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Julio Teheran still has plenty of upside

Whoever signs Julio Teheran will have plenty to work with.

Divisional Series - St Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves - Game Five Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

On March 28th of this year, Julio Teheran made his sixth Opening Day start for the Atlanta Braces. In October, Teheran was left off the postseason roster. He only made it into the NLDS after Chris Martin suffered an injury, and Teheran pitched the ill-fated 10th inning in Game Four.

On November 4, the Braves declined Teheran’s $12 million option for 2020 putting an apparent end to his tenure in Atlanta and making him a free agent. Teheran hasn’t been an ace since 2016, but in some ways Teheran looked like his old self. He posted his lowest ERA and home runs per fly ball rate since 2016. In many others, he looked like a pitcher on the decline.

The ERA may have been a relatively shiny 3.81, but the advanced run estimators were less enamored of him. Teheran put up a 4.66 FIP, 5.26 xFIP, and 4.59 DRA. Teheran has always outperformed his FIP, but that’s particularly concerning because his fastball velocity has declined precipitously in the last couple seasons. Teheran no longer throws in the mid-90s. He barely even cracks the 90s now. His average fastball velocity in 2019 was just 89.9 mph per Brooks Baseball.

The high spin rate on his fastball helps him get swings and misses, but hitters are doing more damage when they make contact now or when Teheran misses with location which has been happening more frequently. In the past two seasons, he has posted 11 percent or higher walk rates and those are easily the highest of his career. In other words, the Braves had good reason to decline Teheran’s option.

That doesn’t mean that Teheran can’t still provide quality innings. Even in his less effective form, Teheran was still roughly a league-average pitcher in 2019, and he threw at least 170 innings for the seventh year in a row. Plenty of teams including the Brewers and the Angels struggled to find even that level of consistency or competency. Teheran still has a lot to offer as a low-risk, medium-reward free agent.

For one, Teheran is one of the remaining few starters throwing a sinker and succeeding with the pitch. Back in August, Devan Fink of FanGraphs wrote about his atypical strategy of throwing it up and in to left-handers. Sinkers in the upper half of the strike zone are supposed to be pummeled, but Teheran found a way to survive above the belt. Teheran’s sinker is especially unusual in that it doesn’t drive a huge ground ball rate. In his career, Teheran has only kept 38 percent of batted balls on the ground. The pitch still works for him, and it’s one of his few reliable pitches especially against lefties.

With his low three-quarter release, Teheran has always had more trouble when at platoon disadvantage, and that has been exacerbated by losing the feel for his changeup. Both his slider and curve rely on horizontal movement that can be devastating for righties but is a little easier for a lefty to pick up. The platoon splits weren’t as pronounced in 2019, and the sinker placement was to thank for that. One must wonder how much longer he can maintain that success with one good pitch.

Though Teheran has lost velocity, he can still spin the ball. His fastball and curveball spin rates rank in the 70th and 84th percentile respectively. He seems like a perfect candidate to add a cutter to his repertoire. If not learning a new pitch, perhaps toying with his spin axis to add more horizontal break to his four-seamer would be worthwhile. Per Baseball Savant, Teheran has lost four inches of movement on the four-seamer since 2015. Coupled with the loss of velocity, that’s made his heater much easier to square up.

Teheran is a good buy-low option who can still give a season’s worth of league average innings. That alone would be valuable to the many teams that couldn’t even fill out a four-pitcher rotation through October. There’s also enough there that Teheran could be in for a rebound season in the right hands. A change of scenery or a change in philosophy might be just what he needs.

Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.