Most of my friends and colleagues scoff when I say this, but there is a very real possibility that Julio Teheran could have what we sometimes refer to in baseball circles as a breakout year in 2014. I get why you scoff, and I make that statement with some reservations myself. I’ll deal in this article with the reservations I have, but I’ll start by taking a hard look at a few things in Julio’s arsenal that lead me to dream big with him.
First of all, I’m a fan, and this is largely based on my observations – that proverbial eye-test while watching Julio pitch. Granted, those tests are purely subjective, but he’s young, wiry but stout, tough and athletic, and I personally like his mechanics. No, I’m not a pitching coach, but I cannot see much if anything wrong with Julio’s approach from the bump. Those assets alone help any pitcher, so from the outset Teheran had a solid foundation to build upon. Beyond that solid foundation, is the arsenal that Julio has developed in his short time in the majors, and the adjustments he has slowly, but surely made.
What worries most analysts about Julio Teheran has been the up-and-down, see-saw nature of his performances from year to year (and within season). There have been times when the Braves certainly would have bet the world on the young Columbian, and times when his future with the club have been in doubt. I personally think those see-saw days are about over for Teheran. Let’s look at why.
From 2008 when Teheran first started playing rookie ball in the Braves’ organization for Danville, he was mostly stellar, but did tend to see-saw. In 2008 he was delivering 10.20 K’s per 9, which is a K% (strikeout percentage) of a great 25.8%! Then in 2009, Julio was promoted to Low-A ball in Rome, and we saw a significant dip in those percentages immediately, where he dropped down to a 6.69 K/9 or a K% of 17.2%. Those are still decent numbers, but the see-saw effect was apparent. It made scouts and fans worry. The thing is, the very next year in 2010 he put up another whopping set of numbers, delivering a 10.30 to 10.80 K/9 range, or a 29.2 K%! I won’t bore you with all of the numbers, but when Teheran was promoted to Double-A ball, we saw his numbers drop, and then again when he was promoted to Triple-A ball. Again, what scouts were seeing, and obviously worrying about, was this tendency to see-saw pretty dramatically.
Those years are history of course, and what I’m focusing on now when I look at Julio – the thing that keeps me high on the young pitcher and projecting a high ceiling for him, is the years from 2011 to present. Julio had a very brief stint with the big club in 2011, pitching in just three games and pitching pretty awful. He was quickly sent back down to Triple-A ball where he continued to struggle with just a 6.66 K/9 or a 16.8 K% (some of the lowest numbers for him in the the high minors). What is apparent now though, is that Julio must surely have been tweaking, adjusting, and doing the necessary homework to turn his game around! I’m sure the scouts and the organization knew this even if fans didn’t, because Julio was right back with the big club in 2012 and again in 2013. What changes did Julio make? Hang tight a second and I’ll tell you.
The 2012 season saw an improvement for Julio right away, and while he still struggled at times (which is normal), we also began to see more
signs of a growing consistency with him, and a few less signs of the see-saw effect. It was subtle, but the signs were there! In 2012, Julio put up a K/9 of 7.11 for a better 20.8 K%. Those were not quite the huge strikeout numbers he had put up earlier in his career, but then again he was pitching to the pros, and improving! I guarantee you the Braves took notice! Then just last season, 2013 saw Julio again improve to an 8.24 K/9 or a 22 K%. He still see-sawed some from month-to-month, but he was also still making adjustments. Now, whhat were those adjustments?
Well, one of the keys, and probably the main key to Teheran’s improvement in 2013 was adding the slider to his arsenal, and not just a slider, but a good and improving slider. As Mark Bowman (and other writers) pointed out back in July of last year, Teheran’s slider has not only become an important pitch for him, but has also made his other pitches even better. Julio said this himself…
At the beginning, [my curveball] was good, but I didn’t use it as much because I was using more of my slider,” Teheran said. “Now I feel like I can throw any count, because my slider made my curveball better.
Talking about the introduction of his slider, and how Julio is doing a much better job of making adjustments, mixing up his pitches, etc. Atlanta Braves’ manager Fredi Gonzalez also said…
When you’re a young pitcher, you get down 2-0 or 3-1, here comes a fastball, and then you have to go back up a base, because in the Major Leagues, these guys hit 94-mph fastballs. Now he mixes it up, he knows what he’s doing. I think [pitching coach] Roger [McDowell] has done a terrific job developing him and bringing him along in those situations.
As high as I personally am on Teheran, he certainly still has some issues he needs to improve upon, but if Julio’s history is any indication, we’ll see those problems begin
to slowly fade away as well. There are no guarantees in baseball of course, and Julio could just as well digress in his problem areas, but I’m hopeful. What are his problems? Teheran’s issues are well documented, and written about often – he has trouble against left-handed batters, and has a tendency to give up too many fly balls. According to Batted Ball Profile numbers from Fangraphs, Teheran’s GB% (ground ball percentage) last year was 37.8%, which is pretty low. At the same time, his FB% (fly ball percentage) was 41%, which some will argue is a bit too high. Again, I’m certain Julio is working on trying to keep the ball lower to the hitters, because while his numbers last year were higher than he would like, he has still improved consistently in those areas of his batted ball profile since 2011.
Probably the most glaring weakness in Teheran’s game is his performance against left-handed batters. I won’t bore you with even more numbers, but the difference is pretty significant, and a touch troubling. As I said in my introduction, I still have reservations about some of the elements of Julio’s game, and his lack of performance against lefties is still a big reservation for me in terms of Julio reaching that ace-like break-out level. I don’t know if Julio will have a breakout year in 2014, or beyond, but it’s hard to argue with his steady progress so far. For me, the ceiling is high for Julio Teheran, and I like his chances for being a top 10 pitcher within a few years.