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Joe Musgrove: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In 2011, the Toronto Blue Jays drafted Joseph Anthony Musgrove from Grossmont High School in El Cajon, California with the 46th pick. Little did they know that Joe “Moose” Musgrove would end up being a World Series winner six years later. The Blue Jays ended up trading Musgrove to the Houston Astros during the 2012 MLB season for J.A. Happ, among two others.

Musgrove made his major league debut against the Blue Jays in relief of Lance McCullers in 2016. Going 4.1 IP, Big Joe allowed only 1 hit while striking out 8 and walking only 1 batter. Not only was his debut a beauty, but he finished that season with a 4-4 record and a 4.06 ERA in 62.0 IP. The next season, Musgrove would end up winning Game 5 of the 2017 World Series over the Los Angeles Dodgers and appearing in four World Series games.

That off-season, the Astros dealt Musgrove, along with Colin Moran, Jason Martin, and Michael Feliz, to the Pittsburgh Pirates for former first-overall pick Gerrit Cole. Musgrove made his debut with the Pirates on May 25, 2018 and he impressed. Going 7 strong innings, Musgrove gave up 1 run on 5 hits while striking out 7 in a mere 67 pitches. His debut with the Pirates gave hope to a young pitching core.

The Good

Joe Musgrove made his first start this year on April 5 against the Cincinnati Reds and he absolutely dominated. In 7.0 strong innings, Musgrove gave up 3 hits, 1 walk, 1 hit batter while amassing 8 strikeouts. The one downside of his start was his ability to keep the ball on the ground when contact was made. With a ground ball to fly ball ratio of 0.83, we see that Musgrove had given up more fly balls (6) than ground balls (5). Let’s take a look at how he pitched on April 5.

Joe Musgrove's Strikezone on April 5

We can see that Musgrove was around the strike zone. However, when Musgrove was in the strike zone, he was getting swings and misses or was locking the Reds’ batters up. This strike zone is a clear picture of how a pitcher should attack the plate with a plethora of pitches. We can also see how Musgrove used a change of velocity to keep hitters off balance.

Joe Musgrove's Velocity Control on April 5

As he continued to throw pitches, we can see that his velocity dipped. However, there is a clear difference between four of the six pitches. His 4-seam fastball was significantly faster than his sinker which is crucial. By having a 4-seam fastball, which is supposed to have minimal vertical movement, be faster than a sinker, a fastball-like pitch with more vertical movement, Musgrove kept batters off balance due to how similar the pitches are.

Furthermore, Big Joe’s changeup complements both his sinker and 4-seam fastball because of how it looks like a fastball to the batter but is significantly slower and has more downward break. Two pitches that complemented each other well against the Reds that day because of how they break. The curveball has significant downward break with small glove-side horizontal break while the slider does the exact opposite, significant glove-side horizontal break and minimal downward break. By having these two pitches at a similar velocity, Musgrove can confuse batters since they appear similar out of his hand.

Looking back at his performance against the Reds, we can easily say that Big Joe was good.

The Bad

In a span of three games, his ERA went from 1.54 to 4.20. That is not ideal for a pitcher like him. Starts against the Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals went sideways quickly for him. Let’s take a look at his performance against the Cardinals on May 9.

Joe Musgrove's Strikezone on May 9 against the CardinalsLooking at the strike zone, we see that Joe got beat where batters like to see pitches: in the heart of the plate. However, he did rack up 6 swinging strikes while getting 11 strikes called. On that day, he threw 55.1% strikes to the Cardinals. However, Musgrove walked 5 batters in a mere 3 innings. Though Joe was throwing strikes, they were too far in the zone and thus could be fouled off. When pitches in the zone were not fouled off, they were either fly balls or line drives. During this game, Joe Musgrove gave up one true barrelled ball. That ball, which had a launch angle of 22 degrees and came off the bat of Dexter Fowler at 104.2 mph was only a double. This pitch was over the heart of the plate and on Musgrove’s left side. It is easy to say that he didn’t have control over his pitches, and the data agrees with that. The Cardinals had 0% soft contact against Musgrove. Over 50% of the contact against Musgrove was considered hard contact (75% was hard contact compared to 25% was medium contact). This trend is not a good trend for any major league pitcher.

Let’s take a look at how Musgrove used velocity and his pitch arsenal against the Cardinals.

Musgrove's diminishing velocity trend against the Cardinals on May 9

Similar to his game against the Reds on April 5, Musgrove had consistent changes in his velocity. However, unlike his start against the Reds, the differences between similar pitches was too big. For example, the difference between his 4-seamer and sinker was too big to keep the Cardinals off guard. However, the drop from both the 4-seam fastball and sinker to the changeup is quite apparent, and helped Musgrove whenever he used it.

In retrospect, it is apparent that Big Joe’s performance against the Cardinals was bad.

An Interlude

Before we jump to Big Joe’s most recent start, I want to compare his start in St. Louis where he suffered quite a beating and his first start against the Reds early in the season. In the MLB, pitchers are pushing more towards striking out more batters instead of getting batted ball outs since hitters are getting better at hitting with power. When Musgrove pitched 7 shutout innings against the Reds, he had a K% of 33%. Against the Cardinals, where he went 3 innings, he had a K% of 15%. It’s apparent that Musgrove was able to sit batters down himself instead of relying on his defense when he started against the Cardinals. But he was even more dominant than just striking out batters. Against the Reds, he had a BB% of a mere 4.2% compared to a BB% of 25% against the Cardinals.

Continuing the comparison between the Cardinals start and Reds, we see that Joe Musgrove did not limit hard contact against the Cardinals.

Soft% Medium% Hard%
vs Reds 35.7% 50.0% 14.3%
at Cardinals 0.0% 75.0% 25.0%

We can see that Big Joe was able to limit hard contact while he pitched against the Reds, but not the Cardinals. But what is interesting is how that compares to his season average as a starter.

Soft% Medium% Hard%
vs Reds 35.7% 50.0% 14.3%
at Cardinals 0.0% 75.0% 25.0%
Average 17.4% 45.2% 37.4%

Over the entire season while Joe was a starter, he has been able to get a lot of medium contact, but more hard contact as compared to soft contact. This seems to be going against the league trend of maximizing soft contact and minimizing hard contact. This trend for Joe Musgrove does not bode well, in my opinion. If he wants to have success like he had against the Reds, he must keep getting more soft contact and less hard contact. Two Pirates pitchers who do this well, and who can definitely give some advice to Joe Musgrove, are Trevor Williams and Jordan Lyles.

The Ugly

In his most recent start, Big Joe went up against a young slugging Atlanta Braves squad. Though he picked up the win, Musgrove was mediocre. In 8.0 IP, Musgrove gave up 3 earned runs on 5 hits, while fanning 6 batters and walking 1. What hurt him the most was the 2 homeruns he gave up, one to Ronald Acuna Jr and the other to Dansby Swanson. Let’s take a look at how Musgrove attacked the strike zone against the Braves.

Musgrove's strikezone against the BravesTo be blunt, Joe got away with a few pitches in the zone. There were some pitches left right down the middle which did not end up in the bleachers at PNC Park but ended up being fouled off. However, the hits he did give up were some pretty tough pitches to hit. Giving credit where credit is due, the Braves took some poor pitched balls by Musgrove and turned them into hits and scoring plays. Let’s take a look at where Musgrove got beat.

Hits against Musgrove versus the BravesWe can see that Musgrove left some very hitter-friendly pitches over the plate for the Braves. When going up against Ronald Acuna, Jr. and company, any pitch left in the middle of the plate and around belt high is a driveable ball into the outfield. Big Joe got lucky that only 5 of the pitches he left in the middle of the plate hurt him, and not any more.

Though his placement of pitches was not the best, Musgrove got the job done against the Braves. I attribute this to his pitch selection and his use of velocity against the Braves.

Musgrove's use of velocity against the Atlanta Braves

Similar to his game against the Reds, Musgrove had his 4-seam fastball and sinker near the same velocity. This is crucial since Joe pounded the zone with his fastball and then followed up with a sinker just a bit below his previous fastball. However, two pitches that could have complemented each other more were the curveball and slider. Though his usage of the curveball was significantly less compared to the slider, we see that Joe’s slider is faster than his curveball. It would be ideal if the two pitches were at the exact same velocity, but that is rarely possible. His velocity difference was good enough to fool Braves batters enough. His changeup was used in the middle innings only to complement his fastballs which worked great. With around a 5 mph difference between the changeup and the 4-seamer/sinker combo, Musgrove easily pulled the string against the Atlanta batters. His cutter was used twice, which doesn’t warrant any analysis.

Against the Braves, Big Joe was good and bad; therefore, I say it was ugly. He got the job done in a less than perfect manner but still got the job done for the Pirates.

The Future

Looking ahead, I see his “ugly” start as the start of a trend. Starts like the one against the Braves will probably continue happening until he either pitches a game like an ace, or gets run out of the park like he did in St. Louis. To be honest, I hope that he gives us another shining performance of 0 runs and 7 or 8 innings of pure dominance, but I don’t think that will happen in the month of June. With his next starts in both Atlanta and probably Miami, it’s possible Big Joe comes up huge against the Marlins.

Musgrove will probably start on June 10 against Kevin Gausman and the Braves in Atlanta. Last time Big Joe faced Gausman, we saw an average performance by Joe and a downright horrendous performance by Gausman. Personally, I predict that Gausman continues his downward slide and Musgrove stays the trend and goes 6 or 7 strong innings giving up 2 runs before handing the ball off to the Pirates bullpen. Whether or not Joe gets a winning decision, he’ll earn a moral victory if he keeps up the steady trend of 6.0 IP with less than 4 earned runs.

After his start in Atlanta, he’ll probably face a young Miami Marlins squad. The Marlins, who as a team are batting .235, seem like the perfect opponent for Musgrove to flash greatness. Joe’s hardest opponents will probably be second baseman Starlin Castro, outfielder Harold Ramirez (if he starts), and third baseman Brian Anderson. The Marlins whiff at pitches a little more often than the MLB average so Musgrove might have more success with his breaking ball pitches in order to rack up strikeouts instead of letting the Marlins make solid contact against him. Furthermore, the Marlins put the ball on the ground 4.1% more often compared to the rest of the league. Big Joe’s sinker will become a deadly weapon for inducing soft ground ball contact. I will be looking forward to this start as he’ll have more time to work with Ray Searage as well as work on his command more.

In the end, Big Joe right now is the fourth or fifth guy in the Pirates pitching rotation, when fully healthy. Even if he produces at that level, say giving up 3 runs each start and going 6 innings, that would be a huge win for the Pirates. But if he pitches even better, like 1 run in 6 innings, the Pirates would be in great shape heading towards the mid-summer classic. It’s quite possible that the Pirates have a stud in Joe Musgrove waiting to bloom, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Note: all data is courtesy of Baseball Reference, Fangraphs, the MLB, and MLB Statcast.

Sasank is a student at Carnegie Mellon University majoring in computer science and minoring in business. He is a huge hockey and baseball fan, but also enjoys following the Steelers and Spurs on the side. His passion lies in applying machine learning to sports analytics. As a mentor in the Carnegie Mellon Tartan Sports Analytics Club, Sasank does sports analytics research on hockey in order to bring more clarity to skater and goaltender performance. He can be reached on Twitter at @_svish.

1 Comment on Joe Musgrove: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. Phillip C-137 // June 10, 2019 at 4:27 PM //

    Thanks for the excellent break down. IMO Musgrove and most of the Pirates Pitchers don’t have the control needed to be considered elite. Game after game they continually hit the center square or at least its perimeter, although they do seem to be getting away with it more often than not. (They are averaging giving up a HR every 29th batter faced.) When nibbling around the edges of the strike zone they often throw non-competitive pitches which plays a part in being top 10 in BBs, Total Batters Faced and Pitches Thrown.

    Now we need Frazier to figure out why he is continually beating the ball into the ground.

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