White Sox Acquire Ryan Tepera in Crosstown Trade

The White Sox and Cubs swung a trade on Thursday, with the South Siders acquiring righty reliever Ryan Tepera from their crosstown counterparts. In exchange, the Cubs received left-handed relief prospect Bailey Horn.

The move is a comparatively small one for both teams, with the White Sox adding ever-so-desired relief depth, while the Cubs focus on trading their more important pieces; Anthony Rizzo is on his way to the Yankees, and possible deals for Kris Bryant and Craig Kimbrel still loom. But, as a seller, it never hurts to get some of the smaller trades out of the way, and a solid reliever on an expiring contract fits the bill.

Tepera, 33, might best be known to fans outside of Chicago for his errant 18th-place finish on the 2020 NL MVP ballot, but he is having a pretty successful season. He has a career-best 2.79 FIP thanks to a strikeout rate that’s above 30% for just the second time in his career (2020 was the first) and a 7% walk rate. That 23.0% strikeout-minus-walk rate doesn’t put him at the top of the reliever leaderboards, but ranking 29th out of the 163 qualifiers is nothing to sniff at, either. He’s riding a 2.91 ERA and while his FIP would suggest that is more or less sustainable, we could raise his .196 BABIP allowed and 7.7% HR/FB rate as a slight concern. But other ERA estimators think Tepera’s propensity to avoid hard contract is legit. Just look at his sterling expected statistics from Statcast:

Ryan Tepera’s Statcast Stats
Ryan Tepera .147 .173 .245 .285 .213 .255 .316

Prior to this season, Tepera was good, but certainly not this good, and it’s quite easy to see what changed. Before 2021, Tepera had thrown just 167 sliders over the course of his pro career. This year? He’s already thrown 285, and the pitch has become his primary offering. And it’s a downright nasty offering, too: hitters whiff more than 50% of the time when they swing, and when they put it in play, it doesn’t go much better. Batters have posted just a .116 average and a .232 slugging against Tepera’s slider, and while the expected stats on the pitch suggest a slight outperformance on Tepera’s part, it’s truly not by much (.192 wOBA, .238 xwOBA allowed). The pitch is really that good and I like it for much the same reason I like Yimi García’s slider, which I discussed in my García trade analysis. Tepera gets ridiculous late movement on the pitch; out of 296 qualified pitchers, it has the 14th-most seam-shifted wake in baseball on the slider. (García ranked in the 83rd percentile, so while still good, he’s far from Tepera’s level.)

There’s a 90-minute deviation between Tepera’s spin-based movement and the observed movement. As you can see in the diagram, it starts at around 11:45 on average before reaching 10:15 while in flight. Here’s what the pitch looks like. You’ll notice that there’s not a lot of raw movement, but the late movement is what stands out, allowing it to miss so many bats:

With the White Sox, we project him to set up closer Liam Hendriks, further fortifying a bullpen that has been one of baseball’s most valuable this season. The group ranks sixth in WAR, though its 4.10 ERA (15th) and -0.69 WPA (18th) suggest that some reinforcement might be necessary just in case. The group is spearheaded by Hendriks, who has been excellent, and has benefitted from solid pitching from Michael Kopech (1.23 ERA, 2.64 FIP), José Ruiz (2.97 ERA, 3.97 FIP), Garrett Crochet (3.03 ERA, 2.79 FIP), and, from a peripheral standpoint, Aaron Bummer (4.81 ERA, 3.04 FIP). But, with Evan Marshall — a big part of the White Sox’ bullpen last year — still on the Injured List, and bullpen depth always necessary down the stretch anyway, the move for Tepera makes plenty of sense.

Tepera is an impending free agent. He re-signed with the Cubs on a one-year, $800,000 deal this past March, with additional performance bonuses for games pitched and days on the active roster. In retrospect, those bonuses look notable, as Tepera’s solid performance has yielded some high usage. He has already pitched in 43 games, which is tied with Andrew Chafin (who was dealt to the Athletics earlier this week) for the most of any Cubs reliever and should net him an additional $200,000. He can max those bonuses out at 60 games pitched, a figure he’ll likely reach; spending the entire year on the active roster would mean a total bonus of $950,000, more than doubling his base.

In exchange for Tepera, the Cubs received lefty relief prospect Horn, who slots in at No. 51 on their top prospects list. The fifth round pick out of Auburn projects as a reliever. He’s currently sitting 93-95 mph, which is a bump from last fall, and also possesses an average slider. He’s had his first taste of professional ball this season, where he has mostly been used as a starter. In 14 appearances (10 starts) across Single-A and High-A, Horn has a 5.63 ERA, 27.3% strikeout rate and a 10.9% walk rate. Since moving to High-A in July, he’s struggled a bit, particularly with the walks.

Another interesting note on the trade is that it represents just the third time since 2000 that the Cubs and White Sox have traded with one another. Most recently, the two teams engaged in the now-infamous 2017 trade that netted the Cubs José Quintana in exchange for budding superstar Eloy Jiménez, rotation piece Dylan Cease, and others. All told, the Cubs and White Sox have made 28 total trades, which, since the White Sox were founded in 1901, comes out to about about one every four years. With Thursday’s deal, Ryan Tepera and Bailey Horn aren’t just part of an exchange of their on-field baseball talents; they’re part of a little bit of crosstown history.

Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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2 years ago

The overall bullpen numbers for the White Sox look good, but outside of Hendricks and Kopech they have been maddeningly inconsistent. Crochet, Bummer, and others (Marshall, Heuer, Foster) have walked guys in bunches. They will have great innings, then others when they can’t find the plate. Ruiz has been used mostly in low leverage situations where he has been largely fine, but in a very few situations with more responsibility has had problems. Based on recent usage, it is pretty clear that TLR only really trusts Hendricks and Kopech right now. He left Kopech in to hit against the Brewers, then watched him walk the leadoff hitter in the 8th and promptly yanked him for a Hendricks 6 out save. One more reliable guy would go a long way and pushing Bummer and Crochet one notch down the depth chart probably helps a lot too.