Farewell, Colombian Jesus: Teheran Goes West

Farewell, Colombian Jesus: Teheran Goes West

Some say he was underrated and underappreciated. That Braves fans never seemed to understand what a benefit it was to have him in the rotation every fifth day. To an extent, they are right. But now that Julio Teheran has officially moved on, it’s time to take a look back at his run with the Braves from the highs to the lows. For fans of the former righty, who earned the moniker “Colombian Jesus” on Twitter, there definitely were more highs than lows.

The Prospect

Originally signed out of Colombia as a 16 year-old when the 2007 international signing period started, Teheran was considered advanced for his age and one of the best prospects the Braves signed that year. In a rare turn of events, Teheran skipped not only a summer in the Dominican Republic playing for the DSL Braves, but didn’t even throw a pitch in the Gulf Coast League. Instead, he opened 2008 with the Danville Braves. An early injury and a low pitch count limited him to just 15 innings over six starts. The results were, well, nothing to write home about.

The following season, he started to show glimpses of the prospect he would become – breezing through the Appalachian League in his second go-around and even picking up seven starts in Rome. Despite very little in terms of actual statistical data to get crazy about, Teheran earned the status as a Top 100 prospect by both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus, the latter ranking him as the #33th-best prospect in baseball. That spoke of his potential.

If people were still fuzzy on who Teheran was heading into 2010, he opened everyone’s eyes with 24 starts over three levels as he moved from Rome to Myrtle Beach to Mississippi. He struck out 159 batters in 142.2 innings with a 2.59 ERA. He also flashed great control, walking just 40 along the way. Teheran had already earned the status of a great prospect before the season. Now, he was an elite ‘spect. Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus each said he was the #5th-best prospect in baseball.

He continued to wow onlookers in 2011 when, as a 20-year-old, he blitzed the International League with a 2.55 ERA. The strikeout total wasn’t quite as breathtaking, but he still showed plus control and IL hitters could only muster five home runs in 144.2 innings off Teheran. He even got a couple of stints in the majors, starting two games in May and returning in September for a trio of outings. That included a start on September 8 against the Mets. He worked 5.1 innings that day and got his first major league win after allowing just one run.

Everyone pointed at 2012 as the year Teheran would breakthrough in the majors. Again, he was named the fifth-best prospect by the same publications. MLB.com now got into the act, naming him the fourth-best prospect. For a team that already had Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, Randall Delgado, Arodys Vizcaino, and Tommy Hanson, it looked like Teheran might be the best of the group. But he wasn’t able to secure a spot in the rotation that spring, losing out to Delgado. Injuries would take Beachy and Jair Jurrjens out of the picture, but it wouldn’t be Teheran who moved up. Instead, Kris Medlen and Ben Sheets got their shots. At the deadline, the Braves added Paul Maholm, again choosing to leave Teheran in Triple-A.

Part of that was due to Teheran’s own struggles. Tasked to clean up his pitching motion, Teheran struggled in his return to Gwinnett. His ERA went up two-and-a-half runs and he allowed three times as many homers. Prospect fatigue set in. Maybe he wasn’t quite the ace so many had expected after all.

The Rise to All-Star Level

In 2013, Teheran finally arrived. The Braves trimmed the pitching stable, trading both Delgado and Hanson, essentially putting their belief in Teheran to step in and handle things. He did just that with a 3.20 ERA in 30 starts as he formed a young, promising trio with Minor and Medlen. Alex Wood would also arrive, giving the Braves a potential force for years. Teheran made his first postseason start that October, though it didn’t work out so well as a half-dozen Dodgers scored in 2.2 innings off the righty. Still, with so much talent in-house, it was assumed that Teheran would have many more postseason starts to come.

Amazingly, that ugly game remains his only start in the postseason.

 

Julio Teheran | Arturo Pardavila III from Hoboken, NJ, USA [CC BY 2.0}
2014 started with news that Teheran would be getting a six-year, $32.4 million contract extension. It was during an offseason where several potential franchise cornerstones like Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons also made long-term commitments. But Teheran was still two years away from arbitration so the signing raised some eyebrows. While what followed was a season of disappointment as the Braves failed to return to the playoffs, Teheran only improved. In 33 starts and 221 innings, he went to his first All-Star Game with a 2.89 ERA and 186 K’s. He continued to flash great control, too, walking just 2.1 batters per nine innings.

The Braves embraced change and a rebuild after the 2014 debacle, firing Frank Wren and trading off many of their top assets. Two, however, survived – Teheran and Freeman. It was clear that the Braves saw both as the guys who would stick around through the rebuild and form the next nucleus of the team – whatever that may look like.

Teheran would struggle in 2015, but bounced back solidly the following season with a 3.21 ERA and another selection as a National League All-Star. Through the first four full-time seasons of his career, Teheran had a 3.33 ERA, 3.82 FIP, and 3.3 K/BB. And he was about to enter his upper 20’s, a time many pitchers are only hitting their prime. His best was, hopefully, yet to come.

Yeah…about that…

Quick Decline

Teheran’s game had never been built on velocity, but nevertheless, what happened over the next three years was alarming. In 2013, his average four-seamer hummed in at 92.8 mph. It remained around 92 mph for the next three seasons, before dropping closer to 91 mph in 2017. Then, it dropped even more to 89.9 mph and 89.7 mph over the last two seasons. As it crashed, it became less effective. In 2016, batters had a .312 wOBA against his four-seamer. In the last two seasons, the wOBA was around .345.

Teheran was forced to nibble more around the strike zone rather than pound it and had to rely on his stuff, movement, and location to get outs. His walk-rate skyrocketed as a result – going from around 6% during his best years to as high as 11.6% in 2018.

None of this is to say that Teheran wasn’t useful, but he no longer was the All-Star-level player he had been only a couple of seasons before. And despite all the analytics to point out where Teheran had declined, he continued to get results – even if they weren’t quite as impressive. In terms of ERA, after bottoming out with a 4.49 career-high in 2017, he lowered it to 3.94 and 3.81. His FIP sees much less of change as it remained over 4.50. With that in mind, let’s not ignore that the defense around Teheran improved during the last two years. But let’s also not ignore that Teheran’s stubbornness and pitchability on the mound guided him through many troubles.

That came at a price, though. From 2013-17, Teheran averaged 6.2 innings per game and 63% of his starts were quality starts, or six or more innings with three or fewer earned runs. In his final two seasons in Atlanta, he averaged just 5.5 innings per start and was getting the quality start designation in just 50% of his starts. In 2017, Brian Snitker let Teheran throw 100 or more pitches 13 times. The next two years, Teheran threw 100 or more pitches a combined 14 times. Some of that was due to a more analytical approach from the front office, but a good part of that was that Teheran was throwing a lot more medium-to-high leverage innings earlier in the game, requiring more effort to squeeze out a good start in five innings.

Teheran’s ability to post what looked like a fairly decent year despite troubling advanced metrics split the Braves fanbase into two – those who felt he was underappreciated by the “stats” guys while the other fanbase held their breath and hoped for Good Julio every fifth day. Just to highlight the differences between the crowd that looked at his ERA versus his FIP, only one pitcher, Mike Fiers, had a worse ERA-FIP number than Teheran. One might say Teheran was significantly outplaying his FIP due to his ERA being much longer. Another way of saying it – he was flirting with danger and the regression monster would come to get him soon enough.

This lack of confidence in Teheran led the Braves down a strange direction. Nobody comes even that close to beating Teheran in games started by a Braves pitcher the last two years. He has 12 more starts than Mike Foltynewicz, second-most games started, since the opening day of 2018 – also started by Teheran. Yet, despite the team reaching the playoffs in back-to-back years, there was little thought to giving Teheran a postseason start. They even left him off the playoff roster with the 2019 NLDS started and only added him because of injury.

All of this led to a postseason decision to decline a $12 million option for 2020. In a vacuum, $12 million isn’t a lot to pay when the results are 170+ innings and a sub-4.00 ERA. But for the Braves, the value just wasn’t there.

Teheran On The Move

In the end, Teheran landed a $9 million payday for the 2020 season from the Angels.

Again, objectively, it’s a good salary for what Teheran has a history of doing. That’s especially true for a team with many question marks in the rotation like the Angels. But there is a reason that Teheran received just a one-year commitment. Teheran is a useful pitcher to have. He’s durable, smart, and – with the right defense – he can navigate through bouts of wildness and other struggles because of his pitchability. But for all the reasons some Braves fans held their breath when he pitched, it’s impossible to see Teheran as anything but replaceable. He serves a purpose, but he’s not a guy you want to build your staff around. You don’t want to commit long-term to a guy with a 4.66 FIP and 5.26 xFIP. You just worry too much regression will catch up to him.

It was the right decision to let Teheran go, but it’s worth looking at his legacy, For all the bad we can say about Teheran, his story is one of perseverance. He changed his pitching style on the fly to continue to perform at an acceptable level despite his natural gifts beginning to fail him prematurely. He took things that can kill a pitcher’s career – decreasing velocity along with command issues – and found a way to make it work. Did it make you miss the Teheran of old? Absolutely. Did he frustrate you at times? Probably. But it was also rare for Teheran to leave a game that he didn’t give the Braves a fighting chance to win. And that definitely has value.

As I said, it was right for Atlanta to move on. But this writer hopes Teheran has a successful run out west. It honestly wouldn’t surprise me if Teheran has a 3.85 ERA when the Angels roll into Atlanta for a three-game set in July. Nor will it surprise me if his FIP is 4.90. Baseball’s weird like that.

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