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The Astros do not need to acquire a closer, for they already have one

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A Proven Closer™ may not be on the Astros’ roster, but one of the game’s best relievers is.

Wild Card Round - Houston Astros v Minnesota Twins - Game Two Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

One of the Astros’ goals this offseason was to sign a top free-agent reliever. They had their eye on the market’s best, Liam Hendriks, but failed to sign him. Based on this winter’s discourse, numerous Astros fans felt that the team truly needed to add an established closer such as Hendriks. This is misguided.

The Astros did not pursue Hendriks simply because he’s effective in the 9th inning. They pursued Hendriks because he’s one of the league’s best relievers. Plainly put, adding top players to a contending roster is good, especially if it addresses an area of need.

This is where the disconnect likely lies for people critical of the Astros’ closer situation. The area of need wasn’t specifically a closer, it was the bullpen as a whole.

For the past three years, Ryan Pressly has been one of the best relievers in baseball. Pressly was primarily a set-up man for much of that time, and though he was named an All-Star in 2019, he’s not commonly mentioned as one of the game’s top late-inning arms.

Things are different now.

In 2020, Pressly was charged with being the Astros’ closer after Roberto Osuna suffered a serious arm injury early in the season. With Osuna now jettisoned to free agency, Pressly’s projected to again be the club’s closer in 2021, and that’s perfectly fine, as he fared well in the role last year.

All together now: “BUT HE BLEW FOUR SAVES!!”

The implied narrative that Pressly’s an unreliable closer needs to be debunked, so that will be addressed first.

The importance of context

Only Emilio Pagán and Daniel Hudson blew more saves last year than Pressly (and two others), who blew four saves. It can be argued, however, that two of them shouldn’t have happened.

Against the Rangers on September 1, Pressly allowed a game-tying home run to shortstop Elvis Andrus in the 9th inning. According to Statcast, the ball’s Expected Batting Average (xBA) was .060. It’s tied for the fifth-lowest xBA of all home runs hit in 2020.

On September 25, Pressly again allowed a game-tying home run against the Rangers in the 9th inning, this time to first baseman Ronald Guzmán. The ball’s xBA was .070, the seventh-lowest xBA of all home runs hit in 2020.

Both home runs were solo shots, so considering that Pressly finished the inning in both outings with relative ease, it’s reasonable to say that neither opportunity should have resulted in a blown save.

Had Pressly not run into extremely bad luck on two separate occasions, he would have finished the year with 14 saves, which would’ve tied him with — you guessed it — Liam Hendriks. Pressly would not only have matched Hendriks’ save count, but he would have ended up with one of the best save percentages in baseball as well.

Additionally, Pressly got markedly better after a tumultuous beginning to last year’s shortened season. The rocky start was likely due to elbow soreness he dealt with in late July, and when he returned in early August, his fastball velocity was below its usual range, and there was also less vertical movement on the pitch.

As the season progressed, however, the velocity and movement increased, and so did the quality of the fastball’s results.

Ryan Pressly’s 4-seamer

Month Average velo (mph) wOBA xwOBA Whiff% Vertical movement (inches)
Month Average velo (mph) wOBA xwOBA Whiff% Vertical movement (inches)
August 94.44 0.436 0.327 16.7 8.18
September 95.18 0.335 0.221 25 8.43
October 95.45 0.348 0.226 23.5 8.79
Velocity & movement via Brooks Baseball; wOBA, xwOBA & Whiff% via Baseball Savant

The unrecognized greatness of Ryan Pressly

From 2018 to 2020, only seven relievers have a higher combined fWAR than Pressly, whose 4.0 fWAR is just behind the likes of Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman (4.2), and is ahead of former Indians closer Brad Hand (3.8).

It’d be fair to say that more was asked of Pressly than any other reliever in the league in 2020. The bullpen was filled with rookies, and, according to Baseball-Reference’s Average Leverage Index (aLI) metric — which measures pressure situations faced by pitchers/hitters throughout a season — no reliever faced more than Pressly. In fact, he saw the most high leverage situations in baseball.

Compared to the prior two years, Pressly’s 2020 ERA of 3.43 sticks out, but it appears inflated from multiple angles.

In terms of ERA estimators, FIP and SIERA are two of the most popular. The former is more descriptive and the latter more predictive, so accounting for both will paint a more complete picture. With that in mind, Pressly’s FIP was 2.81, and his SIERA was 3.00. Granted, this is judging a meager 21-inning sample, and it does not account for Pressly’s terrific postseason numbers.

In addition to those metrics, Statcast’s synopsis of Pressly is rather favorable.

If the poor exit velos are a concern, take a look at Statcast’s 2018 synopsis.

See, he’s had great success before despite lackluster exit velos, and in a full season, no less.

For good measure, the 2019 synopsis must be included, as it’s a beauty in every way.

This is the work of a remarkably consistent and well-rounded relief pitcher.

At this point, there’s little reason to suspect a decline in Pressly’s production. He ended 2020 in spectacular fashion by collecting four saves in four opportunities in the postseason, and did so with a shiny 2.45 ERA/1.42 FIP, as well as a sterling 8/1 strikeout to walk ratio.

TL;DR version

The Astros looked to sign a top reliever in free agency this winter, but not because the team lacked one. It’s because having multiple upper-echelon relievers is better than having just one.

With the additions of Ryne Stanek and Pedro Báez, who is quietly a top-notch reliever himself — as well as the return of Joe Smith — the bullpen is in solid shape. Moreover, it’s anchored by a quality closer, and had been since last year.