LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – He’s 37 and has four more years of major league service than anyone else on the Braves roster, including eight more than any other pitcher.
But Tim Hudson doesn’t resemble the proverbial over-the-hill veteran hanging on too long and riding out a contract. Maybe it’s the Alabamian’s slender-as-ever frame, convivial disposition, or occasionally indelicate humor.
Also, the obvious: He’s still quite good, evident by 49 wins in three seasons since returning from "Tommy John" elbow surgery.
Hudson, who went 16-7 with a 3.62 ERA in 2012 despite missing the first month recovering from back surgery, is preparing for his 15th major league season and ninth with the Braves.
“It’s flown by,” he said. “I still feel like one of the young guys at heart.” He laughed. “Hopefully they don’t see me as an old, washed-up veteran that’s out there just hanging on, junking it up there.”
They don’t. In a rotation that has only one other starter (Paul Maholm) with as much as four years of major league service, Hudson is valued for effectiveness and consistency, and for his leadership at a time when the Braves are in a transitional period.
Hudson is in an option year on his contract, the final season in a deal paying him $9 million for the fourth consecutive year. He plans to keep pitching and hopes it’s with the Braves, but knows there are no guarantees given the team’s youth movement and pitching depth.
Teammates hope he’s brought back and say he’d be hard to replace. Asked whether Hudson was a leader of the staff, Braves starter Brandon Beachy said, “He’s more than a leader, he’s the leader.”
“Any time as a starting pitcher when I’ve had a question about something he does, in-between starts especially, he’s always very forthcoming with what’s worked for him, what he did when he was younger, how he evolved from his younger days, things he’s learned,” said Beachy, currently recovering from elbow surgery.
Since the beginning of the 1999 season when Hudson debuted with Oakland, he has won more games (197) than any major league pitcher except Roy Halladay (198). In that period only Livan Hernandez (2855-1/3) has pitched more innings than Hudson (2682-1/3), whose .654 winning percentage (197-104) ranks seventh among pitchers with at least 100 decisions in that span.
Only Halladay (20) and Randy Johnson (14) have pitched more shutouts than Hudson (13) since his debut. And since being traded to the Braves before the 2005 season, he's tied for seventh in the majors in wins (105) and 10th in winning percentage (.618), just behind Cliff Lee (.621).
“His experience, No. 1,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of Hudson’s added importance to the team. “He’s been through it, and he’s the guy in that locker room that these guys can go to. Huddy’s done it all."
If he were just the leader and wily veteran, Hudson wouldn’t be a candidate for another Opening Day start on a team that also has Kris Medlen, who went 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts last season and has a 15-2 record and 2.81 ERA in 30 career starts.
“He’s the guy,” Medlen said of Hudson’s place among Braves pitchers. “Nobody is talking about him; I don’t know why. He’s about to win his 200th game. Halladay doesn’t have 200. C.C. doesn’t. But no one’s talking about (Hudson)….
“I mean, he won 16 games last year and missed a full month of the season. You’ve got to be doing something right to win that many."
Among the many things that Medlen has picked up from observing and listening to his veteran teammate and fellow undersized pitcher – Hudson is about 5 feet 11 and 170 pounds – is the importance of being aggressive, prepared, and creative.
“His competitiveness, the way he just gets himself ready for games -- he just battles,” Medlen said. “Whatever stuff he doesn’t have (on a given day), he’s got six pitches, so one of them is going to work and he’s just going to stick with it.
“There were games last year where he was a four-seamer/curveball guy, and then another day his curveball was (bad) and he’d be sinker/changeup. It’s just like, what the hell? He just figures out how to win, and that’s what you need to do. He’s obviously made a lot of money, for good reason. And he’s a guy that’s not afraid to talk to young guys, either.”
Hudson came back strong from “Tommy John” elbow surgery at age 33, then from major back surgery at 36.
“I hope I’m pitching when I’m 37 years old,” said Medlen, 27, who turned to Hudson frequently for advice two years ago when Medlen was recovering from elbow surgery. “Us being here is awesome; we’re living our dream. But he’s lived the dream. He’s signed big contracts, he’s been around for a while, been in commercials – he has a SportsCenter commercial!
“He’s a dude that I wouldn’t mind modeling my career after. He likes to have fun, but knows when to have fun and when to be serious.”