Dylan Lee is a good middle reliever, and a great baseball story. He was “the first pitcher in history to make his first big league start in a World Series game,” though that’s not really fair, and it’s only slightly accurate: he was being used as an opener, which is just an early-inning middle reliever. A year later, Lee spent the full season with the club, and he was a mid- to late-inning middle reliever. A very effective one, actually, with a sparkling 5.9 K/BB ratio and a 2.13 ERA.
Not a bad rookie campaign for a 10th-round draft pick who the previous year had gotten cut in March by the woeful Marlins, then picked up by the Braves in April and thrown into the fire for a World Series cup of coffee in October, and earning a ring after throwing only two regular season innings prior to 2022.
So, again, great story. But how good a pitcher is he?
His Statcast page is quite underwhelming: 29th percentile in fastball velo (of course, his average fastball is still 92.2 mph, and when you and I were growing up, that was considered pretty good; times have changed, kiddos), and 56th percentile in fastball spin. And he only has one other main offering, a slider that averages 83.8 mph; every once in a while, he’ll feature a changeup, but it’s a little faster than his slider and he throws it about as frequently as Spencer Strider.
But you’re not going to tick off too many managers if all you do is show up and throw strikes, and that’s what Lee has done since Alex Anthopoulos picked him up. While he typically posted a BB/9 around 3.0 in the Marlins system, Lee posted a BB/9 of 1.2 in Gwinnett in 2021, and 1.8 in Atlanta in 2022. A reliever who doesn’t give out free passes is a skipper’s best friend.
Though, actually, what he throws aren’t strikes, exactly: they’re pitches batters swing at. Though Lee never walks anybody, fewer than half of the pitches he throws are strikes. Statcast reveals that he makes his money exactly where he has to: the shadow zone, the edge of the zone, where about half the pitches are called balls and half are called strikes. Nearly all of his effectiveness is here, and nearly none of it is in the heart of the plate.
That’s a contrast to, say, another two-pitch pitcher the Braves have. Spencer Strider gets nearly as many outs in the heart of the zone as he does in the shadow. Given the difference in stuff, Lee is exactly where he needs to be.
Of course, we only have a single season’s data to go on, and it’s hard to predict that Lee will be able to keep this up. In small ways, he’s fairly certain to regress: his ERA won’t be 2.10 again, his strand rate was probably a little too lucky, and perhaps his BABIP was too, not to mention the unknown of how he and all the pitchers will be affected by losing both Dansby Swanson and defensive overshifting.
But it’s easy to root for a late-round draft pick who is getting the most out of his ability, and who comes out of the pen and just doesn’t walk anybody.
Who were the five greatest left-handed middle relievers in the Atlanta Braves bullpen in 2022? Dylan, Dylan, Dylan, Dylan, and Dylan.