COMMENTARY | For Atlanta Braves rookie pitching sensation Julio Teheran, the bumpy journey from lofty expectations to disappointing regression and now to elite performance has come full circle in a mere 18 months.
In February 2012, Baseball Prospectus (BP) rated Teheran as the No. 5 prospect in all of baseball, as well as the best right-handed pitching prospect in the game. The BP profile of Teheran included phrases like "easy star potential" and "impact level front line starter."
I was just starting to dabble in sabermetrics at the time and took everything BP wrote as authority on par with the tablets Moses carried down from Mt. Sinai. For the most part, I still do. So I was pretty stoked that a future first ballot Hall of Famer would soon be in the rotation.
Just five months later, some of the shine had started to wear off, as Teheran had a lackluster first few months at Triple-A Gwinnett. Teheran's stats in categories that the sabermetric community like to focus on such as walk rate, strikeout rate, and home runs allowed were all moving in the wrong direction. He would make two forgettable spot starts for the major league club, giving up 4 runs in just 6.2 innings. A July 2012 BP feature on Teheran, still very optimistic of his abilities, recalled earlier Pedro Martinez comparisons as possibly too enthusiastic.
Before the 2013 season began, BP had Teheran as the No. 52 prospect in the game, though still the best Braves prospect. He was described as, "One of the most frustrating arms in the game." His ceiling was now revised to that that of a No. 2 or 3 starter and came with some doubts about his ability to live up to even that lowered expectation.
So here we are now six months later and Teheran is in the midst of a fantastic rookie season. He has been a rock-steady part of the pitching rotation and has left his observers with a sense of renewed excitement. It would be wise to not assume him to be the next Pedro Martinez again but in the analytic community, there are few things to be more fired up about than electric young starting pitchers.
But there are several funny things about this story that myself and others would do well to consider the next time we get caught up in a pitcher's developmental narrative.
Teheran is in the Braves' rotation alongside Mike Minor, the Braves' best pitcher on the year. Minor was considered a reach when chosen in the first round of the 2009 draft, and then progressed through the minor leagues quickly -- only to eventually run into questions about his attitude getting in the way of his great stuff.
Teheran is in the Braves' rotation alongside Kris Medlen, himself a wanderer from setup man into Tommy John survivor, then to Greg Maddux analog, and finally back to dependable if not spectacular starter.
Finally, Teheran is starting alongside Alex Wood. This is my favorite case. Wood was considered by BP to be the eighth-best prospect in the Braves' system coming in to the 2013 season, with a ceiling of a late-innings reliever or a setup man. Wood has proceeded to take over the fifth-starter spot, filling in for injured veterans Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm. And to describe it as "filling in" is a huge understatement. Wood has been terrific, including 6.1 innings of scoreless ball on August 16 against the Washington Nationals.
The sentiment that "there's no such thing as a pitching prospect" has been championed for at least a decade now by Joe Sheehan. It might be worthwhile to take a more optimistic tone. I would propose, "Pitching prospects: You never know, maybe something great will happen."
Patrick Richardson has been following the Atlanta Braves since he started playing t-ball in '91. He imitated Terry Pendleton and John Smoltz on the kindergarten playground. His first baseball memory is the gut-wrenching Jack Morris World Series game. He is an amateur but enthusiastic sabermetrician.
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