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Magic dust, spin rates and buy-in: How the Astros make good pitchers even better

Ryan Pressly is pitching like Mariano Rivera since landing in Houston. (Tim Warner/Getty Images)

BOSTON -- Relief pitcher Ryan Pressly was pondering the question before him, trying to figure out either how to explain something he may not fully understand yet or how much of the answer he was permitted to reveal, when at the locker next door, fellow reliever Collin McHugh helpfully stage-whispered the Houston Astros’ preferred answer: “Just say it’s the magic dust.”

The question, of course, was: How do the Astros get remarkable, unmistakable improvement out of seemingly every pitcher they acquire? (Helpful hint: it isn’t the magic dust.) And Pressly, a 29-year-old right-hander still new to the organization, is that question’s latest flesh-and-blood incarnation.

Pressly was a perfectly serviceable, occasionally excellent relief pitcher over parts of six seasons with the Minnesota Twins, with a 3.75 career ERA, one career save, a 1.303 WHIP and a strikeout ratio that had climbed steadily over those years until, by July 2018, it was among the highest in the league. It was that strikeout ratio, and the spectacular curveball behind it, that attracted the Astros, who sent two prospects to Minnesota in a trade for him on July 27.

“If Ryan Pressly had shown up exactly the way he was in Minnesota, we would have been perfectly satisfied. His stuff was electric, one of the highest swing-and-miss arsenals in game, and that’s what we were looking for,” Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow said Sunday. “The fact he came in and was willing to work with our coaches and found ways to get even more out of his stuff is great.”

Since coming to the Astros, Pressly has basically been the reincarnation of Mariano Rivera. In 26 appearances for them, he posted a 0.77 ERA and a 0.600 WHIP, locking down the role of top setup man to closer Roberto Osuna. In three appearances this postseason, including the seventh inning of Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox, he has thrown 3 1/3 scoreless, hitless innings, allowing just and one walk and striking out five.

The American League Championship Series is tied at a game apiece and continues Tuesday at Houston’s Minute Maid Park. Through five games this postseason, the Astros’ staff has posted a 2.66 ERA and limited opposing batters to a .162 average.

“Honestly,” Pressly said, “it’s the preparation of the [Astros’] analytics department. They tell us what works and what’s not going to work — the percentages, how to set up your mix of pitches, how to attack hitters.”

That may only be part of it, and the Astros will only go so far in explaining the rest, but as a starting point, that will suffice. Pressly’s curveball happens to be the kind of weapon of which an analytics-minded team such as the Astros dreams. According to Statcast, its average spin rate of 3,225 rpm ranked second in baseball this season.

But with the Twins, Pressly was using it relatively sparingly, throwing it just 24.5 percent of all his pitches and leaning heavily on his fastball (48.5 percent). With the Astros, Pressly has dialed up his curve percentage to 37.4 and reduced his fastball usage to 34.6. He has made other changes, as well, since coming to Houston — throwing more sliders in two-strike counts, for example, and elevating his fastball more often — but the drastic change in his overall repertoire is what stands out.

“Every team has an analytics department, and this is no knock on the Twins, but seeing the time [the Astros] put in and the scouting reports you’re given, it’s like, ‘Whoa.’ It’s a different level,” Pressly said. “You kind of see, ‘Wow, if I just pitch a little more to this percentage instead of that percentage I can have some better results.’ When I came over here, they were like, ‘Look, your curveball is your best pitch. Everyone tells you your best pitch should be your fastball. But with the amount of spin you have on the ball, you need to throw that more, and it will set up your fastball even more.’ ”

Luhnow described the acclimation process into the Astros’ philosophy as more of a two-way street: “It’s really, ‘Tell us about your repertoire, your experience.’ It starts with them telling us what they’re trying to accomplish every time they go in. And then it’s us: ‘Let’s start with the basics. This is what we love about you. Let’s keep doing this.’ Are there areas maybe we can try something? Sure. But they’ve got to want to do it.”

Added Manager A.J. Hinch: “The beauty of what we have going on right now is there’s an immediate buy-in when guys come over, because of some previous success stories. … Our analytics team, our front office does a great job of providing information, providing thoughts, ideas. But it circles back to the player. I always credit the player, because he has to be the guy — he is the guy with the ball in his hand.”

Pressly’s experience these past few months is a microcosm of what the Astros have been doing these past few years, on their way to three playoff appearances since 2015 and a World Series title in 2017. You can go down the line. Nearly every significant pitcher the Astros have acquired in that span has gotten demonstrably and significantly better:

  • Justin Verlander (trade, August 2017). In Detroit: 3.39 ERA, 1.162 WHIP, 8.5 K/9 IP. In Houston: 2.32 ERA, 0.867 WHIP, 12.1 K/9 IP.
  • Gerrit Cole (trade, January 2018). In Pittsburgh: 3.50 ERA, 1.217 WHIP, 8.4 K/9 IP. In Houston: 2.88 ERA, 1.033 WHIP, 12.4 K/9 IP.
  • Osuna (trade, July 2018). In Toronto: 2.87 ERA, 0.919 WHIP, 10.2 K/9 IP. In Houston: 1.99 ERA, 0.882 WHIP, 7.5 K/9 IP.
  • Charlie Morton (signed November 2016). With three previous teams: 4.54 ERA, 1.441 WHIP, 6.3 K/9 IP. In Houston: 3.36 ERA, 1.176 WHIP, 10.4 K/9 IP.

“The key principle,” Cole said, “was using a lot of the data and information they have to discern what is your strength. So you have a pitch that looks great on the charts, and then you have the [video]. … It’s not like they were reinventing the wheel. They were just showing me what I did well and then allowed me to just attack.”

“I don’t think it’s a secret,” Morton added. “It’s not something where they put you in a chamber, and they push a button and you come out a new pitcher. You’re the pitcher you are, with the tools you have, and they give you suggestions on how to utilize your stuff a little bit better. … For people to say, ‘Oh they must be doing something illegal or special — because why aren’t [other teams] doing it?’ Well, they haven’t caught up yet.”

The notion of the Astros doing something illegal was raised earlier this season, when Cleveland Indians pitcher-provocateur Trevor Bauer posted a series of tweets insinuating that Astros pitchers were doctoring the baseball — presumably with a foreign substance such as pine tar — to increase their spin rates. The Astros immediately denied the suggestion, and some of their pitchers fired back at Bauer, with Lance McCullers Jr. tweeting, “Jealousy isn’t a good look on you my man.”

Spin rate does have a fairly defined correlation with pitching success — giving breaking balls more bite and four-seamed fastballs more “rise” — and the Astros lead the majors in both average spin rate (2,379 RPM) and ERA (3.11, the lowest by an AL team since 1981). Many of the pitchers they acquire already have high spin rates, but in many cases the Astros manage to squeeze even more RPMs out of them.

“They do have methods here where they try to increase spin rates,” Morton said, “but I don’t really want to talk about that.”

Perhaps the best defense the Astros have against claims they are cheating is their case studies in failure. They’re not batting 1.000 when it comes to coaxing improved results out of the pitchers they acquire. Take Ken Giles, for example. When the Astros traded for the right-handed reliever in December 2015, he was one of the best young relievers in the game, with a 1.56 ERA and a 1.037 WHIP in two seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies.

But in two and a half seasons with the Astros, Giles was never again able to match that performance. In his best season, 2017, he posted a 2.30 ERA and a 1.037 WHIP and saved 34 games, but by the end of the team’s World Series run he had lost the closer’s job, and by this July, when he sported a 4.99 ERA, he was traded to Toronto.

“We’ve had a few pitchers we’ve traded for that we thought could do a few things differently,” Luhnow said, declining to speak about individual cases. “Sometimes it’s physical limitations, and you don’t realize their body is not able to do things we want them to do, and sometimes it’s [a mentality of], ‘This is what I’ve been doing my whole career,’ and they don’t necessarily feel the need to change anything. And sometimes they try it and it doesn’t work, because it’s not always going to work right away, and then they back off.”

But if that doesn’t make sense, or it sounds too complicated, there’s always the alternative theory for why the Astros’ methods work with some pitchers, but not with others: Sometimes they run out of magic dust.

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