Now In Holding Pattern, Joe Musgrove Waits To Put Postseason Lessons To Work

Joe Musgrove was plugged into the Pirates’ rotation long before he ever arrived in Pittsburgh, with Neal Huntington christening him as the fifth starter mere hours after the Gerrit Cole trade was consummated.

But a couple of months after receiving that early appointment, Musgrove won’t make his first turn. Although Pirates director of sports medicine Todd Tomczyk described his right shoulder strain as “acute” and recent upon Musgrove’s placement on the 10-day disabled list Monday, the former Astro complained of discomfort around the offending joint at the start of spring training.

Perhaps Musgrove never gets off the runway this season, with either Steven Brault or Tyler Glasnow taking the newcomer’s intended spot permanently. Musgrove will certainly be hard-pressed to match Colin Moran’s grand slam of a first impression.

Maybe Musgrove’s extensive repertoire — described by the man himself as six separate pitches during our spring training chat — doesn’t germinate in the rotation the way the Pirates hope and he’ll be back where he ended last season with Houston: In the bullpen.

But with whatever challenges the 25-year-old faces with his new team, he vows he’s going to be a different pitcher when he first climbs the mound wearing a black cap.

While Musgrove lamented not taking more time during last year’s postseason to enjoy the moment, he said his seven October appearances were life-altering.

“I learned a lot there about how to be comfortable in those kind of spots,” Musgrove said, boiling down his most basic takeaway to “just breathe.”

So, it’s ironic that his most significant tactical discovery from making 30 relief appearances after the all-star break is that he was relaxing too much during his 25 starts as an Astro.

“As a starter, I found myself trying to plan my outing, plan my approach to hitters for the fifth, sixth, seventh inning,” Musgrove told me. “Whereas, in the bullpen, you’re just trying to compete and get one out at a time and execute one pitch at a time. I think I kinda lost that mentality in a starting role, but I learned a lot from those high-leverage situations where you can’t afford to slip up and you come with your best stuff. That’s the kind of stuff I’ll bring to the rotation.”

Musgrove also tossed out his changeup and curveball while in the Houston bullpen, relying on a three-way fastball combo — four-seam, sinker, cutter — and his slider. The speed of his pitches also ticked up a couple of miles per hour, which Musgrove attributed to adrenaline more than actually trying to throw harder.

The results of his move to relief were as promising as they were dramatic. Musgrove went from a 6.12 ERA as a starter to a 1.44 in the ‘pen. Opponents who previously hit .306/.356/.536 could manage a paltry .196/.244/.321 line against Musgrove, The Reliever.

“I shrunk down my arsenal,” Musgrove said. “I was pretty much a two-pitch pitcher. I had my sinker and my cutter, which are two different pitches, but it’s a similar delivery to the fastball. … So I was able to refine those pitches and make them sharper.”

Sounds like a potential avenue forward if this rotation thing doesn’t work — not like the Pirates are full to the brim with reliable relievers — but almost every response from Musgrove during our talk included some allusion to bringing the lessons he learned back to a starter’s role.

Specifically, he spoke of his pregame procedure of determining which pitches are working on a particular day and honing in on those. Musgrove said he’ll coordinate with Francisco Cervelli for input on which pitches to lean upon, a subservient stance which he reiterated when I asked about his perceived stature on a youthful pitching staff.

“I’m coming over here, trying to be part of a young core building something really special, but coming over with a little bit of experience that I’m willing to share,” he said. “But by no means am I coming over here thinking I’m the experienced veteran that has nothing to learn. I still have a lot to learn and there’s a lot of guys here I can learn from, so trying to share what I know and pick up what I can along the way.”

When it comes to fitting in with his new bosses, Musgrove said he appreciates Ray Searage’s person-first approach to coaching. Evidently, there were no significant technique adjustments made in Bradenton, a conservative approach that might’ve been at least partially informed by Musgrove’s delayed throwing program.

“(Searage) doesn’t force his ways on you,” Musgrove said. “He takes time to get to know you as a person and know what makes you tick, so he knows how to talk to you properly and how to get his message across to you. Takes time to invest in your delivery and learn what makes you good and how your delivery works best.”

This is Musgrove’s eighth professional season after being drafted 46th overall by the Blue Jays, but it’s possible he’s still learning about what works best after that down-then-up 2017.

Searage said late in spring that he wasn’t concerned about Musgrove’s results — 6.94 ERA and 1.54 WHIP in 11 2/3 Grapefruit League innings — because the Pirates wanted to take it slow with their new acquisition after a taxing postseason.

Not that Musgrove was acting at all exhausted in Bradenton.

“He’s so energized,” Searage said. “If you’ve ever been around him, he’s very intense and has an idea of what he wants to do.”

In Houston, the heights sure were high for Musgrove, capped by a scoreless 10th inning in that topsy-turvy, highly-caffeinated Game 5 at Minute Maid Park. The lows of a dismal first half aren’t that distant of a memory, either.

Then there’s the matter of his barking shoulder and adapting to the Pirates’ way of doing things, complete with the differing philosophies and differing approaches that come along with such a change.

He spoke to the balance he’s trying to strike in the midst of all this.

“Trying to stick to the routine that works for me,” Musgrove said. “And also trying to adapt to the new things they have to offer and gaining some knowledge from them.”