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:
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.