Julio Teheran’s 1-2 record is a disservice to his work in his first four starts as a Brewer.
Signed near the end of May to eat innings in a once-formidable rotation ravaged by injuries, Teheran has exceeded expectations. The veteran has allowed five runs in 24 1⁄3 innings, achieving a 1.48 ERA in those four outings.
Teheran will not maintain this level of success. Behind his shiny ERA are a 3.52 FIP, 4.36 SIERA, 3.47 xERA, and 4.73 DRA. According to those estimators, Teheran has performed closer to a league-average starter. He has benefited from a fortunate .265 BABIP.
Still, Teheran has been a capable contributor who has aided a thin pitching staff. He deserves credit for the work he has put in to reach this point after a pair of rough seasons saw him wash out of affiliated ball entirely.
After nine seasons as a reliable innings eater for the Atlanta Braves, Teheran signed a one-year contract with the Los Angeles Angels for the 2020 season. That pairing proved unsuccessful, as Teheran struggled to a 10.05 ERA and 8.62 FIP in 10 appearances (nine starts).
Seeking to rebound, he signed a minor-league deal with the Tigers the following year and cracked their Opening Day roster. He injured his shoulder after one start and missed the remainder of the season.
After two lost seasons, Teheran spent the 2022 campaign pitching for two teams in the independent Mexican League. He returned stateside last winter via a minor-league deal with the San Diego Padres.
Teheran’s numbers in Triple-A El Paso were uninspiring (5.63 ERA, 5.57 FIP), yet he opted out of his deal in search of a big-league opportunity. He found his chance with the Brewers.
Amidst his return to the game’s highest level, it has become clear just how much tinkering Teheran has done over the past three years to make it back.
The changes start with his mechanics. Notice the evolution of Teheran’s delivery from his time with the Angels in 2020 (left) to his lone start in 2021 for the Tigers (middle) to his current stint with the Brewers (right).
Simplicity has been Teheran’s main focus in rebuilding his mechanics. Everything is cleaner, quicker, and more compact.
Teheran’s first observable adjustment is to his starting position. He always pitches out of the stretch and previously came set with his glove in front of his chest. Teheran now rests the glove against his lower torso before beginning his motion.
The most dramatic change is in Teheran’s leg kick. He previously lifted his leg above the letters of his jersey. Since 2021, the subdued leg lift only reaches the base of the letters.
The reduced leg lift serves two purposes. It makes Teheran quicker to the plate and eliminates the drawn-out movement present in his delivery in 2020. It also puts him in a more compact and athletic position as he pushes off the rubber.
This year, Teheran is less stiff and is keeping his hands close to his body before driving down the mound. The result is a faster, more deceptive, and more explosive release. Look at how much more quickly Teheran is arriving at his release in 2023 when all three versions of his delivery are synced at the start of his motion.
He’s no longer a hard thrower, but his physical tweaks make facing Teheran akin to seeing a ball fired out of a cannon. His cleaned-up delivery means there’s neither much time nor much of a window to follow the ball before it shoots out of his hand.
Beyond his mechanical adjustments, Teheran has also altered the weapons in his arsenal.
For most of his career, Teheran has relied heavily on a four-seam fastball, sinker, and slider while sprinkling in the occasional curveball or changeup.
This year, Teheran is utilizing his sinker 40.5% of the time, which would be his highest usage rate in a full season. He is averaging a career-best 32.4 inches of vertical movement on his sinker, giving it an additional four inches of sink beyond the average two-seamer thrown at a similar velocity with similar extension.
Teheran’s go-to secondary offering is a brand new one. While Statcast currently labels it as his slider, the veteran has traded out that pitch for a cutter.
Teheran is throwing the so-called slider at a dramatically faster speed than ever before, and it now features the spin characteristics of a fastball.
The change hasn't been reflected in pitch tracking labels, but Julio Teheran has seemingly switched from a slider to a cutter this year.— Jack Stern (@ByJackStern) June 10, 2023
It's harder with less vertical break than his old slider and spins on a similar axis to his other fastballs. pic.twitter.com/Md3H8l3Oqv
Teheran’s utilization of the pitch also points toward the change. Instead of throwing it off the plate in search of chase swings, he is pounding both edges of the zone in pursuit of called strikes and weak contact.
If it behaves like a cutter and is used like a cutter, it’s a cutter. Along with the four-seamer that he still flashes at the top of the strike zone, the new pitch gives Teheran three different fastballs that enable him to attack all quadrants of the zone.
A new version of Teheran’s curveball has taken over as his primary breaking ball. Unlike past iterations of the hook, which sat in the 70-to-75 mph range, Teheran throws this one at an average of 77.3 mph. He has slashed about 10 inches of vertical break and a few inches of horizontal movement to give the pitch a sharper slurve-like shape.
Finally, Teheran has added about five inches of vertical movement to his changeup and is using it a career-high 22.6% of the time against left-handed batters.
While generational talents may be able to sustain A-plus stuff late into their careers, that is not the case for most hurlers. To carve out long and productive careers, most pitchers must make physical and strategic tweaks to continue recording outs as their stuff changes with age.
Teheran’s hard work and perseverance serve as an excellent example. Once a hard thrower who used his power stuff to put away hitters, he has fashioned a new bag of tricks and seized a fresh opportunity. Whether such adjustments will continue to yield positive results remains to be seen, but Teheran deserves credit for getting to this point.