Julio Teheran is a big leaguer. This is a statement of fact, because he pitches for the Milwaukee Brewers now, and not the Staten Island FerryHawks, as he did last season. But it’s also an identity, a presence. Many players wear a major league uniform, but not all have the moxie to go with it.
“He’s been on a major league mound a ton, he was in the big leagues at 20 — some of those things offer clues,” Brewers Manager Craig Counsell said. “Sometimes you try these players and, I don’t know. It’s not a knock on other guys, but he’s a big leaguer.”
The Brewers, who play the Mets at Citi Field for four games this week, need all the reliable players they can get. Their offense has been among the worst in the National League, and their normally stout pitching staff has wobbled. They never knew they would count on Teheran to keep it upright.
Teheran, 32, has made six starts, allowing two or fewer runs in all of them, for a 1.53 earned run average. Nine years ago, with the Atlanta Braves, he began the same way: a 1.47 E.R.A. in his first six starts on the way to his first All-Star selection. Another selection followed in 2016.
During that stretch he was one of baseball’s most dependable starters. Only three others besides Teheran — Mike Leake, Jon Lester and José Quintana, a fellow native of Colombia — made at least 30 starts each season from 2013 through 2019.
The trick, Teheran said, was learning to pace himself through the game and the season. He learned that lesson from the Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, who took him to dinner early in his career when the Braves played in Boston. Sometimes, Martinez told him, he should pitch to contact, to conserve energy for when he needs it most.
“He told me that, and I was like, ‘That makes sense,’” Teheran said.
In 2020, though, a nonpitching force sapped Teheran’s energy: the coronavirus, which he contracted at home with his family in Atlanta during the shutdowns. His new team, the Los Angeles Angels, got a severely diminished version of Teheran.
“I recovered and everything went good, but I lost a lot of weight and had to report to Anaheim,” said Teheran, who shed about 15 pounds. “And they asked me, ‘Hey, how are you feeling?’ I was just happy that Covid ended and I was getting back to the field, so I told them that I was good — and obviously I wasn’t.”
In 10 appearances for the Angels, nine of which were starts, Teheran had a 10.05 E.R.A., easily the highest mark in the majors (minimum 30 innings) in 2020. He settled for a minor league deal with the Tigers the next spring, hurt his shoulder after one start in Detroit and never pitched there again.
That winter, Teheran threw for Carlos Castillo, a former major leaguer who now runs a training center in Miami. His fastball topped out at 79 miles an hour.
“I told him to let it rip, and he said, ‘I am letting it rip,’” Castillo said in a phone interview. “His agent said, ‘What do we do here?’ And I said, ‘We’ll fix him or blow him out, one of the two.’ But I think some of it was in his head. He was stressed.”
Teheran had reached the majors in 2011, before the rise of pitch-tracking data that gives a more precise, individualized strategy for which pitches work best. Driveline training methods helped Teheran recover lost velocity, and Castillo worked with him on understanding the analytics of his pitches.
Trusting Castillo to reimagine his arsenal, Teheran added a cutter, altered his changeup grip and lowered his arm angle to hide the ball better. When it was still not enough to land even a minor league deal for 2022, off he went to the FerryHawks, a first-year franchise in the independent Atlantic League.
Teheran resolved not to complain, to work diligently and remind scouts he was still around. But his background made him stand out, and the attention embarrassed him.
“To have my teammates telling me, ‘Hey, I used to play with you in video games,’ for them that was cool, but for me it was like, ‘This is how low I’ve been getting,’” Teheran said.
“The team was like, ‘You’re our guy, we’ll throw you on opening day — six-time Atlanta Braves opening day starter, now he’s starting opening day here!’ And for me, it wasn’t that exciting, because I didn’t want to do that.”
Teheran made six starts for Staten Island with a 1.60 E.R.A. and more strikeouts than innings pitched. He still got no offers and took that as a sign: Baseball was rejecting him, urging him to quit. Before he did, he thought he would try the Mexican League, purely for fun, without worrying about his future in the game.
“I didn’t care,” he said. “I wasn’t watching M.L.B. I wasn’t expecting anybody to call me. I was just enjoying being there.”
Maybe the baseball gods needed Teheran to prove how badly he wanted back in — because just when he stopped caring, somebody called. The San Diego Padres gave Teheran a minor league deal in February, and he joined the rotation of the Class AAA El Paso Chihuahuas.
Nobody signed Teheran when he first exercised his out clause, in early May. But by the end of the month, after a rash of injuries, the Brewers took a chance. Teheran allowed just one earned run in two starts at the end of May, and he has stayed steady deep into June.
“This guy was on life support in the game, and to come back is such a huge credit to him,” said Matt Arnold, the Brewers’ general manager. “Those kinds of guys, when they’re back here, it means a lot to them — and it means a lot to our team.”
Teheran still does not throw hard. After his last start — five shutout innings against Arizona on Wednesday — he was one 260 major leaguers with at least 30 innings pitched this season. Of that group, 246 had a harder average fastball than Teheran’s, which putters along at 89.6 miles per hour, according to Sports Info Solutions. But veteran savvy goes a long way.
“He’s given us a chance to win every single one of his starts,” outfielder Christian Yelich said. “He hasn’t been in the big leagues in a little while, and to come back and have some success, it’s cool to see. I mean, really, that’s how you last a long time in the major leagues: keep reinventing yourself and making adjustments and finding ways to succeed.”
It’s how a big leaguer stays a big leaguer, even after a long time gone.