Kris Medlen was a top-shelf pitcher in the 2012-2013 seasons. Over that two-year stretch, the righty fashioned a 2.47 ERA in 335 innings with the Atlanta Braves. Then things went south. His elbow began barking, and in March 2014 — for the second time in his professional career — he underwent Tommy John surgery.
The road back proved arduous. Medlen was decent after returning to a big-league mound in July 2015 — he went 6-2, 4.01 in 15 games with the Royals — but then his rotator cuff became cranky. A truncated and abysmal 2016 season spent mostly in the minors was followed by some serious soul searching.
“I considered calling it quits,” admitted Medlen. “It would have been out of injury frustration. I’d had two Tommy Johns, and that last season in Kansas City I had three rotator cuff strains. I was on my ass, on my couch, with my kids, until late January or early February (2017). My wife was supportive — she said it was fine if I wanted to stop, and it was fine if I wanted to keep going — but I think she could tell I was a little down.”
She found a way to lift him up. Medlen’s wife showed him videos she’d found online, and soon he was traveling down to New Orleans to “train with a biomechanics guy (Brent Pourciau) at Top Velocity.” The Braves were willing to give him another shot, and Medlen rejoined his old organization near the end of spring training with a “better understanding of (his) body.”
Medlen spent all of last season in the minors, mostly with Triple-A Gwinnett, and put up a 4.95 ERA over 116-and-a-third innings. Those aren’t exactly inspiring numbers, but paired with a healthy outlook — “this is the best I’ve felt in three years” — they were good enough to have him wanting more. In January, he inked a contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Once again, his family played a big role in the decision.
“My son is five and my daughter is three,” explained Medlen, who turned 32 last October. “They’re getting to an age where… my son is like, ‘Dad, I want to be on TV, and play this and play that.’ He was real small the last time I was up, and now he comprehends a little more. I think it would be cool for him to watch me pitch in the big leagues, so I decided to get back on the horse.”
Medlen has appeared in four games with the D-Backs this spring and has allowed six runs in six innings. He has seven strikeouts.
Matt Strahm was traded from the Royals to the Padres last summer, shortly after having surgery to repair a torn patellar tendon. His left knee back to full strength, the southpaw is currently competing for a spot in San Diego’s starting rotation. Mastering his slider — a pitch he described as having been “way hit-and-miss” — will go a long way toward achieving that goal.
Thanks to the keen eye of Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley, he knows what the problem has been.
“Balsley showed me video and pointed out that I slowed down when I threw it,” admitted Strahm. “It was visible to the naked eye in real speed. I basically need to be more aggressive and repeat the arm action of my fastball with my slider.”
That explanation more typically comes from a pitcher talking about a work-in-progress changeup. I asked him why he slowed down on his slider.
“I’ve been a spin guy my whole life,” answered Strahm. “That’s not what you want to do with a slider. I’ve been a big curveball spin guy, and that’s kind of what I was doing — I would slow down and get around the ball instead of staying behind it and letting it work.
“You do want good spin on a slider, “ elaborated the 26-year-old North Dakota native. “But at the same time, you’re not snapping it with your wrist like you would on a curveball. What you want is to stay behind it and pull down, and again, I was on the side of it, trying to guide it in there. That doesn’t end well for you most of the time.”
Like every other team, the Detroit Tigers have a special sauce they use when grading players. How spicy is it in terms of analytics versus old-school scouting? Here is what Al Avila shared with me during the GM Meetings in December:
“We’ve developed a system where our scouting reports come in from our scouts, and those go into our system,” explained Detroit’s general manager. “We’ve also developed an analytical formula to rank players. We have a ranking of players that’s all based on their numbers., and we have a ranking of the players based on the scouts’ preferences. We mix them together and come up with one list.
“If there’s something that’s out of whack… sometimes the numbers come out really weird. A player might be ranked very high over (another) player, and you know for a fact that the player who is ranked lower is better. Sometimes numbers work that way, so there are bugs that have to be fixed along the way.”
Based on Avila’s description, the sauce in question is closer to Chipotle than it is to Carolina Reaper or Trinidad Scorpion.
Would strict enforcement of mound-visit limitations be enough of a boon for hitters that it could impact the run-scoring environment? According to Diamondbacks skipper Torey Lovullo, it’s a distinct possibility.
“I was thinking about that very question during the game yesterday,” Lovullo said earlier in spring training. “There’s a very good chance we could have big innings blow up in a hurry, so my knee-jerk reaction to the question would be yes. The catcher’s inability to go out there and slow things down, the pitching coach’s inability to go out there and give some tips once you only have a mound visit or two left… We’re going to be asking our pitchers to slow the game down on their own and get big outs. That will be a new normal, and it’s going to take a little bit of time.”
Ned Yost offered a Ned Yost-like response to my question of how the proposed speed-things-up initiatives might impact the game.
“I don’t think they’re going to affect a whole lot,” opined the Kansas City skipper. “You can’t really have long mound visits anyway. The umpires will already run you out after 20 seconds, so I don’t see anything that changes there. The only thing I can see would be if you get caught short. We would need to be aware of that.
“If there is (a set number of mound visits allowed), and you want a buy a little extra time, you can use one of your visits for that. Before, we’ve always had to kind of get around the corner. If an umpire saw you tell one of your players, ‘Go talk to him,’ they usually let him go out for two seconds, then got him back. Now, if you want to use one of (the players) for that, you can stand on the top step and announce to everybody, ‘Hey, go out and talk to him and buy some time.’”
Parker Bridwell was a pleasant surprise for the Angels last year. Obtained from the Orioles in April for cash considerations, he went 10-3 with a 3.64 ERA over 121 innings of work. Bridwell did so as a 25-year-old former ninth-round pick with a nothing-to-write-home-about minor-league resume. To what does he attribute his better-than-expected effort?
“It was just an opportunity,” Bridwell told me recently. “I was DFA’d by the Orioles, and when the Angels traded for me it kind of gave me more hope. It gave me a clear mind. Beyond that, I just went out and did everything I could to make the most of it. Baseball is a weird game. Multiple things come into play when different things happen.”
The plain-spoken Texan told me that working under pitching coach Charles Nagy and bullpen coach Scott Radinsky has “been awesome,” adding that “they’re always there if you need them.” What type of guidance might he solicit from either of the two?
“Most anything about the big leagues,” answered Bridwell. “They’ve been around a lot longer than me. You pick brains around here, you know.”
Two weeks ago in this space, Bryan Shaw told of how advice from Terry Francona played into his decision to sign with the Colorado Rockies. His pitching coach in Cleveland had other ideas. After getting the Mets’ managerial job, Mickey Callaway called the then-free-agent and asked if he’d have any interest in joining him in New York.
One way in which the Mets couldn’t compete with the Rockies was spring training geography. Shaw and his wife live in Arizona during the offseason, and while that wasn’t the determining factor, “it was one of the selling points.”
Anthony Gose, a Rule 5 pick by the Houston Astros this winter, has been returned to the Texas Rangers. The outfielder-turned-pitcher will reportedly remain on the mound.
Koji Uehara has agreed to a one-year, $1.87M contract with the Yomiuri Giants. The 42-year-old right-hander spent 10 years with the Giants, working mostly as a starter, before coming stateside in 2009.
Emma Tiedemann has been hired as the new radio voice of the South Atlantic League’s Lexington Legends,. The 25-year-old University of Missouri graduate joins Kirsten Karbach (Clearwater Threshers) as the only women doing play-by-play in affiliated baseball.
FanGraphs intern Bailey Winston and his Washington University teammates were among the winners of the Diamond Dollars Case Competition at this weekend’s SABR Analytics Conference. Their presentation was on optimized hitter launch angles.
Houston Astros fans have fond memories of November 1, 2017. Spurred by outstanding efforts from George Springer and Charlie Morton, the AL West club captured their first-ever World Series title. According to Alex Cora, one of the contest’s biggest moments has gone largely overlooked.
“I think the biggest at bat in Game 7 last year was Lance McCullers putting the ball in play with a man at third and less than two outs,” Cora told me over the winter. “There are certain spots where you have to put the ball in play, and Lance did that.”
Best season by a two-way player? Babe Ruth’s 1918 and 1919 campaigns stand out as the most-obvious candidates. Neither may be the best answer. In 1884, pitcher/outfielder/first baseman Guy Hecker of the Louisville Colonels won the American Association batting title (he slashed .341/.402/.446) while going 26-23 with a 2.87 ERA.
In 1890, he had a season to forget. As a player-manager for the Pittsburgh Alleghenys, Hecker slashed .226/.285/.318, and went 2-9 with a 5.11 ERA. In what turned out to be his only year at the helm, Hecker’s team finished with a record of 23-113.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
The mental side of the game is paramount, as Trevor Oaks can attest. The 24-year-old right-hander was in Triple-A with the Dodgers last season, and he saw first hand how atmosphere can impact focus.
“You see it with guys who are rehabbing,” observed Oaks, who was traded to the Royals over the offseason. “Their stuff is there, but they’re not mentally locked in. I would use Brandon Morrow as an example. When he was in Oklahoma City, he was having a hard time finishing games for us. His velocity was through the roof — he hit 101 a few times, and he had a 90-mph slider — but he struggled. (Morrow allowed 18 runs in 20 Triple-A innings.) Then he got back to the big leagues and was lights out as the setup guy for Kenley Jansen in the playoffs. That little extra focus makes guys that much better.”
Ninety Percent Mental — by Bob Tewksbury with Scott Miller — promises to be one of the best baseball books of the year. The subtitle paints an accurate picture of what to expect between the covers: An All-Star Player Turned Mental Skills Coach Reveals the Hidden Game of Baseball.
The book’s introduction reveals a scary moment that happened last spring training. Tewksbury climbed Camelback Mountain, and as he recalls in the opening paragraphs: “I am bleeding profusely… there is only one thing I’m thinking with any degree of certainty… I am going to die.”
Ninety Percent Mental is scheduled to hit bookstore on March 20.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Over at AZ Central, Nick Piecoro explained how the D-Backs are hoping for an edge with hitting strategist Robert Van Scoyoc.
Former big-league pitcher Lary Sorensen is off the bottle — he was once arrested with a blood-alcohol level six times the legal limit — and back on the air. Neal Rubin has the story at The Detroit News.
Over at The Boston Globe, the incomparable Alex Speier gave a detailed explanation of why it’s been a bad offseason for free agents.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
The current MLB managers hail from 16 different states, with California (8) by far the most represented. Four of the 30 skippers were born abroad: Bruce Bochy (France), Alex Cora (Puerto Rico), Ron Gardenhire (Germany), and Dave Roberts (Japan).
Tris Speaker became a player-manager for the Cleveland Indians during the 1919 season. In 1920 — his first full year in that dual role — the Indians won the World Series.
Rogers Hornsby became a player-manager for the St. Louis Cardinals during the 1925 season. In 1926 — his first full year in that dual role — the Cards won the World Series.
Julio Franco was 14 for 17 in stolen base attempts from his age-45 season onward. His last steal came at age 48. The oldest player to record a steal was Arlie Latham, who was 49 years young when he pilfered a bag in 1909.
In 1962, Maury Wills was named NL MVP after swiping a then-record 104 bases and slashing .299/.347/.373. His teammate, Tommy Davis, led the circuit in hits (230), batting average (.346) and RBIs (153), and finished third in the balloting.
On this date in 2002, the Red Sox hired Grady Little as their new manager.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.