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Who’s the Most Awesome, Craig Kimbrel or Ryan Pressly?

Firing squad or guillotine?

MLB: Houston Astros at Texas Rangers Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

If you are an Astros fan you know by now that bullpen specialist par excellence Ryan Pressly broke a rather impressive record. He has made 39 straight appearances, from August 15, 2018- May 17th, 2019, without allowing a run. You probably also know that Pressly broke the record formerly held by Craig Kimbrel, who pitched for Atlanta and accumulated his record of scoreless innings between June 14th, 2011 and August 8th, 2011.

MLB: World Series-Boston Red Sox at Los Angeles Dodgers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

That’s pretty awesome. Thirty nine appearances, about 38 innings, without allowing a home run, or a walk and a run scoring double, or a single, a stolen base and a single. You name all the ways a team can get a single run across the plate.

How can we possibly decide who was more awesome? Obviously they were both perfect. We cannot rely on runs surrendered to answer this question, because for both the ERA was 0.00. They’ll both kill you dead, but from the point of view of a major league batter, which will kill you more dead? Was Craig Kimbrel or is Ryan Pressly more awesome? Let’s look at the peripherals.

By FIP, Fielding Independent Pitching, which judges a pitcher’s performance by only true outcomes, walks, strikeouts, and home runs, and not by fielding variables, then Kimbrel has the edge, 0.42 to 0.89. SIERA, a similar measurement that takes into account the nature and quality of batted balls allowed by a pitcher, also gives Kimbrel the edge 0.75 to 1.56.

What gives Kimbrel the advantage? He was much more a strikeout pitcher, and he gave up much less hard contact. During his span of dominance Kimbrel only allowed 13.8% hard contact as defined by Fangraphs, while for Pressly it is 28.9%. Kimbrel struck out nearly half the batters he faced, while for Pressly it is just over one third. Not surprisingly therefore, Kimbrel gave up less contact, 61.1%, compared to Pressly, 66.3%. Kimbrel’s Batting Average Against was .112, for Pressly it is .131. And that doesn’t take into account that the BABIP for Kimbrel was actually a little higher, .241, and for Pressly it is an anemic .205. Both pitchers appear to have pitched into some good luck, but especially Pressly, considering he is hit harder, but has a lower BABIP.

However, that may be because Pressly gives up more ground ball contact, but, on second thought, no. Ground balls are more likely to be hits, although less likely to be extra base hits.

So far, edge Kimbrel. But not so fast.

Kimbrel definitely dominates hitters, getting more strikeouts, allowing fewer hits or any kind of meaningful contact. Surprisingly to me, the two pitchers are actually comparable in terms of fastball velocity, Kimbrel about 96.5 MPH, Pressly about an even 96. I expected Kimbrel to be a few ticks faster than Pressly.

Where Pressly has the edge is in finesse. Not to say he doesn’t dominate also, not just as much as Kimbrel. But with his velocity and stuff, he utilizes a four seam, a curve and a slider, (Kimbrel is just a fastball, slider pitcher), Pressly also has exquisite control. During his streak comprising 38 innings Pressly has allowed only 0.71 BB/9 innings. For Kimbrel it was 2.63, about three and a half times as high. Pressly has 15.67 times more K’s than BB’s, for Kimbrel it was “only” about 6 times more.

So even though Pressly allows a few more base hits than Kimbrel did during his streak, by allowing fewer walks he has achieved a lower WHIP (walks and hits/innings pitched). In other words, Pressly allows slightly fewer base runners even if he allows a few more hits. If you’re a hitter you have a better chance of getting on base through the base on balls with Kimbrel, and a better chance of getting a hit against Pressly. Your chances in either case are still very low.

Kimbrel was the kind that might give up a walk and then strike out the side. Pressly might allow a few more hits now and then, but with no one else on base they turn out to be harmless, stranded runners.

Pick your poison. You’re dead either way.