Why former All-Star Julio Teheran believes his career revival starts with Detroit Tigers

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold | Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Right-hander Julio Teheran constantly had to fight with his body last season. His arm and his legs weren’t in sync and his mechanics weren’t consistent.

Those things are supposed to come naturally.

The 30-year-old finished 2020 for the Los Angeles Angles with a 10.05 ERA, 1.755 WHIP, 20 strikeouts and 16 walks across 31⅓ innings in 10 games (nine starts). His positive COVID-19 test and late arrival to summer camp in July put him behind, and he never recovered.

“When I went to camp, I tried to rush everything,” Teheran told the Free Press on Tuesday. “That’s when I feel like I lost everything. My arm didn’t feel right, and I wanted to force it.”

On Friday, the Detroit Tigers signed Teheran to a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training. He drove to Lakeland on Saturday and is in quarantine to comply with the COVID-19 intake screening process.

He expects to join the Tigers, who made the deal official Tuesday, in the coming days.

“Right now, where my mind is, I feel like I could make any big-league club,” Teheran said. “When it comes to spring training, I’ll try to make the team. Even when I was with the (Atlanta) Braves, my mindset was to own that spot. You have to fight for your spot and show them that you can be that guy.”

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If Teheran makes the big-league club, he will earn $3 million. If he makes 20 starts during the season, he adds another $1 million in incentives. He logged 30-plus starts and fired more than 174 innings in each season from 2013-19.

The contract is basically a bet, considering other teams offered him a guaranteed spot in their starting rotation for a lesser base salary.

Essentially, Teheran went all-in on himself for a payday.

“It was more personal,” Teheran said. “Last year wasn’t me at all. I was trying to battle with myself and get through. This offseason, I trained the way I wanted and trained to have the same season that I have had before. It was almost my whole career because I feel like only once did I have a bad year like I did last year.

“Things happen. I know that wasn’t me.”

Leaving 2020 in the past

Teheran has 10 years of MLB experience for the Braves (2011-19) and Angels (2020), with a career 3.81 ERA. Not counting the 2011 and 2012 seasons — he only pitched seven games — he was a mainstay in the Braves’ starting rotation, earning All-Star Game bids in 2014 and 2016.

Prior to last year, only one poor season stands out. That was in 2017, when he posted a 4.49 ERA. Still, Teheran boosted his strikeout rate and improved to a 3.94 ERA and 3.81 ERA in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

Then, 2020 happened.

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Teheran inked a one-year, $9 million contract with the Angels and struggled. He allowed more than one earned run in every outing — and more than two runs in eight of his 10 games.

“I think (the whole season) was different,” Teheran said. “I really wasn’t worried when I had that type of year because I knew all that was happening. It was different to me, different than what I was used to. … When the pandemic (started) sending players home (from spring training), I lost everything.”

Teheran’s adversity began with a positive COVID-19 test in early July, following a nearly four-month hiatus from baseball because of virus concerns.

His delayed arrival to summer camp pushed him to the alternate training site, where he pitched bullpens and simulated games. Finally, on Aug. 5, he returned from the 10-day injured list and made his first big-league start.

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But the 2020 season is in the past.

Teheran has a fresh slate, and new Tigers manager AJ Hinch is strongly considering him in a five- or six-man rotation alongside a combination of Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, Michael Fulmer, Jose Urena, Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal.

“He’s going to be prepared,” Hinch said Tuesday. “I like these logged innings. We feel like he’s healthy, and we’ll see how effective he is. But he’s got a track record, and if we can return to form, prior to the kind of injury season, it’s important for him and for us.”

Many mechanical changes

To improve, Teheran turned to 36-year-old right-hander Anibal Sanchez. He played with the Tigers from 2012-17 — part of his 15-year career — and is represented by the same agent as Teheran.

They spent the offseason training in Miami and held a showcase for 24 teams in the middle of January. Teheran’s fastball velocity averaged 92 mph, he said, after it sat at 89 mph last season.

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“We made some changes,” Teheran said. “One of them was my four-seam (fastball). I didn’t know that my arm action was different with my two-seam and my four-seam. My arm is slower with my four-seam, and it was smoother with my two-seam. It sounds crazy, but whenever we were watching videos, it made more sense to stick with the two-seam.”

So that’s what Teheran is going to do — abandon the four-seam fastball in favor of his two-seamer, which features a higher velocity and spin rate. Once he gets a better feel for his four-seam, he plans to add it back into his repertoire.

“And I feel like my arm (slot) is higher now,” Teheran said. “The last few years, it was getting lower and lower. I didn’t see when my arm started getting lower, and it was affecting all of my secondary pitches. It was just mechanics, how to move the legs when the delivery starts. It was all in one move that affected the whole thing.”

The mechanical changes, followed by a strong showcase, paid off for Teheran.

He earned a bounce-back opportunity with the Tigers and doesn’t want it to slip through the cracks.

“I just want to come here and own my spot, gain my spot,” Teheran said. “And, obviously, help the team. We got young guys that probably need a veteran guy like me. I know I’m in a different situation because I have to make the team, but I’m here to help however I can. I know they need pitching, and that’s why I’m here.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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