Righty reliever Ryan Tepera, who I’ve taken to calling Tempura because he fries batters, provides a perfect case study for the endless versatility of the word “dude.” It’s rivaled by only the F-bomb when it comes to the myriad meanings that can be derived from nothing more than inflection and position, as the comedy classic Baseketball so eloquently captured over two decades ago.
When he was acquired last winter on a split deal, the 32-year-old Tepera was viewed as just some random dude rather than an actual dude, but he’s quickly established himself as one of the Cubs’ best relievers. He didn’t really start out that way, giving up three runs on three hits and a walk over two innings in as many appearances against the Reds early in the season. Since then, however, he’s been nails.
Here’s how a conversation about Tepera’s time with the Cubs might go:
-Man, this Tepera dude has a 13.50 ERA and he’s giving up lots of contact in the air.
–Dude. [frown] -Although he did strike out six batters and had just a 1.12 xFIP in that same time.
-Dude. [head cocked] -Since then, Tepera’s been a dude, putting up eight straight scoreless appearances over 9.2 innings. He’s allowed just four hits and has 11 strikeouts with one walk.
Setting aside the tired gimmick that will surely garner an angry critique or three, it’s becoming more evident with each outing that Tepera is the goods. He’s recovered more than admirably from those first two outings, each of which was more about little mistakes than big trends, and has ridden a sinker/cutter combo to dominance over the last three weeks.
Only Jeremy Jeffress has generated more value with his fastballs (3.1 runs saved) than Tepera (1.5) and only Yu Darvish (6.3) has a more valuable cutter than Tepera (2.3). Those numbers are based more on volume, so Tepera’s cutter has actually been better than Darvish’s on a per-pitch basis. He’s locating it well to generate more swinging strikes and grounders than at almost any point in his career, but the when might be more important than the where.
Namely, he’s throwing first-pitch strikes at a 64.3% clip — nearly five points above league average and six points above his own career mark — before running way and hiding by living in the zone with just 34.3% of total pitches. He’ll keep the sinker down in the zone to the arm side, then zip the cutter down to the the glove side for swinging strikes. That early aggressiveness combined with working tantalizingly close to the zone late in the count has turned Tepera into a dude.
Oops, there it was again.
The best part is that he’s doing anything so drastically different from before that any of it seems unsustainable. I mean, sure, he’s liable to hang one now and again to end the scoreless innings streak. But on the whole, it looks more like Tepera has simply settled into a groove and is benefiting from a better mix of sequencing and location.
For instance, he used to work the sinker more middle-in rather than down like he is now. He has also dialed the cutter in to be ever so slightly more down and away to that glove side than before. When it comes to the difference between a guy signing a split contract and one who’s anchoring the back end of a bullpen, sometimes a few percentage points and a half inch one way or the other is all it takes.