In 2021, Dylan Lee was pressed into service as Atlanta’s arms fell to attrition late in the season. He made more appearances and pitched more innings in the postseason than in the regular season during his debut year, becoming the first pitcher in MLB history to make his first career start in a World Series game. In 2022, despite spending more than a month at the start of the year in Triple-A, Lee emerged and carved out a very good relief season, coming from seemingly out of nowhere to dominate batters for much of the year.
The Marlins took Lee with a 10th-round pick during the 2016 MLB draft. They transitioned him from the rotation to a relief role after a meh stint in A-ball, and he kind of bumbled along in the minors until they cut him during Spring Training in 2021. The Braves scooped him up on a minor league deal, and after a better relief season at Gwinnett, the rest was history: Lee made those late-season World Series appearances and entered into baseball lore, or at least baseball trivia.
What were the expectations?
Honestly, I’m not sure there were any. Lee pitched reasonably well at Gwinnett in 2021, but a 3.44 Triple-A xFIP for a pure reliever, even a multi-inning one, isn’t that exciting. Lee’s cups of coffee during 2021 were too brief to really leave much of an impression, and he mostly got knocked around. Replacement-level relief depth seemed to be the calling card, and it’s not like the Braves disagreed, either. Atlanta’s 2022 Opening Day roster featured relief luminaries like Tyler Thornburg and Sean Newcomb, but not Lee.
The Braves didn’t even bother calling Lee up until May 23, when Thornburg was finally jettisoned from the roster.
The Braves’ bullpen was so good for so much of the season that they probably don’t regret keeping Lee in the minors for about six weeks, but he was so great in 2022 that it still looks kind of weird in retrospect — not that they, or anyone else, had any reason to expect Lee to excel the way he did.
For the season, Lee threw together 1.1 fWAR in just 50 2⁄3 innings, including a 52 ERA-, 68 FIP-, 78 xFIP-, and an xERA that was between the ERA and FIP and also had nothing but positive things to say about his performance. Lee’s only pseudo-rough month came during the few days of May after his call-up, with an xFIP above 4.50, but he benefited from HR/FB fortune and didn’t have a bad FIP in those games. After that, it was almost entirely smooth sailing for the left-hander — he had a rough stretch of outcomes in mid-August through early September, but it was driven almost entirely by HR/FB and BABIP/sequencing stuff that had largely avoided plaguing him for the rest of the season.
He mostly worked in low leverage, and managed 12 shutdowns to seven meltdowns, though his seasonal WPA was (barely) negative, mostly due to that pseudo-rough stretch. Really, it’s hard to find anything to complain about in Lee’s more-than-solid 2022.
What went right? What went wrong?
I covered much of Lee’s unusual method for success here. In short, he eviscerated same-handed batters with his fastball rather than his breaking pitch (which in and of itself is really kinda cutter-y and not a true breaker). He managed this by essentially working backwards, throwing “slider” after “slider” to lefties, and finishing them off with a fastball in two-strike counts, something they seemed utterly surprised by, time and again. To add to the weirndess, “finishing off” in this case doesn’t mean blowing it by batters, but rather, getting weak contact, despite Lee’s strong up-in-the-zone location of a fastball with good “rise.” It’s just weird all-around, but was unquestionably effective in 2022. Add to this the fact that his fastball isn’t actually fast, and hitters have often beat it into the ground despite it being letter-high or higher, and it was a joy to watch something as unabashedly strange-but-effective as Lee’s relief season.
As for what went wrong? Not much, other than some of those gnarly meltdowns, really. Lee’s fastball command and velocity, on paper, leave a ton to be desired, but he made it work super-well, so that definitely wasn’t a thing that went “wrong.” He posted a good xFIP despite not keeping the ball on the ground, effectively balancing his good peripherals against an arsenal relatively easy to elevate. He missed a ton of bats, threw more borderline pitches than average, didn’t fall behind early, and so on. It’s really hard to find anything about his season that wasn’t swell.
Lee’s best outing of the year? Weirdly, it was probably nursing a one-run lead for four outs in the middle innings of a crazy game that eventually went down as a 12-10 loss to the Giants in June. Lee actually entered the game with the Braves down by one, relieving Spencer Strider in the midst of a rare awful outing, but stayed in after a Ronald Acuña Jr. two-run dinger put the Braves (temporarily) on top. Here’s Lee getting former Brave Tommy La Stella to ground out on one of his signature two-strike “ambush” fastballs up in the zone, that somehow got a groundout:
And here’s Lee with one of the weirder “highest WPA plays for an entire season” in this series — a fly out that wasn’t a sac fly with a two-run lead, after Lee had turned a four-run lead into a two-run lead by allowing two run-scoring plays to the first two batters he faced.
Let’s talk about some meltdowns, too. Here was his worst, in a game facing the same team he made that World Series start against. It was definitely a weird one — he came on for the eighth in a tie game, and the foursome of Yordan Alvarez, Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker, and Jeremy Pena went single-walk-single-sac fly, putting the Braves in a 4-2 hole. Yet the singles weren’t exactly crushed — a softly-hit flare into center by Alvarez, and then a low, 99 mph liner through a partial shift by Tucker that put the Astros ahead.
That’s all it takes to mess up your day and the game when you walk a guy and aren’t striking anyone out, though.
Oh, and sometimes you just get the snot knocked out of you. Here’s Lane Thomas doing that to Lee to tie the game, Lee’s single worst WPA play of the year:
Hanging slider to an opposite-handed batter when behind in the count? Forget about it.
Another, perhaps larger bummer for Lee? He appeared in all three NLDS losses for the Braves, giving up a homer in one of them but pitching relatively well in the other two (two scoreless innings, 2/0 combined K/BB ratio).
On the heels of his 2022, Lee looks like a pretty decent relief option going forward. He’s projected in that half-win range, which is a little above “dead-average reliever,” but not quite in “one of the best relievers on the team” territory, which is where he finished in 2022 despite spending six-plus weeks in the minors to start the year.
What remains to be seen is whether his totally weird approach remains effective. It seems like the sort of thing hitters can easily adjust to, but they didn’t over pretty much the entire 2022 season, so it’s not a foregone conclusion that it’ll happen in 2023. If hitters do catch on, it’ll be interesting to see how Lee can adjust, if at all. His fastball just isn’t thrown hard enough to get by without the bamboozle, and its command is fairly sketchy. But, such is life for a reliever, and despite his success, Lee has some headwinds to contend with if he wants to replicate his excellent season.