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Free Agent Profile: Ryan Tepera

Behind free agent bullpen door number three for the Cardinals, we find a less expensive option.

Boston Red Sox v Chicago White Sox Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images

As we keep hearing, whenever the lockout ends, the St. Louis Cardinals are likely to spend their time sprucing up the roster with maintenance moves. The most obvious area where they’ll need help is the bullpen. I’ve covered Joe Kelly’s fit and then took a look at Colin McHugh. Today, we’ll turn to a name that keeps coming up via Derrick Goold- Ryan Tepera.

First, I have to give the obligatory reliever warning. Spending big on free agent relievers is risky, the Cardinals have been bad at it... you know the drill. Tepera is at the low end of the market, below McHugh and quite a bit below Kelly. The median of his crowdsourced contract on FanGraphs is one year for $4M (McHugh was 1/$5M and Kelly was 2/$14M). Unlike the other two, we don’t have Ben Clemens’ projection or the average from the crowd. That’s because McHugh and Kelly landed in the FanGraphs top 50. Tepera did not.

If Tepera indeed ends up at 1/$4M, it’d be considerably lower than all of the Cardinals’ recent free agent reliever forays, including Luke Gregerson. That said, as I’ve mentioned before, FanGraphs crowdsourcing has been on the short side this cycle with most contracts before the lockout. Their predictions have been anywhere from 60 to 80% of the actual AAV that most relievers have gotten. That puts Tepera more in the $5M to $6.7M range. That’s still very affordable.

Frankly, that price range is probably part of why his name keeps coming up as a Cardinals option. That’s not to say he’s without his merits but you have to assume price is part of the equation.

Why Tepera?

I’ve referenced Stuff+ in my last two articles. While Tepera (101.1) in 2021 was below Kelly (108.2) and McHugh (114.1), he was still on the higher end of all pitchers. Of pitchers with 200+ pitches, he ranked 259th out of 652. He was right in between Kodi Whitley and Ryan Helsley. Where he stood out in 2021 was controlling the strike zone. His swinging strike percentage was 9th best among relievers, and his chase percentage (o-swing%) was a solid 35th of 144 qualified relievers.

He also did a brilliant job suppressing quality contact. His xwOBA against was 10th best (min. 100 batted ball events) and wOBA against was 4th best. His hard hit% allowed wasn’t quite as impressive but was still 78th percentile.

One thing that stands out about his plate discipline stats is their similarity to (drumroll please)... Giovanny Gallegos. Here’s how the two of them rank among 144 qualified relievers:

Gallegos vs. Tepera, Plate Discipline Ranks

Category Tepera Rk. Gallegos Rk
Category Tepera Rk. Gallegos Rk
O-Swing% 35 11
Z-Swing% 39 53
Swing% 52 24
O-Contact% 9 13
Z-Contact% 59 96
Contact% 10 18
Zone% 132 106
F-Strike% 35 57
SwStr% 9 14
CStr% 114 105
CSW% 35 35

It’s hardly a perfect match, but of all relievers in MLB in 2021, Gallegos was the most similar to Tepera. Neither gave up lots of contact outside of the strike zone, both were top shelf at procuring swinging strikes, neither got many called strikes but both were upper quartile in overall called + swinging strike percentage. Both were top 20 in avoiding contact overall. The category where they were most different was in Zone contact... and Tepera was actually better than Gallegos in that regard. He also had higher swing rates in the zone, although it was fairly close to Gallegos.

If you want to look at the broader stats among relievers, Tepera ranked:

  • 23rd in K-BB%
  • 14th in fWAR and FIP
  • 28th in SIERA
  • 27th in Win Probability Added (WPA)
  • 10th in WPA/LI (leverage-neutral WPA)

Not bad!

Why Not Tepera?

Ok, so there’s a reliever out there who was one of the best in baseball at suppressing loud contact, and his strike zone approach was most similar to one of the best relievers in baseball, Giovanny Gallegos. He was firmly upper quartile in the important stuff (K-BB%, FIP, SIERA, WPA and WPA/LI). And yet, for some reason, crowd sourcing projected the 17th highest contract by AAV, out of 22 relievers. What gives?

I suspect it’s a blend of three things. First, his stuff isn’t eye-popping. His velocity is average and his spin is average. The wiggle on his sinker and slider are nice- they have upper quartile sink- but these aren’t the kinds of things that make scouts lose their minds.

Second, 2021 sticks out as an outlier. For the first five years of his career (2015-2019), he was average. He had a 4.41 FIP, a tick below average (102 FIP-minus). His peripherals were bland. He was just kind of A Guy™ who struggled with giving up homeruns. Guys like Kelly and McHugh have had their moments in high leverage in the crucible of October baseball, with gaudy stuff and/or impressive peripherals. That’s why they’re brand names. Tepera is not.

Finally, people may not see 2021 as sustainable. His HR rate crashed in a good way in 2021- 0.59 HR/9 and 6.6% HR/FB, compared to 1.22 and 13.9% for the rest of his career. A lot of his gains were real but even just a little regression in homerun rates would send him back to average in a hurry.

As we can see, Tepera has plenty of appeal. Goold has mentioned that the Cardinals have options at various price points, and Tepera represents the lower end of that equation. The relievers with a lower AAV via crowdsourcing have either already signed, or are older and/or coming off of rough seasons (Tyler Clippard and Sergio Romo). If Tepera truly comes in at the lower end, he’s a less exciting option than Kelly and McHugh, but also one with less financial risk. In short, I’m still Team Kelly or Team McHugh, but Tepera is not without his uses.