Dennis Ryan Tepera was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 19th round of the 2009 draft out of Sam Houston State University to very little fanfare. The righty was given a chance to start with Lansing, Dunedin, and New Hampshire before the team decided that he just wasn't going to cut it in the rotation. They hardly gave up on him though, as Toronto promoted him to the Buffalo Bisons at the start of the 2014 season and made the Texan a full-time reliever which resulted in an ERA of 3.66 in 64.0 innings pitched. This represented an improvement from his starting days, but still wasn't too much to get excited about. To many people's surprise, Tepera was added to the 40-man roster this offseason to protect him from the Rule 5 draft despite not looking like he had much of a major league future.
Without calling anyone out, this is just one of the comments that was posted on the site after Tepera was protected:
Ya, I don’t really understand protecting Tepera ahead of Andy Burns or Stilton. Or why Bo Schultz is on the 40. Seems a waste of a space. (Hynes and Cory Burns too)
Yet here we are, with both Schultz and Tepera not only still on the 40-man but solidly entrenched on the active roster as well. What Alex Anthopoulos and the front office must have seen in Tepera finally shone through at the beginning of this season as the 27-year-old was given a chance to repeat the Triple-A level and allowed a solitary run in eight relief outings. On May 8th, he was finally given his long-awaited chance in the Major Leagues as he was promoted to take Chad Jenkins' place in the bullpen and made his debut two days later against Boston.
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Initially, he was expected to be just another guy in a long line of relievers who come up to the Blue Jays and get shelled a few times before being sent down to Buffalo. Instead, Tepera came out throwing heat in the mid-90's and looked pretty fine doing it. A few shaky outings in mid-May shot his ERA up to 4.91, but that was as high as it would go as since then he's not allowed a run in eight appearances (he did allow some inherited runners to score in back-to-back games against Baltimore). In a fairly small sample size he's also not allowed more than one hit in an appearance since May 18, which happens to be the last time he allowed a home run as well.
He was optioned back down to Buffalo on June 21 through very little fault of his own due to a need for fresh arms, but came back almost immediately after his required ten day period had elapsed. Since the call-up he's put in two more strong performances against Detroit (he also gave me a ball, but I remain unbiased) that has him moving up the depth chart in a shaky bullpen that will take consistency wherever they can find it.
While almost any professional pitcher can go on a hot run, Tepera hasn't done it cheaply, striking out 20.7% of hitters while only walking 3.5%. Although his .200 BABIP is surely masking some of his true performance, a reliever who throws 96 mph with the ability to miss bats will always find a place in a Major League bullpen. He's been able to succeed against hitters on both sides of the plate thanks to a changeup against lefties and a great slider against righties that currently has a 40% whiff/swing rate. He's developed a cutter as well that has become his primary pitch against hitters on both sides of the plate, who have been struggling to put it into the air (7.14 FB/BIP) albeit still in the small sample phase of his big league career. The knock on the right-handed pitcher in the minor leagues was that he struggled to get lefties out, a weakness that has all but disappeared with the addition of the cutter.
Here's a look at the nasty slider that has been so effective against righties, courtesy of Blue Jays Plus' wonderful pitcher GIF database:
While it took a fair bit longer than usual for Tepera to reach the majors, at 27 years old the righty is hammering the zone and appearing unfazed by the Major League hitters he is facing. Due to the uncertain Blue Jays bullpen, a run like the one Tepera finds himself in could propel him into a high-leverage role before the calendar flips to August. With the righty still in his first option year, the worrying prospect exists that he could be sent down to Buffalo in favour of someone in a tighter roster scenario. But if the Blue Jays want to field their best team possible regardless of contract situations, Tepera should be with the team until he proves that his nasty stuff and excellent performance is just a mirage. Until then, they should ride the Texan in the place of scuffling veterans such as Steve Delabar who isn't pounding the zone at the same rate as Tepera. With the Blue Jays justifiable aversion to giving up their Major League ready prospects in a trade to bolster their bullpen, they should be grateful that a suitable upgrade seems to have been sitting under their noses all along.