If he were 6-foot-4 and threw 98-mph fastballs, Kris Medlen knows he wouldn’t have as many doubters. Considering his body of work in three-plus years in the big leagues, there probably wouldn’t be many folks still questioning his viability as a top-of-the-rotation starter.
But here is Medlen, who just became a father and still looks like a son, with his flat-bill cap and boyish face. The jocular Californian has a 5-foot-10 frame and a fastball that tops out in the low-90s. And the change-up – he has one that's devastating – is just not a pitch that quickens the pulse of the general populace.
And so, we have a 27-year-old who has pitched in 120 games and fashioned a sparkling 2.85 career ERA, yet still hasn’t convinced some that he’s a guy to build around. A right-hander who has posted a stunning 15-2 record and 2.81 ERA in his first 30 starts, but still is viewed by many as a riddle that opponents will solve.
“There’s people saying, like, ‘Wait till the league figures him out,’” Medlen said with a tone of amusement. “After two starts (teams) have the film and know what I throw. If those teams weren’t paying attention, they’re idiots. People know how I pitch. It just comes down to me executing my pitches.
“When you don’t execute, you get crushed. When you do execute, you do well.”
At least, he does. It’s not quite that easy for others who don’t light up a radar gun. Not everyone can make a ball do what he does, or throw it so precisely where they want it to go. The Braves had a couple of guys who did that to an extreme degree for a long time: Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine are going to the Hall of Fame without ever throwing 98 mph.
“[Medlen] works fast, he mixes his pitches, and he’s not afraid to throw any pitch at any time,” said Braves pitcher Paul Maholm, who grew up in Mississippi watching Maddux and Glavine dominate opponents. “And he’s got the command in the zone and the movement that those guys had. For me, that’s pitching.”
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said the similarities to Maddux go beyond size and style of pitching.
“He does a lot of little stuff that Maddux did, that didn’t pertain to balls and strikes,” Gonzalez said. “He holds runners, he might be the best fielder on the field, he’s a hell of an athlete, he can swing the bat… So that’s why I think people compare him to Greg, because Greg did all those little things to help him win. And that’s what Medlen does.”
After being bounced between relief and starting roles for most of 2-1/2 seasons, Medlen was moved to the rotation at the end of July and went 9-0 with an 0.97 ERA in 12 starts. The Braves have won 23 consecutive regular-season games started by Medlen, a major league record for the live-ball era.
Safe to say he won’t be moved to the ‘pen again anytime soon.
Some teammates and Braves officials said they knew Medlen would shine in whatever role he was assigned in his first full season since undergoing “Tommy John” elbow surgery in August 2010. But a sub-1.00 ERA as a starter?
“I was fortunate enough to come up with him (in the minor leagues), so I knew he was special guy,” Braves reliever Jonny Venters said. “I’ll never forget this: I didn’t play with him until Double-A, and when I got called up, my first game in Double-A he was starting. I had seen him in spring training and stuff, I’d heard he was good and all that. But he had seven shutout (innings), one hit, 12 punchouts.
“I was like, golly. So ever since then, I kind of knew he was a special talent.”
Medlen finished with a 10-1 record and 1.57 ERA in 50 games last season, with 120 strikeouts and 23 walks in 138 innings. His .208 opponents’ average included .208 by lefty hitters and .207 by righties, and he allowed a .189 average and miniscule .484 on-base-plus-slugging percentage after the All-Star break.
“I took it a game at a time and it turned into a pretty cool little body of the work the last couple of months,” said Medlen, who won consecutive National League Pitcher of the Month awards for August and September. “But people question whether I can do it again? They say, ‘Oh, Kris will never do that again.’ Well why not?
“I already did it once, why can’t I do it again? I look at it positively. I did it before, why wouldn’t I be able to do it again?”
Medlen, who makes his spring debut Monday against the Marlins, had 84 strikeouts with 10 walks in 83-2/3 innings as a starter in 2012. Still, he heard the “yeah, but…” crowd point out that three starts were against Miami and two vs. San Diego.
“Are they not major league teams? And I faced the Padres when they won eight games in a row -- they don’t count?” Medlen said. “I don’t know, everybody’s been so negative about it, I haven’t really understood why. But it doesn’t affect me. I just go out there and keep doing what I’ve been doing.”
What if he excels again as a full-time starter this season, now that teams know what he’s all about?
“Oh, they (skeptics) will say something like, ‘Yeah, but the NL East was weak this year,’ or ‘He missed interleague play,’ I don’t know,” he said, laughing as he described how he learned long ago to use this stuff as motivation. “That’s the way it’s been my entire life. Keep telling somebody they can’t do it, they’re going to want to prove you wrong.
“It’s something I’ve dealt with. Nothing new to me. Just go out and keep proving people wrong.”