Braves’ Julio Teheran needs strong season to ease concerns

Julio Teheran discusses his first spring training start. (Gabe Burns / AJC)

Julio Teheran showed up at training camp with a new haircut – cropped tightly at the sides and back, long and sticking straight up on top.

“I had it done in Colombia,” he said. “Just something new. I told them do whatever you think looks good.”

(It sort of looks like there’s a poodle on his head. But being the old, bald guy, I’m probably not the demographic neither he or his stylist are appealing to.)

Truth is, Teheran won’t be judged this season by his coif. The man could have his hair formed into multi-colored spikes poking through his hat, and it wouldn’t matter if he can get his ERA back down to a palatable number. He was an All-Star in only his second full season in the major leagues with a 2.89 ERA, threw 221 innings, totaled 186 strikeouts vs. only 51 walks and projected as the Braves’ potential top-of-the rotation starter for years to come.

But that’s not the Julio Teheran anybody has seen since. He has struggled with consistency (ERA last four seasons: 2.89, 4.04, 3.21, 4.49). His mental toughness has been questioned. He is coming off the worst of his five full seasons, posting inflated numbers in ERA (4.49), home runs allowed (31, 1.5 per nine innings), walks (72, vs. a career-low 151 strikeouts) and walks/hits per inning (1.370 WHIP).

Strangely, in a season when the Braves sought to celebrate their new stadium in the suburbs, Teheran looked like he would rather be somewhere else. He was 3-10 with a 5.86 ERA at SunTrust Park, but 8-3 with a 3.14 ERA on the road.

“It was weird,” Teheran said following his first spring start the other day. “It was an up-and-down year for me. A lot of stuff was going on. But it’s not something I don’t need to worry about now. The mound. The ballpark. I don’t need that stuff to stick I my head. I just need to do my job. That’s why I’m here.”

He needs that kind of focus. He needs to pitch like he did in 2014 again, or even two years ago, when he also was an All-Star. The Braves have uncertainty in their starting rotation. By this point in his career, Teheran should be the stabilizing factor, not the ping-pong ball in the wind tunnel. He was supposed to be the pitcher they could count on, the pitcher who would stop losing streaks.

Granted, the club has fielded some pretty bad teams during the rebuild. But when management gives a player a six-year, $32.4 million contract extension (2014), it’s assumed that player will do a better job overcoming adversity.

It's show-me time for Teheran. He's not a relative newbie like Sean Newcomb or Ronald Acuna or Dansby Swanson. He made his major league debut in May 2011. His salary jumps from $8 million to $11 million in 2019. The Braves hold a club option for $12 million in 2020 that allows them to buy their way out for only $1 million.

"Sure, it's an important year for him, but it's an important year for all of us," manager Brian Snitker said.

Teheran believes he has become too predictable. He’s right. So he’s spending this spring working on mixing his pitches, throwing more first-pitch strikes and throwing more change-ups. He estimates he threw only two change-ups per start last season, but plans to increase that to 10 this year.

“Last year I started to throw more near the end of the season, and it worked good,” he said. “When you’ve been in the big leagues for six years, everybody knows what you throw and how much you throw each pitch. They know I don’t use the change-up that much, and I still have that pitch.”

Catcher Tyler Flowers said Teheran’s change-up last season “wasn’t the weapon it was two years ago. The change-up does a lot for him. He’s not a mid-90s power guy, but when his change-up is working, his 90-to-94 (pitch) really plays up. Without the change-up, that deception is gone.”

Teheran said he is “battling,” and said he is determined not to let recent struggles define his career.

“Pitching at this level is not easy,” he said. “We’re all going to have ups and downs. What matters is how you come back and what you can do to help the team win. That’s all I’m thinking right now.”

Does he believe he has something to prove?

“For sure. I showed a couple of years ago what I could do when I made the All-Star game. That was me. I believe in myself and I know the team believes in what I can do.”

What he can do and what he has done don’t align in perfect symmetry. This is the season Teheran needs to provide some clarity on what he is.

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