Dylan Lee never celebrates his birthday in the same place.
The left-hander turned 24 on Wednesday in El Paso, Texas as a visiting player with the Triple-A New Orleans Baby Cakes. Lee was in Greensboro on August 1, 2017. The year before that? Batavia, New York.
Expect this trend to continue into 2019. Barring injury, he should be joining the Marlins in Miami or another major league city when that date rolls around again.
Even in a relatively thin farm system, Lee has not received much attention from talent evaluators. MLB Pipeline excludes him from their Marlins’ top prospects list (no relation to Braxton Lee). As recently as April, 2080 Baseball was underwhelmed by his stuff and lack of command, projecting his career to stall against high-minors competition.
But Lee is proving them wrong this season as one of the most dominant relief pitchers in professional baseball.
Split across three levels, the stats speak for themselves. Lee’s 0.94 ERA and 0.79 WHIP both place him among the top 30 minor leaguers with at least 30 innings pitched. Promoted from High-A Jupiter shortly after being selected to the Florida State League All-Star Game, his performance has actually improved since then (13 straight scoreless appearances with 23 total strikeouts and only one walk).
The Dinuba, California native tells Fish Stripes that confidence in his own abilities and faith in God have been key to this success:
“It’s not in my hands, it’s in His. I just go out there and play the game with the gifts He has given to me. Whatever supposed to happen is going to happen...I don’t worry anymore.”
Lee is making the most of the opportunity his parents never had.
His father, John, played baseball into junior high school, but put that aside as a teenager when he was needed by the family to help out around the house. Dylan thinks his mother, Elza Lee, had plenty of potential, too. She only stopped competing for her school’s track team because there wasn’t any transportation available for the commute home if she stayed for practice that late in the day.
“So they could’ve been good athletes,” Lee says, “but I think my mom would’ve been the better one.”
Even at 6-foot-4, there were doubts about whether Lee could get noticed as an amateur when playing in quiet Dinuba. It’s about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, but a 200-plus mile trip in either direction.
“I had people tell me that it was a far shot,” he remembers. “It was hard to make it. You come from a small town, you don’t play any competition.”
Lee caught a break in 2011, heading into his senior year at Dinuba High School. Trosky Baseball held a showcase camp in his area and invited him. Colleges began contacting him shortly after that and local scouts approached him about the professional side of the industry.
“I knew I had a chance then.”
The Marlins selected Lee in the 10th round of the 2016 MLB draft out of Fresno State, but before arriving there, he attended College of the Sequoias (COS). Between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Lee tells KSEE 24 he did “a complete 180” to put himself in position to compete at the Division-I level. He nearly went undefeated for COS in 2014 (school record 13 wins) and maintained a 2.34 earned run average.
Even though Lee worked primarily out of the bullpen as a senior, the Marlins gradually stretched him out for starting duty. After a brief stint with the Gulf Coast League club, he spent much of July and August 2016 at Short Season A Batavia. He had a sparkling 1.56 earned run average over his final six appearances with the Muckdogs.
His 2017 season in the Greensboro Grasshoppers rotation raised some concerns. Despite attacking the zone (throwing nearly 70 percent strikes), he got burned by the long ball too often—13 home runs allowed in 98 1⁄3 innings—and wasn’t missing enough bats. His summer ended early with a trip to the disabled list in late July.
Lee says he didn’t learn about the transition from starting back to relieving until preseason exhibition games began:
“They didn’t tell me anything. Nothing in spring training. I started a game in spring training. Then they started to put me later in games during spring training, so I figured I was going to be put in the ‘pen.”
Credit to the Marlins player development staff for recognizing that this is his best role.
Lee’s fastball velocity now touches the mid-90s on occasion. That creates a big contrast from his 83-85 mph changeup and keeps batters uncomfortable. One question moving forward is whether his high-70s curveball improves enough to generate whiffs.
Growing up, he was inspired by Baseball Hall of Famer Randy Johnson. Not necessarily Johnson’s pitching style, but “the way he approached the game. The fact that people knew what pitch was coming and still couldn’t hit it.”
Lee has much more conventional mechanics. Courtesy of 2080 Baseball, here’s a close look at his high three-quarters delivery:
Like Adam Conley with the major league team, Lee gets called into a variety of game situations. This season, he has appeared in every inning from the second through the ninth at least once, plus extra innings. He’s gained experience with inheriting baserunners and working back-to-back days, which he was never asked to do at Fresno State.
The tall lefties got to meet one another in Jupiter a few months ago. Conley shared a copy of “Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World” as they connected over their faith.
The book’s message clearly left an impression:
"When we seek happiness in stuff, we find that no amount of it makes us happy"#worldliness— Dylan Lee (@DRLee45) July 31, 2018
We’ll see how Lee handles more reps in the Pacific Coast League, but what sticks out most about his 2018 thus far is the consistency. He held opponents to a sub-.500 OPS in April, May, June and July. Right-handed batters (.391 OPS) aren’t faring any better than lefties (.431). He has yet to surrender runs in consecutive games.
Nobody has scored on him since June 11. To put that streak in perspective, the 2018 draft had just wrapped up and Caleb Smith was still in the major league rotation.
There’s no urgency for the Marlins to rush Lee’s MLB debut. Despite shopping several veteran relievers at Tuesday’s non-waiver trade deadline, they only completed a deal for Brad Ziegler. Miami should have much more roster flexibility next season, either as a result of additional trades or using minor league options for struggling Rule 5 draft picks Brett Graves and Elieser Hernandez.
“It’s not my timing,” Lee said on Saturday after arriving in New Orleans, “it’s His! I’m just along for the ride.”