The San Diego Padres took a chance on right-handed starting pitcher Joe Musgrove, sending several prospects to the Pittsburgh Pirates and even involving a third team, the New York Mets, to get their man back in January.
On the surface, Musgrove is a ‘meh’ pitcher: for his career, he has a 4.33 ERA and a 29-39 win-loss record.
Thankfully, these days, we don’t use win-loss record to determine whether a pitcher is good or bad.
Musgrove happened to pitch for the Pirates, perhaps MLB’s worst team in the last couple of years, which probably led to the hideous record.
However, his underlying stats look excellent, and he can be a very good rotation piece for the Padres.
Joe Musgrove: Looking Under The Hood
For starters, his Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP, is a much better 3.90 for his career, which isn’t elite, but Musgrove wasn’t always the pitcher he is today.
Prior to the 2020 season, his previous career-high in K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings) was 8.30 in 2019.
However, he broke out last season and upped that number to an impressive 12.48 in 39.2 frames.
The sample size isn’t the biggest, but his progress shouldn’t be taken for granted.
His 2020 ERA was 3.86, but his FIP was 3.42, and both numbers are an improvement over what he had shown in previous seasons.
Musgrove’s breakout stems from changes he made in his pitch mix: seeing that he has an underwhelming four-seam fastball (he ranked in the 34th percentile in velocity, with 92.6) he decreased the usage of the pitch by 10 percentage points, from 37 to 27, from 2019 to 2020.
Instead, Musgrove relied heavily on his breaking balls: his curveball and his slider, both excellent pitches by all accounts.
Joe Musgrove, Wicked 83mph Slider. 🤢
11th K. pic.twitter.com/kS9gsYjRco
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 20, 2020
Consider that Musgrove’s whiff rate on his slider was 50.6, and the number went up to 53.2 on his curveball.
Whiff rate is the number of swings and misses divided by swings taken by a batter.
What this means is that, whenever Musgrove threw a slider or a curveball and batters swung, they missed the ball more than half of the time, which is awfully impressive.
As if that weren’t enough, Musgrove has other three decent pitches in his changeup, sinker and cutter.
In total, he has six different offerings to keep batters guessing, and he is very good at striking people out.
Last season Joe Musgrove struck out 33.1% of batters faced, the 6th-highest rate among NL pitchers (min. 35 IP)https://t.co/MLRkQWzzcj
— Baseball Reference (@baseball_ref) January 18, 2021
Joe Musgrove’s 2021 Outlook
San Diego is a firm contender, a team that has worked hard over the last few years to fill its roster with talent.
As a result, it has more exposure than the Pirates, so the expectation is that Musgrove can showcase his considerable talent to a wider audience, including the playoffs should the Padres make it in, as it’s expected.
Additionally, the Padres’ player development staff has done an excellent job lately, as they turned Fernando Tatis into a star, gave Trent Grisham the tools to succeed in the majors, and revived the careers of Eric Hosmer, Wil Myers, and others.
They have more resources available to help Musgrove get even better, so it isn’t out of the question that the right-hander takes yet another step forward in 2021.
How good can Musgrove be for the Padres in 2021? If he finds a way to get more whiffs with his fastball by adding more active spin, for example (which is a possibility) he could enter the true elite of the National League.
A sub-3.30 ERA is within the realm of possibilities for Joe Musgrove in 2021.