The most dominating pitcher in baseball came out of Santa Ana (Calif.) College as a switch-hitting shortstop and got a paltry $80,000 signing bonus as a 10th–round pick.
As of June, he was pitching in the minor leagues, stretching out his right arm to move from the bullpen to the starting rotation two years after Tommy John surgery.
When he starts for the Atlanta Braves in their one-off, National League Wild-Card playoff game today against the St. Louis Cardinals at Turner Field (5:07 p.m. ET), the 5-foot-10, 190-pounder will be lucky to break 90 mph on more than a handful of pitches. The prize for a win today: advancing to face the NL-best Washington Nationals in one of the two NL Division Series.
So what is it, exactly, that turned 26-year-old Kris Medlen — who made his first start of the season July 31, three weeks after the All-Star Game — into a modern-day Greg Maddux, the type of pitcher every hitter thinks he can hit until the ball is released, the location is perfect and the batter hits a dribbler to second base?
“He’s a pitcher and not a thrower, which is unique to see in a young pitcher,” said former big leaguer Dan Plesac, an MLB Network analyst and part of MLB Network’s postseason studio coverage. “He doesn’t have anything scouts drool over, but he has command of four pitches. He’s pitching like a guy that has pitched for five or six years and the light has (come on). It takes pitchers time to understand what they can do, what they have and how to use the weapons that they have. He’s just accelerated that learning curve.”
That explains why the man starting the most important game of the Braves’ season is also the most unlikely hero in a Major League Baseball season filled with them (see: R.A. Dickey, plus the entire Oakland A’s roster). It also explains how the Braves have gotten the best deal in baseball on a pitcher who was named National League pitcher of the month in both August and September.
A point of comparison: Medlen made $490,000 in 2012, exactly $10,000 above the big-league minimum. The highest paid pitcher in baseball this year is the New York Mets’ Johan Santana at $24 million. Santana started 21 games this year, winning only six — which is $1.1 million per start, or $4 million per win.
Meanwhile, the out-of-nowhere Medlen has pitched his way into baseball history. In Medlen’s final regular-season start, the Braves beat the Mets 6-2. It was the 23rd straight time the Braves won in games started by Medlen, dating back to 2010, before his Tommy John surgery. That bested the major league record of 22 in a row, shared by Hall of Famers Carl Hubbell and Whitey Ford.
Medlen’s 2012 stats are eye-popping, and stretched out over a full season compare nicely to Maddux’s four Cy Young seasons for the Braves. Medlen finished with a 10-1 record, 1.57 ERA — Maddux’s lowest ERA was 1.56, in 1994 — and a 0.91 WHIP. But look at his statistics since he moved into the starting rotation July 31. As a starter, Medlen was 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA and a 0.80 WHIP. In 12 starts, he allowed only nine earned runs. He struck out 12 in one start, 13 in another.
“When you talk about really good pitching, everyone is looking for what’s the secret,” said famed pitching instructor Rick Peterson, director of pitching development for the Baltimore Orioles and a founder of 3P Sports, an elite training system for developing pitchers. “The secret is you got awesome command, excellent command of a fastball, plus a changeup you can throw at any time in the count. And Medlen’s just got great, great command all of his pitches.”
It’s a matter of keeping hitters on the defensive. If a pitcher throws 100 mph but the fastball is the only pitch that’s a reliable strike, it makes the hitter’s job a whole lot easier when he’s ahead in the count: It’s 2-0 or 2-1, and a hitter can guess fastball.
But if Medlen is behind in the count, a hitter doesn’t know whether to expect a two-seam fastball, four-seam fastball, the curveball or the changeup that’s Medlen’s most effective pitch. Add that to the fact his Maddux-like command means he can take a scouting report on a hitter and throw any pitch exactly to the hitter’s weak spot. And it all comes with an effortless delivery that pitching gurus note is repeated with the same motion on every pitch, the same in the first inning as in the eighth.
It’s the perfect recipe for how an unimposing, average-velocity guy can turn into a pitching behemoth when he toes the rubber.
What Peterson teaches young pitchers is to flip the conventional wisdom about what’s most valuable on the mound. The No. 1 attribute is location. Next is the ability to change speeds and deceive the hitter. After that is the movement you get on the pitch. And finally, last on the list of what Peterson values in a pitcher, is velocity.
The amazing rise of Medlen is a good lesson for any young pitcher. It’s a lesson Peterson gives pitching staffs every spring training.
“Let’s go back to when you were an amateur, before you were a professional,” Peterson tells them. “What has the highest value back then? And they all say velocity. Right. I tell them, look around the room — everyone has a pretty good idea what your signing bonuses were. The guys who had the highest signing bonus threw hardest. But let me put this on the table. That check they gave you when you signed a professional contract? That was your velocity check. You’re not going to make any more money on velocity. You’re going to make it on location. When you get your paycheck every two weeks, the guys who get paid the most? They locate best.”