Notes: Musgrove hones pitches; Keller to start

February 20th, 2020

BRADENTON, Fla. -- During his final five starts last year, turned into the pitcher he wants to be for all of this season.

The big right-hander put together a 2.89 ERA, struck out 32 batters, walked five and permitted only 25 hits and two homers in 28 innings. Although it was late in his first season going wire-to-wire in the rotation, Musgrove's fastball velocity was higher than it’d been all year. He was using his full six-pitch arsenal. Everything seemingly clicked into place.

That’s the feeling Musgrove, who threw his first live batting practice session on Thursday morning, is honing in on during Spring Training. The changes he made late last season could help him carry that into the season.

“To see the adjustments he made and then the success he had with it, then his stuff today was electric,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said.

Around the time he took off in late August, Musgrove shortened his arm action, keeping his throwing arm closer to his body during his delivery. He immediately found that the simplified mechanics led to more consistency in his release point and landing spot on the mound, and the movement and life on all his pitches improved as well.

Musgrove’s fastball velocity also shot up, but that wasn’t just a product of the delivery change. He had abdominal surgery in October 2018, and while he was healthy from start to finish last season, he didn’t truly feel like his body was operating at full capacity until late in the year.

“I think I was able to tap into a little bit more power that I have with the shorter arm action, just staying more connected, but the biggest change was getting my lower half to start to move normal again,” Musgrove said. “Stride length increased a little bit, getting better extension. I think the short arm action was a contributing factor, but I would say mostly it was the legs getting back under me.”

Musgrove said he wasn’t actively trying to throw harder at the end of the season, but the uptick in velocity was a product of better health and mechanics. Consider the trajectory of his average four-seam velocity last season, by month, and opponents’ resulting whiff rate against that pitch.

Month -- Four-seam velocity, whiff rate
April -- 91.3 mph, 11 percent
May -- 92.2 mph, 11.9 percent
June -- 93 mph , 18.5 percent
July -- 92.6 mph, 14 percent
August -- 93.3 mph, 12 percent
September -- 94.5 mph, 27.3 percent

Musgrove’s fastball has been sitting around 92-94 mph this spring, and pitchers typically see their velocity climb as the regular season gets going. As FanGraphs writer Ben Clemens recently noted, Musgrove’s career strikeout rate jumps 2 percent in outings when he’s throwing his fastball 94 mph or harder.

In other words, Musgrove’s velocity increase – and perhaps the success that came along with it – could be sustainable.

“I feel like there’s more in the tank still,” Musgrove said. “Especially with having six pitches, if I have a plus fastball in the 94-96 range, I can definitely get away with a lot more and it sets up the other pitches a lot better.”

Keller to start Grapefruit League opener
Top prospect , who’s entering this season with ace aspirations, will start the Pirates’ Grapefruit League opener against the Twins at 1:05 p.m. ET on Saturday at LECOM Park.

Don’t read too much into the assignment, as it’s simply a product of how pitching coach Oscar Marin wanted to set up Keller’s schedule for the rest of Spring Training. But Keller was nonetheless excited about the opportunity to get on the mound for the first time this year, even if it’s only for one inning.

“It’s cool to know that I’ve got the first one,” Keller said, “and we’ll build off of that.”

Around the horn
• Pirates closer , who missed his first live batting practice session on Tuesday due to a viral infection, took the mound and faced hitters during Thursday’s workout at Pirate City.

• Among the other pitchers who threw during live BP were , , , and . It was a welcome step for Santana, who missed all of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, albeit with one mishap: an errant pitch that bounced off shortstop ’s helmet.

Newman was fine, Shelton said, and he returned to the batter’s box to face after that.

• Pittsburgh will see a familiar face on Monday night in Tampa, as Gerrit Cole is scheduled to start for the Yankees as they host the Bucs as Steinbrenner Field. Cole, the former Pirate, signed a nine-year, $324 million deal with New York in December.

“That’s awesome. That’s good for us,” Shelton said. “Anytime you get a chance to face a guy of that caliber at any point, it’s good.”