This season was supposed to be better for Julio Teheran. And, really, the year started out on a pretty strong note for him — he pitched well enough to lead the Braves to a couple of wins in his first two starts, against Miami and the Mets. But then Toronto happened. Sure, the Braves won, but Teheran’s performance wasn’t why they won.
I mean, it was in the sense that he gave up only five runs instead of nine, but you probably understand what I’m saying.
In those first two starts, Teheran was pretty good. He allowed just two earned runs in 12 innings, struck out nine, and walked five. Those aren’t great numbers, but they got the job done. Against Toronto, however, he went just five innings, allowing four home runs, which is the main sticking point here. Since then, it’s been up-and-down for Teheran, as he’s mixed in a few good starts with some rough ones. And, again, it was supposed to be a bit better.
In his full-season debut as a 22-year-old in 2013, Teheran was worth 2.7 fWAR, and he was worth 3.5 fWAR in 2014. Solid seasons, those. And as good as they were, both ZiPS and Steamer projections found on Fangraphs expected Teheran to take a bit of a step back. ZiPS had him pegged for 3.2 fWAR, the best mark for all Braves pitchers, and Steamer expected a 2-win season out of Teheran, putting him just behind Alex Wood. What Julio Teheran was not expected to be was the Julio Teheran we’ve seen so much of this year.
His biggest problem, presumably, is that he’s been a bit more homer-prone this season when compared to 2013 and 2014.
Teheran allowed 22 homers in each of his first two seasons, in which he had 30 and 33 starts, respectively. He’s allowed 14 in 15 starts in 2015, which, you know, isn’t as good. Using Baseball Heat Maps, we can find that Teheran has been a bit unlucky with his homer allowance. Looking at the leaderboard for the difference in actual and expected home runs (xHR), Teheran should have allowed two fewer home runs than he actually has this year, which places him 41st out of 201 pitchers we find on that leaderboard. And this is one of those leaderboards that pitchers don't want to be near the top of.
That wasn’t the case last season, when Teheran actually prevented an extra couple of home runs and led the league in xHR difference. The same can be said for his 2013 campaign, when he trailed only Brandon McCarthy in xHR difference, allowing four fewer home runs than expected. So it would seem, at first glance, that there's been some bad luck for Teheran, in terms of home run allowance.
We’ll stick with Baseball Heat Maps for a moment longer and head to its average fly ball distance leaderboard. In 2013, Teheran performed well here. The average fly ball against Teheran traveled about 273 feet, which isn’t a bad mark to post, and it’s especially nice if a fly-ball pitcher like Teheran is getting those fly outs. To little surprise, he improved upon that number in 2014, and folks hit their average fly ball 268 feet against Teheran. Again, a nice mark. Great to have that when you induce fly balls so often. Unlike the expected homer bit from the last paragraph, however, the difference for Teheran this year hasn’t been so small.
The average fly ball against Teheran is currently traveling more than 300 feet, which puts him near the top of that leaderboard, and this is also not the kind of leaderboard pitchers are aching to be at the top of. In short, hitters are crushing Julio Teheran this year. And it might be worse if Teheran wasn’t inducing fewer fly balls than he has before.
So there’s been quite a drop in Teheran’s fly ball rate. His fly ball rates in 2013 and 2014 placed him seventh and sixth among all qualified starters, respectively. His 2015 rate puts him right in the middle of the pack.
The BABIP is a little more elevated, but it seems like there’s a decent chance that’s from the higher line drive and ground ball rates, considering those types of batted balls fall for hits more often. And there's been a change in Teheran's approach that could help explain that.
Here, we see Teheran's raw pitch counts to lefties in 2014 and 2015. As infrequently as Teheran went up and in to lefties last season, he's doing so even less this year. He's almost exclusively going down and away. The same can be said for his approach against right-handed hitters, which is much more pronounced, as seen below.
Again, there's a definite shift down and away this season. Where Teheran would freely go up in the zone last year to get fly balls and swings and misses, he's focusing almost entirely on the lower, outside part of the zone, perhaps in an effort to induce more grounders. The problem, particularly with right-handed hitters, is that folks are laying off those low and outside pitches. Behold: one last gif, this one showing swing rates against Teheran, and broken down between left- and right-handed batters.
We can focus on the low and outside parts of the chart for each respective side here, since that's where Teheran is attacking. Again, righties in particular are refusing to swing at those pitches, as they should. If batters have a good idea of where to look for a pitch, it becomes a bit easier to lay off of it.
Maybe getting Julio Teheran back to his old form is as simple as generating a few more fly balls like he’s used to. Maybe it’s as simple as changing his approach back to one that attacks the upper half of the strike zone. There are a lot of things it may be for Julio Teheran, and those things have turned him into a pretty different pitcher than we’re used to seeing.
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Murphy Powell is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @murphypowell.