Houston Astros: Joe Musgrove Quickly Becoming Ace of Team?

Photo Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Photo Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports /

Since making his debut, Joe Musgrove has dominated against opposing teams. Could he become the ace of the Astros’ rotation in the near future?

In the middle of the fifth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays, Lance McCullers felt discomfort in his elbow. He was removed from the game and replaced by rookie Joe Musgrove, who was making his first major league appearance. 

Musgrove dazzled in his debut, finishing the game with 4.1 dominant innings of one-hit ball, striking out eight batters in the process. With McCullers landing on the disabled list, Musgrove was given his chance to finally solidify himself in the Houston Astros’ rotation.

And he did just that on August 7, taking on the 65-win Texas Rangers, currently first in the entire American League. He took the mound against Yu Darvish and for seven innings, pitched like he had been in the pros for a few years.

Musgrove pounded the strike zone, throwing 64 pitches for strikes. He allowed just five hits, surrendering a single run off a Jonathan Lucroy double, while striking out six. The 23-year-old was very efficient, just needing 99 pitches to get through seven innings of work.

While he has not picked up his first win of the year yet, the Astros may have found themselves their new ace of the future. Let’s take a look at Houston’s rotation.

Currently, the five-man rotation that Houston runs with on a day-to-day basis consists of Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, McCullers (when healthy), Doug Fister, and Mike Fiers.

Keuchel is the ace of the rotation, but has experienced a multitude of struggles since his Cy Young campaign in 2015. While he has buckled down as of late, his 4.56 ERA, 2.80 K/BB rate, and 0.4 WAR are all huge downgrades from last season (2.48 ERA, 4.24 K/BB, 7.4 WAR). The left-hander has quickly proven he is not a legitimate ace and is better off in the middle of the rotation.

McHugh is another player experiencing struggles. Since coming to Houston, the 29-year-old found his stride. In his first year, he posted a 2.73 ERA and batters hit just .208 against him. The next year (2015), while solid, was still a step down. McHugh posted a 3.89 ERA and batters hit .263 against him; however, he won 19 games and was Keuchel’s second-hand man come playoff time.

This season has been a totally different story. McHugh’s ERA nears 5.00 (4.73) and his WAR is 0.2. His WHIP has increased to a weak 1.48 and batters are hitting close to .300 against him.

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It is a very odd case to see his numbers decrease and decrease. His velocity on his pitches have all stayed nearly the same, and his percentages are all very similar. His FIP is just .32 higher than his previous season (3.90), meaning his ERA seems a lot worse than it actually is. Nevertheless, McHugh is a great middle of the rotation guy, but by no means ace-worthy.

Fister and Fiers are both solid right-handers that give the Astros a huge boost at the end of the rotation. Both have 5+ years in the league and are in their early 30s. The young players can learn a lot from the two, but Fister and Fiers do not have the needed dominance over hitters that will earn them the No. 1 spot in any rotation.

The only real pitcher in Musgrove’s way to soon become the No. 1 pitcher of the Astros is the man whom he replaced for the time being. A former first round pick, McCullers made his debut in 2015 and instantly made a name for himself. Over 22 starts, he boasted a 3.22 ERA, 3.26 FIP, and 9.2 strikeouts per nine.

The following year, McCullers has been his similar self, as in 14 starts (was injured to start the season), he has a 3.22 ERA. However, he is striking out close to 12 batters per nine, and his FIP has seen a huge drop to 2.98. His dominance over hitters is quickly becoming quite common. McCullers’ only problem as of now is his control. He is walking 5.0 batters per nine, up 1.9 from last season. He has already walked the same number of batters as last season in eight starts.

This is an issue that needs addressing, but McCullers has not seemed fazed by allowing so many base on balls. He has still dominated and still pounds the strike zone, using his mid-90s fastball and mid-80s curveball over 90% of the time (49.6 and 41.4 percent, respectively).

Now, let’s talk about Musgrove. While it is a very small sample size, the right-hander has used four pitches in his two starts. His mid-to-low 90s fastball is used almost 60 percent of the time. His next favorite pitch and go-to breaking ball is his slider, which is used 28.5 percent of the time and averages around 81 mph. His curve and change-up fills out the rest of the arsenal and combines for around 12 percent of his pitches.

Musgrove will not blow you away with his fastball, but he is extremely accurate. He mowed down a hard-hitting Texas team and entered in relief and quieted the Toronto bats that includes former MVP Josh Donaldson and company.

While he has made just two appearances in the majors, he has proven that he has the stuff to dominate over some of the best hitters in the game. If he continues this success, he will soon headline the Astros’ rotation in no time.

His approach to an at-bat is very reminiscent of a young Jacob deGrom, with a few mph taken off his pitches. While their game is relatively different, both pitchers are extremely accurate. While the two may not beat you away by their speed alone (like Noah Syndergaard or Aroldis Chapman), pounding the strike zone with great placement is their specialty.