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Teheran keeps rolling as Braves' ace

7/3/2014

Julio Teheran mowed down the Mets, which probably isn’t news in itself. It was his third quality start and second win in four turns against them. Minuscule numbers reflecting a guy who’s just 23 years old and still at the start of his career but representative of a guy who has been present, healthy and dominant, something that not every young, touted arm can boast.

Now that we’re a little beyond the halfway point of the season, we can’t really talk about surprises. The Atlanta Braves are neck-and-neck in the running for the NL East with the Washington Nationals, which is probably what we expected before the pitching injuries that might have wiped out the Braves cost them two rotation regulars.

But Teheran has been the rock -- perhaps the least-heralded ace on any contender in baseball -- and someone who, at 23, seems to have also been skipped in his second season as a hype-worthy young superstar. In average Game Score, he’s fourth in the NL per start, behind three guys named Johnny Cueto, Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright. Through Wednesday’s action, he and Cueto -- his one serious competitor for the unwanted title of least-heralded ace -- are tied for the National League lead in quality starts with 16 spun in 18 turns so far. You might complain that the quality start is a flawed metric, but Brian Cole pointed out on Beyond the Box Score that teams win quality starts two-thirds of the time in 2010-2013 -- using anything from the bare-minimum six innings and three earned runs allowed to Kershaw-grade awesome -- and nobody has been better than Teheran in turning them out. Unsurprisingly, the Braves are 12-6 when Teheran starts -- winning two-thirds of the time. See? Math is fun as well as consistent.

But all of that success has come despite Teheran's rotation-worst 3.1 runs per 27 outs from the lineup, a mark so low it puts him among the bottom nine in the NL in run support. That’s a list of wasted wins that features Andrew Cashner (2.2) and Jeff Samardzija (2.3) at the top, but expectations are higher in Atlanta than they are in San Diego or Wrigleyville. The only starters on contenders getting as much or less to work with as Teheran are Michael Wacha of the Cardinals (2.9) and Yovani Gallardo of the Brewers (3.0).

Thanks in part to that sort of thing costing Teheran wins on his ledger as opposed to the team’s, he is the product of the Braves’ fabled farm system whom we talk least about. He isn’t the guy with the perfect swing ( Freddie Freeman) or the guy without the long-odds backstory ( Evan Gattis), or the once-in-a-generation glove (Andrelton Simmons) or the drool-worthy upside (Jason Heyward). But in some ways, that makes him the perfect Brave, the guy who simply got touted, twice ranking in Baseball America’s top 10 prospects, and then became exactly what he was supposed to be: One of the best pitchers on the planet.

Perhaps it’s also a matter of his machine-like efficiency. He doesn’t get touted for the best sinker or slider or curve, and he doesn’t throw especially hard (with a four-seam fastball that sits around 92-93 mph). Beyond mixing in more sinkers and changeups this year, he’s "just" a guy generating swings and misses with five good pitches. Maybe he needs to wear his hat funny or grow a weird beard or just stick with the machine-like efficiency thing, because it’s working for him.

While the Braves' rotation was a cause for concern in April, in early July, it has been less of a problem than those spring scares would have led you to expect at this point. Teheran has been the biggest and best part of that, the youngest starter in the rotation that has thrown the most quality starts in the league -- 60 in 85 games. Among the veteran patches who could help cover for the absences of Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy this season, Gavin Floyd gave them only six good weeks before breaking down again, but Aaron Harang and Ervin Santana have been solid contributors, and Alex Wood has been a revelation as a repeatedly called-upon reinforcement.

But in the second half, the guy I think I’ll enjoy watching most is Teheran, to watch the clinic he’ll put on one night in every five as the Braves take their best shot at upsetting the preseason expectation that their Teheran-led rotation wasn’t going to be one of the things that kept them in contention all season long and instead proving to be among baseball's best.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.