Last year, the Braves had two young and talented pitchers really take some big steps forward to each have breakout seasons, Julio Teheran and Alex Wood. The future on the pitching front was looking extremely bright for the Braves with hopes that with Teheran and Wood, who both entered the 2015 season at just 24 years old, they had another Greg Maddux/Tom Glavine type of duo to build on. Let’s take a look at what Teheran and Wood did last year to see what the benchmarks for them are.
Julio Teheran in 2014: 14 W-11 L, 2.89 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 7.57 K/9, 2.08 BB/9
Alex Wood in 2014: 11 W-11 L, 2.78 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 8.91 K/9, 2.36 BB/9
Even though each of them outperformed their SIERA, those are still nice looking stat lines and much of the same was to be expected from them in 2015 as they are just beginning to crack the surface in their young careers. But the expectations are not being met and there must be some reasons why.
We’ll take a look at Teheran first who is coming off an outing where he only gave up 1 ER, but the 9 hits allowed in just 5.2 IP would suggest that he’s not out of the woods yet. On the season, Teheran is 3-1 with a 4.33 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, 8.04 K/9, and 3.71 BB/9. You can look to his .339 BABIP and think that he’s just getting a little unlucky, but the fact of the matter is that Teheran is just getting hit hard. He is giving up line drives at a high rate of 29.3% and it is hard for a pitcher to not allow a lot of hits when he is giving up so many hard hit line drives. Pair that with his increase in walk rate to 3.71 BB/9 and it is a WHIP disaster. Teheran is also allowing HR at an alarming rate of 1.85 HR/9.
A possible explanation for Teheran’s struggles is that he is not throwing first pitch strikes as much as the previous years. In 2013 he threw a first pitch strike 65.4% of the time, in 2014 it was 60.3%, but this year it is down to 54.8%. So he is falling behind in the count more often, which explains the walks, and it can also possibly explain all the hits as batters definitely have an advantage over a pitcher when they are ahead in the count. Teheran could be grooving pitches to these hitters after falling behind, allowing them to nail a bunch of line drives and HR. Teheran’s line drive rate and HR/fly ball rate should begin to regress a bit soon, but by how much could be determined by if he is able to get ahead in the count more often. The good news with Teheran is that the solid swinging strike rate is still there at 10.4%, so the strikeouts should not be disappearing.
Now we’ll go on to Wood. The lefty showed some good poise last week in his start versus the Nationals to work through a tough first inning to end up posting a quality start, so I thought maybe that he was turning a corner and it would be something for him to build off of. On Saturday, Wood matched up with a Marlins team who he defeated earlier this year with a less than stellar performance, and it was another mediocre game that did the trick again as he logged his 2nd win of the season despite allowing 9 base runners and only striking out one batter in 7 innings. For the season, this puts Wood at 2-2 with a 3.83 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, 6.13 K/9, and 3.06 BB/9.
Like Teheran, Wood is also getting hit with a higher than average BABIP at .353. But even though Wood is allowing more line drives this year than last year, his current line drive rate of 23.4% isn’t too outrageous to suggest that his BABIP should be that high. So that’s some good news, but the bad news is that he is failing to finish batters off via the strikeout.
Despite having nearly the same type of movement on his pitches as last year, Wood is getting much fewer swings and misses this season at just 5.4% versus the 9.7% swinging strike rate he had last year. The reason for this is that he is just not commanding his pitches in the zone as well. Wood is a pitcher that uses a sinking fastball, knuckle curveball, and a changeup, and he has thrown all of his pitches anywhere from 3-7% less within the strike zone compared to last year. So even though the movement on his pitches is virtually unchanged, he is just not locating them where they need to be/where he wants them to be.
A changeup often is a pitch that pitchers will use versus opposite-handed batters to help neutralize the batter’s advantage of the lefty/righty matchup, and last year it wasn’t a positive value pitch for Wood, but it worked a lot better for him than it has this year. Last year, Wood’s changeup induced swinging strikes 14.0% of the time, and it was most likely a reason why he was able to perform better versus right-handed hitters than left-handed ones (.288 wOBA allowed to righties versus .299 wOBA allowed to lefties). But this year he is only getting swings and misses on the changeup 3.9% of the time. So not surprisingly, righties have been the ones to give him the most trouble this year with a .366 wOBA allowed, as compared to .284 wOBA allowed to lefties.
So with Teheran, we have a pitcher who is probably going to benefit a lot with improved control and getting ahead in the count more often, and he’s still going to get batters out via the strikeout. For Wood, he needs to command his pitches better to be able to generate more strikeouts, specifically the changeup to improve versus those righties. Whether or not either of them can accomplish those feats to turnaround their seasons is unknown, but I would take Teheran over Wood right now given that he is still getting the strikeouts. The control issues for Teheran could be a fluke occurrence over a small sample size given that he has always demonstrated very good walk rates and first pitch strike rates. However, I do expect both of them to improve and they are decent buy candidates.