Sam Dyson: The Closer of an era that never was

The Texas Rangers DFA’d reliever Sam Dyson yesterday. It was less than three months ago that Dyson starred for Team USA during the World Baseball Classic.

To say a lot has changed between then and where we are presently is obvious. In only 16.2 innings pitched — roughly one-fifth of the annual workload for a typical high-leverage reliever — Dyson generated one of the worst pitching seasons in history according to Win Percentage Added. Per Joey Matches, Dyson was worth -3.45 wins according to WPA. Essentially, out of 17 total appearances, Sam Dyson cost the Rangers 3.5 wins. That is almost impossible to do over such a small sample size.

In 16.2 IP Dyson surrendered 31 hits (including 6 home runs) and 12 walks. His ERA was a whopping 10.80, with a FIP not so much better at 9.04. These results more closely resemble what you would expect of a pitcher who jumped all the way from Single-A to the big leagues, not like the All Star Dyson was as recently as last season.

To understand what makes Sam Dyson such a baseball tragedy, at least relative to his expected performance, let’s take a look at how he got here.

It was less than two years ago when the Rangers acquired Dyson from the Marlins. It was a low-key trade by most deadline standards; Texas gave up two non-prospects in catcher Tomas Telis and RHP Cody Ege. (Telis has amassed a putrid .223/.254/.264 in 127 career MLB plate appearances, while Ege has thrown 11.2 career innings.) Dyson, on the other hand, would ascend into Texas’s most dominant relief pitcher down the stretch, and then assume the role of closer the following season.

During the remainder of the 2015 campaign, where the Rangers made up a 9.5-game deficit in the AL West to win the division on the last day of the regular season, Dyson pitched light’s out. He struck out a quarter of the batters he faced (25.2%) and walked next to no one (3.4%), all while inducing a ridiculous 75.9% ground ball rate. His ERA in that time was a minuscule 1.15, while his FIP was an also-tiny 2.11.

The trade that got all the press that summer was when the Rangers acquired Cole Hamels and Jake Diekman from Philadelphia. But based on the strength of Texas’s bullpen down the stretch, which was arguably the biggest factor that propelled them to a division crown, it can be said that without the lesser-known Sam Dyson the Rangers would not have accomplished such a feat.

What most people remember Sam Dyson for wouldn’t come until the playoffs, at the end of a grueling 5-game series against the Blue Jays. Texas quickly went on to a 2-0 series lead before losing the final three games, and it was in a crazy Game 5 where Dyson allowed the series-winning three-run homer to Toronto slugger Jose Bautista. Just because I’m a glutton for pain, here is how that went down:

I didn’t appreciate Dyson’s reaction to the blast, not even while despising Bautista as a baseball player and having to deal with the torment of another failed playoff stint. The roller coaster 2015 season left me exhausted in that moment, where there was nothing left to do other than accept that the other team got the best of my guys. The time for fighting passed when that homer went deep into the night. It was beneath Dyson to be such a poor sport.

From my end, I didn’t have a problem with how any of it played out. Except for the final result, obviously. Sam Dyson was the Rangers best relief pitcher, and if I had to have someone on the mound in that moment it would have been him.

People like to say baseball is like chess, but it really isn’t. Chess is about positioning pieces and suffocating the opponent’s king; in baseball you can position all the pieces in perfect order, and the opposition can still get a knight or a bishop to perform like a queen over any one at bat. But one way or another, the 2015 season had to come to an end. It just so happened that Sam Dyson was responsible for throwing the fateful pitch.

In 2016, Dyson was back to his normal, above-average self. He took over as the Rangers primary closer fairly early in the season — in place of Shawn Tolleson, who was in the midst of his own odyssey with the organization — and finished the year with 38 saves in 43 chances (88.4%). While his ERA was a very respectable 2.43, his peripherals dipped in a slight but meaningful way. His strikeout rate dropped from 25% to 19%, his walk rate went from 3.4% to 8.1%, and his GB rate went from 75% to 65% (which is still really fucking strong). In other words: he was still very good, just not a star like the season before.

After another failed trip to the postseason, where Texas got swept by the Blue Jays, the least of Texas’s concerns heading into its most recent offseason had to do with their bullpen. After all they had Dyson established, Matt Bush, Jeremy Jeffress, Keone Kela, Jake Diekman, Tony Barnette, Alex Claudio, Tanner Scheppers, and I could go on and on.

Amazingly, that good-to-plus collection of arms has undergone a fantastic bit of bad fortune over the last six months.

  • Jake Diekman had surgery on his colon and hasn’t pitched in 2017;
  • Keone Kela got sent to the minor leagues for discipline;
  • Scheppers got out-righted from the 40-man roster and has been in Triple-A all year;
  • Matt Bush got promoted to the closer’s role after the Dyson mess;
  • Jeremy Jeffress’s results have been awful (5.73 ERA in 22 IP);
  • Tony Barnette’s have been even worse (6.10 ERA in 20.1 IP);
  • Alex Claudio has become one of the most reliable of the bunch (2.92 ERA in 24.2 IP).

After allowing 3 runs in the top of the 10th inning against the Rays the other night — in the game that would turn into Dyson’s last with the club — I was kind of under the impression that that would be it for him in Texas. He was very, historically, bad in 2017, and it has cost the Rangers dearly. I am a Rangers fan, so you’d think that would upset me. Like I’d be pissed off at Sam Dyson or something.

But that wasn’t it. The first thing I thought about was how bad I felt for him, because it’s not like he wasn’t trying. It’s not like his goal was to pitch like shit and let down the other 24 players in the locker room. No professional signs up for that.

The way I know he cares is evident. He cared that Jose Bautista showed him up in the playoffs. He cared that he was responsible for Texas’s loss, and exit from the postseason. He gave a shit. Take away all the money and fame from my favorite players on my favorite teams, and just let me know that they give a damn. Call me old-fashioned.

According to the blog of Texas Rangers outfielder and now-former teammate of Sam Dyson, Shin-Soo Choo, Dyson packed his stuff in tears after the loss to the Rays. I knew that was going to be it for him. Choo knew that was going to be it for him. But most importantly, and perhaps most poignantly, Sam Dyson knew that was going to be it for him. He cared.

Maybe in a parallel universe, somewhere out there, Dyson throws a different pitch to Bautista in 2015. Maybe Dyson gets out of the inning without allowing the runner from 3rd to score, and maybe the Rangers go on to win that game and series against Toronto. Maybe they go on to beat the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series. Maybe they go on and win the Rangers first World Series.

Things could have played out so much differently is what I’m saying. Sam Dyson was brought in as a nobody in 2015 and quickly became the ace of Texas’s bullpen. By the end of 2016 Rangers’ fans were probably more excited about Matt Bush and Keone Kela, but Dyson was nothing to sneeze at. He was somebody worth trusting.

And that is ultimately what makes his fall such a surprise — the fact that Dyson couldn’t be trusted — but it offers a necessary lesson to anyone who falls too in love with relief pitchers. In the overwhelming majority of cases, from a year-to-year basis even the best relievers can look extremely human. For every freak like Andrew Miller or Craig Kimbrel lies a burial ground of pitchers exactly like Sam Dyson, who one year can be among the league’s elite, and be on the waiver wire the next.

Sam Dyson will catch on somewhere, and since he can still throw 95 I presume some pitching coach will fix him and he’ll turn into a late-inning guy again. The only thing we know for sure is that won’t be with the Rangers, the team that rescued him from oblivion with the Marlins and were rewarded with championship-caliber pitching for the better part of a season-and-a-half.

Ironically, the one position Texas had real strength in heading into the offseason has turned into perhaps its biggest flaw. Sam Dyson only pitched in 17 games, but the Rangers will have to wear his early-season struggles for what figures to be a trying remainder of the season. At current Texas is 14.0 games behind the Houston Astros in the American League West.

Sam Dyson never meant very much to me as a Ranger, which is more to say I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about him or thinking about him because he did his job. Usually the only time I talk about relief pitching is when they aren’t doing their job, when they are giving up runs, or costing their team wins.

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