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Julio Teheran: From Prospect Fatigue to Potential Ace?

Yesterday, two former Braves prospects took no-hit bids into later innings. One was was Jason Marquis, a 34-year old veteran getting by largely thanks to the roomy confines of Petco Park. (Though as a reader points out, Wednesday’s game was at Dodger Stadium.) The other was 22-year old Julio Teheran, and his gem seemed to herald his arrival as the real deal. Marquis was a supplemental first rounder in 1996. (He was the 35th overall pick, 34 picks behind Kris Benson.) Teheran was the top 16-year old pitcher signed in 2007. Marquis isn’t sexy, but Julio would be happy to have his career: Marquis’ career FIP is 4.85, but he has pitched 1873 innings and won 119 games in the big leagues.

Julio has a chance to be a whole lot more than that. But it would have been understandable if many Braves fans and dynasty league owners were starting to suffer from prospect fatigue. Julio has been on the Baseball America Top 10 Braves prospect list for six straight years; they called him the Braves’ 10th best prospect after he was signed as a 16-year old, before he had thrown a pitch in the United States, they saw him as the Braves’ top pitching prospect from 2010-2013, and as the top prospect overall in 2011-2013. There was no doubting that he could destroy minor league hitters. Until last night, though, as Ben Duronio writes today, some may have doubted that he could destroy major league hitters. So what has happened over the last six years?

The Braves signed Julio Teheran almost exactly six years ago, in July of 2007, for $850,000. He was pursued by numerous teams, but at the time, his uncle and coach, Miguel Teheran, was working for the Braves as a scout. He was seen by many observers as the most promising international free agent pitcher. At the time, Chris Kline of Baseball America wrote, “The 16-year-old righthander pounds the zone with an 88-91 mph fastball, and also features an above-average curveball and plus changeup–which is easily his best offering.” But the consensus was not universal; a month and a half before Teheran signed, Kline ran an interview with an anonymous scout who said:

He’s a good worker, seems like a good kid, but I just don’t see anything beyond a No. 4 or No. 5 starter in the big leagues. I’m not crazy about the arm action and I don’t think he’s going to increase velocity very much from where he is. I think he’s going to stay and work at 90-91 with good secondary stuff.

But for upwards of $1 million I wouldn’t do it. You give me all the great arms to ever come out of Colombia… There are none. I think Teheran is OK, but nothing more than a back-end-of-the-rotation guy or a middle guy—which is more likely.

His fastball velocity has always been variable. When the Braves signed him, the MLB.com beat writer wrote that his fastball “is regularly clocked between 90-93 mph.” And an article written in the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo shortly after the signing noted that he’s a “lanzador derecho, con velocidad de 94 millas por hora.”

In fact, he has maintained that exact velocity range over the past six years. By MLB Gameday data, in yesterday’s game he varied from 89-94 with his fastball just in the first two innings, 89-91 with his two-seamer and 93-94 with his four-seamer.

The Tiempo article noted that his idol was Curt Schilling, and most poignantly, it reminded readers that he was in ninth grade. Even though he’s been a top prospect for six years, he’s the same age as a graduating college senior. The Schilling comparison may be apt, at least in one respect: this year he has 55 strikeouts against just 15 walks, and in his last eight starts he has a sparkling 43/8 K/BB ratio.

(Schilling had a stunning career K/BB of 4.38, but he took a while to get started: through his age 27 season, he had a career K/BB of 2.34. So what Julio is doing sure ain’t bad for a 22-year-old.)

He’s been a known quantity for quite a long time, but his rise through the minors was essentially smooth and uneventful for three of his first four years in the Braves system. He struggled in 15 innings and suffered from shoulder trouble in short-season ball in 2008, but flourished as he moved from rookie ball to A-ball in 2009, from A-ball to High-A to Double-A in 2010, and spent 2011 in Triple-A before a late-season callup.

And then… he had an awful 18 months. He had a couple of mediocre spot starts in 2011, beginning in May, and then 2012 was almost a lost season, as he attempted to make adjustments demanded by the Braves and went from one of the top prospects in baseball to John Sickels’s “Most Disappointing Non-Injured Top Prospect” of 2012, as Julio repeated Triple-A and saw his homers spike from 5 to 18 while his strikeouts fell from 122 to 97, in 13 fewer innings.

He also wasn’t showing anything in his brief cups of coffee. In 2011 and 2012, he pitched a grand total of 26 innings in the major leagues, allowing 15 earned runs — he wasn’t ready. In late 2012, Martin Gandy of the Braves blog Talking Chop speculated why:

The Braves tweaked Teheran’s delivery, something they also did with Hanson between the 2011 and 2012 seasons. BA says this led to a lot of Teheran’s struggles in early 2012, including his home run binge in spring training, and his drop in velocity.
But the Braves were doing this to help Teheran in the long run — to help reduce the risk of injury and improve his control.

[Then, Gandy quotes GM Frank Wren in the 2012 offseason as admitting that Teheran was going back to a “more natural delivery.”]
Holy 180 Batman! The Braves are almost admitting that they cost Teheran a year of development because they were tinkering with his delivery. The quote from Wren above tells me that the Braves asked Teheran to abandon the changes they made to his delivery, described in the first quote from Baseball America. I guess their intentions were right, but the results not what they had hoped for, and I suppose we have to give them credit for returning Teheran to his original delivery, from which he had the bulk of his minor league success.

The Braves clearly retained faith in Teheran, declaring him untouchable even as they dealt fellow pitching prospects Randall Delgado and Arodys Vizcaino, and he’s rewarded their faith. Few outside the organization could have quite understood the effect of the mechanical adjustments on Teheran’s results. But it’s hard to deny the results thus far, and now that he’s pitched 71 innings and faced 296 batters, it’s possible to say a few things with reasonable certitude: he strikes out a lot more batters than he walks, and he gets a lot more groundballs than flyballs.

Almost no prospect ever has a straight line progression from projection to success. (In underpants gnomes terminology, step one is being a prospect, step three is profit, and no one knows step two.) So, in proper perspective, Julio’s 18 months in the wilderness look like a relative blip between his three great years in the minor leagues and his seven recent months of success, beginning with a solid performance in the 2012 winter leagues and continuing through 2013 spring training and the first two months of this season.

Julio provides a curious counterexample to the famous dictum “There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect”, as Julio is a prospect who is almost exactly meeting expectations, even though the internet agonized when he didn’t get there immediately. Injuries aside, Teheran proves that just maybe there IS such a thing as a pitching prospect. You just have to be patient.