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Finding The Next Level For Joe Musgrove

Joe Musgrove got an early night off in the Atlanta game, but has been better than his results show this year.

One of the things that I’m wrestling with in observing this putrid 2nd half of the Pirates (and by extension, the overall putrid 2019 Pirates season) is the question of “Was 2018 the aberration for this player or is 2019 the aberration?”

2018 Trevor Williams had an amazing run of play in the second half that was clearly not sustainable, but he did seem to establish that he was a mid-rotation guy moving forward. Things were going well until he developed an oblique injury in May and he hasn’t been the same since. Kyle Crick was very good last year and phenomenal to start 2019, but it has been rumored that he’s playing hurt somewhat and he’s been tough to watch at times. Elias Diaz made me reverse course on my thoughts about him last year, then has had an abomination of a season in 2019 that I believe was torpedoed by his mysterious virus contracted prior to Spring Training.

Just counting on these players (and others) to return to health is, sadly, what the current front office is hoping to sell as ‘internal improvement’ for 2020. One player, though, hasn’t had the injury excuse to explain his downturn in performance — Joe Musgrove.

In 2018, Musgrove put up a 4.06 ERA in an abbreviated 19 starts due to injuries. This year, as the rotation stalwart, he’s seen his ERA balloon to 4.67. But virtually all of his core peripherals are the same:

Season K% BB% HR/FB% BABIP
2018 20.6 4.7 15.8 0.294
2019 20.9 5.4 15.5 0.295

Now I sort of rope-a-doped you a little a couple of paragraphs ago. Normally, I don’t give just ERA’s with a pitcher. I usually pair the ERA up with the FIP as a form of ground truthing. For 2018, Musgrove’s blend was 4.06 ERA/3.59 FIP, while this year it is 4.67 ERA/4.05 FIP. In both years, but moreso with this one, it appears by his Fielding-Independent Metrics that Musgrove’s defense behind him has let him down.

And if you’ve watched more than 5 continuous innings of Pirate baseball this year, this concept of poor defense is very apparent to you. One other metric that illustrates this is Musgrove’s Left On Base% (or strand rate) known as LOB%. In 2018, it was 69.2%, which is a few percentage points below average for a starting pitcher. But in 2019, it is a comical 63.0%. Guys are getting on, sometimes because of his sieve defense behind him, and then Musgrove can’t prevent them from scoring.

But even with that 4.67 ERA/4.05 FIP mix, Musgrove is still sitting on 2.5 fWAR for the season. If we presume he’ll end up in the 2.7 to 3.0 fWAR range at the end, that puts him squarely in the #3-level of a starting pitcher. Musgrove is a valuable commodity. Not so valuable to warrant the Gerrit Cole trade, but I’m not here to legislate that battle today.

However, I can’t help but wonder if this is it for Joe Musgrove or if with some tweaks he can unlock a higher level in 2020. At times, he seems dominant and at others he’s unusable.

This season, he’s made 27 starts and pitched 148.1 innings. But when the sands of time pass over this season and people just evaluate the score line on Fangraphs or Baseball Reference, they won’t remember that one start only last 2 outs until Josh Donaldson threw a hissy fit over his jersey getting grazed and started a brawl that saw Musgrove get tossed. Or that another promising start in Chicago in July lasted only 3 innings until a 2 hour rain delay. Factor in his 2 inning relief appearance to start the season on March 31st and you come down to 25 starts and 142.2 innings so far (5.7 innings/start).

If you look at his 2019 game log, I’d classify 13 of those 25 ‘true’ starts as very good to great ones. And on the flip side, I’d say that 9 of the 25 were terrible. That’s quite a dichotomy. What is Musgrove doing in the good ones that he’s not doing in the bad ones' By examining it, maybe we can find a way to achieve some performance-smoothing for him moving forward.

His start on Monday versus the Phillies was a very good, Musgrove-type of performance — 6 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 6 K

Musgrove’s curve (CU) was nigh-untouchable, generating 10 total strikes on 14 pitches. The slider was also fantastic with 6 strikes on 17 pitches. Also, note the low exit velocities on the balls in play. Musgrove had the Phillies off balance with his pitch placement and mix.

Now let’s look at perhaps his best start of the season, especially considering the quality of the opponent and location — on the road versus the Houston Astros. In this game on June 27th, Musgrove went 6 IP, 9 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 5 K.

Musgrove was very four-seam fastball (FF) heavy in this game, but you can see that it was really working that night for him, with 13 strikes on 38 pitches. The balls in play were rocket shots, but his defense was up to task, as only 2 of the 9 four-seam fastballs in play resulted in hits. Neither the curve (CU) or the slider (SL) were generating many strike calls. Because it was the Astros, there were only 7 swinging strikes at all.

Now let’s look at perhaps his worst start of the season, May 9th against the Cardinals. Musgrove’s line was 3 IP, 6 H, 8 ER, 5 BB, 3 K. This has been the only game this season where Musgrove issued more walks than registered strikeouts. He just didn’t have it this night:

For some reason, Musgrove stuck with sinker (SI) even though it wasn’t fooling anyone (1 strike in 15 pitches) and they were fouling off the pitch too frequently. Both the four-seam and the slider were getting tattooed on contact as you can see by the exit velocities. The lack of called strikes shows how poor Musgrove’s command/control were this night. Also note that Musgrove’s four-seam average velocity (92.0 mph) is a full 1.3 to 1.6 mph lower than two of his best starts. Musgrove may not have had a ‘dead arm’, but it sure wasn’t live, either.

For Musgrove to be successful, he needs to establish the four-seam fastball with some degree of velocity. He also needs a secondary pitch, whether it’s his slider (40.9% strike percentage this year) or his curve (37.5% strike percentage this year), to keep batters off balance.

And stop me if you’ve heard this one before about a Pirate pitcher, but the sinker just isn’t working for Musgrove this year. In 2019, batters are hitting it at a .343 clip with .522 slugging. So moving forward in 2020, I’d scrap the sinker and up the curve usage.

Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

4 Comments on Finding The Next Level For Joe Musgrove

  1. Major league hitters adapt, imagine that! Need to start with getting rid of Searage, before he ruins more young pitchers.

  2. Interesting stuff–teams think they can “fix” guys all the time, but this is a case where a guy has a pitch in the arsenal that is getting pole-axed pretty good, and Musgrove has enough other stuff in his arsenal that he can get away with junking the sinker.

  3. Norm Cubellis // August 30, 2019 at 10:00 AM //

    It seems like I have been hearing throughout the year that the sinker is not working for Pirate pitchers. Kevin, are you aware if the pirates have been using the sinker less as the year has progressed? One would think that Management has been able to see they have not had success with the pitch and use alternatives. With all the stats available nowadays, it can’t be just a stubborn Searage who dictates use of the sinker. I get the feeling that many people blame him solely for failure of the pitchers to perform, however it seems like others have to be involved in developing game plans/overall strategy.

  4. Phillip C-137 // September 2, 2019 at 9:18 PM //

    Looking at particular numbers Musgrove is an excellent representative of all the Pirates pitchers.

    In 2018 Pirates pitchers gave up less than a hit an inning. They gave up a HR every 8.24 innings. They threw a Wild Pitch every 15 IP. In 2019 it’s more than a hit an inning, a HR every 6.02 and a WP every 28.28 IP.

    Musgrove has gone from less than a hit an inning to more than, while giving up HR’s more often and throwing WP’s less often. He also matches a worse ERA year over year.

    While the Pitchers “may” be getting all the info they need, it seems to be left up to each individual to self-motivate. Last year Williams found he had to pitch “scared” and Brault may have latched on to that philosophy this year as he seems less scared to throw strikes and more scared not to, if he wants to keep his Starters job. And along this line, I include this postgame Musgrove quote from the June 27th Astros game you referenced. It leads me to conclude that CH and Searage aren’t getting guys locked in, so it falls on each player.

    “I tried not to prepare any differently for this start,” Musgrove said. “But going out and getting warmed up for the game and coming into the dugout, I don’t think I’ve been that focused for a while, that locked in.”

    Your pitch selection observation is probably correct, but results will vary widely until Musgrove finds his “focus mantra”. Then his consistency should improve.

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