Ryan Pressly and the Houston Spin Machine

There is a moment during Ryan Pressly’s delivery at which it appears — from certain camera angles and for the briefest of flickering moments — as if he might fall down. He begins his motion by raising himself quickly and powerfully onto his back leg, back slightly hunched and ball only just beginning to separate from glove. As his front leg begins to drop, Pressly moves his center of gravity — and full weight — onto that strong back leg, pitching arm pointing very nearly towards first base and glove out in front on his left hand like a talisman, as if to ward off the batter.

This is the point, in freeze frame, at which it appears ever-so-slightly possible that he might lose his balance and tumble, ass-backwards, off the mound. But then, a split second before the point of no return, the hips fire from their hyper-rotated position, the arm whips toward the batter at 45 degrees, and in the matter of an instant it is Pressly’s chosen victim, rather than the pitcher himself, who begins to look rather foolish.

That strikeout of Jonathan Lucroy, which came in the seventh inning of the Astros’ August 17th encounter with the surging A’s, was Pressly’s 10th for Houston since arriving via trade on July 27th. He has since added eleven more Ks against just one walk, which brings his totals in 16.2 innings pitched in the orange and navy to 23 strikeouts and just one walk. No other reliever has anything approaching that K/BB ratio over that period since Pressly arrived in Houston. Heck, Pressly himself has never really had such a dominant stretch of success. In the 47.2 innings he threw for the Twins before being traded, he struck out 69 and walked 19 — perfectly nice numbers, but nothing close to what he’s done in Texas.

Perhaps part of the difference for Pressly has been a feeling of homecoming: the 29-year-old grew up in the greater Dallas area, setting various conference records for two separate high schools in a storied prep career, then spurning an offer from Texas Tech to sign with the Red Sox out of high school for $100,000. Dallas ain’t Houston, it’s true, but it’s a fair sight closer to the mark than Minneapolis, where the young man had plied his craft since 2013, with highly variable results. Pressly is, moreover, a guy who has a map of Texas tattooed on his back and wears cowboy boots to work. I assume anything south of I-40 between El Paso and Beaumont feels like home. There is some evidence for a ‘change of scenery effect’ in baseball, and it’s possible this trade was just the jolt Pressly needed to catch fire.

Possibly. More concretely, though, is the work Pressly did with Twins pitching coach Garvin Alston last summer after a demotion to Triple-A Rochester in May of 2017, and the work he’s done with the Astros to emphasize those changes since his acquisition by Houston. Pressly’s curveball had always featured an exceptionally high spin rate — upwards of 3,000 revolutions per second (top five in the majors) even in 2016 and 2017, when he was struggling. Years of effort by big-league pitching coaches to even out that high-effort delivery and gain Pressly some additional fastball control, however, had made him wary of throwing the pitch behind in counts — especially in full counts — lessening some of its effectiveness. Alston told him to ignore that advice, keep his herky-jerky delivery, and throw the curveball behind in the count, even if it meant a few walks along the way.

That advice made all the difference in the world. After running strikeout rates in the low-20% range for much of 2015, -16, and -17, Pressly’s strikeout jumped to 33.2% in his 2018 stint with the Twins, and his ERA dropped accordingly: to 2.95, his best mark since 2015. He was, already, on his way. Only Pressly’s role assignment — middle relief — and the Twins equally middling performance kept him from greater national prominence this summer. That’s too bad for Pressly and for the Twins, who had by early July decided to sell. It suited the Astros, though, who were in the market for spin rate, as they always are, and had had their eyes on Pressly since April. They picked him up in the middle of the summer for two very solid but not superstar-material prospects and immediately slotted him into a seventh- and eighth-inning role. They also — and this is the important part — turned the dial up on all of the changes Pressly had made earlier in the year with Minnesota. The recipe in Houston was simple: more spin rate, more curveballs, more fastballs up in the zone, and more confidence.

This, for what it’s worth, is very much in keeping with the Astros’ m.o. for some time now. Travis Sawchik has previously written about the Astros’ tendency to (a) acquire high-spin arms and then (b) assist those arms in adding even more spin upon their arrival in Houston. The shift in Pressly’s pitching style — to up in the zone, as much as possible, especially with the fastball — is also totally consistent with the Astros’ established practice. Pressly, therefore, appears to be a textbook case of everything the Astros are seeking in their pitching acquisitions, and of the changes they encourage after those acquisitions arrive. Pressly’s spin rate is higher this year than it’s ever been, and behind only Garrett Richards in the major leagues, and he’s now throwing his curveball nearly 40% of the time — 13 points higher than his rate with Minnesota in the first half of the season and nearly 15 points higher than his career mark. That’s turned into a swinging-strike rate of 17.6% (the highest mark of his career) and a contact rate 10 points lower than last year’s career best. Pressly is, right now, as Houston Astro-y a pitcher as they come.

And, unfortunately for the rest of the American League, a very Houston Astro-y pitcher is, these days, generally also a very good one. Pressly is coming out of the gate with one of the game’s elite curveballs — already a weapon in Minnesota — and pairing it up with a fastball that’s indistinguishable from the hook until 15-20 feet out, a slider that comes in just a hair under 90 mph, and a funky delivery that hides the ball for as long as possible. That’s a recipe for some truly dominant relief pitching. The Astros are going to be in the playoffs once again this season, and their bullpen will once again take on a starring role. Watch for Pressly, right there in the thick of things. For the last two months, he’s been one of the very best in the game. Not falling, but spinning his way to the top.

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Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. 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.

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