Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  By ZACH DILLARD  |  Last updated 8/30/13
Gerald Laird knows a Gold Glove-caliber pitcher when he sees one. Over the course of 11 major league seasons, the Braves' veteran backup catcher has listed as his teammates some of the best and most consistent defensive pitchers of the past decade, working with the likes of Kenny Rogers and R.A. Dickey in Texas, Adam Wainwright in St. Louis -- albeit in extremely limited fashion due to Wainwright's need for Tommy John surgery in Laird's lone season as a Cardinal -- and Justin Verlander in Detroit. His rookie teammate, Julio Teheran, could be the next in line. Laird understands there are varying and indirect ways for a pitcher to affect opposing offenses aside from the obvious act of throwing a baseball toward the catcher's mitt. Pitchers, moreso than any other defensive position, control their opponent's running game using pickoff moves, sidesteps, snap throws, extended pauses and pitch-outs to prevent extra damage on the base paths. Intuitive types like Rogers and, of course, Greg Maddux, are able to manage the game in a even more calculating manner, constantly evaluating the given situation and positioning themselves post-release based on pitch location, speed and type, basically staying one step in front of the offense whenever possible. "I've seen guys that take pride in it. It saves games. If you can field a bunt or knock that ball down or just just get something on it to where you can deflect and just get a guy out. It can play a big part in the game," Laird said. "The best guy I've ever played defensively was when I was real young watching Kenny Rogers do it. I mean, he always put himself in the position where he can be that next fielder if you can keep a run from scoring from second base or something, it's going to help you a lot." Aesthetically speaking, a pitcher's defense is seldom an attention-grabber. Diving, leaping and lunging rarely comes into play. Relative to the other eight positions, there's very little movement or elegance required. Pitchers don't cover ground like Andrelton Simmons or Andruw Jones, nor should they. As the closest player to bat-on-ball contact official distance: 60 feet, six inches fielding success is often related instinctively: can the pitcher's glove hand react to the ball laced back at him in time?; does he react to the bunt laid down in his "zone" quick enough to nail the runner taking second?; can he kick-save a sure single and flick the ball with his glove through his legs while chasing it (the ball) into foul territory up the first-base line a la Mark Buerhle on Opening Day 2010? These are difficult, instinctual-type plays. But that's not all there is to it. As visually stunning as Buehrle's magnum opus still is, the fact that the 14-year pro has been the best pitcher of his generation at controlling the running game led to four-consecutive Gold Glove nods (2009-2012, and counting) more than anything else. "Controlling the running game is huge. I tell guys that aren't doing it like, 'Dude, it's your earned runs. If you're gonna let guys go to second and third and a pop-up scores a run, it's on you,'" Laird said. "Where I think the guys that want to be great at pitching take it in as a whole. They wanna be good at everything." Enter Teheran. Atlanta's dynamic 22-year-old shows maturity far beyond his years on the defensive side of the ball, particularly at "crisis management", i.e. when runners are on base. Armed with the most effective pick-off move in baseball this season, Teheran's defensive metrics a growing and multifaceted field in the world of baseball sabermetrics, one that will now directly affect baseball's community-at-large and its big-picture defensive perceptions starting this very season are as good as any other MLB pitcher in 2013. "(Pitching coach Roger McDowell) is always talking to me and working with me (on defense). He says I'm good," Teheran said. "Everybody knows that I'm different this year and I got my confidence. On defense they just want me to stay the same and keep doing the good work." So can the young Colombian product reestablish a tradition and make history in the process? If there is a 56-year history lesson concerning the Rawlings Gold Glove Award, it's that it is an honor based largely on precedent. And prolonged reputation. Since the award's inception in 1957, only five rookies have ever been christened as the top fielder at their respective positions Frank Malzone (1957), Johnny Bench (1968), Fred Lynn (1975), Charles Johnson (1995) and Ichiro Suzuki (2001) and none were pitchers. Cardinals legend Bob Gibson owns nine Gold Gloves, but did not win his first until his age-29 season. Rogers was 35 when he won his first of five. Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, who also owns five, waited until he was 39 years before his glove was officially considered golden. That's quite a waiting game. Last season, Tampa Bay's Jeremy Hellickson split the vote with then-Chicago starter Jake Peavy the Rays right-hander was in his second full MLB season, the earliest any pitcher has ever won a Gold Glove. Jim Kaat, owner of 16 Gold Gloves (second-most all-time to Greg Maddux's 18), won the award outright in his third full MLB season. All of this background information is to say that, in past years, the cards are stacked against rookies. It takes time for managers and coaches, who vote on the award every season, to evaluate and appreciate a pitcher's defensive contributions, especially if they only face the guy once or twice a season and he rarely -- if ever -- shows up on the national highlight reel. Unlike, say, the Silver Slugger Award, there are no mainstream statistics to quickly quantify said player's contributions. Times are changing, though. The Gold Glove is moving forward. And Teheran could be a direct benefactor. Eleven days ago in St. Louis, Rawlings Sporting Goods Company, Inc. and the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) made good on a five-month-old promise by unveiling an unprecedented collaboration between an official MLB award and advanced statistics. The collaboration is the first of its kind and it alters the landscape of not only the process of officially recognizing the top defensive players in baseball, but also the mainstreamification of sabermetrics. In essence, it creates a weighted marriage of subjectivity and objectivity. The collaboration creates a seven-person committee of sabermetric experts and the SABR Defensive Index, which will be a new statistical breakdown that combines five existing defensive metrics defensive runs saved, ultimate zone rating, runs effectively defended, defensive regression analysis and total zone rating into one all-inclusive measure. The Index, or SBI, will then account for 30 total "votes" in the process, which equals approximately 25 percent of the total tally depending on participation from managers and coaches. Additionally, actual voters will receive a "resource guide" with their ballots spelling out the committee's season-long findings. This is important. Not only will metrics compose roughly a quarter of the vote, but they will give managers and coaches a reference point in the process -- just as a traditional stat sheet does with batting average, home runs, RBI et al. As we looked to marry The Art of Fielding' with the 'Science of Baseball', the composition of the SABR Defensive Index is exactly what we were hoping to achieve, Mike Thompson, the senior VP of marketing for Rawlings, said at the unveiling. The new sabermetric component in the selection process is just another example of how the iconic (Gold Glove) Award has evolved throughout history as the industry standard honoring defensive excellence at the highest level of baseball. Video: Sounding Off: Teheran's ROY hopes Not that defensive metrics and the eye test are perennially divorced. (Just watch Simmons or Manny Machado or Carlos Gomez, then check their gaudy numbers.) In fact, looking back through the archives of Baseball Info Solutions' defensive runs saved (DRS), which tracks defensive performance back to 2003, only six of the past 21 Gold Glove Awards have gone to pitchers finishing outside that season's top-10. Often times, there are few surprises. Six of the awards were given to that season's MLB pitching leader in DRS: Kenny Rogers, 2004: 11 Kenny Rogers, 2006: 9 Johan Santana, 2007: 7 Mark Buehrle, 2009: 10 Mark Buehrle, 2010: 12 Mark Buehrle, 2012: 12 It might also be important to mention here that a rookie pitcher has never led nor tied for the MLB lead in defensive runs saved. That could change in 2013. Julio Teheran is an absolute menace to base-runners. Armed with Messian foot speed and a spring training's worth of honing, the 22-year-old's pick-off move is the most lethal in baseball this season, a rarity for a right-handed pitcher. He's caught runners leaning at both first and second base thus far, eight in all. The next-closest players (Buehrle and Madison Bumgarner, both lefties) are tied with six the closest right-hander is another McDowell product, Kris Medlen, who is tied for 14th-most at three. "When I was little, I played second and third base, and so I have a position player's (throwing) movement," Teheran said. "Most people say that because I played soccer that's why I have quick feet. I don't know. I'm just learning." Right-handers are notably at a disadvantage in the running game, as their backs are toward first base, the hotbed of base-stealing activity. Where a southpaw is able to stare down the runner and either step directly toward first or snap throw while coming set, a righty has to whirl his entire body around to release an accurate throw with velocity. Teheran initiates his move with a slight buckle of his front leg just before whipping his back leg toward third and planting his 6-foot-2 frame firmly and throwing to the bag. By keeping the ball high, he's able to buy himself the precious milliseconds necessary to get the ball to Freddie Freeman's glove (or whoever else is playing first) in time for a tag. And let's not even go into the logistical smorgasbord involved in the Teheran-Simmons pick-off combo at second. (It should be noted here that some have described Teheran's move to first as a balk-able offense. The slight buckle of his front knee toward third without lifting his foot is where the act gets called into question, and it's that very act that throws many base-runners off, too, as they'll often times focus on a pitcher's legs to get their reads. If it is indeed a balk, it's a difficult call for umpires. It all happens so fast. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez addressed the situation in spring training when Teheran was assessed balks in consecutive starts "Weve got to work on the pick-off to first we need to clean that up a little bit, he told the AJC in March but the subject has not been a problem thus far for the organization. Teheran has yet to balk in 29 MLB starts.) "I think Julio's (pick-off move) is probably the best I've seen. For a young player, the way he can controls the running game he's really good. He's so quick and he understands base runners, who's on and who's not," said Laird, who spent time in Detroit with Verlander, a Cy Young winner whose 19 career pick-offs is one of the best marks among active right-handers. "He makes my job easier than having to throw guys out all the time." For his efforts, Teheran's defensive numbers are near the top of the MLB pack. Video: Inside Teheran's pickoff move Back to DRS. Defensive runs saved is the simplest metric at determining a pitcher's fielding effectiveness and it comprises three subcategories: runs saved in the running game, runs saved by extraordinary fielding plays and runs saved based on Baseball Info Solution's plusminus system. Teheran is a plus defender in all three categories. With a month left in the 2013 season -- six starts, essentially -- he trails only Los Angeles' Zack Greinke on the MLB leaderboard (DRS pitching leaders as of Aug. 30): Zack Greinke, Dodgers: 7 Julio Teheran, Braves: 6 Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees: 6 R.A. Dickey, Blue Jays: 6 Patrick Corbin, Diamondbacks: 6 Defensive metrics tend to fluctuate. After all, assessing and quantifying defensive performance for any position (or sport) is laborious at best. The common tactic is to view a player's defensive numbers in a three-year window to see how he measures up over time, which makes evaluating the true course of a rookie difficult. Still, with the numbers and anecdotal evidence at hand, it's clear that Teheran is making an impression. Regardless of the new marriage of Rawlings and SABR, though, the odds are stacked steeply against Teheran, who is also 10-7 with a 3.08 ERA this season. If his numbers simply measure up to the likes of Greinke, a Cy Young winner and one of the game's best defensive pitchers since his rookie year in 2004, or Wainwright, a Gold Glove recipient in 2009, will he walk away with the award? Don't count on it. That's not a knock on Teheran or the system. It's just how the chips fall. Even with this veritable overload of information, rookie pitchers simply don't stroll into the league and win Gold Gloves. But if one did, would there be a more fitting setting than Atlanta? As a child in the coastal city of Cartagena, a known pirate haven in the 1500s well-versed in the handling of golden items, Teheran wanted to be a slick-fielding third baseman or shortstop like his Colombian predecessors: Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera. When Cabrera became the first Colombian-born player to win a Gold Glove in 2001, young Julio was just 10 years old. Teheran got an up-close-and-personal view of Cabrera's award in February, even photographing the golden mitt and sending it out via social media. It's the only trophy pictured anywhere on his Twitter account. "I would be very glad if all that happened," Teheran said. "I just keep working." Precedent varies with perspective. From a large-scale point of view, no franchise has set the bar higher in terms of fielding performance for pitchers than Atlanta. The Braves own 16 of the National League's 55 all-time Gold Glove pitcher nominations. Boasting the most decorated defensive player at any position (Maddux, 15 Gold Gloves with Atlanta), the oldest player to ever win the award Niekro's fifth and final Gold Glove came in 1983; he was 44 years old and the only player to interrupt Maddux's unparalleled streak (Mike Hampton), Atlanta is, literally, the gold standard in the art of fielding from 60 feet, six inches away. Only the St. Louis Cardinals with Gibson, Wainwright, Bobby Shantz and Joaquin Andujar 14 in all approach the Braves' record. Now, as previously mentioned, that is a historical record defined by subjectivity but Rawlings' all-time list is also the only extensive historical record available. Atlanta sets the standard until the standard officially changes. So Teheran all but jumped from one culture of defense to another the footsteps of Cabrera and Renteria fading into those of Niekro and Maddux. But a Braves pitcher has not won the award since Hampton in 2003. Since then, six different teams' pitchers have claimed the defensive crown. Teheran along with Mike Minor, who with four runs saved to his credit has improved noticeably in his third full season and could perhaps be the Tom Glavine to Teheran's Maddux, defensively speaking; too often it gets overlooked that Glavine was one hell of a defensive player is not just picking up a torch; he is re-lighting it. Julio Teheran probably won't make rookie history by winning this season's NL Gold Glove. He probably won't win NL Rookie of the Year, or any other major awards. However, he will look anyone in the eye and tell them, as plainly as he can, that he wants to be the best at every facet of this game. He works at it. His teammates, like Gerald Laird, see it every day. Chasing the defensive-centric legacy of both country and club, Teheran has a long road ahead. At least he's traveling in the right direction.
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