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Arguably the best pitcher the National League this season won't appear in the record books. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't appreciate what Kris Medlen has done.
When our descendants look up the official National League pitching leaders for the 2012 season, the name Kris Medlen won't show up anywhere. That's because of one serious elbow injury and 24 innings.
You can't qualify as an official leader in any of the "percentage" categories unless you finish the season with 162 innings pitched, and Medlen's going to finish the 2012 regular season with only 138 innings. If 138 innings was the cutoff, though? Kris Medlen would lead the National League in winning percentage (.909), home runs allowed per nine innings (0.4) and ERA (1.57!). He would also rank second in strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying that one could, without performing too many statistical somersaults, argue that, inning-for-inning, there hasn't been a better pitcher in the National League this year than Kris Medlen.
But what if talk of an extra 24 innings doesn't interest you? What if hypothetical statistical achievements leave you cold? Well, then consider this: Kris Medlen's Atlanta Braves have won each of the last 23 games he has started, which is the longest streak in the major leagues since at least 1921. That streak, of course, includes all 12 games Medlen has started this season.
Six months ago, nobody would have predicted any of this. Six months ago, the Braves had five promising young starting pitchers in their rotation, with veteran ace Tim Hudson on the mend. Six months ago, Kris Medlen was just another young pitcher recovering from Tommy John surgery, having missed almost all of 2011.
So Medlen opened the season in the Braves' bullpen. For four months, he pitched well. Not quite brilliantly. But effectively, for sure, if rarely at critical moments; in 38 games, he posted a 2.48 ERA with only two decisions (one win, one loss). After joining the rotation on the last day of July, though? Medlen went 9-0 in his dozen starts with a sublime ERA: 0.97.
As if all that weren't unlikely enough, Kris Medlen doesn't look like brilliant starting pitchers are supposed to look, Kris Medlen is ... how shall we put this ... short. He's listed at just five feet and 10 inches, which apparently is generous by an inch. For the sake of comparison, though, we'll stick with Medlen's officially listed height.
In the last half-century, players have just gotten bigger and bigger and bigger. Most starting pitchers stand more than six feet tall, and many of them clear that bar by around half a foot. How rare are "short" starting pitchers? At 5'11", both Pedro Martinez and Tim Lincecum qualify as short by this era's standards. But the list of 5'10" aces -- true aces, we mean -- is exceptionally short, essentially restricted to Milwaukee's Teddy Higuera (who really did pitch brilliantly from 1986 through '88) and (arguably) Johnny Cueto.
Does Medlen's relatively diminutive stature mean he can't pitch brilliantly? No, it clearly does not. Does it mean he can't pitch brilliantly for a number of years? It was just this question that probably sent Billy Wagner, a brilliant starting pitcher in the minors, to the bullpen for his entire brilliant career in the majors.
Well, it's too early to say. But if there's anything the Atlanta Braves know, and have known for many years, it's pitching. And if the Braves didn't think Kris Medlen, however short, wasn't in this thing for the long haul, they probably would have just left him in the bullpen.