KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Kris Medlen is not exactly imposing – listed at 5-foot-10, and that’s being generous. He munches on peanut butter-and-honey sandwiches before every start. He never stops fidgeting.
In many ways, it’s hard to take this guy seriously. Until he takes the mound.
That’s when he becomes the Atlanta Braves’ newest ace.
Medlen still seems a bit uncomfortable with the role of No. 1 starter, figuring a more experienced teammate such as Tim Hudson is better suited. But the Braves appear to be setting things up for the right-hander to be their opening-day starter.
After starting last season in the bullpen, Medlen moved into the rotation and went 10-1 with a 1.57 ERA, a major reason the Braves earned a wild-card playoff spot.
“I really don’t care about that too much, the title of ace,” the 27-year-old said. “Ace is being a leader. It’s a veteran thing. It’s not just something you hand off to somebody.
“I thought I had a good six months last year. My two months in the rotation were great to me. I’m just kind of trying to build off that this year. Whether people think I’m an ace or a No. 1 pitcher, whatever.”
Medlen was used to filling whatever role the Braves needed, whether it was spot starter or long reliever. But once they committed to sending him out every fifth day, he became perhaps the most dominant pitcher in the game.
Some wonder whether Medlen can come close to matching the way he pitched during those final two months, when he made a dozen starts, went 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA and threw two complete games, including a shutout. The Braves have no doubts about Medlen’s ability.
“He doesn’t have that big power arm and he’s not 6-foot-4,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “But that’s OK. We’ll take him. There’s a lot of guys in the Hall of Fame smaller than him who could pitch.”
Gerald Laird, who signed with the Braves in the offseason and will be catching Medlen early on while Brian McCann recovers from shoulder surgery, has already been impressed with he’s seen.
“He’s one of those guys who’s fun to catch,” Laird said. “He hits his spots. He can throw multiple pitches for strikes at any time.”
Medlen has been compared to Greg Maddux, another less-than-imposing physical specimen who had no equal when it came to putting the ball exactly where he wanted.
“Kris can get it up to 92 or 93 (mph), but he also commands the ball,” Laird said. “If you can command multiple pitches, you’re going to pitch a long time in this game and get a lot of outs.”
Medlen knows it’s far too early to be mentioned in the same class as Maddux, who won more than 300 games and likely will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2014.
Besides, he’s not looking to follow in anyone else’s footsteps.
“Every organization has had great players in it,” Medlen said. “I don’t want to be the next anybody. Everyone is always trying to find the next Michael Jordan. Not going to happen. Michael was Michael. Kobe’s Kobe. LeBron’s LeBron. There’s no next anybody. I just want to be myself and have a good time while I’m doing it.”
No issues there.
Medlen might be the most irreverent guy in the Braves’ clubhouse, from his unique pregame eating habits to his perpetual motion.
The guy just can’t stand still.
After his first start of the spring on Monday, he went out to the outfield to get in some running. Later, down in the right-field corner, he was joined by teammate Craig Kimbrel and Florida pitcher Wade LeBlanc. While the other two stood calmly, carrying on a conversation, Medlen was going through his pitching motion, twirling his arms, and constantly jerking his head around to see what was happening at home plate.
“I don’t know what it is,” Medlen said. “I can sit on the couch at home and relax. But when I’m here, I feel better off moving around, doing stuff, having something to do rather than just sitting here doing nothing.”
Medlen had a chance to pitch for the United States in the World Baseball Classic, but he backed out because his wife was on the verge of having their first child.
Max Michael Medlen was born on Feb. 5.
“I was involved in the labor and stuff, trying to help her out,” he said excitedly. “I was right in the war, right in the battle, the front lines. It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever felt. Obviously I was lucky enough to have my major league debut and do some cool stuff since I’ve been here. But this is easily at the top of the list.”