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, whether it’s bouncing around the clubhouse before a game or just chatting up a couple of players after a spring training start.
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 — an honor he certainly earned with the way he pitched in 2011.
After starting the season in the bullpen, Medlen moved into the rotation and was basically unbeatable. He 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 number one pitcher, whatever.”
Still, being an ace in Atlanta carries some gravitas. The franchise was known largely for its starting pitching during a run of 14 straight division titles, the place where masterful hurlers such as Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz did their best work.
Now along comes Medlen, who just a year ago was seen as a handy guy to have around but not exactly the centerpiece of the pitching staff.
He was used to filling whatever role the Braves needed, whether it was spot starter or long reliever. But once the Braves committed to sending him out every fifth day, Medlen became perhaps the most dominant pitcher in the game.
“As a player, you never want to be just average, just skate along, just be OK,” he said. “You want to be the best you can be, whether that’s the next Hall of Famer or whatever. I just don’t want to be the next flop. I don’t want to be the next guy who has a couple of good years and he’s out.”
There are still plenty of skeptics who wonder if 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 a couple of complete games, including a shutout.
“Sure, there are people who still question me,” Medlen said with a shrug. “That’s no skin off my back. I’m just going to keep doing the same things I’ve been doing. I’m going to keep playing the same way I’ve been playing, just being aggressive and confident in my abilities and my ability to get guys out.”
The Braves have no doubts about Medlen’s ability to lead the pitching staff.
“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. We’ll take him.”
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 in the early days of spring training.
“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. I’m just looking forward to catching him. I caught him a couple of times in (workouts), and I don’t even think I had to move my glove.”
Medlen has been compared to 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.”