Is 2020 Pressly closer-quality for a playoff team?
A not so fun fact.
During the last series of the Astros’ season every active relief pitcher on the team was a rookie. Except one. The only veteran reliever that managed to make it to the end of the season for the 2020 Astros was Ryan Pressly.
As such, naturally he became the closer. But truth be told, the 2019 All-Star has been a disappointment in 2020. He’s more like the unremarkable pitcher acquired just before the trade deadline in 2018, not the transformed super set-up man he became for the Astros in the second half of 2018 and first half of 2019.
The question Astros fans are asking is: can 2020 Ryan Pressly shut down a playoff caliber lineup? Can the Astros advance far in the playoffs with Ryan Pressly as the closer?
Regression rears its ugly head.
In 2018-19 with the Astros, Pressly compiled a 1.79 ERA and a 2.10 xFIP. Batters only hit .173 against him. He struck out 35.9% of the batters he faced, while walking only 5.2% of those hitters. His WHIP was 0.82.
This year Pressly has apparently regressed to his pre-Astros performance level. As the closer he has a 3.43 ERA, a 3.04 xFIP, allowing a batting average against of .265. He is striking out fewer batters, 31.9%, while walking more, 7.7%. This year’s WHIP is more than .5 greater than last year’s at 1.38.
His 3.43 ERA is almost identical to his career 3.38 average.
Last year Pressly’s exit velocity was 86.6 mph. It has gone up over 3 mph in 2020. Meanwhile, he has lost a mph on his fastball and slider, and 1.5 mph on his curve from 2019. (94.9, 89.1, and 81.6 respectively in 2020 per Fangraphs) Given these facts, one has to consider whether Pressly has completely recovered from the injuries that hampered him at the end of 2019 and delayed his entrance to the 2020 season.
In 21 innings pitched he does have 12 saves, but he has also blown four saves, second highest in MLB.
I was surprised at how obvious Pressly’s problem is this year after doing this research. It’s his curve. All the main sources confirm this, each in their own way.
Pressly’s disappearing curve
Fangraphs assigns a grade to the quality of a pitcher’s pitches with a number called the pitch value. While with the Astros before this year, Pressly’s pitch values were 0.87 on the four seamer, 2.40 on the slider, and 3.09 on the curve. Zero is average. The 3.09 on the curve is exceptional. His 2019 rating, 2.69, was ninth best in MLB for pitchers over 50 innings.
While Pressly’s slider remains plus, the four seam has moved slightly into negative territory, but his curve is rated -2.67. That’s 247th in the league for pitchers with 10 or more innings.
Here’s how Brooks Baseball looks at it. In 2019 batters slugged .183 against Pressly’s curve. This year it’s .563.
Statcast’s comparison is a little less stark but still supports the same pattern. Pressly’s WOBA on the curve in 2019 was .192. In 2020 it’s .385.
Pressly knows the trouble he’s having with what was once his best pitch, and he’s greatly cut down his use of it. In 2019 he threw curves 35.2% of the time. This year it’s only 21% of his pitches.
According to Statcast, Pressly has lost 65 rpm on his curve to go with the loss of over 1.5 mph. Oddly, Brooks Baseball claims Pressly has much more vertical drop on the curve this year, almost two inches more, from -7.86 in 2019, to -9.75.
My best guess is, Pressly’s curve has less snap this year. It probably has a more arching movement. It may drop more, but coming in slower, batters seem to have more time to react.
Here’s one more reason for concern. Pressly’s road ERA is 7.36. Of course, that’s where he’ll be pitching in the playoffs this year.
Reason for hope
Pressly has shown improvement in September. Although he has two of his three losses in September and has allowed two homers, his ERA is 2.61 and his WHIP is 1.16. The September ERA shows normalization towards his season xFIP of 3.04 and SIERA of 3.00.
The 2.61 ERA also shows normalization towards the Statcast xERA of 2.76. Furthermore, Statcast expects that Pressly’s WOBA of .307 should be .247 (xWOBA).
Last year, most observers probably considered Roberto Osuna to be at least a suitable closer if not elite. If Pressly’s September performance continues in the playoffs, it’s comparable to Osuna in 2019 and for his career. Osuna had a 2.63 ERA last year, and a 2.74 career ERA. Pressly’s September ERA was 2.61. Pressly’s 2020 xFIP and SIERA are likewise comparable to Osuna’s.
So with any luck, we’ll see the September, home, Pressly, hopefully without the dingers. If that’s what we get, it may not be vintage Ryan, but it’s good enough.
Now, about all those rookies setting him up.
A fun fact
Brent Strom is a genius. Observe.
In 2018 with Minnesota, Ryan Pressly’s pitch value on the curve was -1.61. With Houston starting July 28th, it was 4.63. In his first two games with the Astros it was 7.19 and 13.88 respectively.
His fastball pitch value with Minnesota was 0.22 and his slider pitch value was 0.90. With Houston that year those pitches were rated at 2.44 and 1.62 respectively.
Does anyone doubt any longer the miraculous powers of the Astros pitcher development program. Coming to Houston and meeting Master Strom, Pressly must have felt he had achieved pitching Nirvana.