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How did Julio Teherán succeed in 2016 despite his average stuff?

Teherán suffered a velocity drop in 2016, but his slider and command helped to drive a career year.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Atlanta Braves Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Julio Teherán is undeniably the best pitcher on the Braves’ staff. He was a highly touted prospect once upon a time, showcasing a mid-nineties fastball, a plus changeup, and a great ability to throw strikes. Any baseball fan who watched Teherán with any regularity in 2016 will tell you however that, with the exception of throwing strikes, the previous sentence does not describe him at all.

Last season, Teherán’s fastball velocity averaged a career low 92 MPH, and that was with a small spike in velocity in September, per Brooks Baseball. Most games he sat at 88-91 MPH, which is merely average. Despite this, Teherán had a career year. He had a 3.35 RA9 and 4.8 WAR. He really was not much different from another mediocre fastballer, Kyle Hendricks, who had a 5-WAR season but a much lower RA9 thanks to the Cubs’ historically good defense.

Teherán’s velocity has been steadily declining for years. It did not just fall off a cliff, which would indicate some major event such as an injury. His fastball only averaged 92 MPH in 2014, yet he still had a 3.34 RA9 and 3.9 WAR. He kept hitters honest with his great changeup, which limited them to a .242 AVG, .394 SLG, and 12 percent whiff rate.

In 2015, though, his changeup lost a lot of its efficacy. Hitters started teeing off on it. They hit .364 with a .533 SLG, and their whiff rate dropped by almost three percentage points, which is an overall decrease of about 25 percent. He performed like a below-average pitcher with a 4.44 RA9 and 1.5 WAR. Even his walk rate rose by almost two percentage points, and his command/control had always been one of his strengths.

I wish I could say why Teherán’s changeup performed so poorly in 2015. Maybe it lost deception or maybe he was tipping it. His changeup velocity has always been consistent, so it also could have been the smaller difference in velocity between it and his fourseamer. In 2012, the velocity difference was over 12 MPH. In 2015, that difference dropped to 9 MPH. This is all speculation, mind you, as this kind of analysis is best suited for a scout, which I am not. According to FanGraphs’ Lead Prospect Analyst Eric Longenhagen, the changeup has lost its movement and is now more of a fringe average pitch.

One interesting change from Teherán in 2015 was that he started throwing first-pitch sliders over 50 percent more often than he used to, and even more so in 2016. His slider was a relatively new pitch that he debuted in 2013, and it’s working for him. Longenhagen wrote that the slider is just average, but he has the ability to place it wherever he wants.

Slider Results

Ball % Strike % Whiff % BIP %
Ball % Strike % Whiff % BIP %
2014 33% 30% 20% 22%
2015 33% 36% 24% 18%
2016 30% 37% 23% 16%
Brooks Baseball

Longenhagen also described how Teherán’s mediocre fastball doesn’t get crushed.

“Because of the drop and drive in Teheran’s delivery, his fastball comes in flat and has no plane... Despite that, his arm is quick and deceptive, such that hitters have issues timing a ball that looks harder than 90-91 for the first few innings before they adjust to it.”

FIP has gotten devalued in the past couple of years because of the rise of DRA, but it is interesting how Teherán’s RA9 has consistently outperformed both stats.

Teherán the FIP/DRA-Beater

RA9 FIP DRA
RA9 FIP DRA
2013 3.34 3.67 3.74
2014 3.34 3.46 3.85
2015 4.44 4.43 4.54
2016 3.35 3.73 3.11
Career 3.67 3.85 3.91
Baseball Prospectus

Maybe Teherán is an anomaly, or maybe he has just gotten lucky over the years.

Regardless, it is extremely difficult for a pitcher to sustain the level of success that Teherán had in 2016 with the kind of velocity and stuff that he has. ZiPS projects him to be worth 3.4 WAR in 2017, and that is tough to argue with. The probability of under-performing this number is probably a bit high.

With regards to Teherán, the Braves are in a more difficult spot than some might realize. Teherán’s velocity and stuff indicate a difficult next few years and beyond. However, he has demonstrated some propensity in succeeding with what he has. Braves GM John Coppolella obviously knows Teherán better than the public and has access to more information on him. The Braves have done a phenomenal job rebuilding, and they could be competitive again as early as 2019, or even 2018 if everything break their way. Teherán is only 26 years old and is cost-controlled through 2020. If Coppolella believes that Teherán can continue to be at least a 2-3 WAR player, then he should absolutely hang onto him. However, if he does not see anything to outweigh some of the red flags that I have described, then selling high is the best option. Unfortunately, there is no way that ownership will allow to much significant change and the divesting of assets with the Big Con opening in 2017.

Teherán has shown indications that he can succeed despite mediocre stuff. If I were a Braves fan, though, I would be concerned about him maintaining that success, especially since his velocity continues to get worse. His current contract is dirt cheap, but if his performance falls off a cliff, the Braves and their fans are going to regret not selling high when they had the chance.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.