Starting off with a pessimistic question: Of the five Astros pitchers who have started games this season, who gives you the least amount of confidence to pitch well enough to win a game for the Astros?
Most would say Mike Fiers, and that probably wouldn’t be wrong for a variety of reasons. Many would say Joe Musgrove next, but not because he’s been especially bad, just unproven. After a four-run first inning yesterday in Tampa, Musgrove shut the Rays down with five no-hit innings the rest of the way. Going back a bit, he allowed two earned runs in his first two starts of the year against Seattle, one a team loss that was mostly on the bullpen (4/6 against Seattle) and another a team (and individual) win where he delivered a solid performance but received solid run support. His five-run outing against Los Angeles last week could have been completely different except for one bad pitch to the greatest right-handed hitter of our generation. All this to say, Musgrove’s 5.91 ERA/5.10 FIP don’t look great, but he deserves a lot of credit for keeping the team in games.
Digging deeper though, Musgrove is having an early problem generating swings and misses. Musgrove has never been projected for a top of the rotation role unless you’re a believer in his performances against Toronto in his debut last summer and the Cubs later on in the season, where he flashed a pretty potent mix of secondary offerings and pinpoint command.
In all likelihood, Musgrove projects realistically as a solid mid-rotation guy with just above-average velocity and advanced secondaries - enough stuff to generate an acceptable rate of whiffs and strikeouts, but mostly relying on softer contact and command to get hitters out. But can he be that guy in 2017? Here’s a zone chart of Musgrove’s swing-and-miss percentage in his 62 innings last season.
Some good stuff there, which backs up Musgrove’s nice debut season. Missing bats down and up above the strike zone is what you want to see from a guy without incredibly dominating stuff, which led to a K% of 21.5% and a SwStr% (percentage of pitches thrown that result in a swing and miss) of 9.6%. Those numbers fall just at MLB average or a tick above, which should be fine for our expectations of Musgrove - so there’s no reason to question his stuff or the results he can get out of it.
But Musgrove’s whiff profile has looked way different in 21 innings so far this season.
This graph actually looks much better after eight Musgrove whiffs in yesterday’s start, but still some cold zones here. Musgrove’s SwStr% has dropped to 7.1% so far. That statistic doesn’t correlate extremely well with total strikeout rate (it does correlate well to overall “stuff”). Strikeout numbers have also decreased - he’s down to a 14% K rate and a 5.48 K/9.
Though the SwStr% is down, Musgrove’s stuff hasn’t taken a noticeable downturn. He’s 24, his fastball velocity is sitting comfortably around 93 this season, and he seems to be over the injuries that plagued him over the course of his minor league career.
This would be the part of the post where I, an unsalaried ball writer, am supposed to give a persuasive solution for Musgrove to start missing bats again. That’s complicated - it’s nice enough to identify this issue, but there doesn’t seem like a clear answer. As said above, the velocity is fine and he’s remaining consistent with his pitch usage.
One theory: Command of Musgrove’s slider, generally considered his most advanced secondary pitch and the one that missed the most bats last season, is off. He’s only generated five whiffs with that slider so far this year, and it looks like he’s leaving the pitch in the zone and baiting contact instead of keeping the pitch low. Here’s Musgrove’s slider location from last season:
And so far this season:
Musgrove’s outcome numbers say his slider isn’t getting hit harder than any of his other pitches. But even if it’s not getting hit hard (yet), the slider has turned into a much more hittable pitch based on location alone, and he’s generating way fewer whiffs on his best secondary offering.
Even though the numbers aren’t great, you could reasonably be “acceptable” to “happy” with Musgrove’s work so far. It’s early and Musgrove showed a tremendous amount of “grit” to stay in the game yesterday and dominate Tampa Bay for the next five innings. The swing-strike stuff could require more work with Brent Strom to iron out some mechanics with secondaries or something, but Musgrove could profile as a back-end rotation guy reliant on contact and batted ball variance more than normal this season if the whiff issues continue.