Plenty has been said about the Houston Astros and the team’s ability to utilize a pitcher’s arsenal most effectively and efficiently. We have seen a new life on Justin Verlander’s career and the fulfillment of immense potential from Gerrit Cole this past season. However, the Astros may have solved their greatest pitching puzzle yet in exchange for two low to mid level prospects.
Ryan Pressly was the perfect pitcher for the Astros organization to trade for and the benefit of this midseason acquisition was evident immediately. Pressly is one of the premier relievers in baseball because of his ability to spin the ball. Now, spin is not always properly utilized, but the Astros are more adept at finding the correct usage of high spin pitches to make their pitchers as effective as possible. Not only does this help the players under team control, but also allows the team to acquire players for a relatively cheap cost.
These players come cheap because they are performing at some level that dictates their trade value, but the Astros are well aware that the player will improve drastically when used properly. Take some of the recent examples of high level relievers traded at the deadline in the past few seasons. Andrew Miller was traded for Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield, two top 50 prospects at the time. Aroldis Chapman was traded for Billy McKinney, Adam Warren and Gleyber Torres, or a fourth outfielder, an MLB reliever and a top 10 prospect. Brad Hand was most recently traded along with Adam Cimber for Francisco Mejia, a consensus top 20 prospect in the league.
The Astros acquired Pressly for Jorge Alcara and Gilberto Celestino, who are now the 11th and 14th ranked prospects in the Twins’ system. This deal gives you an idea why the Astros value player development so much as an organization. It is not just increasing the talent level of their own players but allowing them to find undervalued players due to misuse by other teams.
Let’s take a look and understand why the Astros coveted Pressly. The right-hander has an impressive arsenal: an elite curveball with 99th percentile spin and 95th percentile velocity, a devastating slider (94th percentile spin, 96th percentile velocity), and a mid-90s fastball (98th, 89th). The numbers confirm what the eye test tells us: Ryan Pressly has nasty stuff.
In my opinion, Pressly has the best arsenal of any reliever in the league and he has finally learned how to unlock it. The very obvious thing to point out is that Pressly increased his curveball usage about 13% with the Astros which coincides with his rise up the ranks of best reliever in the MLB. So, is the Astros’ blueprint just to find pitchers with underutilized pitches and throw them more? The answer is much deeper than that.
In Houston, Pressly actually got less swings and misses and threw less pitches in the strike zone. The movement on his pitches were the same and the velocity difference was negligible. However, Pressly’s strikeout rate rose 5% and his walk rate decreased 5.5%. The point is that the Astros do not simply trade for a player and make their skills and tools immediately better, but Brent Strom, AJ Hinch, and the rest of the coaching staff make suggestions on how to better utilize the player’s strengths.
The biggest difference in Pressly’s performance with the Astros and the Twins was the quality of contact he allowed. His soft-hit rate with the Twins was 12.7%, and in Houston that number grew to 31.3%. My personal favorite stat about Pressly limiting hard contact is the comparison of barrels he allowed. In 2018, Pressly allowed 7 total “barrels” or as Tom Tango originally defined them, “batted-ball events whose comparable hit types (in terms of exit velocity and launch angle) have led to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage.” Pressly allowed 6 barrels with the Twins with a 5.2 Barrel%, which is well above average. With the Astros, however, Pressly allowed one barrel. The one crushed ball he allowed was his first day with the team, on a 3-2 count to Rougned Odor, after Pressly shook off his catcher, Max Stassi, three times.
Besides just pointing out the results of these changes, I want to highlight why these results occur. To do this, I’ll focus on two at bats with Pressly facing Mike Trout as a Twin and then as an Astro.
Here is Pressly’s at bat against Trout in May:
After beginning the plate appearance with a fastball running inside for a ball, Pressly gets very aggressive with two fastballs in the zone. Trout puts two very good swings on the pitches but fouls them both back. Reviewing the video of the at bat, Pressly missed his spot with the fastball three times. After back to back curveballs, Pressly misses his spot with a 2-2 slider where the catcher was set up on the outside corner, and gets Trout to top the pitch to third base for an out.
Pressly’s stuff is good enough to get outs even without being properly utilized, which makes sense because Pressly was still a great reliever in Minnesota. However, banking on Mike Trout to miss your mistakes is a dangerous route to take. Pressly’s pitch sequence here is predictable; the plan of attack was to get ahead on the outside corner with a fastball and put Trout away with a slider off the outside edge. The issue with this sequence is that the Twins do not properly pair Pressly’s curveball with another pitch. The fastball and slider look similar coming out of the hand when pitched to similar locations, but the curveball looks more similar to a high fastball. For anyone who follows Pitching Ninja on Twitter, this concept of pitch tunneling is nothing new. Take a look at how Pressly can effectively use his curveball and fastball tunnel.
Here is where the Astros make the most out of their pitchers:
In this at bat, the Astros pair up Pressly’s fastball and curveball, making both pitches more effective. Here, Pressly starts Trout off with a low curveball and properly follows it with a high fastball, which Trout fouled off. When two pitches look the same in ball flight, the batter’s time to react shortens and the result is recognizing the pitch too late to swing. While his fastball was primarily used in the bottom of the zone in Minnesota, Houston better utilizes Pressly’s elite vertical movement and focuses on the top end of the strike zone.
After working up and out of the zone with another fastball, Pressly comes back with a slider that is supposed to be outside but ends up in the middle of the plate. However, because of the back to back fastballs out of the zone, Pressly gets away with this miss as Trout is out in front and fouls the pitch off to the pull side. Finally, Pressly puts Trout away with another curveball on a check swing ground ball to the pitcher. The idea is not that Pressly is a perfect pitcher now that he is on the Astros, but now he has a greater room for error when he makes mistake pitches because of the sequence of pitches. When the righty effectively tunnels his pitches, batters’ reaction times become shorter which in turn limits hard contact.
With the Astros, Pressly has more evenly distributed his pitch usage and it has helped disrupt the timing of hitters which has led to soften contact. With the Twins, the average exit velocity of batted balls off of Pressly was 89.5 MPH with a .427 wOBA, whereas with the Astros that number drops to 83.8 MPH with a .241 wOBA. This is not the only aspect that the Astros work on in order to improve their pitchers, but this is just another piece of the puzzle. There are plenty of other factors that contribute to pitcher’s success in Houston. Pressly also slightly changed his release point in Houston and it affected the spin axis of his pitches. The Astros remain at the forefront of effectively utilizing their pitchers and this is just the latest example of that.
All Data Courtesy of Baseball Savant and Fangraphs
Feature Photo Courtesy of Keith Allison