The Yankees have made a flurry of pitching moves in recent days with the latest a good ol’ fashioned waiver claim; The Bombers claimed reliever Ryan Dull from the Giants and designated Brady Lail for assignment.
Dull won’t be up with the Yankees right away and is ultimately a depth move. The 29-year-old right-hander fell out of favor in Oakland, three seasons removed from a top-notch relief season. Now, he’s on his third organization in two weeks.
Looking at his numbers this season, it’s no wonder why. In nine innings over seven games, he’s allowed 19 hits, four home runs and 13 runs (12 earned). Even his FIP is an unthinkable 8.88, and that’s with a 5.70 ERA in a larger stretch in Triple-A.
As his name implies, the move to get Ryan won’t excite anyone, though there’s the potential for hidden value. Though Lail wasn’t a prized member of the roster, the Yankees’ 40-man spots are precious at the moment with so few healthy arms in the upper parts of the organization. The Yankees certainly see something in Dull, or else they wouldn’t have acquired him.
So what are those reasons for acquiring Dull? There are two key points in his favor: High-spin pitches and his track record including an elite reliever season.
Let’s touch on his stuff first. Despite having a four-seam fastball that sits in the low-90s (avg 91.0 mph this year), he has a spin rate of 2,413 rpm on the pitch, allowing it to play up and miss bats (or at least it used to, but more on that later). For reference, the league average is 2,263 rpm for a league-average velocity fastball (around 92 mph).
To see it in action, check out the last three strikeouts in this video below. He gets some legitimate hitters in Avisail Garcia and Jose Abreu to swing through his fastball without any gimmicks.
His slider has similar high-spin qualities, though slider spin rate is a fickle beast to understand. His 83 mph offering has been his go-to secondary pitch, throwing it roughly a third of the time with mostly fastballs and occasional changeups to lefties mixed in.
When Dull was the Athletics’ best reliever three seasons ago, his slider was electric. He sported a 2190 rpm spin rate, yet now he has a completely different offering, with a 2627 rpm slider. That could be partially why, in a small sample, he’s been torched this season, though batters have done most of their damage against his four-seamer.
Perhaps the best case for Dull is turning back the clock to 2016. A 26-year-old rookie, Dull had a 2.42 ERA over 74.1 innings and was a legitimate force. Among qualified relievers, he was 29th with a 59 ERA- and was 20th in both BB rate+ and K-BB+. His 2.3 bWAR was sixth in Oakland that season.
As one might expect from a fastball-slider pitcher, Dull was death on right-handed batters while producing more modest results against lefties. In 187 plate appearances, RHBs batted .156/.176/.341 for a 37 OPS+ against Dull in 2016. Here’s Dull taking out Nelson Cruz with his slider.
Dull has seen the whiff rate on his slider fall from 44.9 percent in 2016 to 43.5 in 2017 all the way to 38.7 this year. Still good, but not quite as fantastic. That’s can happen when you’re throwing what is effectively an entirely different pitch, as you can see from Brooks Baseball:
As you can see, he’s getting significantly more horizontal movement and less vertical movement. At the same time, his vertical release point has stayed about the same while his horizontal release point has changed, converging around his fastball.
Though it may be good to have the two pitches in the same spot out of his hand, their relative movement might make them poor tunneling partners, diverging by the time the hitter has to make a decision. That could explain why hitters have had an easier time facing Dull, though he can still get some whiffs on his slider.
Since 2016, Dull had an injury-affected 2017 season where lefties torched him and a more league-average 2018 where he featured a reverse platoon split. This season, he’s been mostly ineffective regardless of level.
And that’s just the reality of relievers. One year you’re great and then, before you know it, you’re in the Minors. There’s significant turnover among even the elite relievers from year-to-year, let alone the good ones.
Pitchers like Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel or Dellin Betances who have elite numbers every season are rare gems and not the standard. Instead, relievers are fungible and Dull could simply be an example of a guy who had one great season and couldn’t replicate it.
As of now, Dull is simply another depth arm for the Yankees. If the team gets healthy, he could be a victim of a roster squeeze within the next month. However, if he can regain some of his effectiveness against right-handed batters, he could be another reclamation project for the Bombers.