How was Dylan Lee so good in 2022?

Oct 14, 2022; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Dylan Lee throws a pitch against the Philadelphia Phillies during the 3rd inning in game three of the NLDS for the 2022 MLB Playoffs at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 14, 2022; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Dylan Lee throws a pitch against the Philadelphia Phillies during the 3rd inning in game three of the NLDS for the 2022 MLB Playoffs at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /
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Despite making his major league debut in 2021 and starting* a World Series game, Dylan Lee came into the 2022 season seen as depth and not much else. In fact, When Kenley Jansen signed with the club in Spring Training, the lefty gave up his #74 for nothing and was given #89, a number usually reserved for non-roster invitees.

By the end of the season, however, the unassuming 28-year-old rookie was the Braves’ third-best reliever, behind only A.J. Minter and Collin McHugh. While Lee’s ability to control the zone certainly aided his success (his BB% was 13th-best in the majors among relievers), it was his punch-out dominance that made him an elite reliever.

Unlike most strikeout pitchers, however, Dylan Lee isn’t a flame thrower. Unlike his teammate, Collin McHugh, he doesn’t possess an abundance of spinning pitchers that keep hitters off-balance. So how, armed with just a slider, fastball, and changeup, does the lefty strike out so many batters? Turns out, it’s not what I expected.

How did Dylan Lee strike out so many batters?

It’d be misleading to start this article without noting that Dylan Lee did have a 24.5% strikeout rate while he was in the Marlins farm system after transitioning into a full-time reliever. His 29.4% punchout rate with Atlanta in 2022 wasn’t entirely out of nowhere.

Still, less than two years after being released as a 26 year-old minor leaguer by the Marlins, Lee transforming into one of the best non-closing relievers in baseball was likely not a bet most people would’ve made.

Prior to joining the Braves organization, Lee had been fine, if anything. His two seasons as a reliever saw success from a run-prevention standpoint, holding a 2.24 ERA in 120.2 innings. However, after the 2021 Spring Training, his age was beginning to work against him. He was 26, had missed an entire season due to the canceled minor league season the day before, and had only been given 1.1 innings in the big league camp before being cut loose.

Once joining the Braves’ organization, however, something clicked for Lee. Not only his strikeout rate increase to 30.9% in AAA, up from his previous career-best 25.8%, but his walk rate plummeted.

In 2019 with the Marlins’ organization, Lee walked 8.7% of all batters he faced. In 2021 with Gwinnett, he only walked 3.4%. The lefty turned himself into a strike-throwing machine, and this ultimately led to his promotion to the big league club in September 2021.

His ability to consistently throw strikes is why I thought his K% increased. After all, unlike relievers like Edwin Diaz or Ryan Helsley, who throw 100 MPH+ fastballs and devastating breaking pitches, Lee maxed out at 96.3 MPH, averaged 92 MPH, and had a slider with below-average horizontal and vertical movement. If, as Ben Clemens, a Fangraphs writer, put it in 2020, “the count is king,” then throwing strikes early and often would help mitigate below-average, stuff and elicit more strikeouts, right?

But this hypothesis wasn’t exactly correct, at least for Lee. His 60.7% first-pitch strike rate placed him 89th out of 152, which is actually below the 50th percentile mark. He threw fewer 0-0 pitches for strikes than Jose Alverado, who walked 11.2% of batters he faced.

So how did the lefty manage to strike out so many batters if he wasn’t getting early strikes? The first reason is simply that he was a chase master. Believe it or not, Dylan Lee had the second-best chase rate in the majors among relievers at 44.6%, behind just Emmanuel Clause. This ability to get batters to chase was most prevalent when there were two strikes.

Lee threw 180 pitches in two-strike counts that were either borderline strikes or balls. Of those 180 pitches, there were 77 consequential two-strike pitches, meaning that pitch ended the plate appearance.

Of the 77 consequential pitches that were borderline or out of the zone, 46 of them were strikeouts. This means 77.9% of the lefty’s strikeouts were either placed on the edge of the zone or completely outside of it. Let’s look at them.

Watching some Dylan Lee strikeouts

July 31 vs. AZ:

https://sporty-clips.mlb.com/349d1892-c4e6-40a0-9081-9345c2086a5a.mp4

This is Dylan Lee’s hardest-thrown K of the year. It’s in the zone, but it’s at the very top of it and Varsho is well under it. This was just a perfectly placed pitch in the zone and Varsho didn’t have a chance.

August 17 vs. NYM:

https://sporty-clips.mlb.com/e147d380-7738-4947-b4e2-0c658a11f93c.mp4

This is an especially impressive strikeout. Against Mark Cahna in a one run game and a runner on second, Lee gets the Mets outfielder to chase a fastball way out of the zone on a full count. Cahna’s 27.7% chase rate is much better than the league average of 32.6%. Clearly, he was looking for something else, but what would that be?

August 20 vs. HOU:

https://sporty-clips.mlb.com/0e068399-266d-4e47-b2c5-48488b7363d1.mp4

Cahna was probably looking slider. Whether or not Bregman was expecting it is another story. It’s a perfectly buried 2-2 slider that’s nearly impossible to lay off. Despite allowing the Manfred runner to score, as well as another runner, this K ends the inning and keeps it close enough for the Braves to come back and eventually win.

August 3 vs. PHI:

https://sporty-clips.mlb.com/1fdd0ac7-2daa-423b-940d-a4790302eb5b.mp4

Here’s one more. It’s a slider outside the zone, but the placement right at the bottom of the zone makes it hard for Schwarber to lay off. This is one of those pitches you can’t blame a batter for swinging at.

These four videos show two things. The first is that Lee can place the ball near the edge of the zone. The second is that he’s able to get swings on pitches that are just outside the zone. This demonstrates that he does get batters to chase, but it doesn’t tell us why batters chase.

 How did Dylan Lee get the chases?

So what does? For this lefty, it’s all about placement and tunneling.

Lee throws three pitches, but his slider and fastball account for 93.2% of all pitches thrown, and he’s very methodical in where he throws them. His sliders are predominantly on the left edge of the plate, while his fastballs live at the top middle half of the zone.

Despite batters basically having a 50/50 shot on either of his main pitches, sitting on one of them is especially difficult because Lee is an expert at tunneling.

If you were to compare his release point to someone like Jaime Barría, another reliever who limits walks and throws a fastball around 92 MPH, you’d find that even though both are defined as having “very consistent release points,” Lee’s is both tighter and less pitch specific. Lee also gets better extension than Barría, which means batters have less time to react.

Essentially, Lee is able to strike out batters with below-average stuff because hitters have no idea what’s coming and once they pick up the pitch it’s too close to take and too late to hit. This is how Lee has a K% 12 percentage points higher than a guy with a similar repertoire.

The lefty is a perfect example of why we shouldn’t always trust advanced metrics in isolation. At first glance, a fastball with below-average velocity and a slider with below-average movement seem like a recipe for disaster. But, with the right placement and the perfect tunneling, you have a pitcher who can fool the best of hitters.