MLB: Pittsburgh Might Not Be a Good Fit for Joe Musgrove

Joe Musgrove mightn’t be the next Ray Searage success story.

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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.

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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:

  1. Trade out ineffective 4-seam fastballs in favor of sinkers.
  2. Limit walks – a product of shorter at bats thanks to point 1.
  3. 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:

Credit: Eno Sarris – Gyfcat

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:

Credit: Pitcher List – Gyfcat

And an 86 mph change-up to Ender Inciarte:

Credit: Pitcher List – Gyfcat

And just for good measure, a nasty curveball, again to Brandon Phillips:

Credit: Pitcher List – Gyfcat

 

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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11 thoughts on “MLB: Pittsburgh Might Not Be a Good Fit for Joe Musgrove

    1. I will respond to this briefly.

      Firstly, Musgrove’s 6.12 ERA as a starter suggests that there is a decent amount that need fixing.

      My point is that Musgrove already does the things the Pirates teach – so where is the improvement going to come from?

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      1. I’m an Astros fan who got to see Musgrove pitch a lot last year. Musgrove will do fine for the Pirates *for the first two times through the lineup*. After that it’s dicey for Joe as hitters have adjusted to his stuff. He worked out great as a reliever but to be a starter who goes 6 to 7 innings in Pittsburgh, he needs to develop something new to fool hitters with on the third time through the lineup. Maybe throwing more breaking pitches and sliders off the plate.

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  1. So what you’re saying is that Musgrove and the Pirates won’t work because he is exactly the kind of pitcher they try to make? Im sorry but this article makes absolutely no sense what so ever then. Also the Pirates are not doing a total rebuild. They are doing a soft rebuild where they are acquiring talent that is already MLB ready.

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    1. Again I’ll ask – if he’s already that pitcher, where does the improvement come from? Unless you’re comfortable running out the guy with a 6.12 ERA as a starter with less than flattering peripherals

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  2. I don’t think Searage and the Pirates are nearly as single-minded in their coaching as you imply.

    The Bucs love a pitcher with a sinker, but they don’t always encourage them to throw it more often. Volquez, Happ, Nova and others have actually thrown it less. Burnett and Liriano threw it more, but that was about five years ago. The league has changed, and so has the coaching.

    They do encourage their pitchers to attack the zone (especially inside). But pitchers have reported that they’ve been encouraged not to fear the walk. The Pirates have, as a team, pretty consistently had an average or worse BB%. Pitchers are encouraged to be aggressive, not to avoid walks.

    I can see Musgrove taking what he learned in the bullpen, working with Searage, working with Cervelli, enjoying a more pitcher friendly park, and really progressing.

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    1. Definitely and I appreciate that but there’s only a much nuance you can include in a post. I think there are ways that Musgrove can get better in Pittsburgh and am working on a post about at the moment actually

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  3. Musgrove’s problem has always been aggressiveness and confidence. I mean, he has very little of either. When he starts, he seems so intent on making the perfect pitch in each at-bat or trying to save something to get to the 7th inning that he gets 0-2 or 1-2 immediately and then nibbles and gets foul balls and raises his pitch count to only get through 4 2/3. If he would simply stay with the approach that got him to 0-2 or 1-2 then he would be fine. As a reliever, he was just airing it out, knowing he only had to go 3 innings at the most. The aggression stayed high and he was successful. I think his time in the bullpen has taught him that about himself and his game. I don’t think the Pirates will have to do much but to remind him to stay that way and work on his conditioning so he can put that level of effort out there for longer.

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  4. I don’t think ERA is the best metric to analyze a young pitcher’s performance. I think the Pirates interest in Musgrove was precisely because they didn’t need to “fix” him. He already has good stuff and good control. Like most young pitchers, he just needs to know how to attack major league hitters. He seemed to learn that better in the bullpen, where many pitchers adapt to the league. My guess is he’ll adjust to the league and perform fairly well, then the league will adjust to him and he’ll struggle. Then we’ll see if he can make the proper adjustments again.

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