The Oakland A's bullpen continues to be one of the best stories of the year for an otherwise disappointing team, and that story gained a whole new chapter on Monday. Ryan Dull, who entered the season as the last guy in the pen, set an MLB record by stranding his first 36 inherited runners of the season.
When judging the performances of pitchers, it's natural to turn to their ERA as a starting point. However, that stat contains a major blind spot when it comes to relievers, since their job often requires them to enter the game with runners already on base. They're expected to strand those inherited runners, but if they don't then their failure will be counted on someone else's record. That's how you can look at a player like Luke Gregerson in 2014 and make a legitimate case that he was either great (2.12 ERA) or awful (10-of-23 inherited runners scored). The importance of this stat is not lost on catcher Stephen Vogt (via Susan Slusser, S.F. Chronicle):
"To me, inherited runners is probably the No. 1 stat, outside of saves if you're one of the 30 closers in baseball. Inherited runners is the most important reliever stat and obviously [Dull is] the best, not only this year, but probably ever."
Quite an endorsement! And that's only half the story. Not only has Dull been perfect in this department, he's also been put in these situations as often as anybody. Among all MLB pitchers, only his Oakland teammate Marc Rzepczynski has inherited more runners this season (40, with 14 of them scoring). Dull inherits more runners than basically anybody and still he hasn't let one score.
And how about some historical context? As noted by Slusser, the record broken by Dull had previously belonged to Frank Francisco -- you might remember him as the guy who threw a chair at a fan in the Coliseum in 2004. Francisco stranded his first 35 runners with the Rangers in 2007, and wound up 41-of-44 by the end of the year. Here are some other related milestones to measure against (note: the stats go reliably through 1973, and then mostly reliably through 1954):
- The record for a full season of perfection is 22-of-22 IR stranded, set by Randy Myers in 1998 (oddly, the last season of his All-Star career). No one else has finished with a perfect IR record of more than 20 runners.
- Even if/when Dull finally lets one through, Travis Wood of the Cubs is working on his own perfect season this year with all 20 IR stranded so far.
- The best-ever season depends on your own judgment. If you set your criteria as the most IR with no more than 10 allowed to score, then our own Ricardo Rincon holds the record (from 2005) by stranding 62-of-72.
- Cut it down to no more than five IR scored, and it's Darold Knowles of the Phillies back in 1966 with a record of 49-of-52. (Unrelated, but Knowles later pitched for the A's too!)
I think the mark to shoot for is Knowles. Sure, Rincon finished with a higher tally, but Knowles dominates him in terms of efficiency -- Rincon inherited 27 more runners and allowed seven more to score. After Knowles, the race for the second-best season is probably between Francisco's aforementioned 2007 campaign and Tony Fossas of St. Louis in 1997 (54-for-60). There's no right answer to that one, merely degrees of preference.
One way or other Dull has already set a record, but he has a real chance to turn his hot first half into an all-time great season, at least in terms of this one crucially important stat. With his combination of quantity and quality, he can rival Knowles or anyone else for arguably the best campaign in terms of stranding inherited runners. And his success doesn't end with this one stat, either. His numbers are impressive even without factoring in his inherited runners:
Dull, 2016: 38 games, 2.11 ERA, 42⅔ ip, 45 Ks, 8 BB, 5 HR, 5-for-5 holds
That is a nearly flawless line for a reliever, at least within reason. Low ERA, high Ks, low walks, hasn't blown a single lead or scored a single inherited runner. The only thing that isn't completely awesome is his HR rate, which is merely decent. It's enough that he is generating buzz as a potential All-Star, if further injury replacements are needed. Teammate Ryan Madson had this to say, via Slusser:
"His ability to have consistent, quality stuff every day is the most amazing thing to me. His slider (is) never flat. He gets himself mechanically ready every day; he doesn't go through the motions."
Not bad for a 32nd-round draft pick, in his rookie season, at age 26-but-looks-16. As manager Bob Melvin said, via Slusser:
"I'd buy him a drink, but I don't know that he's old enough."
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