There were two outs in the sixth inning last Tuesday night when A’s manager Bob Melvin emerged from the visitors’ dugout at AT&T Park and motioned to his bullpen, calling for Ryan Dull.
An unassuming, short and stocky right-hander, Dull proceeded to throw seven pitches, all to Giants infielder Ramiro Pena, who flied out to center field. Dull walked off the mound and did not return for the seventh inning.
It was a seemingly unremarkable outing – but for one thing. Dull had entered the game with runners on first and third, both of whom were stranded on Pena’s flyout. They were the 33rd and 34th runners Dull had inherited this season. None had scored.
“It’s been unbelievable,” fellow A’s reliever Sean Doolittle said. “It’s one of those things, man, like most things that happen with relievers, it gets swept under the rug and doesn’t get talked about. But that’s one of the most impressive things going on this year, I think, in the entire American League.”
Dull stranded two more runners after entering Monday’s game against the Twins in the seventh inning. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Dull’s streak of 36 inherited runners stranded is the longest by any major-league reliever to start a season in the expansion era.
Coming into those situations – arguably the most difficult and pressure-packed for a relief pitcher – Dull has been close to unhittable. Opponents are batting .075 against him with men on base and have only one hit in 47 at-bats with a runner in scoring position – which scored a runner whom Dull had put on base.
It remains to be seen whether those numbers will earn Dull, a 26-year-old rookie, a spot on the American League All-Star team this month. They already have garnered the respect and admiration of his teammates in Oakland.
After Dull stranded his 30th inherited runner of the season on June 21, Melvin called the streak “just amazing” and said it was “past the point where you’re knocking on wood.” Doolittle said Dull has been “the MVP of the bullpen for us, without question.” Sonny Gray, who started that June 21 game, afterward gave Dull a ringing endorsement.
“In the sixth, I saw him warming up,” Gray said. “You don’t want anyone to come in the game (for you). But if he’s the one coming in the game, you’re fairly confident what the outcome is going to be.”
Perfection, in anything, is not easily attainable. The major-league record for the most runners inherited with none scoring over a full season is 22, set by Randy Myers in 1998 with Toronto and San Diego. Only once in the past 40 years has a pitcher inherited as many as 30 runners while allowing just one to score, per baseball-reference.com: Houston’s Wilton Lopez, who stranded 32 of 33 in 2010.
So what is it that allows a pitcher to excel in those situations?
“There’s actually two things,” said Garvin Alston, the A’s former minor-league pitching coordinator who is now the Arizona Diamondbacks’ bullpen coach. “And I think (Dull) possesses both of them.
“One is his incredible command. The second part is that he’s not afraid of anything. He fears nothing.”
On April 11, Dull was brought into a game against the Angels with two runners on base and one out. He retired his first batter but hit the next, loading the bases for Mike Trout, arguably the best player in baseball. Trout struck out looking on four pitches.
On June 16 against the Rangers, Dull entered in the seventh inning with the bases loaded and one out. He faced two hitters, Elvis Andrus and Bobby Wilson, and struck both out swinging.
“Honestly, he’s always been like that,” said Dull’s older brother, Drew. “He’s had this knack that nothing really bothers him.”
At odds with Dull’s overpowering numbers is his unimposing stature. The A’s list Dull at 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds. His average fastball velocity this season is 91.6 mph, according to Brooks Baseball. Through his junior year of high school, his brother said, Dull wore glasses on the mound and weighed “145 pounds soaking wet.”
“Senior year he got rid of his glasses, bulked up a little bit, and everybody was still like, ‘Who’s this little scrawny kid?’ ” Drew Dull said. “Next thing you know, (batters are) sitting in the dugout.”
Dull’s coach at East Forsyth High School in the Winston-Salem area of North Carolina was Allen Plaster, a former minor-league pitcher who spent time in the A’s organization. Plaster said he taught all his players, including Dull, lessons he learned in the A’s system, such as: “Throw two out of the first three pitches for strikes; don’t be afraid to pitch to contact; let the other eight players work behind you.”
Plaster recalled in Dull a teenager who “worked his tail off at everything he did” and still owns most of the pitching records at East Forsyth, where Drew now coaches. Plaster also saw a calm but serious demeanor. Sometimes during games, Plaster said, “I would try to crack jokes with him. He’d never even crack a smile.”
Because of Dull’s size, Plaster believes, the pitcher attracted little interest from college programs. He ended up at UNC-Asheville, where the A’s drafted him in the 32nd round in 2012. Alston first saw him pitch in the instructional league.
“I thought he was the nicest pit bull you’ve ever seen in your life,” Alston said. “He is so nice and respectful. But as soon as he steps across that line, he will tear your face off.”
Alston noticed immediately that Dull threw a lot of strikes. He also saw Dull get hit hard. When both trends persisted, Alston studied Dull’s outings and found he was giving up a lot of hits in two-strike counts by throwing pitches that were too hittable. So Alston had Dull work on locating put-away pitches: fastballs just off the plate and sliders that broke out of the strike zone.
“He picked up on it immediately,” Alston said.
Last season, Dull posted a combined 0.74 ERA at Double-A Midland and Triple-A Nashville before making his major-league debut with the A’s in September. In his first 38 appearances this season, Dull has a 2.11 ERA and 45-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. While his emergence has gone largely unnoticed nationally, it has not shocked Alston.
“When you see him and you watch him compete, it’s not a surprise,” Alston said. “He knows how to compete; he knows how to win. He has a winning style about him.”
His Oakland teammates, it seems, are still getting to know him. Doolittle said the rest of the A’s bullpen has “a ton of respect” for Dull’s work ethic but that he is “super quiet.”
“We get him to laugh maybe once a game,” Doolittle said. “We’re trying to get him to loosen up a little. But just the way he is on the mound, where he doesn’t show a lot of emotion and he’s really even-keeled, that’s the same guy he is off the field.”
It’s surely one reason Dull appears so comfortable under pressure. Melvin repeatedly has praised Dull’s ability to focus on executing pitches while blocking out context. Ironically, only in the last few years has Dull cleared up other pitchers’ messes. Throughout college, he was a starter.
“I’ve come out of games with runners on and had guys come in (to relieve),” Dull said. “So I know how those guys feel. It’s a tough situation.
“Mostly, you just be fearless.”