On Wednesday afternoon Julio Teheran grabbed the baseball world's attention, just as his prospect days had hinted he someday might. He flirted with a no-hitter through 7 2/3 innings but, after a Brandon Inge single, settled for eight one-hit, no-run innings.
The performance continued a string of good performances from the young righty. Teheran entered the game with five consecutive quality starts and three straight outings that lasted into the seventh inning. Both streaks continued. Teheran also fanned a career-high number of batters for the second consecutive start. True, the 11 batters that the Colombian native fanned were Pirates—ranked 22nd in True Average at first pitch—and his recent performances came against the Nationals, Mets, and Twins—lineups also ranked in the bottom-half of the league. But the signs of encouragement extend beyond Wednesday's stat line.
Some history is required to appreciate Teheran's progress. In March Jason Parks described Teheran's fastball and changeup as plus pitches, and noted his troubles with fastball command and breaking ball consistency. Still Teheran's pluses outweighed his cons, and Parks pegged him as a potential no. 2 or 3 starter with moderate risk. An impressive spring gave the hype machine new life. Alas, it was short-lived. The optimism turned into disappointment once the season started and Teheran struggled in April.
Poor results turned into poor feedback from those in the know. Peter Gammons reported during Teheran's second start that two talent evaluators called him "Juan Cruz Redux." Teheran's outlook had shifted within an 18-month period from chatter about his place as a future ace to comparisons to journeymen middle relievers. Some of the struggles were predictable. The weaknesses Parks identified showed up early and often. Nobody expected Teheran's changeup to disappear from his arsenal, however.
Over the season's first month Teheran's changeup accounted for fewer than 4 percent of his pitches. His numbers improved in May—he recorded a 2.60 ERA, tallied more than four strikeouts per walk issued, and finished the month one out away from averaging seven innings per start—yet his changeup remained absent. Once the best secondary offering in Teheran's bag, the changeup has accounted for more than 10 percent of his pitches in a game this season just twice so far, per Brooks Baseball.
Teheran threw just four changeups on Wednesday. Three of them resulted in strikes—two for strike three—but all four were poorly located. The cause for Teheran's reduced changeup is unclear. He's hinted at disaccord with the grip, while Fredi Gonzalez has suggested confidence issues. Whatever the reason may be, it left Teheran stranded in a cold, unforgiving profession without his best secondary offering. The natural inclination might have been for Teheran to increase his curveball usage to atone for his changeup's shortcomings. Instead he empowered the two pitches he worked on throughout spring: his slider and two-seam fastball.
When it comes to out pitches quantity is no replacement for quality, but usage patterns suggest Teheran's slider has improved over the course of the season. He threw 41 of them against the Pirates, and displayed a proficiency with the back-foot variety versus left-handed batters. Mark Anderson said Teheran's slider featured "good arm speed" and was thrown from "a similar arm slot to the fastball." Anderson added that the pitch had tight spin as well as two-plane movement, a combination that led him to designate the pitches as "easy plus sliders."
Those easy plus sliders, along with Teheran's plus fastball, kept the Pirates off balance. He mixed the pitches well and displayed his good feel for pitching. Take his encounters against Pedro Alvarez, who homered against him earlier in the season. Teheran faced Alvarez three times and threw him three fastballs, one of which came before a two-strike count. Then there were the at-bats against Russell Martin where Teheran threw him fastballs glove-side and high until the veteran backstop resisted the pitch's charm. When Teheran faced the bottom of the order he favored heat over cuteness. In sum Teheran showed the Pirates five pitches, and in rate he filled up the zone with 74 percent strikes.
Despite the impressive nature of Teheran's outing, there were numerous areas where improvement is necessary. He elevated his fastball too often for comfort. Pittsburgh's batters swung underneath these mistakes throughout the game when a better lineup may not have. Teheran needs to rediscover his changeup, or at least find a way to make it functional. Otherwise his ability to locate his slider at the back foot will determine his ability to end at-bats in a timely manner against left-handed batters.
Although Teheran is unlikely to live up to his past billing as a front-of-the-rotation monster, he still has a chance to become a no. 2 or 3. Further refinement of his command and secondary offerings—including maintaining his new slider and resuscitating his changeup—will determine his fate. Teheran's recent run of success, culminating in Wednesday's gem, should, if nothing else, buy him additional time to figure everything out.
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