Position: Right-handed Starting Pitcher
2015 Stats: 200.2 IP, 20.3 K%, 8.7 BB%, 2.0 WARP, 4.04 ERA, 4.21 DRA
How He Fits: In the last edition of ‘The Beer List,’ my primary assertion was that intelligent front offices must find value wherever it may lie, and then have the courage to leverage those valuable assets when necessary for team-specific needs. The key for Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer this offseason will be finding depressed value in a market flush with impactful pitching. This is an arena they have been very successful in during their tenure in Chicago by using trades: Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, Pedro Strop, Neil Ramirez, and Justin Grimm all came via the art of bartering.* As we survey the landscape of starting pitchers who may be made available by their respective teams, one player stands out in my mind above the rest as an excellent fit for the Cubs: Julio Teheran of the Atlanta Braves.
Teheran has a number of positive attributes he could bring to the table for the Cubs: youth combined with experience, a team-friendly contract that runs through 2020—matching the majority of the young core of the Cubs—and multiple productive seasons already under his belt. But there is one delineating factor that makes him the most attractive option on the market; he’s coming off a down season, as opposed to other options such as Tyson Ross, Sonny Gray, and Carlos Carrasco who are all coming off some of their most productive efforts. A year ago, Teheran was considered nearly untouchable. Now, after a disappointing season in which his FIP- spiked to 116—after finishing at 101 and 97 in 2013 and 2014 respectively—and clearly anyone on the Braves roster available, he is a likely candidate to be traded.
Baseball is by nature a tangled web of intricate physics, and the smallest of factors can demarcate between a successful effort and an unsuccessful one. The slightest change in movement or dip in velocity can make an All-Star such as Teheran a below-average starter the very next year. There is a tremendous amount of compelling data to consider in the backsliding of Teheran’s effectiveness, so let’s start unpacking it by reviewing his velocity over the past three seasons:
2015 velocity chart by pitch:
2014 velocity chart by pitch:
2013 velocity chart by pitch:
Teheran’s best pitch is his slider, which has consistently generated whiff-percentages of 20 to 25 percent throughout his career. He relies on the pitch heavily, throwing it between 17 to 20 percent historically, while finishing at 22.3 percent this year. So why is it important to highlight the velocity of his best pitch over the last three years, you may be asking? Because his results were terrible in April and May this year, and equally bad in April of 2013. The common denominator between those two seemingly unconnected moments in time: reduced velocity of his slider. This is and of itself telling, but there is another indicator to suggest he was throwing his slider in a different manner during his highly-ineffective spurts:
2015 horizontal movement by pitch:
2014 horizontal movement by pitch:
2013 horizontal movement by pitch:
During each month he struggled in 2013 and 2015, he threw his slider softer and with much greater horizontal break than he does when he is pitching effectively. He had no such dramatic variance during his All-Star campaign of 2014. As soon as he corrected and began throwing the pitch harder with less movement, his effectiveness returned. Keep this in mind when considering whether there are areas that highly-lauded Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio could help Teheran.
Another area I believe Teheran could be assisted in finding quality results is by being pulled from the game earlier. This is a problem Joe Maddon became proficient at dealing with as both Jason Hammel and Hendricks struggled with third-time-through effectiveness. I first noticed this trend with Teheran in correlation with my fantasy team this year, as it seemed he worked into or through the sixth inning effectively time-and-again, only to get crushed as the opposing lineup flipped for their third chance against him. Sure enough, the results bear this out in spades; Teheran was excellent the first two times through the order, before being hit hard the third time through. This leaves open my feeling that Maddon’s deft hand could help his overall effectiveness:
|1st PA in G, as SP||33||294||254||30||59||13||1||10||0||4||28||60||2.14||.232||.325||.409||.735||104||7||7||5||0||0||1||.266||99||107|
|2nd PA in G, as SP||33||296||265||30||57||9||0||8||0||1||24||66||2.75||.215||.281||.340||.620||90||4||1||4||2||2||2||.254||69||71|
|3rd PA in G, as SP||33||234||212||24||68||10||2||7||1||1||19||44||2.32||.321||.378||.486||.864||103||4||1||1||1||1||3||.377||134||127|
|4th+ PA in G, as SP||8||19||17||2||5||0||0||2||0||0||2||1||0.50||.294||.368||.647||1.015||11||0||0||0||0||0||2||.214||170||165|
Feeding my desire to see Teheran in a Cubs uniform is the outlying nature of his walk-rate this year. Having achieved a 5.8 percent walk-rate in both 2013 and 2014, his mark of 8.7 percent this year strikes me as a prime candidate to regress somewhere back in-between the two numbers. Further, when you combine his elevated walk-rate with the fact that his HR/FB rate spiked to 13 percent (10.1 and 8.1 percent in 2013 and 2014, respectively), you have a high-likelihood of improved bottom-line performance in 2016. This is especially so considering his soft-contact percentage actually improved to his best mark (18.3 vs. 17.0 and 15.9 percent) as a starter.
It should also be kept in mind that he is still just 24 years old, and his durability (three seasons of 185-plus innings pitched) has been impressive. It’s very possible his best seasons are still ahead of him. Each of these facts add up to making him a potentially savvy, undervalued acquisition target as the Cubs search for middle-of-the-rotation starting pitching.
Why it Won’t Work:
The first and most obvious reason is that it takes two to tango when it comes to the trade market. This is not as simple as the realm of free agency, where a snappy presentation and the biggest truckload of cash generally carries the day. There are intricacies to trades—especially of highly valuable young assets such as Teheran—that make any specific suggested deal a minimal possibility.
The second and substantially murkier reason is what exactly would Atlanta be looking for in return? I fully admit to being completely puzzled by the direction the franchise has gone, as the talent being traded out does not necessarily square with the talent coming back via both trades and free agency. There is a sense of a mentality that is one-foot-in and one-foot-out for a complete rebuild, a strategy that has little chance of succeeding either now nor into the future. I will not speculate on specific names in this article, but my feeling is that this may come down to whether or not Atlanta is willing to take solely non-25 man roster players back in return.
Outside of what it may actually take to acquire Teheran, one issue raised above could actually be a problem for the Cubs. If Teheran truly does have consistent problems going through the order more than twice, that means his ability to rack up 200-inning seasons may be artificially inflated. Outside of Arrieta and Jon Lester, the Cubs had plenty of issues with pitchers who couldn’t go deep into games, thus taxing their bullpen arms heavily. Targeting another arm who is effective for five or six innings—but quite frequently not much more—may not be the best strategy for this team. Of course, this only applies if the Cubs truly believe that going through the order a third time is a real issue for Teheran (and if it is, one that won’t be rectified by making sure his inconsistencies with his slider are a things of the past).
And this all leads to the final, and main, factor: whether or not the Cubs’ front office agrees with me regarding Teheran’s ability to bounce-back from his down season. There are certainly reasons that I have not gone into that could make a salient argument that he will not return to his 2014 form. Unless we find Teheran donning Cubs attire in the coming weeks, where their belief lies on this subject is something we are unlikely to ever be privy to.
*As an interesting aside, the only player traded away by the Cubs in those deals that remains with the team he was traded to is Steve Clevenger.
Lead photo courtesy of Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports