How the Astros’ nerd cave created a strikeout machine
When the Twins traded pitcher Ryan Pressly to the Astros on July 27, 2018, the Houston front office knew they had received something special. The exciting part was that they were the only ones who knew it and that included Pressly himself.
The Astros’ R&D department—or “nerd cave” as it’s been referred to—works tirelessly on leveraging data to help maximize the potential of their players. It’s one of the biggest reasons why the Astros’ player development department is considered one of the best in baseball. In a previous BTBS piece, it breaks down how Pressly’s numbers were significantly better after the trade with Houston vs. before the trade with Minnesota.
They worked on lowering Pressly’s vertical release point. This allowed him to throw his curveball more consistently for strikes, which also allowed his slider to induce more groundballs. Houston’s analytics department noticed a remarkably high spin rate on his already high-velocity fastball (97.5 mph) as well as significant spin rate on his curveball, which has an average whiff rate of 23.5% so far this year, according to Brooks Baseball. They encouraged Pressly to throw more breaking balls and throw his four-seam fastball primarily up on the zone.
Ryan Pressly, Filthy 83mph Curveball. pic.twitter.com/PsPsFhOEZz
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 11, 2019
This has turned Pressly into a strikeout machine which allowed him to make 40 straight scoreless relief appearances, which is a new MLB record. He passed Craig Kimbrel’s previous streak of 39 scoreless appearances back in 2011 when he was with the Braves. In his first scoreless inning that started on August 15th, 2018, Pressly has been almost unhittable, posting a 48-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio during his streak.
The Twins had a solid right-handed pitcher who had a 3.40 ERA with a 1.36 WHIP. Since coming over to Houston, the “nerd cave” created a lights-out reliever who has posted a 0.43 ERA in 42 1/3 innings, allowing just two runs with 52 strikeouts, according to ESPN.com. Pressly just hasn’t pitched well to keep his streak alive; he’s also made some key defensive plays on the mound.
This is not the first time the Astros have spun straw into gold. In 2013, the Astros claimed Collin McHugh off waivers. The reason they claimed him was because the Astros R&D dept. noticed that his curveball revolved more than 2,000 times per minute. During his PITCHf/x analysis of McHugh, they concluded that his curveball spin rate was one of the best in MLB. Armed with this data, the front office told McHugh to start throwing his curveball a lot more… so he did. In 2015, McHugh finished second in the American League with 19 wins.
Despite giving up a run, Pressly has been dominated the 2019 season. He has appeared in 23 of Houston’s 56 games with a 0.36 ERA and has a WAR of 1.3 as a reliever, which is impressive. He is the just the most recent player the Astros have turned into a superstar. The interesting question is: which player will be next?