There are very few sure things in sports, but right now, the Midland RockHounds have as close to a sure thing as a team can get when closer Ryan Dull takes the mound. The Oakland A’s 2012 32nd-round pick is putting up numbers in the Texas League this season that would make Dennis Eckersley jealous.
On Friday night, Dull came on in the ninth with Midland clinging to a 2-0 lead. He worked around a one-out walk to record his 11th save and lower his season ERA to 0.43. The save was Dull’s 11th of the season.
For most relievers, a great month would be one in which they allowed just two runs. Dull has allowed two runs all season, a span of 42.1 innings through Friday night’s game. During that stretch, Dull has 48 strike-outs and just 12 walks (one intentional) and he has allowed only 24 hits. Opponents are hitting just .165 against Dull this season.
Dull had a fine season with Midland in 2014, posting a 2.88 ERA and a 61:15 K:BB in 56.1 innings, but his 2015 has been a step up. Dull says the improvement over last year has been part mental.
“A big part [of his success has been] staying with the process and going out there every day feeling like I have to prove something and taking that with me whenever I have to throw,” Dull said before the game on Friday.
Dull says his stuff has been better this season, as well.
“I have been able to use all three pitches at any time and [using all three] has been a little bit more effective this year,” he said.
With his one-inning appearance on Friday, Dull has now thrown 110.1 innings in the Texas League during his career. His ERA over that span is 2.13 and he has a 121:30 K:BB. There isn’t much Dull has left to prove against Double-A hitters. Nevertheless, he has yet to receive a promotion to Triple-A even with the A’s shifting significant portions of their pitching roster in Nashville in recent weeks.
Dull admits that he is aware of the movement ahead of him in the organization, but he says he has to remain focused on his own game and not on the moves of the front office.
“It’s hard not to notice everything, but I have come to learn – especially this year – to control what I can control,” Dull said. “Everything that’s off the field, like being called up, is out of my hands at this point.”
Dull’s primary focus at the moment is helping the RockHounds get back to the Texas League playoffs. With Friday’s win, the ‘Hounds moved to 49-42 on the year. They are 14-7 in the second half and hold a 0.5 game lead for the second-half division title. Midland has the second-best overall record in the league.
Last season, the RockHounds marched into the playoffs as the underdog and came away with their third Texas League crown as an Oakland A’s affiliate. Dull relishes his experience pitching in the post-season last year, during which he threw four shut-out innings and earned a win.
“It was awesome,” Dull said. “I had never been a part of any post-season even through college. We maybe got into a conference tournament once. It was fun. It got your adrenaline pumping even more because you knew what you were playing for.”
At 24, Dull was one of the younger and least experienced players on the Midland roster last year. This season, Midland’s roster has a more youthful make-up with several players in their first season at the Double-A level. Dull - now a wily 25-year-old veteran of the league - likes what he sees from the current group of ‘Hounds.
“It’s a little more youthful environment, but everybody comes in and gets in their work everyday and they are out there grinding every at-bat and every pitch in every game,” Dull said.
Dull had plenty of company at the Texas League All-Star game last month. He was one of eight Midland players to be named to the roster. It was Dull’s second All-Star appearance (he was a mid-season Midwest League All-Star in 2013). He threw a scoreless inning and enjoyed the opportunity to meet other players in the league and compete against other top talents.
“Anytime you get to participate in an All-Star game, it is a fun experience because you get to be with guys throughout the league that you play against every night. It’s a great time getting to interact with those guys,” Dull said. “I enjoyed it. It was a fun, relaxing environment. You just get to go out there and showcase your talent.”
Dull’s success in the Texas League didn’t come without some challenges. He reached Midland at the tail-end of the 2013 season and had a 4.63 ERA in 11.2 innings. Then at the start of the 2014 season, Dull struggled, posting an ERA of 4.70 in April and May. He was throwing strikes, but not getting the results he had seen in A-ball. Dull says he had to learn the difference between a strike and a quality strike.
“I had to learn to locate my pitches a little bit better,” Dull said. “I also had focus a little more on my sequencing. I was throwing too many strikes at one point to the point where hitters would be too comfortable in the box. It would work to my disadvantage.”
Dull also learned after his first full professional season in 2013 how to prepare more effectively for the full 142-game grind. He says that midway through this season, he feels fresh and ready for the stretch run.
The biggest question remains whether that stretch run will take place in Midland or Nashville.