PHILADELPHIA — Over the last couple of seasons, the Houston Astros have used a markedly different approach when it comes to their pitching, asking their players to use less of their fastball and more of their secondary pitches than the league in general, and it’s turned into a World Series win for the Astros and vastly improved outcomes for players like Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole after they were traded to Houston.
Tim Williams wrote about that approach and how it differs from the Pirates’ preferred methodology on Tuesday.
Of course, the Pirates got a couple of pitchers back in the Gerrit Cole trade in Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz, that are both interesting players in their own right and interesting proofs of the concept.
Musgrove is pretty much exactly what you’d expect to find for a player developed in that system. He throws six pitches. He throws his fastball less than 40 percent of the time. His slider is his best pitch, with a .180 batting average against.
In fact, Musgrove said he used to throw a seventh pitch, a split-fingered changeup, that he got taken away from him, but not because seven was too many.
“I got that taken away from me early on in my career, just for sake of arm injuries and the concern with that,” Musgrove said. “They were always all for me using all of my pitches. I had a tendency to favor my slider over my curveball. That was always my tendency. They encouraged me and the numbers showed that my curveball played better to lefties than my slider did. They were always behind me trying to get the use of it up.”
Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage said something like that would probably never happen in the Pirates system, where he, the player’s pitching coach and pitching coordinator Scott Mitchell would get together with the player and come up with a plan that feels more feasible at a lower level. Musgrove doesn’t try to use all six pitches in any given start, but likes the flexibility of getting to pick which parts of his arsenal he wants to hone down from for each game day.
“Trying to throw five, six pitches as a starter is tough to do,” he said. “It’s tough to have enough time and enough bullets to really get those six all prepared before an outing. So usually, I would end up taking four into a game.”
But the end result — a low fastball percentage — is the same as Houston’s other starters. Musgrove said that’s partially a result of an intentional strategy and partially a recognition of the individual skills those players possess.
“A lot of the time, the weapon for guys is breaking balls and everyone on that staff has got really good breaking balls, but I think everyone knows that stuff really stems all off the fastball, the command of the fastball and establishing that early in the count,” Musgrove said. “That’s something they’re really big on. (Houston pitching coach Brent) Strom is really big on fastballs and then not shying away from using your breaking ball when you want to get an out. I can see why those numbers are where they are.”
The proof that the Astros’ approach is more individual than systematic is probably Feliz, who came up as a starter throwing almost 75 percent fastballs and basically has a two-pitch arsenal at this point.
“I think it’s a different approach for different guys,” Feliz said. “When I grew up in the Houston system, they used to like for young people to throw their fastball more. I used to throw a lot of fastballs and I still believe it’s my best pitch. … They have a lot of talent. The used to like people to throw a lot of fastballs and develop comfort with the fastball and then develop those secondary pitches.”
With Feliz, those secondary pitches never developed as much, which is why he eventually ended up transitioning to the bullpen. But he never felt pressured to change his comfortable mix.
“I got out there for one inning and I just try to get three people out,” he said. “When I’m out there, I’m trying to throw as few pitches as I can.”
On the other side of the coin, the Pirates, long noted for their preference for two-seam fastballs, haven’t showed much of a desire to shoehorn either of their new acquisitions into that particular box.
“Ray’s kind of let me go,” Musgrove said. “I think he really likes my delivery. He sees where the problems are for me and where my issues are. Me and him have talked a lot about in this rebuild process about slowing my delivery down and being able to get myself into the right positions I need to be in. When I get into those positions, it makes my job a lot easier. I can throw more effortlessly and the stuff comes out a little better. It’s more sharp and consistent. It’s been more me telling him how I operate and what I like to feel in my delivery so he can look for it and kind of throw me the hints when I need them.”
With Musgrove’s return to throwing program, the Pirates do plan to whittle down his six pitches to four to focus on, but expect his four-seam fastball and curveball to be in the mix, the same as Feliz. Perhaps the Pirates have seen the other side of the coin, or perhaps both staffs deserve some credit for deciding where and when to implement their preferred strategies.