1. Julio is an ace. Well, he’s OUR ace. Or rather, he’s been the best pitcher on a bad team for four years. Somehow, the first Atlanta Brave to start five straight opening day games is not Maddux, Mahler, or Niekro, but our man Julio, the pride of Cartagena. In his two All-Star seasons, 2014 and 2016, he’s been worth 4-5 WAR, with an ERA 20-30% better than league average. The past two odd-numbered years have been rough, and sure, no one will confuse his stat line for Kershaw’s or Scherzer’s, but he’s been a pitcher to be proud of – a mini-ace, the leader of a mostly awful staff.
2. Julio was never an ace, and is already past an underwhelming prime. Ok, no one thinks of Julio as a true ace. We all know he was bad last year. He allowed a lot of runs to score. He gave up 31 homers in 32 starts. By every metric, he got worse: lower K%, higher BB%, higher HR/FB. Fewer pitches out of the strike zone were chased. More pitches in the strike zone were torched.
Even at his best, though, 8 strikeouts per nine is underwhelming. No one is losing sleep over having to face Julio Teheran the next afternoon. His career FIP is 4.10, and has career ERA eight percent better than league average. That’s fine! Julio is a third starter on a playoff team, and that’s fine.
3. Julio was just unlucky last year. According to this great piece by Sam Miller of ESPN, Statcast’s xwOBA, which estimates the value of each batted ball based on its exit velocity and launch angle, claims that the batted balls against Julio in 2017 should have produced fewer runs than the ones in 2016. A few more fly balls got caught in the wind and went out of the park, and a few more borderline strikes were called balls at inopportune times, and suddenly you find yourself frequently leaving the game in the third inning.
4. Julio is broken. His slider has abandoned him. He never had any overwhelming stuff, and Fangraphs says his four-seamer had the most value early in his career, but the out pitch has always been the slider – not a ton of break, but tight and quick. Words I used to think about while watching Julio throw it: rapier, lightning, dart, scythe. Now it limps over the plate, and it’s mostly curse words that come to mind as another bomb sails into the Chophouse.
5. Julio is an innings-eater. Most of his value comes from his durability. He’s been good for at least 30 starts and 185 innings every year since 2013. Of course, the results of those innings have varied. But look, it’s a long season. Someone’s gotta take the ball every five days.
The Julio Paradox: you can count on having no idea what he’ll give you. He’s absolutely dependable to be totally unpredictable.
6. Julio’s pickoff move is vicious. It is the one aspect of his game that can’t be questioned. He has the best pickoff move in baseball, and the fastest feet.
7. Julio is terrified of Sun Trust Park. We have more than 5 credible starting pitchers. Maneuver the roster such that Julio starts only away games, and let the young bucks take his turns at home. (This is a joke. Please do not yell at me).
It is worth marveling at the splits though: In 17 starts at Sun Trust, Jome Julio gave up 67 total earned runs and a .272 batting average. In 15 away starts, 33 earned runs at .242.
8. We should trade Julio for a bullpen arm. It’s early days, but the lineup features seven exciting hitters and, Julio notwithstanding, there are reasons to be optimistic about the rotation, even after a bit of inevitable regression. Julio could bring back someone to shore up that maddening ‘pen.
9. We should have traded Julio much earlier. I was always opposed to trading him, but Julio would have been one of the most valuable trade assets at the 2016 deadline. During the teardown, the front office decided that Teheran was a piece to build around. Although in hindsight it’s easy to wish they had chosen to keep Alex Wood instead, hanging on to Julio provided a small bright spot in the otherwise dark and hellish expanse of rebuild rotations. Without Julio in 2016, you’re looking at a full season of Joel da la Cruz starts. A full season of Bud Norris. You’re looking at even more Williams Perez, somehow.
10. Julio’s new haircut makes him look like an Eastern European Trance DJ.
11. Julio is injured. He left his last start with back tightness after just 43 pitches. After the game, he said he felt ok and that he thought he could have made it through five innings. But his fastball was sitting around Pablo Sandovalterritory, and he wasn’t able to locate the off-speed stuff either.
His velocity has been down all year, with the fastball a full three mph below his previous average of 92. Did Julio take night classes from Anibal Sanchez at the Bartolo Colon School of Crafty Veteran Junkballing? Did he just get weaker over the winter? How long can he get away with throwing a 79-mph slider? What gives?
11. Julio won’t be a bargain for much longer. For the past three years, his contract has been a bargain at an average annual value of $3.3M, or $1.25M per win above replacement. That’s value by anyone’s standard, and a big part of why he would have fetched a good return in a trade. It’s unlikely that he will be worth the $11 million he is owed next year. The Braves have the option of paying him $12M in 2020, or letting him walk. He’s only 27, just three years older than Newcomb and Fried. Most of his story is likely still unwritten. But with the talent coming up the pipe, I wouldn’t bet on seeing him after 2019.
12. Julio will be part of the next Braves playoff rotation. As long as we make the playoffs this year.
13. Julio is unknowable. Through the first 30 innings of this year, his results are mostly just as disastrous as they were last year, if not more so. He’s getting more strikeouts per nine, but walking nearly 13% of batters, and the home run rate – somehow – is even higher than last year, when it was the 8th-worst in baseball.
Still, for a deranged optimist like me, there is some reason for hope. Before exiting early on Friday, he had gone 6 innings and allowed two runs or fewer in three straight starts. And… well, look. That’s about all I’ve got. But he’s only 27, and just two years removed from a 5-WAR season.
If you squint, you can see Julio’s career as Jake Peavy or Matt Cain. If you squint a little less, you see a guy who has consistently gotten better results than his peripherals suggest, and who is now giving up homers on 16% of his fly balls. I don’t see much reason for optimism, but I also don’t see much of a reason for the quick, recent decline.