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Farewell, Julio Teheran

Some memories about the Braves’ now-departed rotation mainstay

Atlanta Braves v New York Mets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

How does that saying go? “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him?” Well, Julio Teheran does not need to be buried, and he certainly warrants some praise, so I guess the saying doesn’t apply, but that works out, as he wasn’t much of a Caesar either. Julius Caesar is as much of a broad rumination on duty as anything else, and in the baseball sense, Teheran reflected duty better than anyone else. As Cory has written, the Colombian right-hander made more starts than just three other hurlers (fellow countryman and amigo Jose Quintana, Jon Lester, and Max Scherzer) over his MLB tenure, and thrown more innings than all but eight pitchers. As a rookie, he was a key cog on a good team; as a sophomore, he had his best season to date on a disappointing, ultimately doomed team. After a serious step back in 2015, he rebounded in 2016 for another (and his last, so far) good season, despite the roster wreckage around him. That year, Teheran put up 3.0 fWAR; the other 15 (yes, fifteen) starters the Braves used combined for 0.7. Even after his effectiveness dipped (post-2016) and his stuff declined (he lost 1.5 mph of average velocity on his fastball between 2017 and 2018, and then another 0.5 mph between 2018 and 2019), he still went out there and threw the ball. In 2018, after 31 starts and 175 23 innings of career-worst performance for a resurgent team around him, he was essentially told he wasn’t good enough to pitch in the playoffs, being used only in mop-up duty. Nonetheless, he returned, took the ball on Opening Day the next year (for the sixth time in a row, the longest active streak for a starter, which may or may not be snapped come 2020) and had another reasonable bounceback year despite diminished stuff and an even-crazier run environment. The team once again signaled its lack of faith in his abilities by first leaving him off the playoff roster, and then bringing him back as an injury replacement, only to have him be the victim of a walkoff loss in Game 4 and then pitch another playoff garbage time frame in Game 5. Had the Braves chosen to pick up his option, I’m sure he would be right back out there taking the ball week after week in 2020. It’s what he did.

With all that said, diligence and perseverance count, but in today’s MLB, shrinking success margins and the grinding gears of roster construction demands make it hard for me, personally, to feel particularly upset about his absence from the organization come 2020. (Your mileage may vary.) As recently as 2018, it seemed (to me) that the Braves were already in the position of benefiting by giving his hefty innings bulk to other candidates with greater upside; given his poor performance in 2018, it’s still somewhat surprising in retrospect that the Braves didn’t seek further upgrades still. (The signing of Dallas Keuchel did not supplant Teheran from the rotation, though given the demotion of Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz’ weird season, once the team chose to retain Teheran, there seemed to be little chance he wouldn’t be a rotation fixture.) That Teheran could not do better than the $12 million option the Braves declined on the open market suggests, without hindsight, that cutting him loose was the right move, but you can bet the house that if he rebounds in Anaheim while the fluxy Atlanta rotation founders, the recrimination will approach a fever pitch.

Aside from considerations of wasted tryout opportunities and underwhelming performance on contending teams, though, I feel at least some degree of reprieve from his departure, as the conversation among Braves fans will hopefully shift away from a common Teheran-surrounding refrain: the animosity regarding his on-field production and value stemming from peripherals-based versus outcome-based measures. Over his seven years as a Brave, the gap between Teheran’s RA9-WAR (based on actual runs allowed) and his FIP-based WAR (fWAR, based on his strikeouts, walks, homers allowed, and pop-ups elicited only) was the biggest among any pitcher. He tallied 22.8 RA9-WAR, a really quite good annual average of 3.3 per season; the corresponding fWAR total was just 13.8, a definition-of-pedestrian 2.0/season. Only he and Zack Greinke managed gaps of more than 1 WAR per season across the two value accounting paradigms over this period, among the 1,750-plus pitchers to throw a pitch in those seven years. (Note that this is a little misleading, but not much, as some pitchers may have had huge gaps but didn’t pitch all seven years; for the sake of this calculus I’m simply setting the cutoff point at RA9-WAR less fWAR > 7.0.) The talking points were always the same: he can beat his FIP/xFIP by some amount but not as much as he has, look at Matt Cain, yadda yadda yadda. You’ve likely heard it by now, there’s no need to rehash it, especially not that he’s gone. But yes, I look forward to replacing Teheran as the subject of these debates with Cole Hamels, who is also a somewhat notorious FIP-beater (15th on the RA9-WAR/fWAR gap list mentioned above that Teheran heads) that has become more FIP-beating-y over the last five years. (Also, never forget that in 2019, the run prevention of Max Fried and Kevin Gausman died so that Julio Teheran’s could live.)

In any case, that’s 900 words about Teheran that are largely beside the point — this is meant to be a remembrance of his past as his future takes him elsewhere. So, let’s stroll through memory lane, looking at some very good (and some very bad) Julio Teheran performances.

Good Julio Teheran

June 19, 2016, Citi Field: CG SHO, 1 H, 7 K, 0 BB, Braves win 6-0

A bright spot in a very dour season, Teheran absolutely baffled the Mets in back-to-back outings in June. He was a Michael Conforto third inning leadoff single (on a 3-1 count, Teheran and lefties willing to take pitches didn’t always get along) away from a perfect game and cruised to a very easy but totally dominant victory. He followed that up by throwing eight more scoreless innings against the Mets six days later, with another 7/0 K/BB ratio... but the Braves lost 1-0 due to an 11th-inning Kelly Johnson solo homer, and their own inability to tie the game despite getting the leadoff man on (Jace Peterson single, bunted to second, intentional pass to Freddie Freeman, Nick Markakis hits into game-ending double play). Ah, the 2016 Braves.

Anyway, back to the start at hand. Really, it was the platonic ideal of a Julio Teheran outing. While he got seven strikeouts (and the video above focuses on them), he only got 11 whiffs across his 119 pitches. That’s a rate worse than his career whiff rate. Instead, he did the most Teheran-y stuff ever: tons of weak fly balls. He kept giving the Mets fastballs to hit, and they turned them into cans of corn in the outfield. The hardest-hit ball off of him didn’t clear 100 mph; the furthest didn’t clear 340 feet (and was hit by the opposing pitcher). That opposing pitcher, by the way, was Jacob deGrom, who had a rare mediocre start against a very weak team for his Wild Card Mets in what ended up being his worst career season to date.

August 1, 2013, Coors Field: 5 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 11 K, Braves win 11-2

I include this start mostly because it shows an alternative version of Teheran, one that he never really became, but one that likely tantalized enough scouts and evaluators that he finished as high as fifth on Baseball America’s top prospect list in two consecutive seasons. When Teheran struck out literally half of the 22 Rockies hitters he faced in his 25th career start, he didn’t even set a new career high in strikeouts: he had already struck out 11 Pirates two months earlier. He would later set a new career high in strikeouts (12, twice in 2016), too. It wasn’t about whiff rate, either, as his overall 14 percent whiff rate in this outing wasn’t particularly high as far as his career went (only the 28th-highest out of 220-plus career starts). And it wasn’t the best start ever, either, as he loaded the bases in the first and the second, and allowed a double in the fourth as well.

It was just about potential, at least for me. We had already seen a dominant Teheran when he nearly no-hit the Pirates. But now we saw a Teheran that, even in erratic, unfavorable circumstances, could overpower hitters. In the first, after a leadoff five-pitch walk and two comebackers loaded the bases, Teheran struck out Todd Helton and Nolan Arenado on six pitches (called strike, whiff, whiff, called strike, called strike, whiff) to end the frame. In the third, he struck out the side, including Helton and Arenado again.

Video of this is hard to find, but if you can access the archives or similar, I highly recommend it. This wasn’t the Teheran the Braves ended up getting, but for a while, it was exciting to dream.

May 24, 2016, vs. Brewers: 7 IP, 3 H, 1 R (solo HR), 0 BB, 12 K, Braves lose 2-1

I know people might be expecting Teheran’s final-game-at-Turner Field outing against the Tigers here, where he threw seven scoreless frames with a 12/1 K/BB ratio, but this start fits the flavor of the 2016 season, and Teheran’s role as a steady-to-good presence on some not-so-good Braves teams, a little better. Teheran set his career high in strikeouts in this one, and avoided one of his two issues (walks) but not the other (homers). Ryan Braun hit a solo homer to lead off the fourth; the Braves could tie the game but not win it when Bud Norris allowed another run in the seventh. At one point, Teheran got six straight outs via strikeout (then Braun homered).

In this one, Teheran also did something else he didn’t often do: avoid the fly ball. Yes, the homer stung him, but his grounder rate was 54 percent in this outing, compared to 38 percent for his career. By both grounder rate and average distance of batted balls allowed, it was a top 15 career start for him.

In the end, it’s somehow fitting that the outing in which Teheran did the best at the things he wasn’t really known for (xFIP, SIERA, strikeouts, avoiding walks) was one where he was great but his team couldn’t eke out a victory.

Oh, he also struck out four batters in an inning in this one. Take that, ERA estimators!

April 16, 2014, Citizens Bank Park: CG SHO, 3 H, 0 BB, 4 K, Braves win 1-0

In some respects, 2014 was Teheran’s best season (though he did a better job being on the mound when run prevention happened in 2016). While the season would end terribly for the Braves and their fans, it started off great, and Teheran’s epic pitching duel with Cliff Lee was a hell of a mark to make in April. As a complete throwback, both Teheran and Lee threw complete games. Teheran’s team prevailed in spite of a fantastic effort from Lee, who struck out 13 while scattering 11 hits and a walk. Despite all those hits, the only run came on an Evan Gattis solo homer. Teheran’s outing was less eventful, as he didn’t allow a baserunner until the fifth, and then allowed sole runners in the eighth and ninth. These days, with a 1-0 lead, I imagine any starter gets pulled late in the game in this situation... if not with the tying run on first, two outs and Cody Asche at the plate in the eighth, then with the tying run on first (later to steal second), two outs, and Chase Utley at the plate in the ninth. But, Fredi Gonzalez and the Braves stuck with Teheran, and the latter recovered from a 3-0 count to get a groundout and end the game.

It was the first of two shutouts in 2014 for Teheran, and of three for his career overall. (The third was covered above, the second came in a 5-0 win against the Brewers. You can check out video from the game here. It’s worth it, if you like pitching, and Braves victories. If you’d rather forget the 2014 season in its entirety, though, I won’t blame you.

Ghoul-io Teheran

Just like Teheran’s tenure for the Braves was a very mixed bag, it wouldn’t be appropriate to conclude this walk down memory lane (random side note: there’s a street I pass sometimes named Myopia Road and it’s the weirdest street name I think I’ve ever personally seen) without some of the bad. There’s no need to dwell on your assorted “Julio Teheran gets shelled” outing, as we all know he’s had his fair share of those, and you can’t really be a pitcher in the majors without it happening to you with some regularity. Still, these stuck out:

May 18, 2017 vs. Blue Jays: 3 IP, 8 H, 3 HR, 9 R, 1 BB, 2 K, Braves lose 9-0

Not the shortest outing of his career (that actually came in 2019!), nor the worst ERA outing, nor even the worst FIP or xFIP outing (though second-worst by both ERA and FIP); not even the outing where he allowed the most homers in a game (he allowed four to the Blue Jays in 2015)! But, horrific nonetheless.

In short, in this game, Teheran allowed one of two major league homers Darrell Ceciliani has ever hit, the only major league homer Marcus Stroman has ever hit, and one of ten major league homers Luke Maile has ever hit. The last two came back-to-back, as the Braves desperately tried (and failed) to get Teheran to eat innings if nothing else. All of these came after Teheran had retired just six of the first 12 batters he faced to put his team in a 4-0 hole, so it didn’t matter that much anyway. It was just lame, much like most of Teheran’s 2017, the only season in which, while still defying his peripherals, he could not put up 2.0 RA9-WAR.

May 26, 2019 at Busch Stadium: 5 IP, 2 H, 3 R (1 ER), 4 BB, 1 K, Braves stage epic comeback in 4-3 victory

Okay, maybe this doesn’t belong in the Ghoul-io Teheran category, but I’d say it does. Channeling the eldritch magicks of his own ERA suppression against the red devil magic of the Cardinals, Teheran somehow allowed one “earned” run in five frames despite a 1/4 K/BB ratio (that’s bad, right?) and two hit batsmen to go along with it.

This was just a supremely nasty outing to watch if you like good pitching. Teheran hit the first man he faced and left the bases stranded in the first, then left three runners on in the third after issuing three walks in a row with the bases empty and two out. Defensive miscues and a single allowed two runs to score in the fourth, and another leadoff hit-by-pitch and sacrifice fly by Yadier Molina (who would walk off on Teheran in Game 4 of the NLDS) scored a third run. No one really remembers this outing because of how thrilling the Braves’ eventual victory in this game was, but man, was it brutal. It kind of warrants the Spongebob “bUt eRa” meme, I think.

Random Ghoul-io Teheran fact: On April 27, 2018, Teheran departed a start after three innings with trapezius tightness. Handed a 3-0 lead before taking the hill, he walked the first two men he faced and then allowed a three-run homer to Odubel Herrera. While he didn’t allow any other runs, it was the only start of his career (truncated as it was) in which he did not generate a single whiff.

October 6, 2013, NLDS Game 3, Dodger Stadium: 2 23 IP, 8 H, 6 R, 1 HR, 1 BB, 5 K, Braves lose 13-6

No, I didn’t put this on here because it was Teheran’s only career playoff start, and he self-immolated. Instead, I put it on here because amazingly enough, the start in which Teheran happened to put up a career-worst WPA line just happened to be his only playoff start.

The Braves came into this game with the NLDS tied at one apiece. They got off to a fast start, as Evan Gattis and Chris Johnson hit RBI singles off Hyun-Jin Ryu. Teheran got two strikeouts in a scoreless first, but then unraveled in the second, walking A.J. Ellis to load the bases with one out, allowing a sac fly lineout to Ryu, and then a three-run homer to Carl Crawford. The Braves immediately got back into the game with three straight singles off Ryu and two RBI groundouts to tie it up, only for Teheran to allow hits to four of the next six batters he faced. He was replaced by eventual Dodger Alex Wood, who himself fared about as poorly as Teheran, but thus went Teheran’s first and only (so far) playoff start: he blew a lead, then blew a tie, and allowed six runs in total. So it goes. The whole ordeal cost him over .600 WPA; the worst regular-season outing he’s ever had only cost him around .570.

Those are my memories of Teheran. What are yours?

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