After making a World Series start in a whirlwind 2021, Dylan Lee broke out in 2022, going from an unknown depth piece stashed at Triple-A Gwinnett to a vital piece to Atlanta’s bullpen. 2023, through, showed the volatility that is relief pitchers in a nutshell, as Lee struggled and went down with injury.
Originally a tenth-round pick by the Marlins back in 2016, Lee was released by Miami in March 2021 and then scooped up by the Braves in a minor league deal. He spent most of 2021 at Gwinnett and even started the 2022 season there, before blossoming into a key member of the relief corps.
What were the expectations?
Lee’s 2022 was fantastic, as he posted a 52 ERA-, 68 FIP-, and 78 xFIP- en route to 1.1 fWAR. He completely dominated lefties and was more than fine against righties, which made him an obvious fit as the Braves’ second higher-leverage Minter, behind A.J. Minter.
Projections-wise, though, he was pretty hard to forecast, because he was a reliever with a strong rookie season and a solid 2021 in Triple-A, but essentially no useful track record beyond that. He basically seemed like an average reliever, with all the volatility that entailed, and elite upside, which, again, describes relievers and Lee in a nutshell.
Lee’s topline results were 94 ERA-, 103 FIP-, and 93 xFIP-, which were very disappointing given his 2022. He finished with 0.0 fWAR. In a twist of fate, Lee had negative WPA last year despite a 12/7 shutdown meltdown ratio, but somehow ended up with highly positive this year despite five each of shutdowns and meltdowns.
The topline results actually obscure the story, though. He had a stellar 53/75/81 line up through May 13; his first 19 innings of the season were about as good as his 2022, including a surprising bullpen game opening where he threw 2 2⁄3 innings with a 3/1 K/BB ratio. But, on May 16, he was hung out to dry by facing 11 batters (many of them righties) against the Rangers, and then hit the shelf with one of the scariest things that can happen to a pitcher: a shoulder injury. While the injury itself was only listed as “inflammation,” it took Lee over three months to return to a big league mound.
When he did return, things went terribly. His first outing was a scoreless effort against the Dodgers, but then he posted an 0/1 K/BB ratio and allowed two homers to the next 13 batters he faced across three starts. Those three outings literally caused him to lose the entirety of the fWAR he had accumulated through the rest of the season. And, to add injury to insult, Lee then went back on the shelf with shoulder inflammation, ending his season.
What Went Right?
When healthy, Lee was effective. Aside from those last three outings, his numbers overall were not much worse than in 2022, and his numbers against lefties were comparable. (If you set the cutoff before his sacrificial lamb outing against the Rangers, his numbers overall resembled what he did in 2022.)
Perhaps his most memorable outing came on April 21, in an eventual loss to the Astros. Lee came on in relief of Jesse Chavez, who blew a three-run lead without retiring a batter in the seventh. With the go-ahead run on second and none out, Lee prevented things from getting even worse by retiring Yordan Alvarez (pop-up to short), Jose Abreu (flyout to right), and Kyle Tucker (strikeout) in order. (Alvarez got his revenge against a lefty later, hitting a game-winning homer off A.J. Minter.)
Something that worked really well for Lee in 2022 was surprising guys, especially lefties, with his fastball, even in deep pitcher’s counts. You don’t generally see anyone posting fastball xwOBAs-against well below .300, but that’s what Lee managed with aplomb in 2022. It seems like throughout the season, hitters actually caught on, as even before he went down, his xwOBA-against on the four-seamer was an unthinkably bad .518. But, before they caught on in around the season’s third week, he was still able to get away with crazy stuff like this 0-2 down-the-middle fastball to a righty:
What went wrong?
The big thing here was the biting of the injury bug, and Lee trying to return from it in a way that made his season look even worse than it was. His slider thing lost a ton of drop in the few outings he made post-injury, though that may have been related to him throwing it 2 mph harder for some reason.
Before his injury, he had few inherently bad outings. Like, he gave up a homer to Brett Baty once, but the Braves still won that game and that homer didn’t even yield the lead. He also gave up a go-ahead run in extras once, but that just happened to make Sean Murphy’s epic first-pitch walkoff homer in the bottom of the inning even sweeter.
The real problems for him all came when trying to return from injury.
After having cleanup on his shoulder, Lee is expected to be full go for Spring Training. Lee is looking for a bounceback season, and if he has it, the Braves are going to be real tough from the left side in the bullpen, with Minter, Aaron Bummer, and potentially Tyler Matzek as well.
Given Lee’s whiplash-inducing 2023, and frankly, the insane volatility of his career to date, projecting him going forward is really hard. Steamer has him as a barely-above-replacement reliever next year, but it might be safer to just figure he’ll go into 2024 the same way he went into 2023 — maybe a decent reliever, with replacement-level downside and elite upside, at least if he can get back to the slider shape that worked so well for him, and mixes up his fastball usage a bit.
Lee is looking for a healthy bounce back season with the potential of 3 headed monster from the left side out of the pen with AJ Minter and Tyler Matzek. A scary thought for opponents.