We love Kris Medlen at ModernPastime. He’s an easy player to root for. He’s got personality, he’s not a physical freak, and he’s battled adversity with his head held high. He was a favorite in Atlanta and I’m sure that Kansas City fans love him as well. My first piece here at MP was about how getting Medlen back from Tommy John recovery last summer was akin to a blockbuster trade for the Royals (link). So obviously I was very excited when I found out that my first ever interview of a major league baseball player would be Medlen himself. I had tons of stuff that I wanted to ask him, from questions about his relationship with sabermetrics to more personal questions about his time in Atlanta.
I want to thank Kris’ lovely wife Nicki for facilitating this and I want to mention the Medlens’ work with the wonderful Rally Foundation for Childhood Cancer Research. The interview was conducted electronically while Kris and Nicki were traveling to Atlanta for a Rally event. I also of course want to thank Kris for agreeing to do this and for really sharing so much. I was worried that I had too many questions and at the end, I wished that I had asked more.
Just a quick thought before getting into the interview: As a stat nerd I always hope that players are into them as much as I am but through reading other interviews and conducting this one, I have come to learn that players have much more to worry about and focus on than their numbers and what they may mean. I don’t think that discounts sabermetrics but it should be a reminder to those of us in that community that stats are not everything. Players do believe in mental edges, team morale, etc, so maybe we are wrong to discount such things (or maybe not). That was the motivating force for Philip and I for starting this blog, to balance saber (something we both believe in) with the traditional ways of looking at the game.
Who was your favorite ex-brave/old guy who hung around during spring training and why?
It’s tough to pick one because the braves did a great job of having not only great baseball players but great people who would come back and stay involved, so it was cool for you as a current player… David justice. He did a great job of mixing it in with pitchers and position players, and told such unbelievable stories and brought a lot of energy. It made you want to show up to the field and go to work. Seeing him as excited to be there as he was was definitely infectious.
What about your favorite Braves beat writer and favorite national guy?
Same with the organization is the same with the media. Braves had a lot of good people which creates an environment for players if they wanted to come out of their shell and say what they were thinking. The clubhouse was always covered by some pretty trustworthy people. Combination of covering the sport and being a cool person away from the sport- David O’Brien. Nationally- Ken Rosenthal, any report that comes out nowadays always comes through Ken which shows his work ethic and I can appreciate that. Not to mention any face to face run-ins I’ve had have been with him, he’s always been a great conversation and very genuine.
In your opinion, how important is clubhouse chemistry?
It’s something that is the glue for your entire team. With mediocre teams it makes the team better and with good teams it makes them great as I’ve seen firsthand.
What is the most player-friendly stadium on the road? Like cushy clubhouse or best food or whatever.
The Yankees. It’s exactly what you’d expect from the organization. First class, over the top everything. Amenities, food, clubhouse attendants.
Do you like playing Sunday night games on ESPN?
Sunday night games on ESPN are the absolute worst. They make the games so late and a lot of Sunday games are getaway days and makes the travel a little more difficult.
How important is the All-Star game to you?
I think the All-Star game is something every player should strive for, but with the way the voting is set up, some guys get left out and it’s almost out of your control. So I think not worrying about it and letting the process take care of itself is the best approach. I love the game and festivities and the attention it brings this awesome game.
Do you feel like the playoffs are a crapshoot after such a long season or does the cream really rise to the top? (I don’t mean anything negative by this. Obviously the royals were great last year but sometimes it feels like it’s just the hot team that wins it all).
I don’t think you can accidentally win a World Series so I feel the best team does win despite what people say on how they got there. People use the word lucky, I try to take that out of my vocab. Making that run through the playoffs shows that yes the hottest team can win but it’s a testament to an entire season of work and chemistry clicking at the right moment and it’s something spectacular to see and be part of.
How long does the feeling last after winning the World Series? Like is it something that you’re still high on or have you already moved on and feel like you do every winter/spring?
It’s one of the best experiences of my baseball career, something you’ve always dreamed of and once it happens you don’t know what you are going to feel because you’ve never experienced it before so you just go with it. I went from an extreme high to extreme low with the death of my best friend* soon after the World Series. Spring training feels like business as usual, getting the kids ready to travel and do it all again.
*Kris and former Brave Tommy Hanson came up together through the minors and were best friends. Hanson passed away suddenly November 9, 2015.
You walked hitters at a higher rate last year (2.78/9 innings compared to 2.2 for your career). Was that something that you were aware of or were struggling with when you first returned, or is it just a case of small sample size and your command and control were as they always have been?
I really try not to pay attention to numbers because they end up working out. I don’t know if the first half of my outings had more walks or the second half. But after having my second long break from injury you lose a little bit of feel and it’s something you work to get back. Also, having to navigate myself through American League lineups which everyone knows is a big difference probably had something to do with that.
Your velocity was up in 2015 on all your pitches compared to 2013. Do you feel stronger now then before your last injury?
I took my 2nd Tommy John by the balls. I knew what to expect and worked even harder. I didn’t make excuses or take short cuts. Anytime you do that you are going to see results. So yes this is the strongest I think I’ve felt. Signing with the Royals was the best thing for me, the knowledge and effort that’s put into everything. That organization has helped me out a lot, although a lot of work was put into before that.
According to fangraphs data, you are throwing less two-seam fastballs and more four-seam fastballs compared to earlier in your career. Is this true? If so why?
Everything revolves around a four-seam fastball. It’s the simplest pitch if you think about it, but you have to be mechanically sound staying behind the ball, on top of the ball, and through the ball which then translates into your other pitches and makes them more effective. When throwing a two-seamer the more you try to make it move the less it will. So keeping that four-seam mentality with a two-seam grip makes it that much better
In 2012, post all star break, you had a run that most players only dream of having. At one point you had a 4 start stretch where you pitched 33 innings, gave up 0 earned runs, and struck out 34. Did you feel different during that run? Was there a heightened level of confidence or something that took you to that next level that only few ever get to? Or did you feel the same as other times you’ve been healthy and pitched well but just didn’t get the results?
Nothing happens in baseball without the pitcher releasing the ball, so I found myself in a groove in terms of not thinking too much and executing pitches. And for a pitcher executing pitches is all you should really think about. But baseball is a team game and I wasn’t striking everyone out. I found myself in a situation where everything clicked in terms of getting breaks and my team scoring runs but after the season I realized what I had done and wanted to build of it for the following season.
What do you think about the Win stat for pitchers? Some think that a pitcher’s win-loss record is meaningless because it’s kind of out of their control. Some think that winning games is something you can control by going deep into games or that there is such thing as a “gamer”. Where do you stand?
I think at times it can be a little misleading but in terms of earning a win there’s not a better feeling however it is you get the win. Sure, every pitcher will have days where he puts up zeroes, but baseball is a test for a players will to win and compete. I think it becomes more of a pride thing and it may not mean much to media types, but it’s all that matters to a guy on the mound. I don’t pitch for quality starts, I pitch for wins.
What do you think about advanced metrics/sabermetrics? Like are you super into them or are you aware of them but don’t care for them or somewhere in between? Do you have a favorite statistic or metric?
I believe when used properly they can be beneficial, but from a player standpoint the term paralysis by analysis can takeover when you are in the middle of the game and you are thinking about multiple things. It’s doesn’t matter what statistics say, you are going to hang a pitch or you are going to miss a pitch because you are sitting there overthinking. In terms of preparation it can be useful but it varies player to player. I don’t have a favorite stat or metric.
Are you into the “moneyball” movement or do you prefer a more old school approach? Not just the nerdy stats but specialization, shifts, preaching walks for hitters, etc.
I believe in well-rounded players that can do everything well. I think that is the most effective way to win games. It also creates an environment with less weakness with depth of lineup/roster.
Who is a hitter that always makes you sweat? Like maybe you have good numbers against them but they always work your at bats or maybe they just own you. How do you approach or prepare for a known player that hits you well? Stay with your plan and hope results even out or adjust?
It’s a funny game. Sometimes you do well against the best hitters and the guys towards the bottom of the lineup beat you. I don’t sweat about anyone because I feel prepared and can execute a pitch that can get someone out. Half of the battle is confidence.
If someone hits me well, I’ll study the players weakness and try to execute. As good as these hitters are, players get paid to hit those really good pitches. Focus on what you can control and just execute really good pitches. Also just because a guy has a hit off you, go back and look at the film and it’s a dribbler down the line. Technically you beat the guy but he gets credit for a hit. It varies.*
*Just a quick note here: I think its interesting that Kris is clearly not a saber guy, but probably doesn’t realize how saber/moneyball this comment is.
Do you or other pitchers in the league think the over protection of pitchers has led to more injuries around the league? I’m talking pitch counts or the tight management of workouts. What about the tightening of the strike zone making it harder for pitchers to get outs and putting more stress on each pitch?
it’s really hard to answer because everyone tries to generalize injuries and causes of injuries when every persons anatomy is different. Guys throw the ball different ways and different pitches. I don’t think it can be generalized and made that simple.
What percentage of pitchers use an illegal substance on the baseball?
I know guys do, but I don’t think it’s a cheating issue as much as an aid in not killing hitters. You see guys swing and lose their bats and then put pine tar on. Is that not an aid for them to feel confident in their grip?
Do you enjoy hitting in the majors? Do most pitchers?
Yes I really enjoyed it because it was a win-win. You are expected to get out, so any positive thing you do is magnified.
Who is your favorite player in the majors who has never been your teammate?
Last question. Do you feel like umpires behind the plate are good enough or would your prefer laser strike zone?
I think umpires behind the zone are very good at their job, although sometimes flawed of course. I think having a laser strike zone would end up affecting the hitters. Some bigger breaking balls that are caught low from a catcher but the strike zone says caught in the zone. Either way hitters will cry about something.