How to fix Julio Teheran

Coming into 2015, you couldn’t be blamed for picking Julio Teheran early in your fantasy league. Not just a young pitcher with prospect hype (although he has that by the truckload), Teheran had proven himself as a legitimate number two starter in the league after just two full seasons and at just 23 years young. There was little doubt about his ability to transition smoothly into that ace role that the Braves just haven’t quite had over the past few seasons.

But instead of dominating the opposition and giving the Braves’ faithful a glimmer of hope and flash of brightness after what has been a tough slide for the team, Teheran’s effectiveness has vaporized. His sub-3.00 ERA has ballooned to 4.38 and ERA estimators such as FIP and SIERA agree that his run suppression struggles are not simply bad luck, but bad pitching. Although his strikeout rates have remained virtually exact, his control has gone wacky. A career 5.6 walk percentage has jumped up to 8.6% in 2015, hitting the strike zone just 42% of the time.

While a down season is never simply that, since there looms the threat of the player never returning to his past form, there can still be reassuring signs within one. Perhaps a pitcher is fiddling with a new pitch that hasn’t worked, or the defense behind him has just been poor, or maybe he’s injured but too stubborn to miss time and needs the offseason to fully recover.

But what’s troubling with Teheran is that he hasn’t exhibited any of these traits enough to simply write off 2015. What’s troubling about his season first is how little hitters are chasing him. His swing percentage outside of the strike zone has dropped from his strong mid-30s marks to just 28%, below league average. And to compound on that, his first strike percentage has nosedived as well, down from 63% over 2013-14 to just 57%. He’s behind in counts earlier and more often, hitting the zone less, and not even able to entice hitters to offer at a ball and bail him out; so far, the outlook for Teheran is gloomy at best.

To dig deeper, it looks like the main culprit behind Teheran’s problems here stems from his curveball. While originally one of the most dominant pitches in the minor leagues, and then as it evolved into what could become a true out pitch at the major league level, has now flattened out. The swing rate on the curve outside of the strike zone reflect that of his overall totals, but with the most extreme differences. Plus, his whiff rate has collapsed from 13% to just 7.5%. What was once such a strong pitch is no longer fooling hitters, and not getting positive results.

Without this tool in his pocket, Teheran has to rely more on his fastball and slider (and to a lesser extent his changeup, but that pitch has been thrown at under 10% throughout his career). Where some pitchers can get by on this combo (looking straight at Chris Archer), they need to develop one of these pitches to the elite level. For Archer, it is his slider. For Teheran, the answer is a little murkier. The changeup isn’t good enough to become a legit third pitch, and neither his fastball or slider can approach the elite tier needed (and only his fastball has been average this season).

So without a clear answer statistically, we look to a more traditional method, watching the game tape. Below are three highlight videos of Teheran to get a good look at his mechanics over the past three seasons. To judge a pitcher’s mechanics, we like to look at three main parts of the motion:

  1. Leg separation. When the pitcher lifts his leg, whether he’s able to swing his lead leg early enough to rotate fully and open up his torso, and the extension he gets at release point.
  2. Arm action and balance. How much effort is he putting into each pitch? Watch for him to stay upright or to twist more to squeeze out a couple extra hundredths of an MPH.
  3. Delivery and release point. Similar to number two fundamentally, but different enough in practice to be its own entity. Look at consistency in release point, especially between different pitches. Does the arm drop as he gets tired? How repeatable is this motion; does the torque on his body look like he can stay durable?

From 2013:

2014:

2015:

Where all these videos come from good performances on Teheran’s part, the mechanical flaws are still evident. In case you couldn’t pick up from your first look, rewatch and look at his arm angle. As he’s gotten older, it’s dropped lower and lower, in fact almost an entire foot since his major league debut.

For the more graphically inclined, here’s a chart on his vertical release point courtesy of Brooks Baseball.

Brooksbaseball-Chart (6)

Since the curveball operates at its best when thrown with a more overhand motion (higher release point), it makes sense for Teheran to be struggling with the pitch. The cause for a pitcher to drop his arm like this, especially when it does not appear to be a concerted effort, unfortunately tends to arise from an injury. Poor core conditioning can lead to trouble clearing the hips well throughout the delivery, and imbalance throughout. What this does is drops the pitchers glove side shoulder down towards his rear facing base (in Teheran’s case this is first base, as he is a righty) and keeps his throwing arm from reaching its usual height. And it’s not like Teheran has ever had what most would call “normal” mechanics, as he twists, tosses and turns every which way.

While some may think they have found a process issue that Teheran has fixed, the data doesn’t scream that there’s anything wrong in that department. Playing though injury is not a foreign concept to professional athletes, whose fierce competitive nature is what has helped them reach where they are. And also, improper conditioning is another common trait in athletes, especially ones like Teheran who have already inked a contract extension.

If you’re thinking Teheran is just a new grip and catcher away from fantasy relevance again, it might be time to adjust that plan. The step needed to become that ace we saw of him seemed so short when the season started, barely a stone’s throw away. And although now it seems galactic, the only issue that may exist with him is getting more conditioning in during his offseason and Spring Training. Don’t expect him to pitch lights out for the remainder of 2015, but with the right training staff, Julio Teheran: Ace Pitcher, could be coming to a ballpark near you in April 2016.

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James Krueger
James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.