Atlanta Braves pitcher Kris Medlen is like you, and you, and you, and me. He doesn’t bump his head on anything, except maybe when he bends down and picks up a quarter from under the kitchen table and stands up too soon. He can walk under any doorway and down any cabin aisle on a plane and not require an ice bag for the after-bump. He’s size regular, suit, hat and ego.
Kris Medlen is 5’9 and for the last few months has been the best pitcher in baseball.
That’s why you should get goose bumps when he pitches.
Today the game is over-run with Goliaths, the guys with the hairy-chested 96 miles per hour fastballs, the guys who, as they say in the clubhouse, have been “touched on the way out,” given the gift of speed. That’s where the game is now. The industry standard is the 6’4 pitching badass who throws fastballs that come in with a whoosh.
Medlen’s fastball does not whoosh. His sits at 90-91 miles per hour and it is important to understand that for a 90-91 mph fastball the white of the plate is a death trap. But don’t worry. Medlen’s fastballs — and his other pitches, for that matter — ignore the white of the plate and, thus, the barrel of the bat. He sticks his pitches on the black of the plate, or just off it, as precise as a knife-thrower. That’s appropriate because Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals insists Medlen “carves” hitters. The umpire might as well leave the broom in his back pocket and let the white part of the plate be covered with dirt; Medlen doesn’t see it anyway.
He makes you think, as he disposes of another hitter, “This is why baseball is a great game.” Medlen, a right-hander, throws strikes, changes speed, and works fast; two-seam fastball, changeup, curveball. He never leaves the dugout without that inventory of pitches. He wears a flat bill hat that looks a size too big. He pulls it down so it almost covers his eyes, but it doesn’t cover his face. You can still see the kid’s glee in the way he chomps his chewing gum and in his bouncy walk. He’s not a Goliath, just a David who can deal. He makes you think, as he disposes of another hitter, “This is why baseball is a great game.”
You can still be puny, relatively speaking, and play baseball because baseball makes room for the humiliated basketball player or the too-lean football player. There is room for you, there is room for me, and there is room for Med.
Kris Medlen is one of us.
by Rob Neyer
Medlen, who will be 27 on Oct. 7, started the season in the bullpen but has become the sudden ace of the Atlanta Braves. He finished the regular season with a 10-1 record (his only loss was in relief). And 1.57 ERA. Dating back to 2010 the Braves have not lost a game he has started 23 straight times, a major league record.
Only one other pitcher in Braves’ history won at least eight games with an ERA below 1.00 over any ten-start span, going 10-0 with a 0.99 ERA. That was in 1961, his name was Warren Spahn and he has a statue in the plaza at Turner Field.
The Braves are going to be in the postseason because of a 5‘9 right-handed pitcher. There is not a large enough body of work to declare Medlen a candidate for a Cy Young award, or a statue, or even to suggest he is on his way to spectacular career. But it’s OK to be mesmerized and enthralled by what he has done so far. The Braves are going to be in the postseason because of a 5‘9 right-handed pitcher. Medlen gets it. He understands why he is significant. He doesn’t mind the smallman questions. He also doesn’t mind being short. He revels in it. How many athletes do you know will take their shoes off to get measured? They all want to be 6 feet tall. Not Med.
“I had to see for myself what I really was,” he said. “I took my shoes off, stood in bare feet. 5'9 3/4. Big deal. I know how tall I am. So? The single digit is OK with me. Baseball is just a different sport.”
Medlen artificially deepens his voice to sound more ominous and clowns out the next phrase, “It’s a big man’s world in athletics.” And then he grins.
There is a measure of euphoria in Medlen’s personality, not just because he is enjoying his season, but also because it is his makeup. He fidgets on the bench and doesn’t give the gum in his mouth a break. He fiddles with a baseball or jumps up to share a laugh or an insight with a teammate. You can look on the bench at the start of the inning and see him in one spot then look again a few moments later and find him somewhere else.
His mother, Susan, first bore the brunt of that exuberance. “My rib cage, I’m sure, was bruised inside because he kicked so much and couldn’t stay still,” she said. “He was walking when he was nine months old. He’s non-stop.”
“Four years old [...] He told everybody he was going to be a baseball player.” Medlen might not have been born a baseball player, but it didn’t take long for him to declare he would be a baseball player someday. “Four years old,” said Ray Medlen, who is a truck driver in Texas now for Fed Ex freight. “He told everybody he was going to be a baseball player.”
All kids say that, but unlike many parents, Ray and Susan never allowed the dream to get in the way of their son’s joy for the game. And they never, ever, said he was too short. His father would smash ground balls at him and Medlen could not leave the ballpark until he fielded them cleanly. He developed his athleticism and his arm as a young player, but Medlen never played in the hyper-competitive travel baseball leagues. He played in the local recreation league because his parents refused to push him into the cauldron of youth baseball.
“He was a really good player,” said Ray Medlen, “but he never really came on the scene or was noticed until he got into high school. He just played at the local park.”
"That’s where I got this mentality of I think ‘I can beat you,’ which I had to have to get any recognition." You can imagine the scene: kids standing in a row waiting to be picked and the taller boys going first in the neighborhood draft. Some kids knew Medlen could play; others didn’t.
“They said I was pretty good, but the size thing would come into play,” Kris Medlen said. “I was always the small kid, the smallest guy on the team. That’s where I got this mentality of I think ‘I can beat you,’ which I had to have to get any recognition.”
Medlen has one thing in abundance many more physically talented players do not – the small man’s drive to prove himself. It is the ladder that evens things up. He once stole home for the winning run in a state high school playoff game. He pitched 10 innings in a state semifinal and would have pitched all 14 innings if the rules on innings pitched had not gotten in the way of his fun. When he played shortstop in high school, he lived to make the backhand stop of the ground ball, which allowed him to crow hop and gun the ball across the diamond as hard as he could. He had what scouts call a “plus arm,” but for most scouts, that didn’t matter; he was too small.
He was even too small for the major college recruiters. Medlen did not get an offer to a four-year school out of Gahr High School in Cerritos, Calif. But a scout from the Tampa Bay Rays saw something and took him in a “draft and follow” selection in 2004 and Medlen went off to El Camino Junior College to await his future.
But he wasn’t followed; he flunked out of junior college. Who flunks out of junior college?
In the fall, explains Medlen, “I didn’t go to class.” And the Rays didn’t offer him a contract. Instead, Medlen transferred to Santa Ana Junior College and started over again.
“As long as you are competitive and attack it, you survive,” Medlen said. “The way you play this game is be aggressive and challenge guys. I was a shortstop at Santa Ana Community College and the way I played the game as an infielder is similar to how I pitch, aggressive. I didn’t have any excuse not to bust my ass. I’ve always been the smaller guy. Maybe he liked my style of play.”
Ray Medlen said the Braves saw his son by accident. “He” was Braves scout Tom Battista. Ray Medlen said the Braves saw his son by accident. Medlen played shortstop and then would come on and finish out games in the ninth inning as the closer. Battista was there to see another junior college pitcher, but after that pitcher left the game, Battista stuck around just to have a look at the closer. Isn’t that how it happens with these unknown packages of talent, the underdogs, the non-Goliaths?
Medlen had “now” stuff that afternoon. Velocity. Control. Charisma. He was pitching just one inning so he let it fly. Ray Medlen remembers Battista later telling him that his son hit 94 on the radar gun that day and that his control was major league ready. Ray remembers seeing Battista around at other games later that spring, but the scout wouldn’t talk to anyone and stayed off in the shadows so as not to be noticed. He was watching over Medlen with fingers crossed hoping some other scout did not stumble over what he wasn’t really looking for but found anyway; a short righty with stuff.
Battista works for the Red Sox now. When called, he answered the phone and said immediately, “I can’t talk to you. I’m not allowed to talk to media.”
Battista then took a deep breath, sighed, and said, “Sorry,” as if he wanted to share in the rejoicing over Medlen’s success, over what he saw that spring, but he can’t. “Maybe down the road,” he said.
Almost everyone else but Battista saw a player too short. The Braves believed Battista’s eyes and picked Medlen in the 10th round, offering him two contracts, one as a pitcher, one as a shortstop. They preferred that he pitch, and he agreed. He went off to Single-A ball in Danville, Va., and had 36 strikeouts in 22 innings in 20 relief appearances. He reached Triple-A Gwinnett in 2009 and was 5-0 in six games as a starter with a 1.19 ERA. That’s when the Braves locked him in as part of their future rotation and made him invisible to other teams at the trade deadline.
Medlen was 6-2 and on his way in 2010 when his career was hijacked by Tommy John surgery. Medlen was 6-2 and on his way in 2010 when his career was hijacked by Tommy John surgery, the kind of calamity that can either save a career or mark its end. He now bears the familiar smiley face of the surgeon’s incision on the inside of his right elbow. Braves pitcher Ben Sheets won’t even touch his smiley face for fear of bad luck. Medlen is different. You half expect him to add a nose and two eyes to his smiley face and make it a full face. That’s just him. He bounced back from surgery the way he bounces through the clubhouse with that walk, which looks like he is always on his toes, reaching higher than he should. That bounce, his personality, took out all the drama and excessive worry that so often comes with Tommy John surgery.
What the scouts who sit behind home plate see now is not his height or his smiley face incision. What they see and adore is that two-seam fastball, the pitch that puts Medlen on equal footing with the behemoths that throw the real heat at 96 and then follow with the 89-90 mile per hour sliders.
It was the difference that made the other numbers – Medlen’s height and the speed of his fastball – insignificant. When the Medlen two-seamer is darting toward the plate, watch the left-handed hitters and their hands. If the pitch is working, the hitters pick up their hands to get them out of the way of the pitch before it hits them. Then the ball veers right and is called a strike on the inside corner. “It moves so much,” said Braves reliever Jonny Venters, “it circles around the back of the plate.” He started tinkering with it in spring training in 2010 to supplement the four-seamer, the curve and changeup. It was the difference that made the other numbers – Medlen’s height and the speed of his fastball – insignificant.
In 2010, his second season in the majors, Medlen had to learn to trust the pitch and learn to throw it directly at the left-handed hitter. Roger McDowell, the Braves’ pitching coach, stood in against Medlen in Dodger Stadium one afternoon before a night game to get Medlen to understand what he had to do with the pitch.
“Throw it at me,” McDowell said.
Medlen took a deep breath.
“Throw it,” McDowell said.
“I was a little nervous,” Med said. “I threw it at him. The catcher caught it on the corner and that’s when I got locked in. The pitch came back in over the plate. I have it in my brain now; it’s second- nature to throw that pitch at the lefty when I need to. It keeps guys off my changeup.” The pitch sets up everything.
On Friday, Sept. 14, the pitch had the Nationals, the team with the best record in baseball, absolutely flummoxed. In only seven innings Medlen struck out 13, eight of them were looking. Those eight caught-looking strikeouts were the most in the majors this season for a pitcher and the most by a Braves pitcher since 2000.
“It’s a front hip sinker,” Bryce Harper said.
“It’s a comebacker,” says Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.
Kris Medlen just says, “It’s my fastball.”
That pitcher in 2000? Greg Maddux. You knew we were going to get to him eventually. He won 355 games. Medlen has won 19.
“Don’t do it,” Medlen pleads when Maddux’ name is brought up to him. “Please. I’m nowhere near that guy.”
Maddux was right about 6 feet tall. He didn’t throw hard either, relatively speaking. He had the two- seamer, the changeup and an extra sense about the game that made it all work. He was sitting in the dugout in a game in Turner Field one night and told the player next to him to look out because a foul ball was about to be rocketed into the dugout. Both players ducked moments later as the ball flew into the dugout. Maddux knew what pitching was coming, its location, and bat speed of the hitter, and computed the near-disaster.
Medlen’s got that. Even Chipper Jones saw some Mad Dog (Maddux’s nickname) in Medlen in July. Mark Bowman, who covers the Braves for MLB.com, soon started calling him "Med Dog. “ Medlen’s two- seamer was backing up lefties. The changeup away was getting softly hit balls, which were outs. The curveball lived off both pitches, and Medlen seemed to have that extra sense that told him just when to throw each one. After four Medlen starts, Jones couldn’t resist and offered up the Maddux benediction.
“You're starting to see the Greg Maddux effect" “You're starting to see the Greg Maddux effect," said Jones, who played with Maddux from 1993 to 2003. "He's the closest thing I've seen to Maddux for the simple fact that he has a devastating changeup. Maddux would kill you with command of his fastball and cutter early in the count and then put you away with his changeup.
"Medlen is able to make the ball start off the plate and come back on the corner. The one difference is that Maddux could make the ball go both ways on both sides of the plate. Medlen doesn't have the cutter, but he has a better breaking ball than Maddux did. The approach to getting people out is the same."
Chipper could not resist offering hosannas to Medlen following eight innings of shutout work against the Padres on Sept. 28. He sent out this tweet:
“Medlen is Maddux-esque rite now, only Med has a better pick-off move! DU went #mammo off the paint can! Bmac is now singing soprano,Lol!!”
Medlen does have a terrific pick-off move. He’s already on his toes when he wheels to first and we know about his control. The pick goes right to the top of the bag.
“I’m a former shortstop. I used to be good at stuff, like playing baseball and hitting and stuff,” Medlen said. “That’s one thing that stuck with me was my quick feet. You guys have been around me enough to know that I can’t really stand still. It’s just one of those quick things that I’ve developed and it’s helped me control the run game early in my career.”
Three hours before a start against first-place Washington on Sept. 14, Medlen has a glistening two-tone bat in his hands as he walks through the clubhouse and he cannot wait to swing it. He looks at the row of relievers and says, "Dudes, you’re going to be bowing to me when I’m circling the bases tonight after a home run.”
Venters looks at Medlen and makes a rude comment about Med’s flat-billed hat. The Braves pitchers take digs at Medlen for his hat. Then the Med Dog hands Venters his phone with a picture called up on the screen. Just like that, they quit.
“Take that,” he said to his antagonists. It was the mug of Babe Ruth in a Yankees hat, a flat bill hat.
“Med’s great, just for stuff like this,” Venters said. “We have to be quiet now about his hat. Babe is wearing it. He got us.”
This fun and carrying on is just three hours before Medlen pitches. Most big league pitchers are in a cocoon the day they pitch. Med Dog is bobbing around the clubhouse walking on his toes and looking for fun.
On his way into Turner Field recently, an American League scout was asked, “What do you think of Medlen?”
“I’ll take him and the closer (Craig Kimbrel) over anybody they have in the organization,” the scout said.
Jason Heyward? “Not over Medlen,” said the scout.
Freddie Freeman? “No.”
The young hurlers with stuff, Julio Teheran or Randall Delgado, who both stand over 6 feet tall? “No.”
The 6’4 lefty Mike Minor, a first-round draft pick, seventh overall?
“No,” said the scout. “Medlen. I love him.”
In 2011 and then in the offseason before 2012, there were rumors that the Braves were shopping in the hitters aisle for a right-handed bat to deal with all the southpaws in the NL East and balance out their lineup. All the rumors were supposedly deals that included Teheran and Delgado. Day after day, the Braves were reportedly turning down deals for their two big right-handers with plus fastballs.
But guess who teams really coveted? Medlen. Baseball knew. You never heard his name mentioned but Braves general manager Frank Wren kept seeing the name on the screen of his phone in text messages from other GMs. There were phone calls, too.
“You can have him when you pry him from my cold, dead fingers.” “We get calls all the time about him,” says Wren. Then Wren smiles and leaves the impression that he wants to say, “You can have him when you pry him from my cold, dead fingers.”
What scouts came to understand about Medlen, and what Wren and the other GMs know, is something hitters have understood for a long time.
“The key to hitting is eliminating pitches, and you can’t eliminate pitches with him,” said Ryan Zimmerman. “He always has everything working and throws strikes, even when it is a hitters’ count.”
Just watch. Medlen throws low strikes and the changeup moves off the plate just enough to keep it off the sweet spot of the bat. His command — just off the black or on it — is central to his success. Left- handed hitters will want to ride that changeup into the left-center field alley, but they understand Medlen will throw that two-seamer at their hip, the one that will look like it is going to hit them and then put a sting on their hands.
Even hitters root for the Davids over the Goliaths. Zimmerman said baseball players appreciate stories like Medlen’s. The game is great because of undersized guys, especially the ones who are coming back from calamity like major arm surgery.
For his part, Medlen never knew when to quit when he was behind. His spirit never slumps. It moves with him during a start.
“It’s why baseball is more awesome than any other sport. I know there are not many guys my size doing this,” Medlen said. “Big arm, big heart, big brain, it’s all that. Let that stuff take over.”