Let’s play a game to start this piece. Log in to Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, or any similar site and find the most obvious thing all dominant bullpens have had in common. Chances are you came up with strikeouts. The statistic that tracks strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) was invented for those few special frontline starters and the bullpen because let’s be honest; if a players K/9 is below a 9.0 you skip right past it anyways. From 2005 to 2011 in Major League Baseball there were eight qualified seasons by a starting pitcher over 10.00 K/9 while there were 147 seasons (min. 50+ IP) of bullpen work over that same figure. I am not saying that the lefty specialist, the long reliever, or the veteran arm has no place in a bullpen, but the meat and potatoes, so to speak, of your staff needs to be looking for strikeouts.
With that being said; I pose a question. What do you do when you have a struggling starter who can touch 95 MPH with a fastball and drop an effective change-up to 84 MPH? You move them to the bullpen. That is exactly what the Seattle Mariners did with 23-year-old Yoervis Medina in 2012.
Medina was signed by Bob Engle, who is now Mariners Vice President of Baseball Operations, as a non-drafted free agent on July 25, 2005. 2013 will be the right-hander's 8th season within the Mariners system, and yet many have never heard of him. Medina never posted a 9.00 K/9 in the Venezuelan Summer League with the closest season being the year before he came stateside in 2009 posting an 8.2 K/9. Medina mixed time in his four seasons in Venezuela between the rotation and the bullpen with his work gaining him a nod stateside in 2010. His 2010 season was an all-around success as the right-hander pitched all the way to Triple-A with the Tacoma Rainiers posting professional career highs in innings pitched (82.1), strikeouts (94), strikeouts-per-nine innings (10.3), and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.03). The Mariners saw enough in the Venezuelan born reliever to add him to their 40-man roster prior to the 2011 season; a campaign he would begin from California with the club's High-A affiliate the High Desert Mavericks, which is a stop he skipped the previous season on his way to Tacoma.
If ever there was a season where a young pitcher would need the support of their organization it was the 2011 campaign for the flame-thrower from Venezuela. He would start the season 0 and 2 in his first two starts registering a 4.00 K/BB ratio allowing just three earned runs through eleven innings pitched. From that point on...brace yourself. Medina would make his next eight starts with the Mavericks, before being demoted to the Arizona League, posting a 1-4 record to go along with a 7.70 earned run average allowing at least 6 runs in five of the eight outings (eight runs in three outings). His demotion to the Arizona League was a move by the organization to get his mechanics back on track and regain the mound composure they saw from him in 2010. Medina returned to the Mavericks rotation after a ‘mixed’ lone outing in the Arizona League where he allowed four runs through five innings but struck out a season high nine batters allowing just one walk. Those nine strikeouts would remain his season high as his next ten starts with High Desert yielded much of the same, with Yoervis going 0 and 7 while posting a 6.61 earned run average over 53.1 innings pitched, or an average of five and a third innings per outing.
This is where that organizational support comes in. The Mariners continued to protect Medina on their 40-man roster, amid the opportunity to designate his contract for assignment (as they did in 2012 with Johermyn Chavez) to make way for September call-ups. The organization promoted him to Jackson -- their Double-A affiliate -- in hopes of giving him a mental fresh start for the season. Though his control through his 25 innings with Jackson was near its lowest point of the season Medina was able to post two quality starts in his four outings to end his promotion with a 4.68 ERA. By the end of the season the Venezuelan born reliever was met with what surely could have been a stateside career ending line consisting of a 1-14 record through 25 games played (24 starts) with a 6.18 earned run average allowing 1.656 base runners per inning through 131 innings pitched; the bleeding doesn’t stop there. His numbers in home runs allowed (25) were much higher than any previous season while he tossed more wild pitches, hit a greater amount more batters, and nearly doubled his home runs allowed per nine innings from 2010. His K/9 on the season fell to 6.8; a sharp fall from the previous season where he posted a 10.3 ratio. His 131 innings pitched alongside a 2.06 K/BB ratio were the only positives to come out of the season; if you truly are an optimist that is.
Scout.com resident scouting guru Frankie Piliere added his take prior to the 2012 season:
Piliere on Medina: "I'd like to see him start missing bats again like he did earlier in his minor league career. I think he has enough raw stuff to do that, but he has to show some mastery over the Double-A level if he's going to pitch in the big leagues."
The organization continued to support their young Venezuelan import keeping his name on their 40-man roster to open the 2012 season in moving his at times electric delivery to the bullpen; a move that in five months would jump-start a career that seemed lifeless. Medina would make just one start in 46 appearances, all with Double-A affiliate Jackson, posting some of the best bullpen numbers within the M's system. His one start, which took place in his third outing of the season, was not a success (5 IP, 7 H, 5 ER, 2 BB, 4 K, 2 HR allowed). Thirteen appearances into the season Medina sported a 7.83 earned run average thanks in part to a one inning relief effort where he allowed six runs on six hits, including five doubles.
What did the Mariners organization and Generals staff do? They stuck with him, unwaveringly, and the rest of the way Medina would show the professional baseball world the performance the organization had seen in him all along. He would not allow another home run over 46 innings pitched posting a 1.17 earned run average while taking just one losing decision, winning five ballgames, and converting five saves after becoming the teams closer when Carter Capps was promoted. Medina would strike out 57 batters over these 33 outings while walking just 22 hitters, hinting at the type of control and dominance that Bob Engle saw in him as a teenager. Medina was a driving factor in helping the Jackson Generals reach the 2012 Southern League Championship series and remains an option to receive a Major League call-up as the 2012 season winds down in Seattle.
You don’t have to be an optimist this time around to appreciate his season ending numbers: Medina had a 3.25 earned run average, just 0.6 home runs every nine innings pitched while delivering a ringing statement of 10.0 K/9 on the season. The young starter who worked his way to Triple-A in his initial stateside season is back, and although he now does his work from the bullpen, he certainly has earned his 40-man roster spot.
Let’s take an in-depth look at how Medina got his groove back; yes, that was an awful movie reference.
Being a 6-foot-3 245 pound reliever who can reach 95 on a radar gun means that a lot of his success comes from his fastball; movement, placement, the overall velocity, and his control over it being of equal importance. In 2011 with High Desert Medina was 4.6% under the league average in strikeout percentage (15.4%) and 4.2% under the league average in strikeouts looking (11.2%). In 2012 Medina was able to right the ship going 5.9% over the Southern League average of 19.5% strikeout percentage and 3.8% over the average for strikeouts looking. That is a 10% jump in strikeout percentage with a 6.6% jump in those strikeouts coming via blank stare. This control in his velocity led to a 65.6% contact rate on the season compared to the Southern League average of 76.8%.The most impressive statistic of his 2012 season may very well be that batters when swinging made contact with his pitches inside the strike zone only 68.9% of the time. That is compared to an 81.6% average within the Southern League with Medina’s numbers coming in under all minor league classification averages. Adding to his 2012 resume Medina posted a ground ball percentage (47.8%) over league average with his fly-ball percentage (33.9%) coming in under league average; that 47.8% ground ball ratio along with his 1.41 ground ball to fly-ball ratio were both career highs.
I believe the right hander would gain some valuable experience with a late season call up, one that Seattle might be wise to make with Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor showing their youth, but I believe it is certain that he will start 2013 with Tacoma and pitch in Seattle next season. He surely has earned the right to pitch in the Major Leagues and Bob Engle knew it all along.
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