The Twins Trio: Part 1

Despite a miserable season for the team overall, the Twins’ bullpen was a bright spot.

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This year, the Twins’ easily had the worst record in the MLB. The next closest teams had nine more wins than they did. They were the first team to lose more than 100 games since 2013. Their run differential was -167. You get the point. They sucked. However, there were some positive signs that came out of this nightmarish season. Top prospect Byron Buxton, who struggled mightily to begin his MLB career, had a 165 wRC+ in 113 PAs after being recalled in September. Brian Dozier had an amazing season, hitting 42 homers. The team signed Robbie Grossman to a minor league deal, and he went on to produce a 127 wRC+ in 389 PAs. People have written about all of those things. What they haven’t written about is another positive for the Twins: the three curveballing studs in their bullpen, one of whom is Ryan Pressly.

Originally drafted by the Red Sox to be a starter, Pressly was picked up by the Twins in the Rule Five Draft after the 2012 season. In his first three seasons with the team, he posted a 3.46 ERA in 132.2 innings, but FIP (3.67) and xFIP (4.27) thought he was marginally worse. However, there were some encouraging signs coming into 2016. In 2015, he improved his swinging strike rate (up to 9.0%) for a third straight year, which led to a career high in K’s per nine (7.16). Those numbers were still not great, but they were backed by an excellent O-Swing percentage (35.7%). His curveball, which is what piqued my interest in him originally, had the 10th highest average spin rate amongst the 280 pitchers who threw at least 50 curveballs last year. Last year was a small sample, so I was interested to see if he could maintain those numbers this year.

In a significantly larger sample this year (75.1 innings), he looked good. He maintained a solid O-Swing percentage, at 33.6% according to Baseball Info Solutions, where 30.3% was average this year. On the other hand, PITCHf/x had Pressly at 35.3% last year and an awesome 38.2% this year. The most important change for Pressly this year, however, was an uptick in swinging strike rate for the fourth straight season. He was finally above average this year, and firmly so–he was at 11.7%, and average is 10.1%. This year, Pressly also generated his highest swing rate, which is great, considering this has been the year in which the highest percentage of those swings against him have been of the swing-and-miss variety.

Let’s talk more about Pressly’s curve. Last year, he averaged 2775 RPM on the pitch, 10th highest in the majors. This year, he averaged 2979 RPM, with over 60 more curveballs recorded by Statcast than last year. That was good enough for first (!!!) in the majors, amongst the 164 pitchers who threw at least 150 curveballs.

This year, Pressly’s curve was unhittable. The average swinging strike rate for a curve is around 10%. Pressly’s had a 20% mark (!), according to PITCHf/x data on FanGraphs. It had an awesome O-Swing percentage of 51.4%–hitters swung at more than half of the curves that Pressly threw that were balls! They only hit it in play 29 times, managing an average exit velo of only 84.6 MPH. Though this is a small sample, Pressly’s curve is no fluke. Here is a list of the wRC+’s by season against the pitch: 15, 24, 57, and most recently, 28. Lastly, and perhaps most impressive, no one has ever hit a Pressly curveball for a homer.

However, there was something that puzzled me about the pitch. Before this year, the swinging strike rates for Pressly’s curve were trending in the wrong direction. While he had a solid 15.8% whiff rate in his first season, that mark dropped to 10.5% and then 9.1% in 2014 and 2015, respectively. This year, as I mentioned, the whiff rate ballooned to 20.0%. Let’s see if we can pinpoint the cause.

Check out the change in speed and shape of the pitch over the years. I didn’t include horizontal movement because it remains relatively unchanged.

Brooksbaseball-Chart-12.pngBrooksbaseball-Chart-14.png

It seems that Pressly’s curve has gotten harder at the expense of some drop. Maybe the added speed is what’s making people whiff more, despite the drop in drop (see what I did there).

In fact, this year as a whole represents the best velocities for each of Pressly’s four main pitches:

Year Fourseam Sinker Slider Curve
2013 94.16 94.36 87.00 81.60
2014 94.69 93.69 88.56 82.17
2015 95.20 93.89 88.18 82.89
2016 96.05 94.90 89.84 84.27

So, it seems that improvement for his other pitches in this regard has in turn improved the whiff rate for his curve (along with the fact that the curve itself is being thrown harder). But what if Pressly’s curve was actually more effective this year because it had less vertical movement? If I graph whiff rate and vertical movement side-by-side, you’ll notice the similarities:

Brooksbaseball-Chart-12.pngBrooksbaseball-Chart-15.png

Generally, as vertical movement has increased, whiff rate has gone down, and vice versa.

Whatever the reason may be, Pressly’s curve looked awesome this year. Pair that with career-best velocity and a slider that has generated whiff rates above 18% the last two years, and you have a solid reliever going forward. I’m excited to see what’s in store for Pressly and the rest of the promising Twins’ bullpen next season.

Data from FanGraphs, Brooks Baseball, and Baseball Savant. Picture from Carlos Gonzalez/Star Tribune — via StarTribune.com

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