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What You Should Know: Ryan Tepera

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A dive into the details of the new White Sox setup man

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Los Angeles Dodgers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Everybody close your eyes, take a deep breath, remember that the White Sox have an eight-game lead in the standings, can still win this series, and can run out one of the three or four best closers in the game for pretty much any one of the 60-odd games remaining in the season. Everything is OK. We can all forget that Ryan Tepera’s first two appearances in a Sox uniform even happened, and nobody will be the worse for it.

Kidding aside, though he’s clearly not the big fish of this trade deadline — Darren Black already did an excellent job breaking down the road that led Craig Kimbrel across town — Tepera will have plenty more high-leverage opportunities to prove himself on the South Side. And the odds are that most of them won’t look like Friday, when Tepera entered the game with a 4-3 lead and instantly proceeded to put a slider on a tee against a hitter that you really don’t want to put anything on a tee for.

Yeesh. Yeah Ryan, I feel ya.

All that being said, pitches like that have typically been the exception rather than the norm over the course of Tepera’s career. His first two nights having not been a particularly compelling introduction, let’s see what we’re getting with the newest late-inning option to take the Dan Ryan southbound to 35th. (I’d say the Red Line, but have y’all seen those Lolla pictures? Hard pass.)


A Brief History of Ryan Tepera

Baseball-Reference

As far as relievers go, Tepera’s career path has been fairly straightforward. A 19th round pick out of Sam Houston State in 2009, he ascended the low minors as an unremarkable starter before finding a new gear upon being converted to relief at Double-A midway through the 2013 season. After two seasons of successful cameos on playoff-bound Blue Jays teams, Tepera established himself as a rock-solid member of the Toronto bullpen in 2017, ranking in the Top 5 among relief pitchers with 140 appearances between 2017 and 2018, striking out more than a batter an inning and picking up 36 holds as the team’s primary setup man.

Entering the 2019 season, Tepera appeared poised to compete with the to-that-point disappointing Ken Giles for save opportunities before elbow injuries torpedoed Tepera’s season before it started, limiting him to barely 20 innings. His fastball velocity dropped nearly 2 mph and his strikeout stuff evaporated, leading to career worsts across the board and, ultimately, his release from the club.

Tepera latched on with the Cubs for the league minimum in 2020, and while his run prevention was unexceptional, the strikeouts returned, and it was good enough for the Cubs to bring him back on a similar deal this past offseason, where he quickly became a key contributor to what was for a minute the best bullpen in the league.


Arsenal

Baseball Savant

Unlike the rest of the White Sox bullpen, Tepera won’t be beating hitters in the late innings with an overpowering heater. His 2020-21 resurgence has largely been driven by moving away from his fastball, whose velocity never quite recovered after 2019’s elbow issues. Instead, he’s been relying on a high-80s cutter more than 40% of the time.

In and of itself, the cutter isn’t a particularly nasty pitch, but it has two things going for it. First, Tepera has done an excellent job of locating it in pretty much the exact same place as his four-seamer, especially against right-handed hitters, giving it a tunneling effect that keeps hitters off-balance and leads to lots of ground balls and weak contact.

Tepera’s Four-Seamers
FanGraphs
Tepera’s Cutters
FanGraphs

The second interesting this about this cutter is that, again, while its raw movement is a little bit below average by most measures, it also gets movement from what’s known as seam-shifted wake.

Seam-shifted wake is a pitching phenomenon that’s still not very well understood; the long and short of it is that Tepera’s cutter spins in a way that gives it a different kind of movement than physics thinks it should. That’s not a good or bad thing in and of itself, but when you have a decent fastball like Tepera (even though it averages a pedestrian 93.5 mph, it has good spin and “rises” quite a bit), it can mean that the pitch is a little tougher to square up than it should be, even if Franmil Reyes didn’t have any issues on Friday.

The last thing worth noting about Tepera’s arsenal is that it’s much better equipped to take on opposite-handed hitters than most middle relievers without a blazing fastball. Platoon splits take a very long time to stabilize, so they should be read with a grain of salt, especially for relievers. But since moving to a cutter-heavy approach with the Cubs in 2020, Tepera has been measurably more effective against lefthanders than when he does have the platoon advantage.

Platoon splits are fluky, and they could easily find themselves being far from true over the two months to come. Given his arsenal, though, it has some logic to it. Tepera throws almost exclusively fastballs to righty hitters, leaning on the cutter 50% of the time and mixing his four-seamer with a sinker for most of the other half.

What distinguishes Tepera from many other relievers is an unusually deep arsenal that’s allowed him to thrive without an overpowering fastball. While he’s flirted with a splitter in the past, he’s increasingly utilized the off-speed pitch over the past two years against lefties, throwing it a full one-third of the time to opposite-handed hitters this season. Similar to the cutter, it’s not a particularly filthy pitch, and actually has a much smaller velocity differential from his fastball than a splitter or changeup would ideally have. But that also means that it comes in at a virtually identical speed as the cutter, so lefty hitters have a lot more guessing to do against Tepera than against most other relievers.

Given the maddening inconsistency that’s plagued Aaron Bummer and Garrett Crochet this season and Jace Fry’s continued inability to find the plate enough to take advantage of his talent, it feels likely that Tepera’s ability to handcuff lefties played some role in his acquisition. While Bummer and Crochet’s hellacious stuff can compete with anybody in the league, the prospect of relying on them to consistently hit their spots in a five- or seven-game series against Houston or Tampa Bay’s righty-mashing lineups isn’t particularly appetizing.

Tepera might be nothing special as far as late-inning relievers go, but with Michael Kopech, Craig Kimbrel, and Liam Hendriks in tow, Tepera ought to be a valuable stop-gap in close games when any of the aforementioned are, for whatever reason, unavailable or unlikely to pitch. José Ruíz may have cleaned up Tepera’s mess on Friday, but despite Ruíz’s nice numbers this season, the trauma of years past casts more than enough doubt on his ability to do it repeatedly. Ryan Burr and Matt Foster are simply unremarkable talent-wise, and while the departed Codi Heuer’s velocity and movement may be Pitching Ninja-friendly, he’s not likely to be missed down the stretch.

Tepera probably won’t find himself in too many ninth-inning scenarios come October, but as an alternative to the big guns of the pen, he’ll be a breath of fresh air for the rest of the season.

On that note, the last thing I’ll leave you with is a list of the most consistently clutch relievers in baseball this year, according to stat called WPA/LI, which stands for “Win Probability Added (over) Leverage Index.”

FanGraphs

What this stat essentially tells you is who, on average, contributes the most to a team’s win probability, regardless of the situation. Think of it as a little bit like a relief pitcher version of WAR. When you strip out everything else, who’s done the most for their team?

It’s not a predictive stat, so there’s no guarantee Tepera will stay up there. But the names surrounding him on that list don’t lie. The 2020 White Sox were sunk by an inexperienced pitching staff that simply couldn’t avoid a meltdown in the biggest possible moments. With Tepera, Kimbrel, and Liam Hendriks (who ranks 17th on the above list) in the fold, Rick Hahn has at the very least ensured that the 2021 team has the tools to avoid a similar fate.