Ryan Pressly had some struggles adjusting to his new role in 2020, but the All-Star pitcher looks poised to move forward as the team’s closer.
The Houston Astros pride themselves on their belief and reliance of both analytics and player development, and perhaps their best success story of this was the 2018 acquisition of right-handed pitcher Ryan Pressly. The front office acquired Pressly at the 2018 trade deadline from the Minnesota Twins, for the cost of only two minor leaguers, with the hopes that his high spin rates and development under pitching coach Brent Strom’s tutelage would form an undervalued star. It paid off. Pressly went on the post of 0.77 ERA in 26 appearances that season and became one of the more feared relievers in the game.
Pressly continued that same success into 2019, earning All-Star recognition while posting a 6-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio, a 12 strikeouts per nine innings ratio, and even set an MLB record 39 inning scoreless streak. Somewhere in Minnesota, you’ll find Twins fans kicking themselves for letting this guy go. After only a season and a half with Strom, the Texas native morphed into an elite pitcher with a well-balanced pitching arsenal — an electric slider, four-seam fastball and curve – with pitch spin rates so high they can make any advanced analytics guy blush.
Many projected Pressly to be the 8th inning setup man for manager Dusty Baker, but obvious circumstances around the team changed his role. Injuries mounted quickly from Opening Day on the Astros pitching staff, including a season-ending injury for closer Roberto Osuna. With only a ragtag group of rookie minor league pitchers to lean on, Pressly was thrust into the closer role to help the scuffling Astros save their season.
The new role wasn’t too kind to Pressly during the regular season. He finished 1-3 with 12 saves and four blown saves, including two against the highly un-good Texas Rangers. His 75% save percentage and .256 opponent batting average was the worst among closers on playoff teams, and only Daniel Hudson of the Washington Nationals had more blown saves this season.
Pressly’s velocity dipped from prior year and his go-to pitches were not as effective, especially early on. What was most surprising was how often hitters mashed Pressly’s fastball – opponents batted .357 against his four seamer this year, compared to modest .246 BA from last year (per Baseball Savant). Once Pressly scaled back on his four-seamer usage rate, his performance on the mound improved. However, it wasn’t like his play fell off the map – the slider was still electric and he still rated in the 90th percentile plus in both spin rates and whiff rates. His play wasn’t as good as the 2019 campaign, but you could pin some of his numbers on adjusting to the new role, the lackluster support he got from the offense, and some untimely fielding errors by the defense in some appearances.
The postseason was a different story for Pressly. Like many others on this Astros team, he upped his game when it switched to playoff mode. He came in on the road and closed out Minnesota in a Game 2 sweep, before running over the Oakland A’s in Games 1, 2 and 4 of the ALDS. In the Championship Series, once the Astros finally got ahead late in the game, Pressly slammed the door shut on Tampa Bay in three consecutive games (4-6) to help the Astros even up the series.
Other than giving up a few meaningless runs against the A’s in a Game 4 blowout, Pressly was every bit the All-Star in the 2020 postseason. He struck out eight while giving up only seven hits and one extra base hit in the 28 batters he faced in October. The two months spent learning the closer role with Dusty Baker’s support paid off tremendously, as he thrived in those high leverage playoff situations when it mattered the most.
The Astros released Roberto Osuna and Chris Devenski last week, leaving Pressly and Joe Smith as the only real veterans left in the bullpen. Unless the Astros go acquire Brad Hand or Liam Hendricks this offseason, all signs point to Ryan Pressly being the team’s closer moving forward. Despite his uncharacteristic struggles early in the season, he showed enough with his postseason play to prove that he still has the talent, ability and confidence to close out big games for this franchise going forward.