Easygoing Medlen embracing starring role
With mentor Hudson departed, right-hander to assume rotation reins
LAKELAND, Fla. -- As Kris Medlen rose through the Minor League ranks, he was described as a fearless, fun-loving pitching prospect who was confident enough to genuinely believe he could play shortstop at the professional level.
Tim Hudson was able to confirm this description before being formally introduced to Medlen.
Once, after he had finished taking a shower in the Braves' clubhouse during the early days of his first Major League Spring Training in 2009, Medlen slyly turned off the hot water before alerting an awaiting Hudson that a shower stall spot had opened.
"[Hudson] walks in under the shower, freezes his [butt] off under the cold water and he screams," Medlen said. "He looked at me like, 'What the [heck]?' I was like, 'Should I have done that?' Ever since then, I felt like he gravitated toward me. I helped to keep him young. And he helped me grow up. He's changed my life off the field and career-wise. He's the dude, for me, who just kind of changed things."
Hudson ended his nine-season stint in Atlanta when he signed with the Giants in November. While his presence will be missed, the Braves will continue to benefit from the influence Hudson had on Medlen, who despite debuting just five seasons ago, now has a longer tenure in Atlanta than any other current member of the organization.
"It's not like I've been around forever," Medlen said. "But it kind of feels like that because no one else is here anymore. It kind of makes me feel a little older. But I'm the same dude I was when I got called up."
When Medlen made his Major League debut in 2009, he was slightly overshadowed by the presence of teammate Tommy Hanson, who at the time was considered the game's best pitching prospect.
A half decade later as Hanson is attempting to resuscitate his career, Medlen stands as arguably one of the game's least appreciated starting pitchers.
"There's no big game for him," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said in reference to Medlen's cool approach. "He goes out and plays like he's in the backyard. He's having fun pitching and he's having fun swinging the bat, much like Huddy."
In 43 starts since becoming a permanent part of Atlanta's rotation on July 31, 2012, Medlen has gone 24-11 with a 2.46 ERA. Clayton Kershaw, who has won two of the past three National League Cy Young Awards, is the only pitcher who has compiled a better ERA (1.80) while making at least 40 starts during this span.
Medlen drew comparisons to Greg Maddux as he posted a 0.97 ERA in the 12 starts he made after being transitioned from a reliever to starter for the final two months of the 2012 season. But when he went 1-6 with a respectable 3.48 ERA through his first 11 starts last year, he once again had to prove himself.
"I felt I was kind of throwing the ball better than my record might have show," Medlen said. "Things just were not working out for me."
Medlen turned things around by going 4-1 with a 2.14 ERA in five June outings. But in the process of posting a 6.34 ERA over his next six starts, he led the Braves to begin contemplating moving him back to the bullpen.
Coincidently, the fact that Hudson suffered a season-ending ankle injury in late July might have bought Medlen the time he needed to remain in the rotation. Taking advantage of the opportunity, he went 7-2 with a 1.64 ERA in his final 11 starts.
Instead of moving Medlen back to a relief role, the Braves ultimately handed him the ball to start Game 1 of the NL Division Series against the Dodgers.
"When it comes to doubters and whatnot, I'm just so over that," Medlen said. "If I haven't shown somebody that I can do this, I'm not really worried about it. Doubters don't affect my paycheck. What I do on the field does, and what we do as a team."
Medlen's early-season struggles last year were influenced by some mechanical issues that he began fighting during Spring Training. As he attempts to avoid a repeat in 2014, Medlen can be comforted by the fact that he began this year's Grapefruit League season in encouraging fashion.
Making his debut with a two-inning stint during Thursday afternoon's 5-2 loss to the Tigers the 28-year-old right-hander surrendered two hits and one run, which might not have scored had catcher Gerald Laird not suffered a back strain that prevented him from dropping to the ground to block what proved to be a costly wild pitch.
"I missed with some fastballs, but what I was excited about was staying down [with my pitches]," Medlen said. "Usually, I'm up, up and up. I wanted to make those adjustments. It's hard to make the adjustments in live batting practice when you have an L-screen in front of you and you're 5-foot tall."
Like Hudson, the 5-foot-10 Medlen has proven to be one of those guys whose competitive desire and determination has not prevented him from being burdened by the fact he was not gifted with an imposing physical structure.
As Medlen prepares for what will be his first Major League season without his mentor, he hopes to continue drawing more comparisons to Hudson, who set an example both on the field and through his many charitable endeavors in the Atlanta community.
"Huddy showed me how to work and be a person off the field," Medlen said. "He and [his wife] Kim are two of the most generous people you will ever meet. There is no reason not to be like them."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.