BOSTON — As Houston Astros reliever Ryan Pressly stood atop the mound at Fenway Park on Saturday night, he allowed himself a moment to absorb the scene, one he might have imagined when the Boston Red Sox drafted him more than 11 years ago.
But the old ballpark holds a special place for other reasons. It is where Pressly won his first major league game, pitching in relief for the Minnesota Twins, and where he was this July, when he learned he had been traded to Houston.
So Pressly took a deep breath and allowed himself to think about his fiancée and a childhood friend, who were sitting in the stands, and his mother, Jan, back in Flower Mound, Texas, near Dallas. But foremost he thought about his father, Tom, who died nearly five years ago from cancer.
“I wish he was here to see me,” Pressly, 29, said Sunday afternoon, sitting in the dugout before Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. “I tend to think that he’s out there on the mound with me because that’s the best seat in the house. It was emotional to me inside my mind to not have him around, but obviously I’m not going to share that on the mound.”
Pressly rarely betrays any signs of emotional turmoil, whether it emanates from a poignant moment or from the stakes of a game heating up. He is a major component in a revamped Astros bullpen for the defending world champions, who had so many fraught moments last October that they had to turn to starting pitchers to close games.
Now, heading home tied with the Red Sox at one game apiece, the Astros’ bullpen has allowed two earned runs in 14 2/3 playoff innings, including one in a 7-5 loss in Game 2. It no longer leaves general manager Jeff Luhnow’s stomach churning.
“No question about it,” Luhnow said, listing the options manager A.J. Hinch has, which include only one reliever on last year’s World Series roster, Colin McHugh. “Knowing that A.J. doesn’t have to go grab our fifth starter and hope he can get three or four innings of a close playoff game, yeah, that gives me a lot of comfort this year compared to last, for sure.”
That Pressly, a right-hander who pitched a scoreless seventh inning in the Astros’ 7-2 victory in Game 1, is part of the fortification was hard to see coming. He had been reliable and durable since the Twins — eyeing some potential after he was converted to a reliever at the Class AA level late in the 2012 season — plucked him from the Red Sox in the Rule 5 draft. But he carried a modest 3.81 earned run average into this season and had spent part of the previous three seasons in the minors.
But what Pressly possessed (and the data-driven Astros covet) is an uncommon ability to generate spin on his fastball and curveball, which goes a long way toward creating swings and misses.
A fastball with a high spin rate at the top of the strike zone has more carry to it, and a high-spinning curveball at the bottom tumbles more rapidly. That leaves hitters in the difficult position of having to cover the top and bottom of the strike zone with pitches that come out of the pitcher’s hand looking the same.
Only three pitchers who threw at least 60 innings this season have had a swing-and-miss rate higher than Pressly: Craig Kimbrel of the Red Sox, Edwin Diaz of Seattle and Josh Hader of Milwaukee, three of baseball’s elite relievers.
“He was at the very top of our list the minute we started putting together a list of relievers that might be available,” Luhnow said of a rich market in which closers Zach Britton, Jeurys Familia, Brad Hand, Joakim Soria, Fernando Rodney and Roberto Osuna — also acquired by the Astros — were moved in July and August. “Pressly’s ability to miss bats with his arsenal was probably the No. 1 factor for us.”
Since the trade on July 27, Pressly, who led the AL with 77 appearances, has justified the Astros’ evaluation. He had a 0.77 ERA over 26 appearances with Houston in the regular season, striking out 32 and walking just three in 23 1/3 innings. In three playoff appearances, he has yet to allow a hit against Boston and Cleveland, who had the most hits of any teams in baseball.
Pressly is the latest pitcher to experience a renaissance in Houston, which has been at the forefront of baseball’s analytics revolution. Charlie Morton has posted the two best years of his career, Gerrit Cole allowed fewer hits and struck out more than he ever has — leading baseball with 12.4 strikeouts per nine innings — and Justin Verlander has rediscovered his Cy Young form at 35. All three were All-Stars this season.
All of them have also had bumps in their spin rates since arriving in Houston, leading to occasional suspicion about how they have done it.
Earlier this season, Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer, who is as versed in analytics as he is provocative, responded to a Twitter post wondering if the Astros were doctoring the baseball by writing: “If only there was a quick way to increase spin rate. Like what if you could trade for a player knowing that you could bump his spin rate a couple hundred rpm overnight. … Imagine the steals you could get on the trade market! If only that existed …”
Then on Saturday night, the umpire Joe West inspected the glove of Astros catcher Martin Maldonado between innings, presumably checking for a foreign substance like pine tar, which can help induce more spin.
Brent Strom, the Astros’ pitching coach, said the team did not do anything to increase spin rates, saying he has some ideas — like having pitchers throw a weighted golf ball that would promote keeping the hand behind the ball — but has not put them into practice.
“There’s no magic bullet,” he said. “We just have really sharp people that work for Jeff.”
With Pressly, Strom said, the Astros “tweaked a little bit his pitch usage, but we didn’t do anything in terms of improving anything.”
Strom added, “He had it already. It’s what we do with everybody.”
Pressly’s spin rate, in fact, has been nearly static. According to Statcast data, his curveball was at 3,204 rotations per minute before the trade, second best in baseball among those who had thrown at least 100 curveballs; since the trade, he has the best spin rate at 3,260 rpm. His four-seam fastball, which averaged 2,579 rpm before the trade, dipped to 2,531 since the trade.
But Pressly is throwing his curveball more often, increasing its usage to 37 percent from 24 — and dropping his four-seam use to 34 from 44. He throws his slider with almost the same frequency (28 percent from 27) and has all but eliminated his occasional use of a two-seam, sinking fastball. In Game 1 against Boston, Pressly leaned even more heavily on his curveball — especially early in counts. Of the 18 pitches he threw to four batters, 12 were curves and three were sliders; all of the sliders and two of the curveballs were swung on and missed.
Pressly said he was a more confident pitcher now that he had an elite, smartly positioned defense behind him and could absorb the detail — the video, charts and raw data — that go into Astros pitchers’ game plans.
“I would hear that I had an unbelievable spin rate on my curveball, but I didn’t care too much about spin rate because if you leave spin rate in the middle of the plate, it’s still going to get hit out,” Pressly said.
“Honestly, if I understood more about spin rate then, I probably would have understood what they were talking about. I didn’t really think anything about it until I got here.”
And now that he has, Pressly is able to make sense of his gifts.