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Ryan Pressly’s Perfect Streak

A new pitch distribution may be the key to his new-found perfection

MLB: Houston Astros at Los Angeles Angels Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Let's celebrate Ryan Pressly’s perfect game.

In his last eight appearances, Ryan Pressly has retired 27 straight batters. If he did that in a single game, it would go down in history as a perfect game.

Of those 27 batters, he struck out 17. Fourteen of those went down swinging. The most strikeouts ever recorded in a (mere) no-hitter is 17, done by Nolan Ryan and Max Scherzer. The most strikeouts in a perfect game is 14, also accomplished twice, first by Sandy Koufax and then Matt Cain (against the Astros in 2012*)

Of course, most would argue it is harder to throw nine perfect innings in one game than nine perfect innings in eight, as Pressly has done. The third time through the lineup for the starting pitcher is a particularly difficult gauntlet through which to pass.

On the other hand, some fairly average pitchers have managed to throw perfect games. Whoever you are, to be perfect, you have to be in a zone mentally, and if you start the game in that zone, you might just go the whole nine innings in that zone.

For a reliever to be perfect through twenty-seven batters, he must get back in that zone for every new appearance.

OK, I concede. Pressly didn’t really throw a perfect game. Still, what he has done is very remarkable.

So what the hell has gotten into Pressly? Well, for one, he is throwing strikes. His “perfect game” would have been accomplished in 119 pitches, a low number considering 17 K’s. Out of those 77 pitches were strikes.

And, of course, Pressly is getting a lot of swing and miss. His swinging strike percentage has gone from 14.5% before the streak to 21.0% during the “perfect game.” Conversely, the contact percentage has gone from 70.5% percent before the streak to 55.4% since the streak. And most of that improvement in miss percentage is on pitches in the strike zone. The Z contact percentage has gone from 87.2% before the streak to 63.0% since the streak started on June 25th.

Of course, every no-hitter and perfect game involves some luck for the pitcher. But the more the pitcher strikes out batters, the less that luck is a factor. Of the last 27 batters retired by Pressly, only 10 put the ball in play. Of those, only three would qualify as “hard hit,” a 104.2 MPH groundout, a 102.2 MPH line out, and a 97.3 MPH flyout. The ten balls in play had an average EV of 87.0 MPH, compared to 89.8 MPH before the streak.

I tried to figure out if there is something different in the pitches or approach of Pressly during his perfect streak. Here’s what I found.

Fangraphs has a grading system of pitches called Pitch Value. Predictably, the pitch value of each of Pressly’s pitches improved considerably:

FB: Before 6/23 - -1.54...After 6/25...8.13 (0 is average)

SL: Before 6/23 - 3.99...After 6/25...4.40

CU: Before 6/23 - -0.31...After 6/25...5.66

Just for perspective, the current season league leader in FB pitch value among qualified pitchers has a score of 2.00. The current season league leader in SL pitch value has a score of 4.51. The current season league leader in CU pitch value is 2.38.

Looking at movement charts, I couldn’t find any great difference in the movement of any of these before and after. However, there has been a slight uptick in velocity of about one MPH on all the pitches, with the FB averaging 95 during the streak.

One big difference has been a radical redistribution of the pitches. This was the percentage of pitches for Pressly before the streak:

FB...........45.0% SL...........30.9% CU.............24.2%

After the streak:

FB...........27.7% SL............46.2% CU.............26.1.%

In the game before the streak when Pressly got bombed in New York, Pressly threw 46% FB.

So basically, Pressly has replaced the fastball as his main pitch with the slider. And possibly batters are still expecting more fastballs and getting confused on all of the offerings when they don’t see the heater, accounting for the increased effectiveness of each pitch. Or, the increased use of the slider has made the fastball more effective on the relatively few occasions when it is used.

In summary, Pressly’s fastball, even as its velocity has returned to normal, is now his “changeup.”

And why not rely more on the slider? For pitchers with more than 20 innings pitched Pressly has the sixth highest-rated slider in baseball for the season.

Dance with the one that brung you. Hopefully, the league doesn’t figure out the new Pressly pitch distribution too soon.