In less than two years time, Ryan Dull has gone from unheralded minor league relief prospect to MLB record holder. After a rookie season that saw Dull develop into the steadying force in the middle of the Oakland A’s bullpen, the right-hander is ready to build off of his 2016 campaign.
Dull’s numbers last season spoke for themselves. He posted a 2.42 ERA in 74.1 innings while striking out nearly a batter an inning (73) and walking only 15. His WHIP was 0.87 and opposing batters hit only .186 against him. Mixed into those numbers was a record-breaking streak that any middle reliever or set-up man would be proud to call his own. On July 4, Dull stranded two runners to break the record for most number of consecutive inherited runners left on base, 36.
The A’s will honor Dull’s record before Saturday’s Bay Bridge Series game against the San Francisco Giants. During the off-season, the Baseball Hall of Fame requested Dull’s jersey from the record-breaking game to display in Cooperstown. Dull says the thought of being honored in the Hall is awe-inspiring.
“It was pretty cool when my agent called to tell me that Cooperstown wanted something of mine for the record,” Dull said. “You think about the players who achieve greatness their whole careers making it in there. I never thought about a small record like that being able to make it in there. I was excited.”
Dull has had a reputation throughout his pro career for being calm under pressure, a demeanor that has served him well in situations when there are runners on base. In 2016, Dull held opposing batters to a .132 average with runners on base and an .086 average with runners in scoring position. Dull says his poker-face on the mound is by design.
“Going all the way back to high school, that’s where I picked it up. It was always ingrained in me that you need to control your emotions out there,” Dull said. “You never want to let the other team see that you are flustered or that it is even going really well. Just keep it even-keeled. That way, they can’t really tell anything about you.”
Last spring, Dull entered his first big league camp looking to earn a job after debuting with the A’s the previous September. This spring, Dull’s position on the A’s Opening Day roster is much more secure. Heading into Wednesday, Dull has a 2.84 ERA and three hits allowed in 6.1 spring innings. Dull says he has used a similar approach this spring as he did in 2016.
“I want to keep that competitive edge and make sure that I am ready for whatever happens during the season,” Dull said.
In an era where 95+ MPH fastballs have become commonplace in big league bullpens, Dull found success last season at a lower speed. His fastball topped out at 93, but averaged 90. Despite not lighting up the radar gun, Dull held hitters to a .212 BA with his fastball, according to Fangraphs. Dull’s low-80s slider was even more effective. He allowed just 12 hits off of the slider all season (a .136 BAA). Despite the success of those two offerings, Dull has been working to expand his repertoire this spring. He has focused on regaining the feel for his change-up, a pitch he threw only 88 times last season.
Dull used the change-up more frequently in college and early in his pro career, but had become more of a fastball-slider only pitcher the past few seasons. Although getting a feel for off-speed pitches can often be a challenge in the desert, Dull has been pleased with how the change-up has been working for him this spring.
“I feel like so far the pitch has done exactly what I have wanted it to do which is a good sign for the rest of the season, hopefully,” Dull said. “I have been trying to mix that pitch into more situations lately. The idea is to give the left-hander a little bit more to think about and also I have been playing around with mixing it in to righties, as well, so that they can’t just worry about a fastball and a slider anymore.”
While the A’s will start the season with an inexperienced starting rotation (only Kendall Graveman has been on a big league roster on Opening Day in a previous season), their bullpen is long on experience. In addition to Dull, the A’s are returning veterans Ryan Madson, John Axford, Sean Doolittle and Liam Hendriks. The A’s also added veteran Santiago Casilla to the mix this off-season. Casilla, who began his big league career with the A’s in 2004, won three World Series titles with the Giants and spent several seasons as the Giants’ primary closer. Madson, Axford and Doolittle have also spent significant time closing in the big leagues, and Hendriks and Dull have experience in the ninth inning, as well.
Oakland manager Bob Melvin has indicated that the A’s won’t have rigid roles for their relievers, especially in the late innings. Dull says he is comfortable going into each game not knowing what role he will be expected to fill, and he doesn’t foresee any issues with a “bullpen-by-committee” approach.
“I like not knowing when you are going to go in,” Dull said. “We also have confidence in each other. In any situation that is thrown at any one of us, we know that all of us can get the job done.”
The A’s have yet to announce their Opening Day roster, but Dull is optimistic about what he has seen from his teammates this spring.
“I like the way our team is coming together right now,” Dull said. “I have a lot better feeling about this team [than last year]. The atmosphere in the clubhouse has been awesome. You can tell that everyone is starting to mesh together as a team right now. A team that comes together early will see that translate out on the field.”
Several of Dull’s 2012 A’s draft classmates and former teammates in the minor leagues were part of Oakland’s major league camp this spring. Dull says playing with guys he came up the ranks with was a special feeling.
“It’s always fun being in the same clubhouse with them and getting a chance to hang out with them again,” Dull said. “I’m hoping one day we’ll get a chance to be back together in the same clubhouse and continue we started in the minors.”