LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Watching Julio Teheran pitch this spring, Braves teammates who didn’t see him dominate in the minor leagues can finally see what the hype was about. He’s thriving with a modified repertoire featuring more sinkers and an improved breaking ball to go with the fastball-changeup mix he used before.
“He’s really looked good, man,” Braves veteran Tim Hudson said. “I think he’s made the biggest stride forward of anybody I’ve seen in camp. You can see the confidence grow, more than anything.”
Among Grapefruit League leaders, Teheran was second in strikeouts (25), tied for first in innings (20) and fourth in ERA (1.35) before Monday’s games. In a 2-1 win against the Mets on Sunday, the right-hander had seven strikeouts in six innings and allowed three hits, two walks and one run.
“He’s really pounding the strike zone, and his two-seamer has really looked good,” said Hudson, who’s had a long, prosperous career relying on the sinker (two-seamer). “That’s something he’s been working on. He’s using it to both sides of the plate. I think that’s a great pitch for him because he doesn’t have to be so precise with it – it’s a contact pitch.”
After the Mets’ Jordany Valdespin led off the first inning with a home run and Ike Davis doubled, Teheran allowed only three base runners the rest of way, and none got to second base. Opponents have hit .104 against him this spring, with better than a 4-to-1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio (six walks).
“He’s located better (with all his pitches),” Braves pitcher Kris Medlen said. “He’s got more confidence, which is huge.”
It’s a big change from the pitcher Teheran was for most of 2012 at Triple-A Gwinnett, where he went 7-9 with a 5.08 ERA in 26 starts. That was after going 15-3 with a 2.55 ERA at Gwinnett in 2011 to solidify his status as the team's No. 1 prospect and one of baseball's top two or three pitching prospects.
He made adjustments to his delivery at the team’s request, in order to reduce the torque and strain on his knee and elbow. Some of his reduced velocity in 2012 might have been related to those changes.
Teheran’s fastball isn’t consistently clocked at 93-95 mph like it was a couple of years ago – it’s a tick or two lower -- but doesn’t need it now that he’s incorporated the sinker and an improved curveball. He worked on both pitches during winter ball in the Dominican Republic and got tips during a dinner with boyhood idol Pedro Martinez, who told him the importance of being efficient to stay fresh and go deeper in games.
Martinez’s advice dovetailed with the team’s request to work on the sinker and breaking ball.
“With his stuff, he’s got swing-and-miss pitches,” Hudson said, “and I think in the past he’d get deep into counts and it seemed like every hitter was 2-2, 3-2, fouling pitches off. It’s great for him to be able to go to a pitch that’s 1-0, get a groundball. Not have to battle back and get to 3-2 and try to punch a guy out.”
Teheran came to camp with the No. 5 starter’s job to lose, and has done nothing but strengthen his grip on it over the past five weeks. A year ago, he competed at spring training with Randall Delgado for the fifth spot, with Teheran struggling mightily and being sent back to Triple-A.
“With him and Delgado, I don’t know if he necessarily handled the competition for the spot the right way,” Medlen said. “He was (tentative). Now he’s like, ‘It’s mine.’ And he’s pitched like it, too. Everything’s working for him right now. His mechanics look awesome, and he’s getting dudes to swing over the ball by that much (holds hands six inches apart).
“When you have a 93-94 mile-an-hour four-seamer and can throw a two-seamer with the same arm speed, it’s insane.”