It wasn’t the biggest extension announced yesterday — it wasn’t even the biggest Astros extension announced yesterday — but Ryan Pressly’s two-year, $17.5 million deal with Houston, which was first reported by Chandler Rome, was a big deal for Pressly, a big deal for Houston, and a big deal for relievers. The deal will pay Pressly $2.9 million in 2019, his final arbitration year, then $8.75 million in each of 2020 and 2021. There’s a vesting club option for 2021, as well. It’s believed to be the biggest extension ever signed by a reliever not expected to close games for his team (that’s still Roberto Osuna’s job, at least for the time being) and is a tremendous accomplishment for a player who had a 4.70 ERA (with a 4.36 FIP) as recently as 2017.
But of course that 2017 performance isn’t what the Astros are paying for. They’re paying for what he did in Houston last August and September (which is strike out 32 men and walk just three in 23.1 innings pitched) and what they think he can do for them going forward (which is presumably more of the same). Héctor Rondón, Joe Smith, Collin McHugh, and Will Harris are all expected to become free agents at the conclusion of the 2019 season, and locking Pressly up now means the Astros will have one less thing to worry about next winter. For Pressly, this deal gives him the job security that has absolutely never been a guarantee in the years since he signed with the Red Sox as an 11th-round pick back in 2007.
The conventional wisdom is that relievers are inherently volatile — with a few, Mariano Rivera-shaped exceptions — and so giving them multi-year contracts is the kind of thing you only do when you’re competing for their services on the open market. You certainly wouldn’t expect to see a forward-thinking team like the Astros locking up a reliever with such a short track record of success — during his time in Minnesota at the beginning of 2018, Pressly had a 3.40 ERA and a 2.95 FIP — for two additional years when they’re competing against nobody but themselves.
But a few things militate in favor of this deal. One, there’s the certainty the Astros just bought, if not of performance then at least of presence. Houston is in the middle of a terrific run of contention, and they should therefore have very little interest in allowing more than half their bullpen to hit the open market in a year’s time. Pressly, precisely because he had a relatively limited record of elite performance, and had never received a payout of this size before, may have been most receptive of the group to this kind of extension. And, moreover, there are reasons to think that Pressly’s performance in Houston, or something close to it, is something that can be sustained over at least the next few years.
I already went into this in some detail back in July — and Travis described the whole Houston spin operation twice earlier in the year — so I won’t belabor the point, but basically Pressly went from a guy who threw both his high-spin fastball and his curveball down (and his curveball no more than about a quarter of the time, and never behind in counts) to a guy who threw his fastball up and his curveball whenever he damn pleased. The change in approach started in May 2017 in Triple-A Rochester and ratcheted up significantly upon Pressly’s arrival in Houston in July 2018. By the end of the year, Pressly was throwing curveballs 37% of the time and posted — by far — the highest swinging strike rate of his career (17.6%). Most tellingly, that rate was actually higher in Minnesota (17.9%) than it was in Houston (17.0%). He’d figured this out before he ever set foot in town.
Steamer doesn’t quite buy Pressly’s breakout — it has him at just 0.8 WAR for the year to go with a 3.29 ERA — but I do. I’d be surprised if Pressly posts his 0.77 ERA and 1.49 FIP from Houston last year over a full season in 2019, but I’d also be surprised if his K/BB ratio wasn’t at least a half-point higher than the 3.51 Steamer has him projected for. If, for whatever reason, Osuna goes down with injury, Pressly could also be asked to step into the closer’s role, which will further increase his visibility on the national scene. Either way, I’m optimistic that the changes Pressly made — being as they were largely changes of approach, and not of velocity or repertoire — will be durable into the first year of the rest of his life.
So now the Astros have Pressly and his high-spin fastball for three more years, and maybe four (remember the year of arbitration and the vesting option?) and Pressly has the Astros. The Houston ‘pen is behind only Milwaukee and New York’s in our depth charts, and the Astros as a whole are behind only the Yankees in projected wins. This is a good time to be a part of the present in Space City, and I guess Ryan Pressly figured it was as good a time as any to be a part of the future, too.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness. By night he tweets.