Who is the Real Julio Teheran?

Julio Teheran’s career arc thus far can seem a little uneven. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly who he is. Let’s try, though.

Early Days

Julio Teheran was signed as a 16 year old out of Columbia on July 3, 2007. From the time he signed, he was heralded as a big time prospect. Indeed, Baseball America listed him as the Bravos’ 10th best farmhand at the time of his signing… as a 16 year old. He stayed on BA’s top 10 Braves list for six straight season (I’ll be referring to BA prospect rankings from here on out). Suffice it to say, Julio was on everybody’s radar from day 1.

After the 2008 season, Julio was ranked third in the organization, behind some dudes named Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward. After 2009, 2010, and 2011, he ranked as the Braves’ top prospect.

That’s hot stuff. But, it’s helpful to remember that he was also touted heavily in the baseball world overall; he ranked as the number five overall prospect among MLB systems after the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Yep. As a rule, the taste makers were sky high on some Julio.

This recap comes as no surprise to many readers. It is likely a source of frustration and distrust towards Teheran for many. When a player is the next big thing for that long, it’s tough for expectations to come to full fruition. After all, how much in life truly lives up to our hopeful lusting?

Bump in the Road

Photo credit: Gwinnett Braves 2011Julio Teheran Gwinnett Braves 2011.

Julio Teheran for the Gwinnett Braves, circa 2011. Credit unknown. 

Frank Wren and company decided Teheran needed some mechanical tweaking ahead of the 2012 campaign, as some Braves fans will remember. The stated intent was to improve his command and reduce what the Braves perceived as injury risks posed by the pitcher’s delivery. The results were disastrous, if minor league performances can be categorized as such. His strikeouts dipped, his home runs sky rocketed, and his overall results followed suit. 2012 saw Teheran’s prospect stock drop from #5 overall in MLB to #44. Frank Wren and his brethren decided to let Julio assume his former delivery after the experiment.

The electric Columbian joined the rotation full time in 2013, and rewarded his club’s decision with a great year on the hill, posting a 3.20 ERA. It was a solid 185.2 innings, and it was followed up with an even better 221-inning effort in 2014. Julio triumphed to a sparkling 2.89 ERA that year. The righty was worth 2.5 and 3.2 fWAR in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Given his large sample size habit of outperforming his FIP, it’s fair to conclude that those WAR figures undersell his value a bit (as Fangraphs calculates pitcher WAR with FIP).

Julio figured into the front end of two fine Braves rotations in 2013 and 2014. Atlanta’s starters ranked 5th best during that two year span in terms of ERA (3.46), 6th best in terms of FIP (3.59), and 8th best in terms of starting pitcher fWAR (25.9).

Let’s stand and observe a moment of silence for the good ole days of recent memory, as far as Atlanta Braves starting pitching goes. Good. Please be seated. 

Needless to say, Julio was a bona fide top flight prospect for a long time and from a young age. His numbers backed it all up as he crept through the system, eliciting drool from Braves faithful that were tuned in. He had a set back that seems straight away attributable to foolish tinkering by his organization (they didn’t try that noise with Alex Wood a few years later), and then burst onto the scene with two above average to great seasons of work.

Where are we now?

Here we’ve arrive at the crux of these digital scribbles. I’ll be the first to express that it feels like Teheran is somehow wavering in the wind between two labels: top of the rotation starter and another in a long line of top pitching prospect let downs. Objectively though, the more pessimistic of the two conclusions is based on one poor season and the memory of his brief struggles as he was on the cusp of the big leagues.

It’s news to no one that Teheran was quite bad in 2015. Not just disappointing for a guy we handed the ball to on Opening Day. Julio was lousy in general. His ERA of 4.04 ranked 55th best out of 78 qualifying pitchers. His BABIP was identical to his 2013 rate, so we can’t dismiss his poor results by profoundly mumbling “bad luck” – as much as we’d like to.

Of course, there’s more to discuss when describing Teheran’s 2015. He was maddeningly different at home and on the road. If you take only his home starts, Teheran sported the 12th best ERA among qualified starters in the bigs, taking his tea directly between Max Scherzer and Madison Bumgardner with a sparkling mark of 2.89. Pretty good company. Take only his road numbers, however, and he was dead last in both ERA and FIP.

The prudent thing to do is probably just not make too much of these splits, as Grade-A-Befuddling as they are, and just look at 2015 for what it was: a troubling season on the heels of two encouraging ones. Maybe Julio become temporarily afraid of airplanes and strangers, or some such thing.

Still, his Jekyll and Hyde 2015 does afford us the ability to isolate a sample of peak Julio and landfill Julio. If we can identify a canary in the coal mine to characterize the failures of his road starts in 2015, then we may be able to draw some conclusions about what makes Good Julio tick, and Bad Julio, well, hang dormant on the wall or whatever.

Julio 1julio 2

Some key numbers that jump off the page when looking at the home/away splits from 2015 are the K%, BB%, OBP, and HR/9 (% of fly balls that are home runs). The data here and below are directly from Fangraphs.

Bad (road) Julio struck out 5.6% fewer batters, walked 1.7% more batters, allowed an OBP nearly 100 points higher, and surrendered slightly more than 1 full HR more per 9 innings. That last one is pretty amazing. Pitchers don’t succumb to home runs that often. That Bad Julio was tagged for long balls that much more frequently than Good (home) Julio is already quite explanatory. When you couple that with Bad Julio’s higher rates of allowing base runners, you can see how his ERA ballooned.

The HR/9 rate seems to be the main driver here, so lets dig in and see what we find.

julio 3

GB: Ground Ball; FB: Fly Ball; LD: Line Drive; IFFB: Infield Fly Ball

On the road, balls put in play against Teheran were fly balls 3.1% more often than during his starts at home. That doesn’t account for the huge difference in home runs, though. It’s the home run per fly ball rate, on the right in the graphic directly above, that tells the story. A WHOPPING 16.7% of Bad Julio’s fly balls left the yard. Teheran gives up a high rate of fly balls, so he’s in big trouble when they start flying out of the yard more often. For context, only 6 pitchers surrendered homers on more than 15% of their fly balls in 2015. If we remove the two pitchers from that short list whose FB% (percentage of balls in play that are fly balls) is lower than 30%, these are the ERA results: 3.91, 4.28, 4.67, and 4.73.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves

Apr 9, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves shortstop Erick Aybar (1) talks with starting pitcher Julio Teheran (49) on the mound during the game against the St. Louis Cardinals during the second inning at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Simply put, Teheran can’t be Good Julio when his HR/FB rate is high. Especially when he is concurrently allowing a higher rate of batters to reach base.

It’s not really compelling to discover that inflated HR and OBP rates lead to worse pitching outcomes, even coupled with the knowledge that such trends are particularly damaging for fly ball pitchers. What we’d really like to know is why Julio surrendered homers and base runners at his highest rates in 2015.

As I was gathering information for this article, I noticed that the writers at Beyond the Box Score have done some interesting analysis about Teheran in the last two years, complete with great graphics that I’m not including here for sake of space. It’s a great site full of great writers; you should check ’em out. I’ll summarize their conclusions and link to their work, and add some insight from my own observations before finishing up.

  • Murphy Powell demonstrated that Teheran threw pitches up in the zone far less frequently during the first half of 2015, and that this may have led to his reduction in fly ball rates and strike out rates, and an increase in BABIP via higher line drive rates.
  • Kevin Ruprecht found that despite an overall trend of pitching down in the zone more often, Julio kept using his four seam fastball up in the zone as he had in the past. He used this pitch more often in the second half than in the first, which which Ruprecht reasons may have led to much improved HR rates and K rates later in the season.
  • Lastly, Shawn Brody dissected Teheran’s struggles against lefties in 2015, including some interesting analysis of Julio’s move to the opposite side of the rubber in August of that season.

Those three pieces together serve as an excellent analysis of Julio’s down year in 2015. I think that I have something to offer that they are leaving out, though.

Swing Rates on Pitches Outside of the Strike Zone

I’ve already mentioned that Julio walked more batters, struck out fewer, and surrendered a noticeably higher rate of HR per fly ball in 2015, relative to his work during 2013 and 2014. The fellas from BTBS above hit on some interesting factors that may have led to this. But check this out.

The gif below shows swing rates against Teheran’s pitches by zone. There are two ‘slides.’ One shows the rates during his good work during 2013 and 2014, and the other during his poorer work in 2015 (dates are on the top). The ‘hotter/redder’ the zone, the higher the swing rate in that zone, and the ‘colder/bluer’ the zone, the lower the rate. This view is from the catchers perspective, and the 3X3 zone in the middle represents the strike zone.

Atlanta Braves Julio Teheran Swing Rates

These heat maps are courtesy of Brooks Baseball, which is awesome.

Look at the drastic difference in swing rates outside of the zone in the two heat maps. It’s very plain to see: batters offered at pitches that they had a low chance of success against (balls) far more in Teheran’s first two seasons as a full time starter in Atlanta. In 2015, that trend came to an abrupt halt.

It’s clear that it’s to a hitter’s advantage to lay off balls outside the zone. Pitchers will have a tougher time striking you out if you don’t chase, and you will earn more walks this way, as well. Further, if you make contact on pitches outside the zone less, you will naturally get yourself out via weak contact less.

Julio Teheran built his early career success on better than average strike out and walk rates, and by limiting fly ball distance very effectively. He went from above league average in those areas in 2013 and 2014 to below league average in 2015, a season during which hitters also stopped making contact with pitches outside of the zone so much. That does seem pretty compelling.

But why would this happen?

Scouting Reports: it’s very possible that teams wised up. If fans and bloggers can access a pitcher’s habits, just imagine what the data analysts employed by MLB teams have at their disposal. Perhaps the book is out on Teheran’s tendency to pitch out of the zone to get punch outs and weak contact, and the league has adjusted. So far in 2016, it appears batters are chasing a bit more than in 2015, but still less than the previous two seasons.

Command: not all balls are created equal; batters will chase a fastball 3 inches above the zone much more often than a pitch up in the eyes. The same of course goes for anywhere in the zone. An overall decline in ability to throw pitches in an area where batters are likely to chase could have fueled this.

Pitch Sequencing: batters are more likely to chase when they have been set up by the pitch sequencing decided upon by the catcher and the pitcher. During 2015, Teheran threw to a new group of catchers in A.J. Pierzynski, Ryan Lavarnway and Christian Bethancourt. Perhaps these two did a worse job calling the game, and batters reaped the benefits.

It’s difficult to pin point what may have led to the reduced swing rates outside the zone in 2015, but it’s pretty clear that the trend contributed to undesirable outcomes for Teheran.

Looking into the Crystal Ball

2015 was a troubling result for Julio and the Braves. However, we can find some optimism in that he finished the year with positive results during the last two months, and that his numbers are trending in the right direction in 2016 so far. Indeed, his current strike out rate matches his best career mark from 2013, his average length on fly balls is back to a respectable level after sky rocketing to over 300ft in 2015, and his HR/FB rate is back down to just below league average. The walks continue to happen more often than during 2013 and 2014, but they are slightly improved against last season thus far.

That last sentence encapsulates where I think Julio Teheran is right now. He’s better than last year, but not flashing 2014 results, either.

Given his career so far, his start in 2016 should make us feel pretty confident that he is better than the pitcher we saw last season. And it’s not even like he was that bad last year. That being said, there are other trends that should make us skeptical that Julio will consistently dominate the league like we witnessed in his first two seasons as a part of the Atlanta rotation.

Time will tell, as Teheran and the league adjust back and forth to one another in the cat-and-mouse typical of the sport at its highest level. He has good stuff, but as 2015 showed us, he’ll need more than that if he is to regain his early career form and stay at the top of what may be a very good Braves rotation in the future.

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