Breaking Down Julio Teheran's Pickoff Move

Kevin C. Cox

Teheran did a phenomenal job controlling runners in 2013

Last week, I talked about the Braves in respect to their ability to pick runners off and control the running game. The club lead the league in pickoffs in large part due to rookie Julio Teheran, who lead the league with eight.

The reason I wanted to go more in depth with Teheran was because of how awesome (and controversial) his move was last season. In my opinion, Teheran’s move can be summed up in three simple parts.

1. It’s Controversial

I’ll start with the elephant in the room.

If you watched any games where he nabbed a runner on the bases, you frequently saw a protest from the runner and the first base coach immediately after, insinuating a balk should have been called. The purpose of the balk call in baseball is to prevent the runner from being "deceived" by the pitcher. The GIF below (courtesy of MLBGifs) is a great example of Teheran’s move.

JulioTeheranBalkMove.gif

If you watch closely, you can see Teheran’s front knee buckle and his heel lift up a split second before he jumps and turns to throw the ball to first. Why is this an issue? When a right-handed pitcher wants to make a pickoff attempt at first, he either must disengage from the rubber with his back foot, or make a jump turn. Since the natural motion for a right-handed pitcher is to lift their lead leg before going to home, Teheran’s first movement with his lead leg technically "deceives" the runner and warrants him to go home instead of throwing to first. Coaches often teach base stealers to look at the lead leg of a pitcher, "When it goes, you go."

The problem is, Julio is so quick and times it perfectly, that it is nearly impossible for the umpire to call unless they are specifically looking for it, and even then it is almost too hard to differentiate between the two movements in real time. That brings me to my next point.

2. He’s Athletic

Coming up through the minors, one of the staples of a Julio Teheran scouting report included something about his athletic ability. There are some who believe pitchers aren’t athletes or don’t need to be athletic to play the position. However, this is one of the situations where being an athlete is a huge plus.

Teheran has some excellent quick twitch muscles that allow his legs and upper body to work in sync and not waste any time getting into a throwing position from a complete standstill on the mound. It is the same reason you’ll see Kris Medlen pickoff multiple runners per year. He was a former SS who can make his quick hands and feet work in tandem on the mound.

3. High Hands

One final component with Teheran’s move is he comes set with his hands up high. As you can see from the GIF above, the distance from his set position to when his arm is cocked back in a throwing position is only a couple of inches, at most. He wastes almost no time and is able to make a quick snap throw over the second his feet get back on the ground.

It is also helpful prior to stopping in the set position. The clip below against the Brewers is a great example of this. Teheran was able to get speedster Carlos Gomez even before coming to a complete stop.

This is one reason why Teheran’s ERA outperformed estimators like FIP and xFIP to some degree in 2013. For example, in the Carlos Gomez clip, the out/base situation went from 1st and 3rd one out, to a runner on 3rd with two outs. Looking at run expectancy tables, the successful pickoff drops from an average of 1.21 runs scored per innings to 0.39 runs, net of .82 runs saved. Below is a table from all eight pickoffs, showing how much each changed the game. The columns below represent the average number of runs scored in the out/base situation pre-pickoff (Pre-PO), post pickoff (Post-PO) and the change between the two (Net). These three columns ignore the inning and scores of the game. Win Probability Added (WPA), on the other hand, factors in the inning and score.

Date Pre-PO Post-PO Net WPA
4/23 0.941 0.291 0.650 6%
4/29 0.562 0.112 0.450 4%
5/26 0.941 0.291 0.650 7%
6/5 0.245 0.000 0.245 4%
6/10 0.562 0.112 0.450 1%
6/21 1.221 0.385 0.836 7%
7/9 1.556 0.562 0.994 10%
7/22 0.562 0.112 0.450 4%
4.725 43%

Using the run expectancy chart, Teheran saved about 4.7 runs over the course of the season. Using Win Probability Added (via Baseball-Refrence), which again, adds context to the exact situations when the pickoffs were made, he saved about 4.3 runs, just by picking off runners.

If you want to put that into ERA form, it would have bumped his 2013 ERA from 3.20 to around 3.43, assuming 0 pickoffs.

It is hard to truly isolate the value of a pickoff because it does not tell the whole story, but placing any sort of doubt in the base runners mind adds to the overall effectiveness of the preventing runs from scoring. It seems as if the book got out on Teheran over the course of the season, seeing that he didn’t record a pickoff in the final two+ months. Like I said last week, don’t expect Teheran to post another eight pickoff season, but his move will be just as effective, if not more, now that runners know the threat of the move in there. It is a subtle part of his game that can have a relatively big impact over the course of a season.

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