The Astros will have an interesting decision to make about Joe Musgrove’s role in 2018.
Contrary to certain opinions, the Astros will likely not revamp the bullpen. Their bullpen, for all intent and purposes, was a solid unit. Tweaking is needed, however, don’t let one shaky postseason tell you otherwise.
Per Fangraphs’ version of WAR, the Houston bullpen finished eighth with 5.6 wins above replacement. They also finished second in strikeout percentage – 28.6% – to only the Yankees’ vaunted bullpen. While the walk rate was 9.2%, good for 17th overall in baseball, the bullpen still produced quality results for most of the season in spite of it.
There is no denying though that the first half results – 4.09 ERA – were much better than the second half – 4.49 ERA – results. The bullpen did regress from thirteenth in ERA during the first half of the season to twentieth in the second half. Part of this can attributed to extended usage due to the starting rotations’ effectiveness and injury issues. But one key reason the second half bullpen didn’t suffer much more was the emergence of Joe Musgrove as a dependable reliever.
If you didn’t notice, Musgrove started the 2017 season in the Opening Day rotation.
Musgrove was pencilled in as a starter along with Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers, Charlie Morton and Mike Fiers at the start of 2017 campaign. The 24-year old pitcher was expected to build on an encouraging stint as a major league starter in 2016. Alas, a 6.12 ERA in 78 innings as a starter for a contender this year derailed those plans. But then an interesting idea was tested: the utilization of Musgrove as a reliever.
In most circumstances, a starting pitcher used in relief will see his stuff “play up”. The hope was the same with Musgrove. Since he wasn’t effective as a starter then using him as a reliever was Plan B. And this “try-out” of sorts actually produced meaningful results. For one, his velocity unsurprisingly spiked. Musgrove’s fastball velocity, as an example, climbed from 93.3 MPH in June to 95.7 MPH in August. His other pitches had similar increases. The horizontal and vertical movement on his pitches varied, but generally exhibited more consistent tendencies as a reliever.
Then the actual results improved.
In 31.1 innings of relief with the Astros, Musgrove posted an 1.44 ERA and a 21.7% strikeout-minus-walk rate. Impressively, the 1.44 ERA was the fourth-best out of all relievers who thrown at least 30 innings. Only Kenley Jansen, Dillon Gee and Craig Kimbrel was better by this metric. And the strikeout-minus-walk rate was the 37th-best for all relievers in the majors last season under the same criteria. That’s not bad. When you consider the pure bulk of relievers in today’s game, 37th overall isn’t a bad place to finish.
As a starting pitcher, Musgrove posted the following ERA as he went through the batting order one, two and three times in the same game: 4.22, 5.28 and 11.74. His ERA the first time through the order as a reliever: 1.57. Musgrove was quite simply a better reliever in terms of run prevention than he actually was as a starting pitcher.
The long-term question for Musgrove and the Astros is his full-time role.
In theory, Houston’s management could employ Musgrove in a similar fashion to Brad Peacock and Chris Devenski. Both pitchers were used in a vareity of ways dependent on the leverage and the situation. Each can throw just one inning or multiple innings. Peacock was utilized as both a starter and reliever. Musgrove, in theory, can be used in the same way. And that’s a valuable pitcher. For what’s it worth, MLB.com currently lists Musgrove as a reliever on the team’s depth chart.
It’s no secret that the usage of pitchers has changed. The importance of five starters that can throw five-to-seven innings of quality baseball have lessened. Outside of a traditional workhorse like Verlander and a Keuchel, there isn’t a reason for the Astros to not employ a liberal use of their bullpen.
Bullpen flexibility, in other words, is the future of pitching staffs. The Astros, and to an extent Musgrove, are at the front of this movement.
**Statistics and information courtesy of Fangraphs, Brooks Baseball and MLB.com**