Pittsburgh Pirates: 2020 to be the Year of Joe Musgrove?

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After and up and down 2019 season, could 2020 be the year that Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Joe Musgrove puts it all together?

Following a strong, but injury shortened, 2018 season, expectations were high for Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Joe Musgrove entering 2019. Musgrove start the 2018 season on the disabled list and did not make his season debut until late May, but he would go on to make 19 starts for the Pirates in what became a career year for the righty.

In his first season with the Pittsburgh Pirates after coming to the team from the Houston Astros in the Gerrit Cole trade, Musgrove logged a career high 115.1 innings in 2018. His 19 starts were a career high as well. Musgrove’s 4.06 ERA tied a career best, while setting new career bests with a 3.54 FIP, 4.7% walk rate, and a 2.2 fWAR.

Following his strong 2018 season, expectations were high for Musgrove entering 2019. After getting off to a strong start to the season, Musgrove hit a mid-season lull. He then finished the season strong allowing just nine earned runs in 28 innings pitched (2.89 ERA) in his final six starts.

Overall, it led to an inconsistent season from Musgrove. He set a new career high in starts (31), innings pitched (170.1), strikeout rate (21.9%), and fWAR (3.3). However, his 4.44 ERA, 3.77 FIP, 5.4% walk rate, and 1.11 HR/9 all regressed from 2018.

When you dig deeper, however, there are signs that Musgrove is set to breakthrough in 2020. So, why could 2020 be Musgrove’s year?

Musgrove’s Deserved Run Average, or DRA for short, was just 3.59 in 2019. This came on the heels of posting a 3.43 DRA in 2018. So, what is DRA? Well, let’s explain.

DRA is a stat that looks to determine how many runs a pitcher deserved to surrender, not how many they actually did. DRA adjusts based on variables that are out of the pitcher’s control such as ballpark, pitch framing, and opposing lineup. You can read more about DRA at Baseball Prospectus here.

Musgrove’s DRA the past two seasons indicate a pitcher that pitched much better than his ERA. While it is not as bad as some other stats, looking at you pitcher’s win/loss record, ERA is still a flawed stat. ERA does not take into consideration poor defense, ballpark, relievers failing to strand inherited runners, and pitch framing, among other things, which a pitcher should not be penalized for.

Another sign that 2020 could be the year for Musgrove is new pitching coach Oscar Marin. A big reason Musgrove finished the season strong was a mix up in his pitch selection. Now that Ray Searage and his pitch to contact philosophy are gone, Musgrove will be given the green light to lean on his best pitch – his slider – more in 2020.

Even though he only threw the pitch 22.1% of the time in 2019, Musgrove’s slider was terrific. The pitch generated a 39.3% whiff rate. Opposing batters slugged just .240 off of the pitch, and it generated a 83.3 MPH exit velocity, which was more than 4 MPH below the league average exit velocity.

Musgrove’s fastball was not the strongest of pitches in 2019. Opposing batters slugged .536 off the pitch with an exit velocity of 89.6 MPH, which was more than 2 MPH over the league average last season. Despite this, Musgrove still threw the pitch nearly 40% of the time.

Musgrove’s peripherals did not go unnoticed by people around baseball. During the MLB Winter Meetings it was reported that other than Starling Marte, who was eventually traded, there may not have been any Pirate player generating more trade buzz than Musgrove.

It was also clear that Cherington and his staff think highly of Musgrove. Not only was he not traded, but the Pirates want to keep Musgrove in Pittsburgh long term. During spring training it was reported that Musgrove was one of at least five Pirate players the team had discussed long term contracts with.

If there is a 2020 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates should have improved defense, as this is something new general manager Ben Cherington prioritized from the get go this past off-season. New starting catcher Jacob Stallings is one of the best defensive catchers and pitch framers in the National League, and the backup duo of Luke Maile and John Ryan Murphy are plus defenders as well. New center fielder Jarrod Dyson is great defender and an improvement over Marte in center, a healthy Gregory Polanco will improve the team’s right field defense, and at some point this season top prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes, who is two-time Minor League Gold Glove winner, will take over at third base. All of this will benefit not just Musgrove, but the Pirate pitching staff as whole.

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The potential is there for 2020 to be a breakout campaign for Musgrove. Advanced analytics love Musgrove, and his slider has the potential to be a plus pitch if he leans on it more. 2020 could be the season for the Pittsburgh Pirates righty.

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