The Astros’ farm system is known for its consistent depth, which makes it both exciting and intimidating to follow. Now in 2019, the system is as strong as it has been since before the Astros’ metamorphosis into World Series winner; particularly on the pitching side, where the organization has significant talent at every rung on the ladder and each evaluator seems to have a different set of favorites and sleeper picks. Pro scouting is often done on an organization-by-organization basis, which can make it more difficult for players in especially deep systems such as Houston, San Diego or Tampa to stand out as they might in a vacuum.
One player who I feel perhaps would be receiving more attention in a less stacked system is left handed starter Parker Mushinski, a strikeout artist with deep roots in Texas baseball who is coming off a 2018 campaign in which he fanned 114 Midwest League batters in 89 innings on his way to a robust 2.33 ERA backed by a 3.19 FIP, allowing just 62 hits along the way. I had a chance to speak with the with the former Texas Tech hurler after a game against Marlins minor leaguers this past week and was able to learn more about his evolution as a pitcher, the different roles he has filled and what he has picked up thus far in pro ball.
Out of Argyle High School in Texas, Mushinski drew attention as a starting pitcher but, as I learned, was pushed into a bullpen role after making the jump to college ball at Texas Tech primarily due to circumstance: “My freshman year was the year after we had the first Omaha appearance ever at our school, and all of a sudden we were playing horrible,” he said. “Any time anything happened, they threw all the upperclassmen in. So I got one start my freshman year, I think I went three innings and gave up two runs and got pulled because we were down two to nothing. That group of us just kind of never got the starting chance.
“My sophomore year I had elbow surgery, old high school football injury, and the year after that, my first year back, they weren’t going to push me a bunch, so I became the left-handed specialist out of the pen, and I did well at that. And then I was kind of, I like to call it the ‘oh, shit’ guy. Bases loaded, no outs, in the first? I came in. Close out the game, any time, anything. I probably threw in three out of the four games a week, and that’s kind of what I got used to. I’ve always been able to start, but that’s how it all came up. That’s just how it is.”
Mushinski was drafted by the Astros as a starting pitcher and has gradually been stretched out since then, I asked whether most teams viewed him in that role and he said “Most teams come out throughout your junior year and most of them ask ‘are you opposed to starting?’ And you say no. Obviously you want to be the most versatile player you can be”
Limited to 90 innings last year, I asked Parker if there was a plan for his workload this season and he said: “I have no idea, to be honest with you. If it was up to me I’d say anywhere from 110 to 120 innings is kind of my personal goal, if they’d let me go that far. I know guys like Corbin and them threw 130 or so, and I think that that’s a workload, if I go through that healthy, I can show to them ‘Okay, he can start. He can throw extended innings for a long season.’ and that’s kind of my ‘goal’ so to speak.”
When I asked him about how his arsenal changed as he moved between roles and levels, Mushinski said: “I was more of a fastball-curveball, and then my junior year I kind of developed a cutter, basically my best pitch, in college, at least. In college the coaches call pitches, and I was just lucky that for some reason, guys couldn’t hit my fastball. Even on days that I wasn’t throwing the ball by guys, they had trouble.
“In my junior year I threw mostly fastballs and cutters, and then I’d slip in a few breaking balls if I had to be extended past one inning. My breaking ball was good enough that I didn’t have to drop it in for a strike and I’d get some swings at it. I was a three pitch guy... I threw two pitches consistently for strikes I would say, fastball and cutter, and then a curveball every once in awhile but that’s really what I was, I just came in and tried to throw everything by dudes.”
Elaborating on how his cutter developed, he said “Sometimes I’d go out there and throw and all of a sudden I’d throw a 93 or something mile-an-hour fastball that’d just cut like crazy, and I’d be thinking to myself, ‘Well, why can’t I just learn to do that on purpose?’ Then I spent an offseason in the California Collegiate League and I kinda toyed with it a little bit, and then I came back my junior year that fall and I started throwing it more and getting a feel for it, and it changed my fall completely around.”
On what he’s learned from teammates as a pro, Mushinski cited J.B. Bukauskas as a major help on multiple fronts in rounding out his arsenal as a starter: “[J.B.] and I were kind of throwing partners when he was in Quad Cities last year with me, when he came back. Just playing catch with a guy like that every day, man, it’s gonna make you better, first off. You may only go ninety feet, or seventy but that’s fifty throws that I’m watching firsthand how it’s coming out of his hand, how his body’s working.
“A big thing is he helped me with my slider. Because I didn’t throw a slider until about a third of the way through last year, I had kinda toyed with it, but I mostly stuck to my cutter. And my cutter was playing well against lefties because of the shift and such but they were slapping it down the line more than they were swinging and missing at it. My cutter’s more of a one-plane pitch, so if I add depth they swing over it.
“I think cool, I throw with a dude that’s got a gross slider every day, why don’t I just ask him? I talked to him a little bit about it, I talked to Johnson, our pitching coach, and all the people who are here to help with us, and I mean Is it where I want it to be forever? No, it can always be better, but going from never throwing a slider before to a pitch that I’d say is plus against lefties, it’s really cool. I’ve played catch with him every day, kept seeing those change ups, all that stuff, so in my mind I can see him throw and I sometimes think about like, ‘okay he gets this on his change up, how would I get it the same way even though my body moves differently?’ little things like that.”
After graciously tolerating me fanboying over Bukauskas for a moment, Parker added: “I don’t understand how his arm moves so fast, to this day. None of us. We’re like ‘dude, how?’ We could all use that. J.B., man.”
When asked about what has surprised him about the Astros process, Mushinski said: “I learned more of an idea of what I was doing up there... it’s just the little things that people take for granted, like on an 0-2 pitch you’re going to want to throw the ball in the dirt, throw the ball at the letters and try to get him to swing and miss it, but when you’re in a game, on the mound, it doesn’t always come to you.
“I think the biggest thing that kind of took me by surprise was how much I knew, but how much I wasn’t processing while I was pitching. I could study a lineup all day but when I was on the mound, I wouldn’t remember if this lefty will take a first pitch breaking ball like, 90% of the time. And then I’d throw him a fastball, and he may roll over on it, or pop it up, but he could’ve gotten a hit, and if I would’ve landed a curveball or slider in there, it’s 0-1 and I’m in a way better spot. It’s the little things like that that kind of took me by surprise and made me realize how much more of a student of the game I needed to become.”
He also mentioned departed Director of Decision Sciences Sig Mejdal as helpful in getting players on board early in the process, adding: “We spent that first short-season with Sig, and it was awesome. We all miss him being our first base coach.”
As a pitcher who has thrown in every role from starter to specialist, I was interested in Parker’s thoughts on the opener and changing roles for pitchers in general at the big league level. He had a well-reasoned response: “I kind of understand [the opener]. We had a kid at Tech, I’d hear stories about him, I might’ve been a senior in high school, but his name was Jonny Drozd. If he started a game, he wouldn’t get out of the first inning, but he would give you two through nine. And some guys are just better out of the bullpen, some guys just need more time. It’s just finding what works, obviously. If you have five guys who can consistently give you what you need then I don’t see a use for it, but it comes down to team needs and what they have in their arsenal that’s available that day.” Drozd’s player page on the Texas Tech athletics website lists a career-long relief outing of 7.0 innings and a 0.1 inning start as the shortest of his career. He pitched as a reliever in three different farm systems between 2014 and 2017, reaching the Hi-A level.
I was also able to get Parker’s thoughts on Driveline Baseball and their training methods, and he was also able to share some information about the difficulties of offseason training: “I know lots of guys who have gone up there and benefitted from it, I follow them on social medias and such, and a lot of [what they teach], I believe in. Have I ever thought about going up there? Absolutely. I have thought about it. But, being from Texas, I train at a good place in Texas, and that being near Seattle, that would take up a lot of time, and money.
But it’s something I’ve pondered, definitely. I’ve heard nothing but good things from the guys that have gone up there, it’s a real competitive environment. I’ve talked to Forrest, I’ve talked to Brandon and they’ve enjoyed their time up there. It’s definitely been something I’ve thought about, even do what Forrest did and just go up there and face a bunch of live hitters, because that’s the hardest part about the offseason most of the time. At high schools, at least in Texas, ex-players aren’t allowed to pitch to their teams, and I can’t always drive up to Lubbock to throw to them... There are definitely some top of the line ideas coming out of that place.”
I also took the opportunity to ask Parker about his 2018 manager, Mickey Storey, who was a minor league pitcher in the Astros organization himself not long ago and earned the nod as Triple-A manager in 2019, a fast rise through the coaching ranks. He responded: “Mick’s a really good dude, I spent the entire year with him last year and learned a lot about him, he learned about me. He’s a manager that’s for the players, but if we do something that obviously isn’t right he’s not going to let us take it lightly. You play 140 games, guys are going to slip up, and he may have lit us up but next day, clean slate, new day, he makes us know that he’s there for us when we need him.
“He taught me a lot about, we call it flow, but style, so to speak. He’s a big shoe guy. Helped me with pitching a lot too, talked to him a lot about some tempo things, odd and ends that he experienced in his time, I think he’s a great coach, and I’d definitely like to play for him in the future, absolutely.”
Mushinski’s path to pro ball was a meandering one, but the lefty has answered the call every step of the way and frustrated hitters in every assignment that’s been thrown at him. His competitiveness, thirst for knowledge and demonstrated versatility figure to benefit him as he climbs up the ladder, as do the improvements to his secondary stuff he detailed above. He should have an opportunity to throw more innings in 2019 than he ever has in the past and has the stuff and makeup to put himself squarely on the radar if he maintains his current trajectory.
You can follow Parker on Twitter at @communitypark12