Here's why Julio Teheran looks like his old self with the Detroit Tigers this spring

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — The latest hip-hop tracks hum inside Joker Marchant Stadium as Detroit Tigers pitcher Julio Teheran picks up his left leg, shifting his body to get comfortable. He is straddling a bench just beyond the ballpark's concourse, down the first-base line and not far from where his teammates are eating lunch. 

The 30-year-old raises his right arm.

This limb has willed Teheran to two All-Star Games, pitch 1,391⅓ innings and register 1,204 strikeouts across 10 years in the majors, with a lifetime 3.81 ERA. But the veteran stumbled last season with a 10.05 ERA for the Los Angeles Angels; his velocity dipped to 88-89 mph.

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But Teheran seems to have regained his sharp 92 mph fastball, his slider that bites again and complete freedom on the mound.

But how?

"As soon as I started taking care of my shoulder, everything started to get fluid," Teheran told the Free Press on Friday in an exclusive interview. "Mechanically, it was getting back to fundamentals. The big part was how (my shoulder) was feeling when I was releasing the ball. It was free."

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Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Julio Teheran (50) throws a pitch against the New York Yankees during the first inning March 12, 2021, at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida.

The story begins with an agent named Gene Mato.

Teheran switched agencies — joining Mato Sports Management — in June. Knowing Teheran's average velocity had dropped from 91.4 mph in 2017 to 89.7 mph in 2019, Mato asked him if there was anything bothering him. At the time, Teheran shook his head. He didn't think he had any issues.

After the Angels sent Teheran to the bullpen, Mato approached him in September with another request.

"I want to check everything," Mato said.

"Yeah, nothing is hurting, so I'm not afraid to check," Teheran said. "There's no reason to be scared. Let's go."

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Julio Teheran who pitched last season with the Los Angeles Angels signed with the Detroit Tigers Tuesday.

Teheran learned the right scapula in his upper back was unstable, and the ball-and-socket alignment of his shoulder joint had been damaged over the years. His condition caused the muscles around his shoulder blade to become imbalanced, making it difficult to freely move his arm while throwing the baseball.

He felt like he had to fight with his body before even thinking about attacking hitters.

"It was a double fight," Teheran said.

A lack of pain is common with a scapular disorder. In Teheran's case, he made changes to his right arm — thus avoiding discomfort — without realizing the repercussions. He thought the on-field struggles came from poor hip-to-shoulder separation.

"It wasn't hurting," Teheran said. "I wasn't feeling like, 'Oh, this hurts every time I throw the ball.' I just felt like something was stopping me from throwing. I wanted to go there, but something was pulling me back. ... Like somebody was grabbing my shirt."

While throwing an average of 191 innings per year from 2013-19 with the Atlanta Braves, Teheran's muscle memory slowly acclimated to his poor mechanics. Shortly after his 2016 All-Star season, he dropped his arm in the throwing motion.

His arm slot continued to drop, nearly making him a sidearm pitcher by the 2020 season. Each year, his velocity plummeted even more, and opponents crushed his old wipeout slider with greater authority.

"It was getting too normal," Teheran said. "My brain was like, 'OK, this hurts, so you got to find a way where it doesn't hurt.' That's why I was dropping my arm. That's why my spin rate was getting low, and my slider was getting bad. I was trying to create things that weren't normal, but for my brain, it wasn't bothering me."

Fixing the problem

Upon discovering the mechanical problems, Teheran packed his bags, left his family in Atlanta — a "sacrifice I needed to make," Teheran said — and moved to Miami. He started training at Pinecrest Physical Therapy in October.

The owner, Ron Yacoub, used to work for the Miami Marlins as a rehabilitation consultant and specialist. Teheran spent his entire offseason at Yacoub's physical therapy center, searching for a revival.

"It was simple, not even heavy weights," Teheran said. "It was 2-pound stuff, just holding and squeezing. I'm not going to lie, it made me so mad. It was simple, but it was uncomfortable (at first) because it was new. It was working spots (on my shoulder) that I didn't work before."

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Julio Teheran of the Detroit Tigers delivers a pitch in the first inning against the New York Yankees during a spring training game on March 12, 2021 at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida.

Teheran went to physical therapy at least five days per week. Each session often lasted more than five hours. He displayed the improved shoulder with his first bullpen in November, and his spin rate made a massive jump.

He continued to throw, retraining his brain to elevate his arm slot and sustain new mechanics. A watchful Anibal Sanchez, the former Tigers pitcher who was a teammate of Teheran in Atlanta in 2018, kept tabs on his progress.

"One of the new things (Sanchez) asked about was why my head went back," Teheran said. "My head was pulling me back, and then my arm was (dragging). He said I was looking down when I was throwing. Just little things."

With polished stuff and a rediscovered heater, Teheran prepared for a Jan. 19 showcase in Miami. The Tigers were one of 24 teams with a representative at the event.

On Feb. 19, Detroit signed him to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training. If Teheran makes the big-league roster, he will earn $3 million. He turned down guaranteed contracts from other teams for a bigger potential payout from the Tigers.

"When you find the things that were holding you back, you start betting on yourself," Teheran said. "I can do this. It doesn't matter where I go, I just want to better myself."

What's next?

Through three games this spring, Teheran owns a 2.00 ERA and 0.667 WHIP across nine innings. He has struck out 12 of the 33 batters he has faced with only one walk. His fastball velocity is hovering around 92 mph and maxing out at 94 mph.

He pitched four scoreless frames against the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday, racking up seven punch-outs without a walk. Even better, the speed of his two-seamer stayed up throughout his performance.

During Teheran's second spring training game, against the Yankees, he got all three strikeouts with his slider. After the strong outing, he said his slider hadn't felt that good since making the All-Star Game in 2016 — just before his mechanics began to falter.

"I feel like I'm ready," Teheran said. "It doesn't matter who I'm facing, I got confidence. I got all the confidence that I need to play this game and be good."

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The Tigers must decide on Teheran's status soon, considering he has an opt-out in his contract set for Monday. If manager AJ Hinch and general manager Al Avila haven't added him to the the 40-man roster by then, he can become a free agent again and sign with a new team.

Hinch won't say if Teheran has made his team.

But if the Tigers choose not to add Teheran to the 40-man, another team will surely guarantee him a spot in its rotation.

"I want to be the guy," Teheran said. "I don't want to just be the fifth guy (in the rotation). I want to be the guy who, every time I get the ball, the team counts on, be that guy they trust every time I get the ball to give them a chance to win games. That's the reason 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.