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Will Ryan Pressly Be OK?

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MLB: San Francisco Giants at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

With the decimation of the Astros pitching staff, the Astros need maximum performance from the few veterans still standing. There’s only one man the Astros can consider as a closer right now. That’s Ryan Pressly.

So even though he’s only thrown 3.2 innings officially in this late starting season, his terrible start is especially concerning considering how short the season is. Yes, it’s a small sample size, but small samples are all we get this year. Plus, it’s not as short a sample as it sounds. He’d have logged more innings if he got more batters out when he was in there.

Looking at results, he has a 9.82 ERA in a mere 3.2 innings. Those innings don’t include his August sixth appearance in Arizona where he faced four batters and allowed three hits and a walk. His meltdown gave the Diamondbacks a walk-off win. He has faced 23 batters, allowed nine hits and three walks. He’s only struck out four of those 23 batters. In last night’s loss in extra innings he blew his second save in five appearances.

Yes it’s only 23 batters, but it’s hard to imagine a good closer who is on his game allowing more than half the batters he’s faced among those 23 at bats to reach base.

So what’s wrong with Pressly?

When you look at Pressly’s pitch profile, it’s hard to find much difference between 2020 Pressly and more recent itierations.

He has lost a little velocity. But that is common throughout the league this year. His fastball is down exactly one mph at 94.5, his slider is down about 1.4, and his curve 1.6. Again, this is common across the league, and yet batting averages are down across the league from previous years as well. The short summer camp has wreaked havoc on players on both sides of the plate.

His pitch selection has changed this year. He has thrown the curve only about 20% of the time this year, compared to 35% last year. He’s throwing more sliders and fastballs instead. Strangely, the BAA on the fastball so far is .455, against the slider, .444, against the curve, .000. And yet he is throwing the curve less. Fangraphs rates it as his only positive pitch this year according to its Pitch Info Pitch Values measure.

His fastball has not gotten a single whiff in 35 pitches. But, his whiff percentage is down on all his pitches. Not suprising considering his lack of success. (All linked statistics were from before last night’s game)

So maybe Pressly’s problem is lower velocity combined with poor pitch selection. I just don’t think that’s enough to explain it.

So why is the fastball getting whacked so hard. Maybe it’s spin? No. His 2019 four seam had a 2571 spin rate. This year it’s 2572. His slider and curve have more spin this year than last.

They also have more movement. The curve drops about two inches more, the slider and fourseam one. (Of course, the four seam isn’t supposed to drop).

Yet batters are seeing his pitches better. The outside the zone swing rate is only 22.6%, down from 39%. But batters are swinging inside the zone more, 71.4% to 63.5% in 2019. Overall contact rate is way up. 84.4% in 2020. 65.5% in 2019.

Pressly has not been getting as many ground balls this year, 38.5% compared to a career 46.3% average. His soft contact rate is down, but so is his hard contact rate. He’s been giving up lots of medium contact though, 69.2%, compared to a career average of 50.8%.

Apparently those are missing fielders’ gloves at a high rate. Pressly seems to be a little unlucky so far. His BABIP is a massive .538. But that doesn’t let him off the hook. His K% is only 11.8, in 2019 it was 34.1%.

I think what’s wrong is something too subtle to measure. It’s the touch. It’s the feel. It’s about a pitcher knowing he can put the ball where he wants it. It’s pitching without doubt and with a brimming sense of confidence. Sometimes pitchers have it, and sometimes they don’t.

The short summer camp preceding the season has hurt many players in the league, some more than others. Pressly missed much of that due to arm soreness, so he is struggling to find that touch while pitching in high leverage, save situations. He hasn’t found the feel yet.

Will he in time to save his season, and that of his team? He might, but relief pitchers are notorious for having great seasons, and then terrible seasons. Nobody knows that more than Astros fans. Brad Lidge was the best closer around, and then he was terrible. He got traded, and then he was the best again.

We saw a similar pattern with Ken Giles. Look at what happened to Edwin Diaz from 2018 to 2019, from a 1.96 ERA, to 5.59. In these, and many other cases, there was nothing objective that could be identified to explain the difference between their successful years and their bad years. It was something more subtle. This seems to be the case with Pressly as well.

Pressly has had three save opportunities and blown two of them, both games ending up losses. Even in his successful attempt he gave up two hits before escaping with the save.

With no alternative as closer, Coach Baker is going to keep using Pressly in the save role, hoping that eventually he will find the feel and return to the form that made him an All-Star just last year. History says he could easily spend the rest of this short season looking for that touch and never finding it.

Only time will tell.