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A quick look at Julio Teheran’s Friday night start in St. Louis

Teheran was able to right the ship and baffle the Cardinals for six innings.

Atlanta Braves v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

I don’t have these numbers in front of me, but I’m guessing that when a starter opens his night with two consecutive walks, the rest of the outing doesn’t work out too well. Whether or not that’s the case, Julio Teheran flipped that particular script on Friday night, as those two walks ended up being the only walks, and two of the four total baserunners he allowed, over his six scoreless innings.

At this point, Teheran continues to be an enigma. His season, as a whole, has still been pretty poor. But, since May 30, he has now alternated really effective and really dreadful starts. In the three good starts in that span, he’s allowed two runs in 18 innings, with zero longballs yielded. In the two bad starts, he’s allowed 11 runs and four homers in fewer than nine innings.

As I’ve indicated earlier this season, even before Teheran’s game log became so whiplash-inducing (previously, he was at least stringing together good and bad starts), I don’t have a great idea of why his results are what they are. At one point, I thought high fastballs might have something to do with it, but he has not really borne out a pattern of either consistently throwing them or having success when he does. (For example, his highest average fastball was when he got knocked around by the Red Sox; his lowest average fastball locations had him get knocked around by the Phillies and Padres, but also stifle the Mets.) So, the below is none of that — it’s more a recounting of what happened, without any grand hypotheses or tests of them.

The change I noticed (or thought I noticed), had to do with a change in approach. As Teheran started the game, he had some combination of poor command and/or a lack of trust in his pitches. It’s hard to determine exactly which one it was without watching the location relative to the glove for every pitch, but essentially, here is what I am getting at:

  • Matt Carpenter walked on six pitches. Only one of them was really pumped in for a clear strike.
  • Greg Garcia walked on seven pitches. Only one of them was a clear strike (and that was a slider fouled off.)
  • Jose Martinez lined out, and of the five pitches he saw, two were grooved fastballs belt-high and over the middle. Luckily he fouled one off, and hit the other to an outfielder.
  • Teheran could locate neither his fastball nor his slider to one of his nemeses, Marcell Ozuna. He would have fallen behind him 3-0 had the umpire not gifted him a terrible strike one call. He threw a very rare changeup to a righty which surprised Ozuna and got a tapper back to the mound.
  • He (purposefully/accidentally?) executed an effective high fastball to Yadier Molina to end the first via routine flyout.
  • He could not locate anything to Tommy Pham, but the high fastball on a 3-1 count bailed him out again.
  • He did manage to throw three consecutive good pitches to Kolten Wong after falling behind 2-0, but would have walked him had Wong not swung over a changeup in a full count and hit a routine grounder.
  • He allowed a double to Harrison “Darth” Bader on a 2-1 slider that was identical to the first-pitch-strike slider he had already thrown him.

Basically, there were a lot of balls, and most of them were not competitive. He got only two swinging strikes across those eight batters, neither on fastballs. To the extent he had a gameplan for non-swinging strike outs, all you could really point to was high fastballs to righties, which, to his credit, did get him two flyouts to Markakis.

But then, something changed. While it’s hard to say that something changed because of the opposing pitcher, Teheran blew two high fastballs by him. Before we go on to what happened next, here are a few charts of Teheran’s sequence, first TTO (time through the order).

Source: Baseball Savant

(You can click here for an interactive version of this chart that lets you see the batter and result for each pitch.)

That’s a lot of waste pitches, with that strange appendage in the bottom right (down-and-away to righties).

Normally, pitchers suffer subsequent times through the order because batters have seen their pitches and gotten a sense of their approach to retiring them. However, Teheran’s approach was so scattershot and fraught the first TTO that, when he pivoted in the second TTO, batters may not have really expected it. Cardinals hitters may have expected Teheran to continue to nibble and miss, so they could have either waited on grooved fastballs or taken a bunch of pitches hoping to draw more walks. I’m not sure what their gameplan was, but Teheran didn’t really oblige them with either, and may have therefore caused them to stumble when reality didn’t meet their expectations.

The third inning was fairly scary, even though Teheran only threw five pitches. All three outs were hit to Ender Inciarte in center, and two were rocketed at over 102 miles per hour. The pitch that Garcia hit a weak fly on, a grooved 1-0 fastball, was probably a mistake, but the other two outs were on a changeup and slider, both fairly low in the zone.

Moving right along, Teheran’s gameplan really started to congeal in the fourth. Ozuna and Pham were both retired on high-and-away fastballs (groundout, flyout). A two-seamer nestled towards the bottom of the zone took care of Molina (groundout). Most importantly, Teheran only threw four balls in this inning, and never fell behind 2-0. (He may have done so in the third, but the batters didn’t give him a chance.) In the fifth, he really got on his horse, filling up the strike zone (with two appropriately-timed waste pitches) against Wong, getting a called strike three on a high fastball. He knocked out Bader on three pitches, going up the ladder and eventually out of the zone with fastballs. Mikolas had no chance with two high fastballs and a put-away slider.

The sixth, third TTO, was more fraught. He did throw first-pitch strikes to two of the four batters he faced, and got a high fastball out (flyout) from Martinez, but his command was flagging. Of 16 pitches, only four were comfortable strikes, and while Carpenter’s leadoff single was on a good pitch out of the zone, Ozuna really bailed him out by chasing a slider that skated out of the zone for the inning’s last out.

Anyway, the narrative description is what it is, but the charts tell it better. Compare these to the first TTO charts above.

(Again, click here for the interactive version.)

The things that jump out to me here are: 1) fewer egregiously poor sliders in the bottom-right; 2) more borderline pitches; 3) a tighter spread overall; and 4) more variety, i.e., not so much of the same pitch in the same location. One other thing that caught my eye: first TTO, Teheran threw only four pitches on the black (edge). That more than doubled to nine afterwards. All of those pitches went for called strikes, swinging strikes, or easy outs, except for Carpenter’s sixth-inning single, so putting pitches there is clearly a good idea. It’s great that Teheran was able to execute. The pitch heat map tells a similar story.

Yes, that bottom-right tail is still there, but the dark areas show a more targeted approach. If you break this up into righty and lefty hitters, you will see that the upper-right black spot was the spot of choice for righty hitters (up and away to them), while the bottom-left black spot was the preferred target for lefties (down and away to them).

I have absolutely no idea what Teheran will do in his next start. But, if he can continue to do what he did in the second TTO against the Cardinals by throwing high fastballs to righties and keep the ball down-and-away to lefties without wasting pitch after noncompetitive pitch, it could go pretty well. He’ll just need to execute. We’ll see what happens.

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