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The Astros bullpen has become an elite unit, but Ryan Pressly is still its anchor

A decline in appearances and the rise of multiple teammates have overshadowed what’s been another successful season for the Astros closer.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

With three weeks left in the regular season, the Astros bullpen owns the lowest ERA in baseball, and it’s thanks to a number of standout seasons.

Entering Tuesday, Ryne Stanek has an astounding 1.14 ERA, Bryan Abreu has lowered his to 1.84 amid his remarkable stretch of 19 consecutive scoreless appearances, and Rafael Montero has become a top-tier reliever seemingly out of nowhere. Even rookie Seth Martinez has made a name for himself.

But somewhat lost in the mix is the relief corps’ closer.

Though Ryan Pressly is putting together another rock-solid campaign with a 3.26 ERA (2.85 xERA) and 26 saves in 38 23 innings, he doesn’t quite garner the attention that his peers receive.

Despite his distinct role and quality track record, the 33-year-old Pressly hasn’t generated much buzz in 2022. Given that failure in the ninth inning often does just that, perhaps it’s a positive sign for the two-time All-Star that he’s flown relatively below-radar this season.

The consistent results can also be viewed as a testament to how steady and reliable Pressly’s been in Astros uniform since the club acquired him in 2018. A 2.41 ERA (178 ERA+) in that time span is exceptional by itself; when factoring in how he’s been used almost exclusively as a leverage reliever, the numbers he’s compiled appear even more impressive.

A former 11th-round pick, Pressly has converted 52 saves in 58 chances since 2021. His 2.12 Average Leverage Index (1.00 is average) is far and away the highest on the Astros staff (Rafael Montero is second at 1.44). It’s also the seventh-highest among all relievers (min. 30 innings).

Consistently appearing in and having success in key situations has become the expectation for Pressly since he broke out with the Astros in 2018, when he registered a 0.77 ERA in 23 13 innings. But now in 2022, with age becoming more of a factor (he turns 34 in December), it’s notable how there’s yet to be a dropoff in quality. Pressly has maintained an elite strikeout-to-walk percentage while concurrently minimizing barrels.

Although his fastball velocity is down by a tick compared to 2021, Pressly is still armed with a plus slider and a plus curveball, with the latter having a spin rate in the 100th percentile for the second straight season.

Excluding the shortened (and highly abnormal) 2020 season, 2022 is the first time that Pressly hasn’t used his four-seam fastball as his primary pitch, as he’s thrown his slider more by a slight margin. Considering its results, there’s good reason to — no other Astros hurler throws a pitch that has a higher whiff rate than Pressly’s slider.

After logging 64 innings in the 2021 regular season, Pressly’s on pace to fall short of 50 in 2022. There have been multiple occurrences during the season where Dusty Baker has kept Pressly in the bullpen for the better part of a week. It wasn’t due to injury, but largely because the Astros have played a fair number of games that are not competitive in the late stages.

The decline in Pressly’s usage this season could be simply be a byproduct of how good the Astros have been and how they seem to have many games wrapped up before the ninth inning, but given his not-terribly-old-but-kind-of-old age, it’s possible that there’s also been an unofficial preservation plan in place so as to keep Pressly’s arm as fresh as possible for the postseason.

In short, the lack of coverage of Pressly’s exploits this year is multi-faceted — from him being boringly (?) consistent to not making as many appearances as his highly effective teammates. But what shouldn’t be lost is that he is still a necessity. While his numbers are not quite as shiny as his teammates’, he’s often had to produce them under significantly more trying circumstances. Come playoff time, that could make a real difference.