Joe Musgrove mightn’t be the next Ray Searage success story.
The Pittsburgh Pirates and Houston Astros agreed to a trade involving Gerrit Cole Saturday, confirming a heavy stream of rumors connecting the two sides over recent days. As the details trickled out to the public, the baseball world, almost unanimously, took to their preferred social media platform to chastise the Pirates for their side of the deal. The trade sent Pittsburgh’s ace, Gerrit Cole, to the Astros in return for MLBers Joe Musgrove (SP), Colin Moran (3B), Michael Feliz (RP) and Jason Martin (OF).
Sending away their 27 year old ace signaled the end of an era in Pittsburgh. After a string of playoff appearances beginning in 2013 – the team’s 1st in 20 years – the move of Cole and former MVP Andrew McCutchen over the weekend represents a white flag for the Bucs as they will likely look to rebuild over the coming years.
The Pirates traded Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen and got 0 Top 100 prospects back
*yes I know two of the players in the Cole trade are not prospects anymore
— Matt Winkelman (@Matt_Winkelman) January 15, 2018
On the surface it would appear that Joe Musgrove is the headline piece of the return for Pittsburgh. The right-hander is a former first round pick and top-100 prospect who has now seen two seasons in the Big Leagues. You might argue that it’s Colin Moran, the former 6th overall pick. Maybe they’re co-headliners but either way Joe Musgrove makes up a significant part of Pittsburgh’s return and it’s that as well his 6.12 ERA as a starter (when names such as the Yankees Clint Frazier and Astros Kyle Tucker and Forrest Whitley were being thrown around to various degrees) that has many questioning the Pirates decision making. For many, Joe Musgrove and Colin Moran is not the way you want to start a rebuild.
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There are some who view the trade positively however and for what it’s worth, Steamer currently projects both Gerrit Cole and Joe Musgrove as the same pitcher in 2018 – though Musgrove clearly doesn’t have Cole’s upside. There’s also the fact the Pirates will have four years of control over Musgrove compared to just two over Cole. There are also those who believe Colin Moran could be a better Big Leaguer than he is being given credit for. All of these are reasonable points however, there is one defense of this trade that just doesn’t hold water. That the tutelage of the famous Pirates pitching coach, Ray Searage, could turn Musgrove into an impact starting pitcher.
Ray Searage has made a name for himself over the years, rebuilding the careers of failing starters such as AJ Burnett, Ivan Nova, Ryan Vogelsong, Edinson Volquez and numerous others. It’s a big piece of what made Pittsburgh so successful over their 5 year run of contention. To do this, Searage and the Pirates have preached three core philosophies:
- Trade out ineffective 4-seam fastballs in favor of sinkers.
- Limit walks – a product of shorter at bats thanks to point 1.
- Pitch inside
Unfortunately for the Pirates, that shoe might not be the right fit for Joe Musgrove.
A Power Sinker
As we noted above, step one in the Pirates plan for rebuilding a starter is to convert them from throwing ineffective 4-seam fastballs to worm killing sinkers. This helps to keep the ball on the ground, limiting the opportunities for extra base hits. It also has the added bonus of shortening the length of at-bats (it takes less pitches to induce a ground out than a strike out) and therefore helps limit walks. It’s a neat, simple trick for making previously ineffective starters far more efficient.
There’s a problem when it comes to Musgrove however, take a look at his fastball:
Yep, that’s a sinker. It’s a really good one. For his career, Musgrove’s sinker has elicited a ground ball on almost 70% of balls in play. It has ended up a strike approximately two-thirds of the time and has generated an 8% whiff rate which, though below average, is fine for a pitch with that ground ball rate. The one you see on your screen was thrown at 90 miles per hour. It reaches 96 and features rough 5.5 inches of drop relative to the average 4-seam fastball. Musgrove’s sinker might already be his best pitch, so Ray Searage and the Pirates aren’t about to revolutionize Musgrove’s arsenal.
For what it’s worth, Musgrove’s secondary offerings are pretty damn good as well. Here’s an 82 mph slider to Brandon Phillips:
And an 86 mph change-up to Ender Inciarte:
And just for good measure, a nasty curveball, again to Brandon Phillips:
What we can say for sure, Joe Musgrove isn’t struggling because of a lack of stuff. That’s a loud four pitch mix that should give hitters fits.
A Pitcher in Control
A by-product of this sinker heavy approach adopted by the Pirates is a decrease in walk rate. As you get more early at-bat ground balls you have less opportunities to walk hitters. With that, less walks means less runners on base and generally speaking, less runs allowed. A simple way to get the most out of a starter is to limit the number of free passes they issue and the Pirates have had some success in doing that.
Again, this is already an area in which Musgrove excels. Out of 134 pitchers who threw at least 100 innings in 2017, Musgroves 6.1 BB% ranked 21st. At over a full point better than the league average walk rate in 2017, there isn’t much improvement left for Musgrove in that area.
An Imperfect Union?
Joe Musgrove already limits walk as well as nearly any pitcher in the game. He pairs this with an elite sinker that generates an absurd rate of ground balls and above average secondary pitches. It is reasonable to look at Musgrove and feel that the product is less than the sum of the parts and that moving under the watchful eye of a well renowned pitching coach might just be the break he needs. Unfortunately, for Joe Musgrove and the Pirates however, their philosophies just don’t align.
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