TORONTO — Last May, after J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez hit the disabled list, and Mat Latos hit self-destruct, the Toronto Blue Jays needed a starting pitcher. Only 30 games into the season, the club had burned through its depth options rather quickly, and was looking to its bullpen for a solution. Ryan Tepera raised his hand.
He’d done it before, beginning with his first year as a professional in 2009 and continuing through 2013 when he made 20 starts for double-A New Hampshire. Tepera shifted to the bullpen after that, and became an extremely useful reliever for the Blue Jays in 2017, so valuable that his coaching staff ultimately said thanks, but no thanks, to his offer, tabbing Joe Biagini to join the rotation instead.
“I just mentioned that, hey, I’d be up to start,” Tepera said last weekend at Blue Jays Winter Fest in Toronto. “If the club needs it, no doubt. It’s something that I would ultimately love to do.”
Of course, what pitcher doesn’t want to be a starter? Athletes crave as much playing time as possible, and a healthy starter can eclipse a reliever’s season-long workload by June. And that’s not to mention the considerable discrepancy in average salary between the two roles.
But with the Blue Jays trading useful bullpen piece Dominic Leone to the St. Louis Cardinals last week, the job Tepera currently does just got that much more valuable. After a breakout 2017 that saw him pitch to a 3.59 ERA as closer Roberto Osuna’s primary set-up man, Tepera will be right back in that role for 2018. And he’s relishing it.
“It was all about getting an opportunity,” Tepera says of his 2017 breakout. “The two previous seasons, being up and down, I never really got that real, clear shot at it. And this past year, especially at the beginning of the season when our starters were struggling a little bit, coming out of games early, when we needed a guy to go multiple innings — that’s when I kind of got that opportunity and stepped up and proved myself.”
That multi-inning versatility was a big part of what made Tepera so valuable. Blue Jays manager John Gibbons used him to get anywhere from one out to 10. Sometimes, he brought Tepera in with runners on in need of a big strikeout to escape a high-leverage jam. At others, he used him for three innings or more when the club needed someone to chew up outs in the middle of a game.
That’s how Tepera finished third among American League relievers with 3.37 win probability added. It’s also how he ended up a top-five AL reliever in terms of appearances (73), innings pitched (77.2), and batters faced (319), as he carried one of the game’s most demanding workloads from pole to pole. And if he has it his way, he’ll do it all over again.
“I love what happened last year. I loved the workload — it was fun,” Tepera says. “I would want to repeat it again this year. I think that’s what I enjoyed most — coming to the field and having the chance to pitch every day.
“I talked a lot about those outings where I went three-plus innings — just the confidence boost and believing in myself and trusting it. I think that was everything.”
Of course, pitching that much takes its toll. Relief pitching can be a borderline abusive role to serve, which makes off-season recovery and preparation paramount. Tepera took more time off than usual immediately after the 2017 season, and has spent the rest of his winter working out at Dynamic Sports Training, a huge multi-sport facility in Houston.
“I’ve tried to put on a couple pounds. I’ve been training hard in the weight room,” Tepera said. “I’ve been trying to put on a little bit more weight to give me that much more stability.”
He’s also working on a new pitch — a split change-up he’s been playing around with during flat-ground throwing sessions this winter. Tepera wants to use spring training to continue developing the offering and ideally refine it to the point where it can be a regular part of his repertoire.
“I have a pretty good feel for it,” Tepera says. “I’m kind of still tinkering with the grip a little bit. But it feels good.”
Currently, Tepera throws three pitches — four-seamer, sinker, cutter — all within a fairly narrow range of velocity. His four-seam fastball and sinker sit from 94-96 mph, while his cutter comes in around 88-90.
His new change-up would, presumably, be thrown at a lower velocity, which would give hitters something else to think about when they face Tepera. He wouldn’t even have to throw it all that often. By flashing it here and there, he’d keep it in the minds of hitters and force them to guard against it, which could make his harder offerings more effective.
That’s especially encouraging considering Tepera’s cutter — a pitch he throws 40 percent of the time — is already among the best in baseball. Per FanGraphs, the pitch had a 7.9 linear weight in 2017, the ninth-best mark of all major-league pitchers who throw cutters. If Tepera can use his split-change off of it, he could make his primary pitch even more effective.
The nice thing for Tepera is he’ll have six weeks this spring to figure out whether he can carry the new pitch into the season or not. And six weeks to prepare himself for the marathon to come.
Tepera wants a demanding workload this season, and he’s almost certainly going to get his wish, especially if he pitches as effectively as he did in 2017. Coming into spring training with a secure major-league job for the first time in his career, the 30-year-old is looking forward to spending his camp improving and preparing rather than competing.
“Years past, I came into spring one hundred per cent ready to go, trying to make a team,” he says. “This spring, I can take it a little bit more relaxed and get ready for the long haul of the season — so that I can be that much stronger towards the end of the season. I think that’s going to help out a lot, mentally and physically.”