Since the day the Detroit Tigers traded away homegrown ace Justin Verlander, general manager Al Avila has gone through a lot of cheap free agent starting pitchers, and has yet to really hit on one. Arguably Mike Fiers outperformed expectations, but names like Tyson Ross, Matt Moore, Ivan Nova, and Edwin Jackson have come and gone with nary a ripple to trace their passing through the organization. So far this spring, Julio Teheran, signed on a minor league deal no less, looks like the one who can end the free agent losing streak.
The fact that the Tigers were able to land the durable veteran starter on a minor league deal seems a bit surprising in retrospect. If teams knew what the Tigers know now, a month into camp, one has to think there would have been more interest. Offseason physical therapy helped him strengthen a right shoulder that had been a chronic pain for the 30-year-old for several seasons. As a result, Teheran has 2-3 mph back on his fastball and now looks like a lock for a spot in the Tigers starting rotation. A decision is due on adding him to the roster on Monday, but frankly that seems like a no-brainer at this point.
The saga is an interesting one, as recounted in a nice article by Evan Petzold for The Freep on Saturday. It was Teheran’s agent, Gene Mato, who figured out the issue and got his client to the right therapist. Compensation for underlying scapula and socket issue in his throwing shoulder had resulted in the whole joint tightening up on him in recent seasons, killing his velocity and forcing him to compensate in his delivery as well.
When trying to forecast which pitchers might break out in a given season, we tend to focus on guys with great stuff and poor command. “If so-and-so could just tune his command a little further, the stuff could play,” is a common spring training quote about pitchers who haven’t put it together yet. Less often do we see the reverse, where a pitcher with excellent command and long-established feel for getting major league hitters out suddenly gets a marked boost in terms of stuff. It just doesn’t tend to work that way unless, as in this case, there was an underlying injury holding them back. That’s the scenario the Tigers appear to have hit on in Teheran.
Teheran past and present
Julio Teheran 2014-2020
In both 2014 and 2016, Teheran was an All-Star for the Atlanta Braves. While the metrics favor pitchers who rack up strikeouts, he has always been more of a throwback type, using good movement and excellent command to induce weak contact around the edges of the plate. But in those years, his fastball averaged 91 mph or more. By 2018, the average fastball velocity faded into the high 80’s, where it has remained ever since, and he’s become much more susceptible, like many pitchers around the league, to the long ball. At the same time, Teheran’s vaunted command suffered as well. Whether because of the shoulder issues, or simply because he was getting hit too hard, his walk rates suffered as well.
He was still an effective starter with a sub-4.00 ERA in 2018 and 2019, and he remained durable, continuing a streak of making 30 or more starts in every full season of his career, but the contact got louder over time. In 2020 it all came to a head. Teheran’s shoulder nagged at him throughout the year and he posted the worst numbers of his career. That left a free agent without a lot of interest from teams this offseason.
However this spring he’s looked like a new man, comfortably throwing 91-93 mph and in command of all five pitches. Now that he has his velocity back to peak levels, the odds seem decent that he may be able to replicate his best work in Detroit. His last outing, back on March 17, was this scoreless four inning performance with just one hit to seven strikeouts. In fairness, he wasn’t facing the Phillies’ major league lineup much over his final two frames.
Despite the hotter, livelier fastball, this isn’t to say Teheran is now a different pitcher, but he does look like a souped-up version of the crafty right-hander that Braves fans found alternately endearing and frustrating in his final years there. Teheran is a smart pitcher, and when he’s going good, all his pitches have finish, and he can move them on and off the edges of the plate on command.
This isn’t high spin power stuff, yet he has plenty of life on his pitches. Teheran also has a lot of deception in play, both in his delivery, and because his two fastballs and changeup deviate substantially from the movement their spin axes would predict. All three pitches come out of his hand from the same position, with basically the same spin axis, but move in different directions, presumably as a result of seam-shifted wake movement. That makes it difficult for hitters, as does the tight grouping on his release points with all five pitches. Throw in the fact that Teheran is consistently above average in hitting the edges of the strike zone and you have a pretty potent pitcher on the mound.
Teheran’s sinker in particular has a sixty degree deviation between where his spin axis says the pitch should move and how it actually moves. The result is that the sinker has well above average depth, and when he’s mixing fastball types with command he’s just hard to barrel up. Both fastballs and the changeup have better than average horizontal movement as well, so he can really make the ball dance. He’s not a groundball pitcher, and hasn’t been for years, but he tends to get a lot of soft contact moving pitches horizontally off the barrel for weak fly balls, pop-ups and flares.
Teheran still isn’t exactly going to blow people away with fastballs because he’s sitting 91-93 mph again. He’s always had somewhat mediocre strikeout rates, and thrived on inducing weak contact, a trait that seemed to evaporate as his velocity declined. His changeup has typically averaged 82 mph through the years, with a cutterish slider at 80-81, and a slow curveball that is less often used. The added velocity on the fastballs should also improve the velocity separation between them and the secondary offerings. Hopefully, the complete package plays up as a result.
This just looks like a good fit for both Teheran and the Tigers. The Tigers had a starting role available to compete for, and he was just looking for the opportunity to win a job in the spring. Were the 2021 Tigers profiling as a sterling defensive club, the fit would be even better. Still, the spacious confines of Comerica Park, and a sound set of outfielders, are both features a pitcher like Teheran knows how to exploit. If MLB really has deadened the baseball a little bit, he may surprise you by putting together a heck of a season. Even without it, he looks revitalized and capable of being a good mid-rotation starter again. That would be a welcome win for the Tigers front office in free agency.