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Joe Musgrove can make another leap in 2021

The right-hander can be one of the anchors of your virtual pitching staff this year

Getty Images/Pete Rogers Illustrations

Joe Musgrove went from an afterthought in 2020 fantasy drafts to SP4 territory in 2021, and rightfully so. He made some substantial improvements, particularly in his strikeout percentage - it went from 21.9% in 2019 to 33.1% last season – that seemed to warrant that price tag for fantasy managers.

He finished the 2020 campaign with a 3.86 ERA, a 3.42 FIP, and a 3.19 xFIP, together with a good 1.24 WHIP.

I am here to tell you, however, that his improvements were mostly real and sustainable, and I think he has another gear to hit. One year from now, we may be picking Musgrove as our SP2 for the 2022 season. Even if his ERA is closer to his 2020 FIP or xFIP, it would make a big difference for fantasy owners, and it is plausible.

New team, new beginnings for Joe Musgrove

First of all, he is out of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are going nowhere in 2021, and is now a member of the San Diego Padres. He was 18-26 in three seasons with the Bucs, and the Friars are an up-and-coming force in the NL West that are gearing up to fight with the Los Angeles Dodgers for the division. Musgrove’s potential to get wins, one of the usual fantasy categories whether we like it or not, went way up with the trade.

Secondly, his strikeout spike is real, and is something to behold. Realizing that his curveball had tremendous bat-missing potential in 2019 (39.6 whiff rate, but only used it 9.5% of the time) he decided to throw it more, increasing its usage to 19.9% last season and it missed bats at a 53.2% rate.

Clearly, his hook got better. According to a recent MLB.com piece, Musgrove has been working on it for years, since he was with the Astros, but it’s evident that he found the perfect recipe last season as he wanted to give it more of a true 12-to-6 action in order to find success against lefties.

It’s baffling, therefore, that Musgrove thinks his curveball was actually one of his worst pitches — “maybe fifth or sixth”, he said — before last season.

His awesome slider also had a +50% whiff rate (50.6 to be exact). It means that whenever hitters dared to swing at it, they missed it more than half of the time, just like his curveball.

Can Musgrove be even better?

That breaking ball foundation gives Musgrove two truly elite pitches to headline his arsenal, completed with a four-seamer, a cutter, a changeup, and a sinker.

He could, potentially, be even better if he could get some swings and misses with his fastball to make it play up in the zone. It’s an idea that has been on my mind for quite some time, but maybe the Padres’ improved tech resources can help him get more active spin with the pitch.

In 2020, Musgrove ranked 540 out of 564 qualifiers in active spin rate with 61.7%, which as you can see is extremely low. That is the kind of spin that contributes to pitch movement. The higher the active spin, the more “rise” effect the pitch will have, in the specific case of the fastball, because the backspin with which the fastball is thrown creates lift force and delays the drop on the ball. A few RPM of active spin is the difference between a swinging strike and an extremely hittable pitch.

His fastball had a meager 17.0% whiff rate in 2020, mainly because it isn’t very fast (33rd percentile in average velo) and doesn’t move a whole lot. Perhaps its bat-missing potential could increase if he manages to throw it with more backspin to get swings and misses at the top of the zone.

It’s possible, even likely, that thought has already crossed Musgrove’s mind. Maybe he tried it and couldn’t succeed. It would require some resources and training, as it would involve toying with grips, mechanics, etc. For all I know, he knew all along that his fastball wouldn’t rise so easily and that’s why he throws a sinker and a cutter.

Nevertheless, adding a bat-missing fastball to an impressive collection of breaking balls would make Musgrove virtually unhittable. But it’s easier said than done, so don’t count on it.

One additional thing working in Musgrove’s favor is his command. He did issue more walks than ever last season, with 3.63 per nine innings, but if that’s the tradeoff for his huge spike in strikeouts, I’ll gladly take it. The righty doesn’t have a home run problem, so he probably can afford some extra walks. He minimizes hard contact like few others, with a 93rd percentile finish in average exit velocity, 79th percentile in hard-hit rate, and 70th percentile in barrel percentage.

Strikeouts and limiting hard contact are two of the ingredients for fantasy success. Do you know which other one is, too? Groundouts, and Musgrove got them aplenty in 2020, as 48.4% of his batted balls against were worm-killers.

All in all, Musgrove has the weapons and the resources to at least match his 2020 line and add more wins to his stat line, with the potential to be even better if things go right.