When “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” by Folk starts playing in Minute Maid Park, it usually means the opposing team is about to lose. Although Edwin Diaz walking onto the field to “Narco” and Felix Bautista to “Omar’s Whistle” may be the most popular closer entrances, Ryan Pressly’s is right up there with the best. As the music starts blasting on the stadium speakers, the lights in the stadium flicker and the fans in attendance create a spotlight by turning their phone flashlights on.
As the stadium goes into a frenzy and the song starts playing, Pressly gets ready to make the trip from the bullpen to the mound. However, this isn’t just any other game. This is game six of the World Series and the Houston Astros are three outs away from winning their second title in franchise history. Although he was given a comfortable 4-1 lead, Pressly was tasked with facing the strength of the Phillies’ order in Rhys Hoskins, J.T. Realmuto, and Bryce Harper.
After Pressly made quick work of Hoskins, Realmuto gave the Phillies life with a first-pitch single on a 93 mph fastball. Like Realmuto, Harper also swung at a first-pitch fastball, but he flew out to Yordan Alvarez giving the Astros a massive sigh of relief. With the Phillies down to their last out, Nick Castellanos stepped up to the plate. Like Realmuto and Harper in front of him, Castellanos also swung at the first pitch, but Pressly threw a slider, not a fastball.
With the pitch running away from his barrel, Castellanos hit it off the end of his bat and sent into foul territory down the first base line. However, there was just enough room for Kyle Tucker to make the play winning the Astros the World Series.
This wrapped up one of the most dominant pitching stretches in postseason history. Per MLB.com, among 94 teams that saw their bullpens log 35 or more innings in a single postseason, the Astros bullpen had the lowest ERA (0.83), lowest opponent batting average against (.126), lowest opponent on-base percentage against (.215), lowest opponent slugging percentage against (.208), and the lowest WHIP (0.75). Throughout their 13 postseason games, the Astros used nine pitchers in relief. Of those nine pitchers, the only one who didn’t have an ERA below 2 as a reliever was Cristian Javier, who oh by the way gave up no runs and just one hit in his 11.1 innings as a starter. Additionally, five of the Astros relievers had a 0.00 ERA (Pressly, Bryan Abreu, Ryne Stanek, Hunter Brown, and Jose Urquidy).
Among their eight primary relievers, half of them were homegrown. Brown ($325,000 signing bonus as a 2019 fifth-round pick), Urquidy ($100,000 signing bonus as an international free agent in 2014), Luis Garcia ($20,000 signing bonus as an international free agent in 2016), and Abreu ($40,000 signing bonus as an international free agent in 2013) have all been in the Astros organization throughout their entire professional careers.
Despite signing for the lowest signing bonus of the four, nobody was more impressive than Bryan Abreu. In his bullpen-leading 11.1 postseason innings, Abreu struck out 19 batters, only allowed four hits (no extra-base hits), his WHIP was 0.71, and his FIP was an astonishing 1.08.
Abreu really struggled in his first three major league seasons with command and injuries which lead to a 4.69 ERA. However, Abreu fixed both problems in 2022 leading to a spike in velocity (95.6 mph to 97.3 mph), an increase in K% (24.4% to 35.55), a drop in BB% (13.1% to 10.5%), and a career-high in innings pitched (60.1). These changes led Abreu to pitch to a 1.94 ERA, the seventh-best among qualified American League relievers.
Despite having the seventh-best ERA among qualified American League relievers, Abreu didn’t have the lowest ERA by an Astros reliever this year. That was Ryne Stanek, who led the American League and set the Astros franchise record with a 1.15 ERA.
Initially, now former general manager James Click signed Stanek to a low-risk high reward one year $1.1 million contract for the 2021 season after he posted a 7.20 ERA with the Marlins in 2020. Stanek had a fine 2021 season with a 3.42 ERA earning him a $1 million raise for the 2022 season via arbitration. Although Stanek struggled giving out free passes in 2022 (13.8 BB%), he did a phenomenal job striking batters out (27.7 K%), avoiding barrels (3.8%, 95th percentile), set a career-high in ground ball% (38.9%), and allowed just 0.33 HR/9 — all of which ignited his record-breaking season.
In addition to signing Stanek, Click also brought in Hector Neris via free agency. After serving as a workhorse in the Phillies bullpen from 2015-2021, the Astros gave Neris a two-year $17 million contract. This proved to be a great signing as Neris led the Astros bullpen during the regular season with a 1.6 fWAR and pitched 6.0 postseason innings to a superb 1.50 ERA.
The other significant move Click made was bringing Rafael Montero in at the trade deadline in 2021. Although he was more of a throw-in when the Astros acquired Kendall Graveman from the Mariners, Montero proved to be much more than that. Montero only pitched 6.0 innings for Houston in 2021 before a shoulder injury shut him down for the remainder of the season, but he pitched a bullpen high 68.1 regular season innings in 2022. Montero had his best Major League season as he set career bests in ERA (2.37), fWAR (1.5), saves (14), and holds (23). Additionally, Montero mostly pitched well in the postseason as he posted a 1.93 ERA in 9.1 innings.
Although he’s not considered homegrown, Ryan Pressly is heavily associated with the Jeff Luhnow regime. Pressly had a solid run with the Minnesota Twins from 2013-2018 pitching 317.0 innings to 3.75 ERA and 2.6 fWAR, but he was never recognized as an elite reliever. However, the Astros recognized Pressly’s elite spin rates and thought they’d be able to develop him into one of the game’s best relievers. The Astros did just that as he’s pitched 211 innings in Astros uniform to a 2.39 ERA and 7.1 fWAR.
Despite being the team’s best reliever since he was acquired at the 2018 trade deadline, Pressly received minimal save opportunities because the Astros opted to solely use Roberto Osuna as their closer. However, after Osuna required Tommy John surgery early in the 2020 season, Pressly was thrust in as the Astros closer. Since becoming their closer in 2020, Pressly has notched 71 saves, the fourth most in Major League Baseball trailing only Kenley Jansen, Liam Hendriks, and Josh Hader.
The 2022 Astros bullpen should go down as the best postseason bullpen ever assembled, a wild statement considering how the unit was put together.