Medlen's attention to detail key to his success
Though small in stature, right-hander came up big for Atlanta last season
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Kris Medlen turned 27 a couple of days after last season ended, and, yes, it's all downhill from here, buddy boy.
"See this?" Medlen asked.
He raises his chin and points toward his neck.
"I'm growing out my beard."
Medlen definitely could be doing that, although it's not clear to the naked eye. Hey, it's a start.
"I've got a little more size on me, too," he said. "I'm more of an adult."
Now, about that size thing.
"I may not be that imposing," Medlen said, "but I'm 5-10."
"OK, 5-9 1/2," he said.
Medlen says all of this playfully, knowing the joke is on all those people who doubted him. He's still baby-faced enough that he might again be asked to show two forms of identification when he shows up at ballparks and claims to be a Major League player.
Medlen might have been baseball's best pitcher the final two months of last season, and he begins this one as the ace of a Braves team with big expectations. He's a reminder that, as his high school coach Tom Bergeron drilled into him, pitching is about location, movement and velocity. In that order.
That's a lesson Medlen learned early on, because he was never blessed with a blazing heater. And when the Braves inserted him into their rotation in late July last season, he turned his starts into pitching clinics.
Medlen went to the mound 12 times and was 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA. The Braves won all 12 of his starts, extending their streak to 23 with Medlen in a starting role. In 83 2/3 innings, he was almost perfect, allowing 57 hits with 10 walks and -- wait for it -- 84 strikeouts.
"To be able to be a starter and have that limited amount of success the last couple of months, it was huge for my career," Medlen said. "Obviously, it has given me the chance to come in this year as a starter and be in the rotation, which I've never had before."
His general manager, Frank Wren, had predicted success was just around the corner at this time last year, when Medlen, then recovering from Tommy John surgery, was Atlanta's best spring starter.
The Braves had the luxury of having five other healthy starters, and because they wanted to monitor Medlen's workload, the club had no problem starting him in the bullpen.
Medlen's craftsmanship is such that he draws comparison to Greg Maddux. Hank Aaron and Chipper Jones both dropped that name when discussing Medlen last summer.
"On the inside, it's exciting and really cool," Medlen said. "I guess the pitches you can compare. The careers? Obviously not. It's flattering. It's really cool for me, because I never had any exposure or anything like that. It's kind of cool to be recognized for the work you put in. I've got to try and do it again."
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said it is Medlen's commitment to sweating the small stuff that impresses him. Medlen devours scouting reports, works tirelessly at holding runners on base and is precise in his preparation.
In the end, though, it's his ability to locate four different pitches and to be able to throw any of them at any time in the count that has elevated him to near the top of his profession.
"I'm most proud of the consistency with my work ethic," Medlen said. "I didn't take a day off. I wasn't like, `I'm sore.' I always found a way to do something -- look at film, look at the numbers, scouting reports. Hitters go up and down as much as we do, so I tried to pay attention to that kind of stuff. I was always doing something to better myself."
It was the lack of size -- and a 95-mph fastball -- that dropped him into the 10th round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft. He still had some growing to do, and scouts have trouble projecting a small guy with an 86-mph fastball into a Major League uniform.
"Organizations believe, 'Throw 95, and we can teach you how to locate,'" Medlen said. "You know, it's easier to overlook [someone like me]. When a guy is lighting up a radar gun, I'm like, 'Wow, that's pretty impressive.' But a lot of guys who throw 95 don't make it. It's just a matter of putting it all together.
"I felt like I've been the same pitcher since college. I've always had to mix my speeds and all that. I don't think much has changed other than the physical aspect of kind of growing up a little bit."
Medlen flew through the Atlanta system, arriving in the big leagues three years after being drafted. But he was always the guy at the bottom of the rotation, moving back and forth from the bullpen as needed.
Since recovering from elbow surgery, Medlen has seemed on the fast track to stardom. This Spring Training has been different, because he's already penciled into the rotation. And then there's the fact that Medlen is on his way to being famous.
"I guess the attention's different," he said. "It almost makes me feel uncomfortable. I've never had it before. I've always been like, 'Yeah, I play baseball. Make it to the big leagues. Make some money, send my kids to college.' But it's cool. One day, no one's going to want to talk to you."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.