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Reviewing the Rise of Joe Musgrove

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Late season returns have been impressive for two under-the-radar righties. What's made them so unhittable, and how do they fit into the Astros long-term plans?

This will be a multi-part article series on the rise of a couple of previously-unhearalded prospects in the Astros system. Today, I'll profile Joe Musgrove, and I plan to profile Francis Martes in a similar fashion. If there are suggestions for other players, please add in the comments!

Before this season, you wouldn't fault a minor-league following Astros fan or anyone with a feel for farm systems for leaving Francis Martes and Joe Musgrove off among the Astros top pitching prospects. Musgrove, a lanky righty who was drafted in 2011, had taken a long time to even get out of rookie ball, where his results struggled to keep up with the impressive velocity he flashed. Martes, more of a stocky righty at six-feet flat, was only known for having a raw, power arm as a throw-in in the Jarred Cosart deal from Miami.

Fast-forward a from this spring to August. Musgrove, with his insane K/BB ratio and more consistent stuff, is on the fringes of top 100 prospect lists, while Martes has harnessed that power arm into fast results in his age-19 season, only giving up three homers with a slider apparently from the halls of Valhalla, as he's been discussed even a top 50 prospect list by one writer. So what's driven the 2015 success of Musgrove and Martes, and where can we expect them to be down the road in the Astros organization?

In this first article, I'll profile just Musgrove, discussing the 1). Stats, 2). Stuff(Scouting), and 3) Future of the player. Because sample size issues abound with minor league numbers and those numbers don't always mean much, I think it's important to look at the numbers and reports (velocity, delivery, makeup) as equally as possible, with maybe a little more weight on the scouting side. And when it comes to the Astros' decision on minor league promotions, we know what we don't know: sometimes guys are promoted quickly for destroying a level. Other times, they're kept down even when performing well, presumably to work through small issues with instructors. Just quoting a bunch of pitching stats doesn't make a pitching prospect, so I'll do my best to reflect on the statistics, while keeping the scouting perspective in mind.

The Stats

I would put Musgrove's K/BB ratios for 2015 up against any other bizarrely good minor league statisitc for this season. Between three levels, Musgrove has struck out 99 and walked eight. EIGHT. That's better than a 12:1 ratio if you're keeping score at home. What may be more impressive is how Musgrove has handled Double-A Corpus in his seven starts there. He's been hit around a bit more after his promotion and his FIP is almost two runs higher than his ERA, but he's maintained a 26:4 K:BB ratio on his third minor league level of the season.  Aside from his gaudy ratios, Musgrove is generally doing a solid job of limiting baserunners (WHIP is under 1.00 for the season) and keeping the ball in the yard with nine homers allowed in 100 total innings (though the seven homers in 32.4 Corpus innings is a bit more of a concern, and could be the cause of the increased FIP).

Here's a visual of Musgrove's K:BB ratio from dating to last season in Tri-City (Rookie league stats thrown out due to really small sample size and the fact that they don't matter).

And his ERA over FIP totals from the same timeframe:

In my attempt to find a result that Musgrove could improve on, there's not much. Even his strikeout numbers have, in total, been pretty solid this season at 9.19 K/9. Even though he can hit the high 90s with his fastball, Musgrove generates a ton of groundballs, so he's not exactly dependent on the strikeout for outs. We could go for a little more domination of the Texas League, as his K/9 sits at 6.60 there right now, which could be a factor in his higher FIP. Even so, he's only made seven starts there, and it's still a very advanced level for a guy who only pitched in Tri-City last season.

One last data point of possible importance is Musgrove's groundout:flyout ratio, which has been good for the season as a whole. However, it's dipped to 1.04 in Corpus, his lowest mark between all three levels. Musgrove has given up seven homers in 32 innings in AA, compared to just two in the other 68 innings, further detailing a decrease in groundball rate. The basis of HR/FB rate tells us that when a pitcher allows more flyballs, we can expect a spike in homers, and that's begun to happen. I couldn't find Musgrove's exact HR/FB rate for the season, as minor league stats only track flyouts instead of total flyballs allowed. Even then, that rate might just be noise considering the small sample of Musgrove's time over three levels and the different factors of each home park he's played in.

Here's a visual on how Musgrove's FIP has risen with his HR/9 rate, while his K% has taken a dip in Corpus as well.

The Stuff

So, we've pinpointed Musgrove's impeccable control and liminting baserunners. Where does the stuff rank among other top minor league pitchers? After doing some research, I stumbled upon a feature on Musgrove from a recent San Diego Union-Tribune article (he's from that area) with some quotes from Musgrove himself. He's been throwing four different pitches so far this season (fastball, slider, curve, circle-change), a sign that he's having success with an expanded arsenal. Though various pitching philosophies might preach that pitchers should focus on perfecting fewer pitches early on, Musgrove already has shown noticeable improvement in his fastball, sitting in the low 90s and touching 97 for what I'd call at least a consistently average major league fastball that flashes plus. The breaking stuff, so crucial for young right-handers to develop in the pros, has come around as well, with the curve sitting a tick higher than the change in terms of feel. Musgrove generates a lot of downhill movement on his fastball, leading to many groundball outs (1.44 groundball:flyball ratio for the season), which could explain his sparkling season FIP.

Here's a good video from Farmsystem on a bullpen session from Corpus-notice Doug Brocail watching intently on the right.

The downhill plane Musgrove gets on his pitches seems evident even from that session and the low 90s velocity looks pretty easy from what looks like a 3/4 arm slot.

The Future

What's impressive about Musgrove is the timeline he's gone through from coming out of high school (high pick, big fastball) to struggling with velocity drops, injuries and ineffectiveness in Toronto's system through last season, and now. From his draft day in the summer of 2011, Musgrove spent three years in Rookie Ball Purgatory (only the second level of Selig's Seven Levels of Baseball Hell, behind O.Co Colisuem). Even upon his debut in full-season ball last year in Tri-City, he reportedly sat in the high-80s with his fastball, a far away from his ceiling. This past offseason, he had surgery on his collarbone, which could've been the magic fix to get him fully healthy into this season.

It's important to have patience with prospects, especially young right-handed pitchers. Though he looked like a frustrating long-term project for a while, he's a lesson that high school pitchers aren't going to throw 95 from ages 19-22 and reach the big leagues within three years. It's difficult to stay healthy, and then it's even harder to learn how to learn how to pitch with consistently improving stuff against good competition once the health comes. For Musgrove, it took a while for the former, but now healthy the latter looks pretty easy so far.

Musgrove projects as a mid-rotation starter who can churn through some groundball outs and with impressive control. Even if his fastball velocity just stays in the 92-94 range, he can rely on that fastball when needed. The 6'5'' frame shows that he's durable enough, and he should have the necessary arsenal to get big league hitters out once the breaking pitches develop further. Drafted in 2011, Musgrove is four years into pro ball, and accounting for injuries he should still be viewed on a positive track now, especially with good health. We'll see how his peripherals look for the rest of the year in Corpus-if he can turn some of those flyballs that are more frequently finding a way over the fence into grounders and increase that strikeout rate, he's going to generate a lot of buzz this offseason and could lead to Musgrove contributing to the major league squad in 2016 if he's needed. The front office has shown a willingness to promote straight from Corpus Christi-though Musgrove might have to prove his health and consistency a little longer, he's been so good this season that it's hard not to take notice.

(All statistics from Fangraphs.com)