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2017 Player Profiles: Julio Teheran

The Braves’ de-facto ace returned to previous form in 2016, rewarding fantasy owners that invested in him. But can we trust him again in 2017?

New York Mets v Atlanta Braves Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

If you want to catch up on all the previous 2017 player profiles, check out my archive here.

If you followed the Atlanta Braves in 2016, first, I’m so sorry for you. Second, you might have noticed that Julio Teheran was the only Braves starter with an ERA under 4. He did even better than that, though, putting up an excellent 3.21 ERA. After a poor 2015 when he had a 4.04 ERA, he likely came cheap in drafts and owners reaped an excellent profit.

Here’s the problem: how much can you trust a guy only one year removed from a poor season that doesn’t have elite strikeout rates? To that point, here are his xFIP numbers the last four years: 3.76, 3.72, 4.19, 4.13. Those are not great. Let’s look deeper to find out if he can keep beating his xFIP or if another 2015 is lurking.

Let’s keep things positive to start with. His 2016 walk rate of 5.4% was a career best and was 11th best among qualified starters. That is a great way to limit damage and keep an ERA down. His 10% HR/FB was right near league average, so he didn’t benefit from special home run luck. Oh, and his 22% K% tied a career high for him. His swinging strike rate was about the same as the previous three seasons, so no decline there. Finally, did I mention his 3.21 ERA, 18th best in MLB? think I’m out of positive signs. That didn’t take long.

So, I guess it’s on to the bad stuff. He set a four-year high in hard hit% allowed at 33.1%, had a four-year-low infield fly% of 8.6%, a 3.93 SIERA, a career-low fastball velocity (by just 0.3 of a mph, to be fair), and some luck indicators don’t look good. His BABIP of 0.260 is low, even for a guy with a career BABIP of 0.275. His strand rate (LOB%) of 78% was well above the league average of 72%, so he was lucky to strand as many runners as he did.

Now, fly-ball heavy pitchers (which he very much is) can beat their xFIP values repeatedly if they limit hard contact, strike out a lot of batters, walk very few, and get a lot of pop-ups. You could call this the Marco Estrada model. Or the good Ian Kennedy model. Or the Jose Quintana model. There are a number of examples, is the point. However, 2016 Teheran only checks one of those four boxes (walks), so we have a problem. Let’s look further at hard contact to see if Statcast data can provide some help.

Julio allowed an average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives of 92.8 mph, which puts him about 60 spots from the bottom of the league and well below average. When you look at average distance allowed, he gets worse, moving into the bottom 25. So, we don’t have any evidence to say he did a good job of generating weak contact.

So here we are. He’s got a great walk rate...and not much else. His strikeout rate is just ok, he can’t force hitters into weak contact, doesn’t generate many pop-ups, and was a little lucky on balls in play and stranded runners in 2016. That does not bode well. However, I found a few things that might give you hope, if you prefer recency bias. Here, look at these graphs.

You see? He started really slow, but as the season went on, his hard hit rate kept dropping and his swinging strike rate kept climbing. If you believe that how you trend during one season impacts your performance in the next, you would be very optimistic about Teheran in 2017.

I am not one of those people, but I get it. He could have figured something out after the first few starts and then was a different pitcher from then on. Or, he is really a barely-above average NL pitcher that ended up with the stats (outside of ERA) that he deserved based on his performance. I think those are the two major camps here: either you believe that 2016’s ERA was an indication that he really can be as good as he was in 2013 and 2014 and he can repeat that in 2017 or 2016 was more of a fluke than 2015 and he will return to his true self in 2017.

I should point out here that part of what derailed his 2015 was a slightly-above-league- average walk rate, a career-worst for him. He absolutely has to have an elite walk rate to put up good ERAs and it didn’t happen that year. I believe that the walk rate that year was a fluke, since it has been much lower in all his other seasons. However, that doesn’t mean I think he is capable of maintaining 3.20 ERAs every year based solely on a great walk rate. He needs more than that, as I have pointed out above.

Here’s my projection for his 2017. You can tell which camp I am in.

2017 Projection

190 IP, 3.65 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 165 Ks

I didn’t drop him all the way to a league average ERA, but obviously, I don’t see a repeat of 2016 either. I didn’t regress his K/9 or BB/9 much because his 2016 rates weren’t far from career averages. The same goes for his great WHIP (an important consideration for fantasy owners).

For what it is worth, Steamer has him at 8.2 K/9, 2.52 BB/9, 4.0 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and 167 Ks. See? I’m not that pessimistic. I wasn’t prepared to go that far with the ERA regression, given his tendency so far to beat xFIP, his good K%-BB% numbers, and his better-than-average career BABIP. I don’t think Steamer gives him enough credit for those things, so I would bet the under on their BB/9, ERA, and WHIP.

His current NFBC ADP is 117, 28th among starting pitchers. That seems a little high. I would rather have him as the 33rd-35th pitcher off the board. He is going ahead of Michael Fulmer, Matt Harvey, Rich Hill, Danny Salazar, Alex Reyes, and other high-risk high-reward/injury risk guys. I like most of that group better than Teheran, hence my suggestion to move him down 5-6 spots.

He is pretty durable, which is nice, but he doesn’t have the upside of any of the guys I listed. If you like a lower-risk, lower-upside, healthy innings-eater likely to be a little better than league average, Teheran’s your guy. If you want more strikeouts or true ace upside, look elsewhere. Tschus!