Washington Nationals PDB: The Atlanta Braves' Julio Teheran, Opposing Starter Game 1 Of 3 In D.C.

Christopher Pasatieri

Julio Teheran is a talented young hurler for the Atlanta Braves who arrived in the Major Leagues with great expectations after earning an enviable minor league track record. Although his innings totals in the bigs are few, he has not delivered the same level of performance in the Show so far.

The division-rival Atlanta Braves are in town tonight to face the Washington Nationals in a battle of the top dogs of the National League East Division. Toeing the rubber for the Braves in game one of the series is Julio Teheran. Because Teheran has only tossed 31 big league innings in his career, I'll focus more on scouting reports and assessment than major-league statistical data.

Early Career

The Braves signed Teheran as an international free agent in 2007. The 17-year-old Colombian debuted with the Rookie League Danville Braves in 2008, showing impressive strikeout numbers over 15 innings. His ERA (6.60) did not reflect how well he actually performed (3.87 FIP). However, shoulder tendonitis limited his workload.

2009 Team
K/9
BB/9
Danville Braves (Rookie)
8.04
1.44
Rome Braves (A)
6.69
2.63

In 2009, the precocious pitcher was assigned to Danville as an 18-year-old, hurling 43 2/3 innings of 2.68 ERA and 2.97 FIP ball, which was, um, pretty good for someone his age. Teheran struck out 8 hitters per nine innings and managed to walk less than a batter and a half over that span. Moved to Low-A Rome later in the year, Teheran didn't perform quite as well, but FIP still liked him enough (3.68) that it wasn't a bad year for one of the youngest pitchers in the South Atlantic League.

Teheran's performance began to attract the attention. Before the 2010 season, Baseball America ranked him as the 51st best prospect in baseball, and Project Prospect had him at 86.

A Fantastic 2010

What Teheran did to three different minor league levels during 2010 at the ripe age of 19 was illegal.

2010 Team K/9 BB/9
Rome Braves (A) 10.3 2.2
Myrtle Beach Pelicans (A+) 10.8 1.8
Mississippi Braves (AA) 8.5 3.8

At Rome, he just pitched to a 1.14 ERA in 39 1/3 innings (2.39 FIP). Promoted to High-A Myrtle Beach in May, he upped his already excellent strikeout rate while also decreasing his walks. Sure, the 2.98/2.88 ERA/FIP was higher, but it was an impressive 63 1/3 innings. His performance earned him a promotion to Double-A Mississippi in late 2010, where over 40 innings he put up a 3.38 ERA and a 3.30 FIP.

Adam Foster of Project Prospect scouted Teheran in early 2010. He concluded that "[i]f he can learn to spin his curveball consistently and hit his spots with his fastball and changeup, Teheran could turn into an above-average MLB starter. If not, his arsenal is already explosive enough to feature in a big-league bullpen."

Foster broke down his offerings:

Fastball: Sat 92-94 MPH and touched 95. Though it had some movement into righties and he could throw it for strikes, Teheran didn't command the pitch well. It did not have any sink when I saw him pitch. The velocity of the pitch is special, but big league hitters will drive fastballs that get too much of the plate.

Curveball: Ranged from 69-76 MPH and featured sharp, late two-plane break. Teheran did not exhibit much command of his curveball, a near 12-to-6 downer, but he's going to be able to give plenty of hitters jelly legs with it. He pitched up a lot with his curve, opposed to burying it in the dirt. Still, it flashes a lot of promise.

Changeup: Was 81-86 MPH. I like the late tumble and fade (away from lefties) that Teheran gets with the pitch. He did, however, slow his arm and body down noticeably when he threw it, something that big league hitters will pick up on. Like his curveball, Teheran's change has the potential to become an above-average pitch.

Teheran vaulted up prospect lists after the season. Baseball America ranked him as the fifth best prospect in the minors, while Project Prospect had him as twenty-second best. The latter group offered a bit of caution, however: It evaluated his risk as "high."

On His Way to Atlanta

Promoted to Triple-A Gwinnett née Richmond before 2011, the Colombian went 15-3 in 24 starts. His walk rate was below-average, and his strike outs weren't otherworldly, but the Braves couldn't argue with a 2.55 ERA and a 3.06 FIP.

On May 7, 2011, Teheran made his major league debut. The day before his first start, Foster filed an updated scouting report. He concluded that

Teheran has not made a lot of progress since I saw him last year....I don't know what areas of his game he can improve in order to surface as a true ace. He'd be hard pressed to re-work his high-velocity fastball to gain movement. And with his tempo and quick arm, he's not going to be able to easily improve his command. Maybe he can learn to throw more quality strikes with his secondary offerings and mix them in better. Even then, though, that may only make him a good No. 2, not a true ace.

Teheran is one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, no doubt. It's extremely rare to be able to call someone his age a likely No. 2-3 starter in the big leagues. I'm standing by what I said about him at first glace a little over a year ago, though: He's more of a thrower than a pitcher.

Teheran lost to the Phillies the next night. After a brief May stint with Atlanta, he was sent to Gwinnett until September. After the year, however, Baseball America still ranked him as the fifth best prospect in baseball, while Project Prospect had him at 20.

A Disappointing 2012; Mechanics and Stuff

Teheran performed worse at Triple-A in 2012 than he did previously, striking out just over 6 1/2 per 9 and hurling to a 4.83 FIP. John Sickles' mid-year impressions in 2012 represented a consensus of mild concern with the young twirler, as he dropped him from the 10th best prospect in the game to 28th.

Our friends at Talking Chop noted in late 2012 that

One of the biggest mysteries of the past two years in the Atlanta Braves system has been the disappearance of the prospect star of Julio Teheran. Once considered among the top young pitchers in the minor leagues, he may struggle to find his way into the top-100 this year.

Baseball America named him the 44th best prospect in the game not long after that article, but the number wasn't what was important. Talking Chop went on to observe about his diminished performance that

In their top-10 Braves prospects Baseball America parses through [delivery change] rumors with their prospect writeup of Teheran:

Teheran has an electric arm, but his delivery had some violence that the Braves wanted to iron out in order to reduce his risk of injury. In 2012, they decided to reduce the bend on his back leg during his windup. He had been turning and coiling his body to generate more momentum toward the plate, placing additional strain on his right knee and elbow. Atlanta worked with Teheran on keeping his back leg straighter in order to create a better center of balance, particularly in his core.

Time to visualize these changes. Here is footage from Project Prospect in 2010, when Tehran was a more desirable place for batters to be than in the box against Julio (I read about international affairs in my mom's basement, too):

Julio_teheran_fb_medium

Obviously, it's after he has separated, but it's enough to get the idea about the old Teheran. Now, here is 2012 Teheran:

As many others have noticed, that delivery is not 2010's up-tempo windup; it's downright glacial in comparison.

Talking Chop later noticed that Braves G.M. Frank Wren told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this past offseason that Teheran was getting back to his more "natural delivery" and understood this to mean that "[t]he quote from Wren above tells me that the Braves asked Teheran to abandon the changes they made to his delivery, described in the first quote from Baseball America."

2013

So here is 2013 Teheran, thanks to Fangraphs:

Teheran_2013_medium

At the beginning of 2010 and 2013, Teheran appears to be in similar position, if a little slower to the plate overall. However, using similar mechanics three years apart may not mean you'll sport the same stuff, JD Sussman of Fangraphs believes. The entire article is well worth a read, but he concludes that

In [his first] start [of 2013] against Chicago, Teheran did not demonstrate significant growth from last year, but there were positives...The biggest highlight was his reliance on his two seam fastball, which could be a plus offering. However, his reluctance to use his changeup was baffling. Against right-handed hitters the decision left him with three pitches – an average four seam fastball, a below average breaking ball, and the new two seamer. Further, his preference for his breaking ball against left-handed hitters caused him to be ill-equipped to get outs....[I]f Teheran incorporates his changeup with his two seamer and improving command, he could still wind up as a solid mid-rotation arm.

Concerning the four seam, Sussmann was concerned about the lack of arm side run -- the pitch's horizontal movement in toward right handed hitters. He also described the curve having a "one plane break," as demonstrated in the final .gif above. Numbers back up his observations (via Brooks Baseball):

2012 MLB Pitch Data:

Pitch Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam (FA) 65 66% 92.82 -5.11 8.47 -1.97 5.22
Curveball (CU) 24 24% 74.77 9.35 -3.61 -1.68 5.29
Changeup (CH) 9 9% 83.69 -6.22 5.26 -1.68 5.31

MPH data reflect a lengthened (y=55ft) trajectory to better approximate a major league release point.
pfx Movement reflect movement data as specified in the Gameday files.

2013 MLB Pitch Data:

Pitch Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam (FA) 27 31% 92.56 -3.74 7.83 -3.16 5.17
Sinker (SI) 34 39% 89.44 -7.66 3.92 -3.08 5.24
Curveball (CU) 23 26% 75.69 8.71 -2.32 -3.22 5.28
Changeup (CH) 4 5% 81.43 -5.18 4.81 -3.13 5.28

MPH data reflect a lengthened (y=55ft) trajectory to better approximate a major league release point.
pfx Movement reflect movement data as specified in the Gameday files.

The fastball is moving toward righties more than an inch and a quarter less early this year, and the curve is dropping less by that same amount, giving it a flat horizontal movement. This is in stark contrast to Foster's observations of a two-plane break in 2010.

Mechanics, stuff, approach...more issues for fringe-MLBers than those of Teheran's pedigree. Perhaps the expectations resulting from his 2010 were a bit too high and have led to disappointment that he hasn't developed -- and indeed may never develop -- into an ace. But as observers have noted, a quality, young, mid-rotation arm is still a valuable asset. Just not someone you can dream on.

Conclusions

Teheran has had to fight mechanical and stuff changes for two consecutive offseasons, which the Braves organization justified because the goal was for him was to be a long-term starter. It is unsurprising that mechanical tinkering may lead to different pitch velocities and movements. But as Sussman reminds us, approach is vitally important as well. It's also something that mechanics don't directly affect.

Perhaps these three things will come to the fore tonight, and Teheran will bring it all together, or have it all fall apart. Or, more likely, something in between. Watch for the up-tempo delivery from the full windup, the radar gun, movement, and his approach. Because the Nationals handle curves and fastballs quite well, and because Teheran is still developing in several respects, I think the team has a good chance of continuing its recent offensive performance.

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