Let me guess. You’re here because of the headline. Sorry if it comes off a little clickbaity, but it’s also pretty true. The Pirates wanted Gerrit Cole to be a big, right-handed, fastball loving, first pitch throwing machine that chewed up and spit out batters on three pitches or less. That mentality held him back in Pittsburgh. Joe Musgrove is thriving with it.
Obviously the Pirates wanted Cole to be a 20 win, 6-7 WAR pitcher who would go 200+ innings for six or seven years. He was that guy for one year, but remarkably average for his other four seasons in Pittsburgh. In fact, going by ERA+, Cole only had one season better than Musgrove has been this season.
2015 Cole: 149 ERA+
2018 Musgrove: 119 ERA+
2013 Cole: 111 ERA+
2016 Cole: 107 ERA+
2017 Cole: 100 ERA+
2014 Cole: 99 ERA+
Cole had a 112 ERA+ in his Pirate career. Musgrove has a 119 ERA+ this season. Sure, Musgrove hasn’t been as good as Cole was at his best, but he’s doing a lot better than Cole was his last two seasons (and probably any other potential additional seasons) in Pittsburgh.
Sticking with that theme, let’s up the ante and do a little statistical gerrymandering. Cole had a terrific first 10 starts of the season, so keep that in mind with this next doozy of a comparison, but Musgrove has matched Cole almost pitch for pitch for three months now. Musgrove made his first start on May 25. Since then, here is how he compares to Cole:
Musgrove: 6.21 IP per start, 3.31 ERA, 3.5 K/BB, 1.18 WHIP, .288 BABIP, 32.5% Hard Hit Rate
Cole: 6.06 IP per start, 3.34 ERA, 3.6 K/BB, 1.13 WHIP, .282 BABIP*, 32.1% Hard Hit Rate* (*Taken before his most recent outing on Aug. 20)
Yes, Musgrove pitches in the National League and doesn’t have to deal with the DH, but the Astros have 69 more defensive runs saved than the Pirates (+25 for Houston, -44 for the Bucs) and are 15 runs better in pitch framing (+13 for Houston, -2.4 for Pittsburgh). Assuming Cole gets his fair share of that run prevention help, that might actually be as valuable as getting to face a pitcher.
Again, Cole was dominant in his first 10 starts, but let’s just say Houston had buyer’s remorse on May 25th and offered take backsies. Even if Cole pitched as well as he did in Houston, didn’t fall into old bad habits, didn’t lose that newfound spin on his four-seamer or pout that he was back in Pittsburgh, he probably wouldn’t have been that much of an improvement over Musgrove.
Musgrove is on a hot streak now, too, going at least seven innings in five of his last six starts and in eight of 14 overall. Despite racking up the innings, he has only had to throw 100 pitches twice (100 May 30, 106 July 15). It’s finally time for outs on three pitches or less (fewer!) to rear its head in this post. So far, Musgrove has 150 outs in that window of pitches in 87 innings pitched. Cole had 262 such outs in 203 innings pitched last year. Musgrove averages roughly 1.7 outs on three pitches or fewer per inning while Cole averaged 1.3. On average, Musgrove gets an extra quick out compared to Cole about every two innings.
He also does a far better job keeping batters in check early in the at-bat. There have been 210 plate appearances that ended on three pitches or fewer for Musgrove (206 at-bats and four sacrifices). Batters are hitting .291 in those plate appearances, but since there are no walks possible in under three pitches (intentional excluded), it’s a sub-.300 OBP. Even with a .447 slugging percentage, that’s trading 30 points off the league average on-base percentage for 30 points of slugging. (For reference, Cole had a .305 batting average and .541 slugging percentage in at-bats on three pitches or fewer last season.)
As for plate appearances that extend beyond that, the OBP still hovers around .300, but the power takes a huge dip. In at-bats that end on a 2-1, 2-2, 3-0, 3-1 or 3-2 count, batters are slugging just .286.
This is why Musgrove can go so deep into games. When it’s a short at-bat, batters are roughly league average. That’s not exactly ideal, but since the plate appearance is so short, it doesn’t tire Musgrove out as much. When the plate appearance goes longer, he gains a huge advantage.
That success stems from being able to move his fastball around the zone. Musgrove leads all 127 starting pitchers with 80+ innings pitched this year in pitches in the zone (50.8%). Despite working the plate so often, batters only make contact 86.2% of the time on swings at pitches in the zone, which is a little better than average for missing bats (56th of 127).
I wrote about how Musgrove can throw three types of fastballs in the four quadrants of the zone in early June. He’s still doing that. Here’s where his four-seamers go:
Now the sinkers:
And finally, the cutters:
Sure, batters can sit fastball, but what type, and where? And that doesn’t even take his changeup or slider- his best pitch (I recommend David Slusser’s two pieces on it to get a better understanding of why it’s effective. 1, 2). He’s going to throw strikes early (67.9% first strike rate- 11th among 127 pitchers with 80+ IP) and try to get batters out quickly. That’s what the Pirates couldn’t get Cole to do.
The Pirates have an ideal mold of what they want a starting pitcher to be. Cole never really worked out in Pittsburgh because he was a square peg that they were trying to jam into a round hole. Musgrove is a round-ish peg, and with the concession that he doesn’t have to keep attacking just the bottom third of the zone with his fastballs, he’s fitting in nicely. He has the pedigree, the stuff and the ability to pitch the type of game they want.
Joe Musgrove pitches like the guy the Pirates wanted Gerrit Cole to be.