In the 10th round of the 2006 draft, the Atlanta Braves selected an unheralded player who was mostly a switch-hitting shortstop out of Santa Ana junior college. He began his professional career as reliever, struggled some, was converted to a starter and endured a career-halting elbow injury in 2010 just as he was becoming the Braves’ fifth starter.
Kris Medlen wasn’t billed as highly-touted a prospect as Nationals‘ 2009 top overall pick Stephen Strasburg. He was a 5-foot-10 right-hander who carved up hitters with an array of pitches; Strasburg was the 6-foot-4 fire-balling starter with all the attention. But both endured debilitating elbow injuries and had ligament replacement Tommy John surgery nearly two weeks apart in 2010.
Here’s where their paths diverged again: Strasburg, 24, began his first full season back from the injury in the Nationals’ starting rotation under a prescribed limit that shut him down after 159 1/3 innings two weeks ago in the heat of a pennant race. Medlen, too, was under a limit this season but the Braves chose to ease the 26-year-old’s workload to start in the bullpen before inserting him into the starting rotation deep into the playoff race.
Now the Braves are riding a wave of dominating performances under Medlen, with plenty more to come just when they need it most. He sits at 125 innings with a reported season cap between 160 and 180 innings. Since returning to the starting rotation on July 31, Medlen has been perhaps baseball’s best pitcher. He has a 8-0 record in 10 starts with an absurd 0.76 ERA, including carving up the Nationals for 20 strikeouts and only one run over 14 innings. The Braves have won 21 straight games that he starts dating back to 2010. Even though he only pitches every five days, he brought an ace’s stability to the once-shaky Braves starting rotation.
Strasburg, on the other hand, watched his team clinch this city’s first playoff berth since 1933. Some have decried the situation, arguing that the Nationals mishandled Strasburg by not allowing him to start the season in the bullpen so he could be available late in the season and in the playoffs. But consider the team’s differing positions. Entering Friday’s game, the Nationals sit 5 1/2 games ahead of the Braves. What if, however, Medlen had started early in the season? It’s likely their deficit in the division standings would be different.
As for Strasburg, would the Nationals even be in their first-place position with him pitching one or two innings every few days in April, May and June? Could fans even decry losing him for the playoffs if the team wasn’t even in position to qualify because Strasburg wasn’t making his dominating impact as a starting pitcher for the first four months of the season?
For two more starts this regular season, the Braves will send Medlen to the mound. He has helped keep them in contention and trim into their division deficit. He has helped solidify a rotation that has used 10 starters this season. Every start he makes, he adds another head-scratching moment to his story: an unheralded baseball player whose career overcame a derailing injury to become one of the game’s best young pitchers.