BRADENTON, Fla. — When Pirates manager Clint Hurdle announced in the second day of Pirates’ training camp that recent trade acquisition Joe Musgrove would be the fifth and final member of the starting pitching staff, it was a bit of a surprise.
For one, the Pirates haven’t typically been so proactive in releasing such information, even if the results were widely speculation. For two, at first glance, Musgrove seems like a better option as a reliever than a starter.
In 2017, Musgrove started 15 games for the Houston Astros and pitched in 23 games in relief. In his starts, he had a .882 OPS against, a 6.12 ERA and a 1.513 WHIP. In relief, he had a .565 OPS against, a 1.44 ERA and a 0.862 WHIP.
The first line describes a below-average starting pitcher. For some context, projected out over the course of a full season, that would something like that line posted by Bartolo Colon last year. He had a .909 OPS against, a 6.48 ERA and a 1.587 WHIP. So other than being nearly 20 years younger and somewhat projectable, Musgrove’s stats from last season look like that of a back-of-the-rotation starter at best.
In relief, his numbers look pretty similar to his more-heralded bullpen mate in Houston, Pat Neshek, who had a .536 OPS against, a 1.59 ERA and a 0.866 WHIP.
Incidentally, both Colon and Neshek were free agents this winter. Neshek signed a two-year, $16.25 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. Colon, seven years older than Neshek, just signed a minor-league contract with the Texas Rangers.
So while the free market seems to value Musgrove’s relief production more than his starting production, the Pirates see something else. After all, it’s not as if they don’t have other options. Steven Brault, Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham and Casey Sadler aren’t exactly proven, but they’ve had enough success in either the majors or minors that they could have made something of a competition out of it.
So what do the Pirates see? Well first, let’s take their word for it.
“He’s got multiple pitches,” manager Clint Hurdle said on Thursday. “He’s not a two-pitch guy. He’s got athleticism. He’s got a solid delivery. There’s a strong arm. There’s a database upstairs. The guy is a pretty smart guy. There’s a desire, which is as important as anything. There’s a want-to. There’s a willingness to learn.”
The drive to be a starting pitcher instead of a reliever is certainly real. In fact, it was one of the first things Musgrove thought about when he learned he’d been traded.
“When you look at the Astros’ rotation, I obviously knew that I was going to be starting off in the bullpen,” he said. “Going through the trade, I knew there was a chance to start here.
“Starting is kind of what I’ve always done throughout my career. That’s where I feel the most comfortable. That’s where I feel I’ll grow the most as a pitcher. So, I was definitely excited about the possibility of getting back in the rotation.”
Musgrove thinks he needs to bring the same mentality that he brought to pitching as a reliever to starting and that he got too caught up in trying to go deep into games instead of making the next pitch in front of him.
“I got to a point where I hit a little rough patch,” Musgrove said. “I found myself trying to do too much at one point instead of just taking it one pitch at a time and trying to make quality pitch after quality pitch and work my way though the outing that way. I would find myself in the first two innings thinking about getting myself to the sixth or seventh instead of just continuing to go pitch by pitch and hitter by hitter.”
Musgrove certainly went through a rough patch. At the end of May last season, with seven starts under his belt, his ERA was a much-more respectable 4.89. Three rough outings in June ballooned it to over six, including a nine-run, 12-hit performance against Seattle on June 23.
That’s the kind of day that will wreck any pitcher’s ERA, but the fact that those three starts had such an outsized effect brings into spotlight the size of the sample in those numbers. Fifteen starts is not a large number, and there is more to consider. Musgrove made 10 starts as a rookie in 2016 and fared much better.
In 2016, he had a 4.06 ERA, a 1.210 WHIP, and a .758 OPS against. That’s much closer to a league-average pitcher.
The difference seems to be driven at least in part by BABIP. In Musgrove’s average 2016, he had a .289 BABIP, just below average. In the first half of 2017, as a starter, it was .345. In the second half of 2017, as a reliever, it was .253.
So without doing a ton of math, it seems that Musgrove’s middle-of-the-road numbers from 2016 are more likely results going forward than either his pedestrian starting figures or eye-popping relief figures of 2017. They also line up better with Musgrove’s minor-league numbers.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Some pitchers are just better-suited to a relief role for a numbers of reasons. Hurdle already mentioned one of them. It’s a lot easier for a pitcher to get by on one or two pitches in a bullpen role. But that doesn’t seem to be an issue for Musgrove. If anything, he’s trying to cut down from the six he can throw.
“I’m probably going to fine-tune that down to maybe four by the time we break camp here,” Musgrove said. “I’m trying not to limit myself or put boundaries on what I can throw. I like to have all my weapons available. There are certain hitters where a curveball will play better than a slider will, so I’m trying to keep all those pitches sharp so that I can use them when I need them.”
Musgrove throws a four-seam, a cutter, a sinker, a change-up, a slider and a curveball. The slider is probably his best offering, with a .196 batting average against. The curve and the cutter are also solid, while the change could use some work. Musgrove isn’t sure yet what type of mix he’s going to end up using with the Pirates and hasn’t done any extensive work with Ray Searage yet to figure that out. But he certainly seems to have a mix befitting of a starting pitcher.
Another reason a pitcher can have success in a bullpen role is an extreme platoon split that managers can use situationally to help a player avoid a bad matchup. Musgrove, a righty, has almost no platoon split over his career, with righties owning a .784 OPS against him and lefties a .783 mark.
The final major reason players sometimes work out better in relief is the inability to get deep into lineups. His times through the order splits are fairly dramatic. The first and second time though the order as a starter hover right around an .800 OPS against. The third time drills him for a .990 OPS. Going by straight pitches instead of times through the order, he has an .892 OPS against after 50 pitches.
But Musgrove feels like his experience in the bullpen at the end of 2017 might help him correct some of those issues.
“It’s just going pitch by pitch,” he said. “(In the bullpen), you never know how may hitters you’re going to get, so I was balls to the wall until they took the ball from me. I really learned a lot about myself, what I need to get ready and the preparation that it takes. Also, just how to get big league hitters out when you need to get them out.”
Even with some improvement, Musgrove doesn’t look like the kind of pitcher that should be expected to get through the third time of the order very frequently. But with the way the Pirates’ bullpen looks, that might not be the worst thing in the world.
The Pirates started Trevor Williams in the bullpen in 2017 as a long man and he ended up moving back to a starting role and excelled. By the end of the season, he was one of the team’s more reliable starting options. That’s a way to break starting pitchers into the big leagues that used to be popular, but has fallen by the wayside a bit in recent years.
Perhaps encouraged by Williams’ success, the Pirates have two more pitchers they seem willing to try it with in Brault and Glasnow, something Hurdle likened to an apprenticeship. Either way, Williams’ situation a year ago proves that whatever decision gets made out of spring training won’t be set in stone. But Musgrove is going to be given the first, best shot at success.
“We just need to get him out on the field and see how it plays,” Hurdle said. “He’s going to have every opportunity to get in the rotation and pitch.”