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Astros Relief Target: Ryan Tepera

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One of the Astros’ areas of need for 2022 is relief pitching. Can Tepera fill the void?

Division Series - Houston Astros v Chicago White Sox - Game Four Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

While we wait on the CBA to be settled, I figured it’s time for fun speculation on additional moves the Astros could make. Click identified the bullpen as an area of need/focus. In my off-season rant thread, I had noted Knebel/McHugh as my primary targets. Since then the Astros have signed Neris, and Knebel has come off the board as well. While McHugh would still be my #1 target, I wanted to take a look at Ryan Tepera.

For those who were not impressed initially by the signing of Neris, this name likely won’t be the type of big name target you were looking for. I completely understand that there may be fans against this signing simply for what Tepera said after series against the sox. Additionally, there is a distinct possibility that Tepera would not be interested in signing here given his comments. But as we look to buffer the bullpen with a tight budget, Tepera is a potential asset worth exploring.

Who is Ryan Tepera?

Since joining the Blue Jays back in 2015, Tepera has quietly pitched as a solid reliever with a 12-14 record, sporting a 3.48 ERA across 297.1 IP (61st best reliever with 250+ IP across 7 seasons). His career 9.32 K/9, 3.27 BB/9, and 1.12 WHIP are solid enough supporting figures. With an injury, Tepera’s velocity dropped from an average of 95+ down to 93.5. With the drop in velocity the 2019 results were fairly abysmal coming in at a 4.98 ERA (that the advanced stats all indicating he was lucky to get that) . The Blue Jays designated Tepera after the 2019 season, with the Cubs signing him for a split minor/major league deal (900k/300k). The Cubs were happy enough with his 2020 that resulted in a 3.92 ERA, but more importantly his ability to mis bats which came in at a 13.50 K/9 clip (although off-set by a 5.23 BB/9) that they re-signed him to a deal that could earn up to $1.75 million. Tepera had a solid enough career up to this point, but in 2021 Tepera achieved a vastly different level of success.

By traditional stats, Tepera produced 61.1 IP of 2.79 ERA baseball. His 10.86 K/9, 2.79 BB/9, and 0.88 WHIP were all excellent. Other ERA type measures such as FIP (2.73), SIERA (3.08) did not see his performance as a fluke or indicate major regression. While xFIP (3.64) didn’t look as kindly at his performance due to the extremely low percentage of fly balls that went for home runs (6.6%).

Utilizing Statcast’s expected stats, he was one of the premier pitchers in baseball. His xBA (.171 – top 2%), xSLUG (.279 – top 4%), wOBA (.230 – top 2%), xWOBA (.243 – top 3%) and xERA (2.57 – top 3%) all point to him being one of the most dominant relievers in baseball last year.

Going a step further, Ryan Tepera ranked #27 overall in WPA for relievers, but even more impressively #10 in all of baseball last year in WPA/LI. For those of you not familiar with WPA/LI it stands for Win Probability Added / Leverage Index. I included the Fangraphs link that gives a full explanation.

If you’re wondering how Tepera went from DFA’d and signing a split minor/major league contract to a relief pitcher that expected stats point to as one of the best in baseball, it came down to the change in his arsenal.

Ryan Tepera Arsenal:

Tepera technically had 5 pitches last year, although there’s an argument to be made that the 5 curveballs were misclassified, especially considering they were the first 5 baseball-savant recorded in his career, I’m essentially going to remove them from the equation for this discussion.

Over the years, Tepera’s arsenal has morphed, his primary pitch (Cutter) that he threw nearly 40% when he broke into the league was not thrown once in 2021 (or classified as such).

Since last year was his break-out, let’s take a look at the arsenal he utilized and the results:

There’s a few items of interest here. First, the slider which dominated his pitch usage, was essentially a new pitch with Tepera having never thrown it for more than 6% of the time in the past 5 years. His velocity, spin rates, and movement are not the ideal for the EV methodology that the Astros are known for, but given Strom’s departure and the addition of Neris, there may be some changes to come. With the new slider, players may adjust a bit as the scouting report gets out, but the initial reports give him one of the most valuable pitches in baseball.

While Tepera’s arsenal is not ideal for the Strom Magic Method, I could easily see the Astros refining his arsenal, and removing his Sinker. Why? Here’s the worst pitch by year by xWOBA with all pitches used more than 7%:

2021 – Sinker – (10.9%) – wOBA - .376 / xwOBA - .377 (second-worst pitch was .251 xWOBA)

2020 – Sinker – (31.7%) – wOBA - .410 / xwOBA – .387 (second-worst pitch was .284 xWOBA)

2019 – Sinker – (35.6%) – wOBA - .348 / .xwOBA .391 (second-worst pitch was .388 xwOBA)

A quick look at Fangraphs agrees with this information, with the Sinker being his only pitch with a negative value. Additionally, one of the major things Tepera did last year was drastically reduce his sinker usage from 31.7% to 10.9%.

While Sinkers are usually more focused on weak contact, Tepera’s simply is not effective. In 2021, Batters whiffed at his Sinker a pathetic 8.2% of the time and when they made contact it had the highest exit velocity of any of his pitches at 88.6. I would expect that the Astros would likely work to eliminate the Sinker altogether. It would take a lot more research, but I could see him adding the Cutter back into the repertoire.

His off-speed pitches though are simply dominant. Tepera’s rates of swing and miss with the Change-up clocked in at 31.8% last year and the slider that was thrown 44.9% of the time with a 50.6% Whiff% rate! With swing and miss stuff like that, it’s easy to see why Tepera is able to generate K’s at a 30.7% (10.86 K/9) last year and 34.8% (13.50 K/9) in 2020. With the predictive stats and mild changes in his arsenal, it’s easy to imagine Tepera becoming one of the bigger bargains in baseball providing a very valuable relief option at a reduced rate.

Risk

Tepera at 34 is likely headed towards natural degradation of his stuff. He has never regained the velocity he lost with the elbow injury and additional losses could drastically alter his ability to be successful. His previous injury history includes Right Finger Laceration (2021 – 15 days), Calf Strain (2021 – 10 days), Bone Spurs in his elbow which started in 2018 and resulted in surgery (2019), and a 7-day stint back in 2010. After last season, his injury concerns do seem to be of lesser concern, but it’s definitely worth noting.

What would Ryan Tepera cost?

Tepera came in at #45 on MLBTR’s Top 50 with Predictions with this to say:

45. Ryan Tepera. Two years, $12MM.

TD: Angels / SA: Royals / AF: Phillies

After a 2019 season abbreviated due to elbow surgery, Tepera’s Blue Jays career came to an end when he was designated for assignment. The Cubs picked him up as a free agent for just $900K. Despite a less-than-ideal 13.5 BB% in 2020, Tepera was a key part of the Cubs’ bullpen and had a decent year. The 2020 campaign earned Tepera an accidental MVP vote, but the Cubs still weren’t impressed enough to tender him a contract. After a few months on the market, Tepera landed back with the Cubs, this time with an $800K guarantee.

This year, Tepera got a handle on the free passes, but still punched out more than 30% of batters faced. That earned him a ticket across town in a midseason trade with the White Sox. Though Tepera pitched better than most of the relievers ahead of him in the bullpen pecking order, including fellow ex-Cub Craig Kimbrel, he wasn’t thrust into a high-leverage role. Still, it seems like Tepera will finally earn some respect this winter with a multi-year deal.

Summary:

Ryan Tepera feels very similar to Neris, with his peripherals and expected stats showing far better than the traditional ones. I think Tepera has the potential to be a back end of the bullpen asset at a bargain price. While not a perfect fit within the Astros EV model, we may see some deviation from that strategy with Brent Strom’s departure. Even without that consideration, there are mild tweaks to Tepera’s arsenal that would have a noted impact. Tepera’s 2021 will help ease concerns in regards to recovery post-surgery, but given his age, Tepera does carry a risk of age-related decline. His projected contract is very affordable and seemingly fits well within the Astros recent model. Commentary or the cheating scandal has not seemed to play any impact on previous FA, but the recency of his comments would definitely draw curiosity. I will be honest, I’m still rooting for McHugh as a personal favorite, but I could easily see Tepera being a top target for the Astros.

Click has stated they need bullpen help, If you were the GM, would you pursue Tepera?