How the Texas Rangers turned Sam Dyson into a stud reliever

Thursday in Toronto, it was Texas right-hander Sam Dyson, not Shawn Tolleson, who was called on to close out the Blue Jays 5-3 in Game 1 of the ALDS. Neither is exactly a household name, but understanding the usual dynamics of the Rangers bullpen is understanding a key team component that allowed them to charge to the playoffs. For the first few months, that bullpen was a liability. Then it quietly improved, turning into the strength the Rangers have today.

Dyson very quickly made himself the eighth-inning guy, serving as a bridge to Tolleson in the ninth. Thursday, it wasn’t that Tolleson didn’t have manager Jeff Banister’s trust; the skipper just preferred Dyson’s sinker against the bats the Blue Jays were going to send up. That much doesn’t not make sense. Dyson arrived in a deadline trade that received minimal attention, but he was thrust into a role of importance that he hasn’t given up. In thinking about what the Rangers did, it’s worth reading a wonderful article about the Nationals by Barry Svrluga.

The Nationals dealt for Jonathan Papelbon, and some suggest that deal even undid the season. Before pulling the trigger on that move, though, general manager Mike Rizzo inquired on both Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman. Writes Svrluga:

The Nationals wouldn’t trade pitcher Lucas Giolito, one of the top pitching prospects in the game. They wouldn’t trade shortstop Trea Turner, who they thought might be the replacement for incumbent Ian Desmond someday. The Reds and Padres each wanted two of the Nationals’ top five prospects. Rizzo moved on.

Any team would’ve heard the same story — a shutdown reliever at the deadline is going to cost you. Neither Kimbrel nor Chapman were moved because they were deemed too expensive. Rizzo went the Papelbon route and was OK with that at the time. Meanwhile, Texas GM Jon Daniels went another route. With Cole Hamels, he got the Phillies to include Jake Diekman. And Daniels picked up Dyson from the Marlins, giving up a minor-league reliever and a third-string backstop. Few would raise eyebrows in response, but it looks like a stroke of genius today.

At FanGraphs, we have a few versions of Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, for pitchers. One calculates WAR based on the runs a pitcher actually gives up. Another calculates WAR based on walks, strikeouts and home runs. The last version blends the two as a compromise. Below, here are the most valuable relievers since the trade deadline, by the first version of WAR:

  • Tony Watson
  • Sam Dyson
  • Jeurys Familia
  • Matt Albers
  • Dellin Betances
  • Keone Kela

Now, here are the most valuable relievers since the deadline, by the second version of WAR:

  • Brett Cecil
  • Cody Allen
  • Carson Smith
  • Andrew Miller
  • Alex Colome
  • Sam Dyson

Finally, here are the most valuable relievers since the deadline, by the third version of WAR — the statistical compromise:

  • Sam Dyson
  • Jeurys Familia
  • Brett Cecil
  • Tony Watson
  • Carson Smith
  • Andrew Miller

No matter how you look at it, Dyson comes out looking fantastic. The Rangers didn’t trade for one of the big-name relievers, and as far as I know, they might not have even tried. Maybe that idea didn’t interest them much. They went the cheaper route, betting on stuff instead of track record, and since then Dyson has been arguably the best reliever in baseball. Dyson is not the best reliever in baseball, but he’s very obviously working out, improving since getting to Texas. Sometimes the best trades are the ones not made. Ssometimes the best trades are the ones made instead of other ones.

Dyson’s 2015 season changed rather abruptly. It wasn’t just his uniform — it was also what he was doing inside it. Here’s how his year breaks down:

Sam Dyson, 2015, Pre- and Post-Trade
2015 Team R/9 GB% Strike% Chase% K-BB%
Marlins 4.30 64% 63% 32% 13%
Rangers 1.44 76% 69% 43% 22%
SOURCE: FanGraphs
R/9: runs per 9 innings GB%: groundball rate Strike%: strike rate Chase%: rate of swings at pitches out of the zone K-BB: strikeout rate minus walk rate

By runs per nine, Dyson improved by nearly two-thirds. Improvement is also apparent in other, supporting places. The Rangers didn’t trade for a reliever who was already doing well — they traded for a reliever they thought would do well. Since getting dealt, he’s generated more grounders. He’s thrown a lot more strikes. He’s gotten a lot more bad swings. He’s in more control of his strikeouts and walks.

Underneath the change: scouting. Both visual and statistical. Peter Gammons tweeted a little information, noting how the Rangers thought Dyson could be better if he threw fewer breaking balls. There’s a big difference in his pitch patterns between organizations:

Sam Dyson, 2015, Pre- and Post-Trade
2015 Team Four-Seam Sinker Slider Changeup
Marlins 26% 44% 14% 17%
Rangers 10% 71% 3% 15%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

That didn’t happen by accident. Earlier, with the Marlins, fewer than half of Dyson’s pitches were sinkers. With the Rangers, more than two-thirds of his pitches were sinkers. They’ve been thrown at the expense of sliders and four-seam fastballs, and, obviously, Dyson hasn’t looked back. It wasn’t long ago that he was proud of how his slider had improved, after a change in grip, but as Dyson has demonstrated on the Rangers, his sinker is almost enough on its own. Minor-league teammates used to call him "Bowling Ball" for a reason.

Dyson’s sinker is a power sinker. It’s the rare sinker that can get swings and misses, and it’s also a pitch Dyson controls pretty well, explaining all the improvements he’s made. Throwing more sinkers makes it easier for Dyson to throw more strikes. Obviously, the sinker is a groundball pitch. It’s also a pitch that dives late, causing hitters to go out of the zone. Here’s Dyson using the sinker to retire Troy Tulowitzki:

Now, here’s Dyson using the sinker to saw off the left-handed Justin Smoak:

Visually, it’s an impressive pitch. Statistically, it’s an impressive pitch. The gun reads 97 on the pitch to Tulowitzki. Pitchers are usually taught to diversify, the argument being that when throwing multiple pitches, hitters can’t know what’s going to come. Seldom is there a pitcher who works with one pitch extremely often, but Dyson can be one of those guys, because his sinker seems to be good enough. It passes all the necessary tests.

PITCHf/x is a system that tracks every pitch thrown in the major leagues. Using PITCHf/x data, we can search for Dyson sinker comparisons. We know, because of the system, how fast Dyson throws his sinker, and how it moves both horizontally and vertically. So we can look for other pitches with similar traits. I’ve worked through my formulas, and the No. 1 comparison for Dyson’s sinker is Zach Britton’s sinker. The sinker Britton threw 90 percent of the time en route to a fantastic season as closer. Comparisons don’t get much more flattering. Granted, Britton is a southpaw, but you get the idea. Pitchers like Jared Hughes and Carson Smith get movement similar to Dyson, but Dyson throws several ticks harder. Velocity means more and more, the higher it gets.

The Rangers made a bet that Dyson would improve if he simplified. It cost them very little to find out, and it turned out they were correct to gamble on what appeared to be a special pitch. By going to his sinker more often, Dyson has taken off, closing the first game of the ALDS against the best offense the game has seen in a while. The Rangers want Dyson’s approach to be fairly similar to Britton’s. Tthat much makes sense, because Dyson is a lot like Britton, who is one of the better relievers in the game.