ground. He’s walked just 21 batters in 164.2 innings in his professional career. His stock is skyrocketing, but he’s at least a couple years away.
Interestingly, the rest of the names that I really like all have an “L” in the “Throws” column. Justin Nicolino is one of just three guys on the list to induce grounders 50 percent of the time, but he’s just 20 years old and hasn’t advanced past single-A in the Toronto system.
Along with Corbin, Edwar Cabrera is the guy most likely to make an impact in the next year or two. He’s up and pitching out of the Colorado bullpen, and though his BB% is a tad high at 21.2%, that’s in just 5.2 innings. Frankly, Cabrera is a longshot to break out. His 6.9 BB% this year is higher than Medlen’s 2008 or 2012 rates, and pitching in Coors, I’d like to see his ground ball rate push a little higher than 46 percent.
Of course, K%, BB%, and GB% aren’t the only stats that can be looked at to predict success, but they’re the three I believe to be most key. Seeing just 12 guys in the entirety of baseball’s minor league system come close to what Medlen’s doing at the big league level does tell me one thing, though. Medlen is for real.