Dylan Lee rode a strong season as a reliever in Triple-A to a very late call to the majors, and then found himself in the World Series record books when all was said and done.
Dylan Lee was drafted by the Miami Marlins in the 10th round of the 2016 draft out of California State University, Fresno (Fresno State). He was never really a prospect, and was transitioned to relief after 19 mediocre starts in A-ball in 2018. After a poor 2019 in Triple-A and what must have been a not-particularly-inspiring alternate site performance in 2020, he was released by the Marlins at the end of Spring Training in 2021 and signed with the Atlanta Braves on April 15, 2021, where he was assigned to pitch at the Triple-A level once the minor league season began.
After sitting out the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Lee found himself out of a job as the Marlins opted to release him before Opening Day. Outside of the 2016 and 2017 seasons, Lee had been used exclusively as a reliever in the minors, including stops at Triple-A in 2018 and 2019. For the Braves, Lee was a still-young arm with enough upside to serve in a regular relief role at Gwinnett with the benefit of a full suite of options were he needed to fill in at the major league level. Still, Lee hadn’t really succeeded in relief at the Triple-A level yet, and hadn’t posted sparkling relief numbers since 2018 at Double-A, and no one was really expecting him to pitch in the majors, much less the playoffs, in 2021.
2021 Season Results
Lee’s season at Triple-A saw his strikeout rate increase over his prior two Triple-A seasons, but the big difference for him was cutting his walk rate down to below four percent. With a 2.61 FIP and 1.54 ERA in those 46 2/3 innings for Gwinnett, Lee’s strong showing led to two late-season call-ups with Atlanta, first as a replacement for Touki Toussaint when the latter was placed on the bereavement list (and Edgar Santana went on the paternity list), and then again on October 1, when Santana went on the 10-day IL and Sean Newcomb was optioned to Triple-A.
Lee made his MLB debut on the day of his second addition to the roster, striking out one and giving up a hit in meaningless, post-clinch, 4-3 loss to the Mets. His second appearance occurred the next night, pitching another inning and striking out two, but giving up a two-run homerun to Michael Conforto in the eighth inning of a meaningless 6-5 Braves victory over the Mets. He didn’t appear in the season’s final regular-season game, but nonetheless made the NLDS roster.
What went right? / What went wrong?
Lee made significant progress in reducing walks while with Gwinnett, a key to finding an organizational role in the future. Although he only pitched in two games with Atlanta in the last week of the regular season, he evidently showed enough to make three appearances in the post-season. All-in-all, it was a successful season for the 27-year-old rookie reliever.
Road to the Title
Lee was a surprising addition to the Braves NLDS roster, given that he’d only appeared in two games during the regular season. He did not, however, make it into a game as the Braves won in four. Lee was then removed from the postseason roster in favor of Chris Martin for the NLCS against the Dodgers, but ended up replacing the injured Huascar Ynoa as an option before Game 4 of the NLCS. Lee made is postseason debut pitching two innings in Game 5. He allowed one of Chris Taylor’s three home runs that night, but otherwise struck out two without walking a batter in 11-2 blowout loss.
After the Braves advanced, Lee kept his spot on the Braves’ World Series roster, first appearing in the Game 2 loss to the Astros, replacing Max Fried in the top of the six after Fried exited with two on and nobody out. He induced Kyle Tucker to ground into a forceout for the first out of the inning. The next batter, Yuri Gurriel, hit into a run-scoring fielder’s choice, although Gurriel reached base after an Ozzie Albies error. Lee then allowed a double steal before striking out Jose Siri. He was replaced by Jesse Chavez who retired Martin Maldonado to end the inning.
As the Braves headed into Game 4, up 2-1 in the series, there was uncertainty on who would start – or open – the game for the Braves. When the Braves announced Dylan Lee as the starter, he found himself in the position to make World Series history, becoming the first player in MLB history to make his first major league start in the World Series.
Although the Braves won the game – thanks in large part to the work Kyle Wright and the defense behind him provided in relief – Lee struggled in the opening frame. After giving up a single to Jose Altuve to start the game, Lee walked Michael Brantley after a 3-1 count. He was able to strike out Alex Bregman but issued another free pass, this time walking Yordan Alvarez on four straight pitches. Lee exited for Wright, who limited the damage to one run after a groundout from Carlos Correa and a strikeout of Kyle Tucker.
Although it was the shortest start for a pitcher in the World Series in 37 years, Lee retained a sense of humor in his reply to a postgame press conference question about his thoughts to Braves manager naming him the starter, sheepishly saying, “... I know I’m a reliever now.”
All in all, Lee cost the Braves WPA/cWPA in each of his three postseason appearances, so he never actually had a positive-cWPA outing for the year. But still, what a thrill for him to go from released in Spring Training, to his major league debut, to a World Series title, before which he ended up pitching three postseason innings.
Lee will likely be a fringe bullpen arm coming into Spring Training in 2022. Given that he has options, the Braves could shuttle him between Gwinnett and Atlanta throughout the season, if his performance dictates. Like with pitchers in general, and especially relievers, limiting walks will be a key for Lee’s success. If he can carry over the progress he made in Triple-A to limit free passes while retaining an above-average strikeout rate, Lee could find himself a role as a regular low-to-mid leverage reliever next season.