Pittsburgh Pirates: Joe Musgrove Was Nearly Another Pitch to Contact Victim
By Noah Wright
After preaching a pitch to contact stategy for years, the new Pittsburgh Pirates regime focused on a pitch to strength approach. This approach appears to have saved Joe Musgrove.
One of the biggest criticisms many had of the former Pittsburgh Pirates coaching regime was their use of a pitch to contact strategy. They used this strategy on almost all their pitchers. This worked well for veterans like A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, and other breakout arms like Vin Mazzaro and Jeanmar Gomez during their playoff runs.
All of them either veterans who had lost velocity from their hay-day, or never were hard throwers to begin with. Using a pitch to contact approach here made sense as they no longer had the speed on their fastball to simply blow hitters away. Using off speed pitches was a good option.
However, this strategy wasn’t just used on veterans with diminishing velocity. They used this strategy with even their hard throwing, young starters. Both Tyler Glasnow and Gerrit Cole are the most prominent of the three Pittsburgh Pirates who found success as hard throwing strikeout machines.
In their early days as Pittsburgh Pirates, it was clear they had the high-90s velocity and wicked breaking balls to consistently put up insane strikeout rates, but didn’t use those pitches nearly as much as the 93-95 MPH down and away two-seamers and sinkers. The same could be said about Charlie Morton, although to a lesser extent to Cole and Glasnow. But despite having completely different skill sets, the Pirates used the same philosophy with their veterans who threw 90-93 MPH with these young flamethrowers who threw 96+ MPH.
After the 2019 season where the Pirate pitching staff had a 5.19 ERA, 4.78 FIP and 4.72 xFIP, and saw two former Pirate pitchers finish second (Cole) and third (Morton) in American League Cy Young voting, and could have seen a third had he stayed healthy (Glasnow), the Bucs completely wiped the slate clean. Of the many firings, pitching coach Ray Searage was one of the first.
With Searage’s departure, the Pittsburgh Pirates brought in Oscar Marin as the team’s new pitching coach. Instead of forcing the pitch to contact strategy to all of their pitchers, Marin let the pitchers pitch to their strengths. Overall, they did see some improvements, but one player who saw a drastic change in their approach and overall numbers was Joe Musgrove.
Between 2018 and 2019, Musgrove had a 4.28 ERA, 3.72 FIP and 1.20 WHIP through 285.2 innings. Musgrove only struck out 21.3% of the batters he struck out, but put up a strong 5.1% walk rate. He also put up a solid 1.04 HR/9. The right hander had a deserved run average below 4 in both seasons at 3.43 in 2018 and 3.59 in 2019, but a 4.16 SIERA and 4.1 xFIP. In terms of how well opponents were hitting Musgrove, his average exit velocity was 88.5 MPH and his hard hit rate was 34.1% and 38.7%.
However, Musgrove had a great year in 2020. Now granted, it was in a 60 game season where he was injured for part of it, the right hander put up a 3.86 ERA, 3.42 FIP and 1.24 WHIP. He put up a similar DRA with a 3.64 mark, but his other ERA estimators were much better from his 2018-2019 marks. He put up a 3.50 ERA and 3.19 xFIP. This is mainly because he got a lot more strikeouts. His strikeout rate skyrocketed 33.1%. Though his walk rate also went up to 9.6%, he induced way less hard contact. Opponents only had an 85.1 MPH exit velo and 32.3% hard hit rate. Musgrove’s home run rate stayed relatively the same from 2019 going from 1.11 to 1.13.
Musgrove saw a lot of change in two of his pitches. The first being his fastball. Unlike Cole and Glasnow, Musgrove has never been too hard of a thrower. His career high fastball velo was 93.5 MPH in 2018, but averaged just 92.7MPH in 2019 and 92.6 MPH in 2020. In both 2018 and 2019, it was the right hander’s most used pitch by far, throwing it over 30% of the time in both seasons and 37% in 2019. In 2020, he used this pitch just 27% of the time. A lot of the times he would use his fastball, he used his curveball, a pitch with fantastic movement. He used his curve less than 10% of the time in his first two years as a Bucco, rarely using it in his first season with a rate of just 2.2%, but that rose all the way to 19.9% in 2020.
Even though Musgrove used his fastball much less than in years prior, his swing and miss rate went from just 15.1% in 2019 to 17% in 2020. His curve on the other hand went from a 39.6% swing and miss rate to 53.6%.
Now granted, when Musgrove was going for a lower strikeout rate, his defense behind him was not the greatest. Between 2018 and 2019, the Bucs had – 74 DRS and a -3.5 UZR/150. With a good defense, I think he would be fine as a pitch to contact guy. But it seems like he’s been more effective as a strikeout pitcher rather than a go for contact guy. While he wouldn’t have been ineffective as a pitch to contact pitcher, his effectiveness will be boosted as a big strikeout guy.