Pittsburgh Pirates rotation battle: Tyler Glasnow vs Joe Musgrove

With just a few weeks before spring training camps open in Arizona and Florida, the rotation for the Pittsburgh Pirates is almost completely set in stone.

The fifth and final spot in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ rotation will likely come down to Tyler Glasnow or  Joe Musgrove. Which of these two pitchers has the inside edge to the last rotation spot this spring?

It’s all but set in stone that the starting rotation to begin the 2018 season for the Pirates will include (in some order) Jameson Taillon, Ivan Nova, Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams. The battle for the fifth and final spot is down to two contenders, Tyler Glasnow and Joe Musgrove. As it stands, the rotation does not have a lefty, so while Steven Brault might have an outside shot of earning a role as a starter, it seems to be either Glasnow’s or Musgrove’s job to lose unless someone else like Nick Kingham really impresses the brass this spring. Let’s look at the case for and against each pitcher, shall we?

The Case for Glasnow

  • Glasnow has struggled at the MLB level (we’ll get to that in a moment), but he has shown what he is capable of while with the minor league affiliates. After his demotion to Indianapolis last year, he started 15 games and went 9-2 in 93.1 innings. The most impressive aspect of his most recent stint in the minors was that he struck out a whopping 140 batters in those innings. He did walk 32 while with Indianapolis, which is certainly a step in the right direction for the tall right hander.
  • There is also the underlying assumption (by the author) that the team wants to keep trying Glasnow as a starter in the hopes that he puts it all together because he is a homegrown player. At some point the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to have to decision on how he fits into the team’s long term plans, and it makes sense that they would keep trying each spring to see if it will click for him as a member of the rotation. If he could put it all together, he could be a dominating starting pitcher. But right now, that’s a really big — almost as tall as Glasnow himself — if.

The Case against Glasnow

  • While Glasnow has shown overpowering stuff in the minors, his struggles at the MLB level are well documented. In 85.1 innings between 2016 and 2017, Glasnow walked an outrageous 57 hitters and struck out 80. The problem with the walks was compounded last year by the rate he was giving up home runs, an average of 1.9 per nine innings pitched. So opponents were capitalizing on his mistakes, which there were a lot of last year.
  • Glasnow may be a better fit in the bullpen for the Pirates. Given how bad he has been as a starter, that doesn’t mean he has been much better in a relief role. In his career, he has come out of the bullpen and pitched a total of 12 innings with an ugly 12/11 BB/K ratio. The only real positive that has come in his time in the bullpen is that he has not surrendered a home run, but given that the sample size is just 12 innings, that statistic does not carry much weight.

The Case for Musgrove

  • The trade of Gerrit Cole left a hole in the rotation, there is no denying that, and while Musgrove has been more successful out of the bullpen (again, we’ll get to that in a moment), it’s hard to fathom that the Pittsburgh Pirates would not at least see how Musgrove looks as a starter this spring. With the additions of Michael Feliz and Kyle Crick to the bullpen, it would make sense for the team to try to fill the hole left by Cole in the rotation with Musgrove if they decide that Glasnow is not an option. He’s the shiny new toy in the toybox and the team will look to get the most out of him.
  • Over at Fangraphs, each player page has projections for the upcoming season. While projections are just that, they can provide an idea of the level of production a player should be able to attain next season. The WAR projected by Steamer for both pitchers is remarkably similar, so by that metric he might be a better, perhaps closer to a guarantee, to replace Cole’s projected numbers in 2018. Musgrove’s projected WAR of 2.7 is actually slighter than Cole’s 2.6 WAR for next season.
  • Another point that favors Musgrove is that he has more experience as a starter at the MLB level. His total of 135.2 innings to begin a game bests Glasnow’s 73.1 innings in the last two seasons.  While this scenario puts Glasnow in an almost perfect Catch-22 scenario (Glasnow doesn’t have enough experience, but he can’t get experience if not given opportunities), it might make more sense to go with the more safer and experience option over a pitcher that has been extremely streaky.

The Case against Musgrove

  • Similar to Glasnow, Musgrove has found more success in the bullpen rather than as a member of the rotation. Unlike Glasnow, Musgrove has found way more success in a relief role. For his career, Musgrove has thrown 35.2 innings out of the bullpen and has a 39/6 K/BB ratio. He has a career ERA of 1.26 as a reliever and a FIP of 2.37, so both metrics indicate that he has found success entering games during the later innings. So this isn’t so much a damning indictment of Musgrove’s skills as a pitcher, but rather that he might be better utilized after the sixth inning.

So how is this all going to shake out?

Since it seems unlikely that the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to open the checkbook and sign one of the remaining free agent pitchers, Musgrove seems to make the most sense to fill out the rotation (at this point in time. Obviously things can change depending on performances during spring training). Musgrove seems to be a better bet to come close to matching or perhaps even surpassing Cole’s production.

Last year, Musgrove posted an ERA of 4.77 and a FIP of 4.38, compared to Cole’s ERA of 4.26 and FIP of 4.08 In fact, Steamer has Musgrove posted an ERA of 3.93 and FIP of 3.87, both better than Cole’s projections of 4.26 (ERA) and 4.16 (FIP). So some signs point the Musgrove potentially outperforming Cole, which would be an unbelievable boost to an organization that needs to bolster a rotation with some question marks.

Photo credit – Daniel Decker 

Ethan Obstarczyk

Ethan is a lifelong Pirates fan who resides in the east end of Pittsburgh. When not talking about, writing about or watching baseball, he also enjoys watching football and hockey along with movies and listening to some of his favorite bands. He can also be found on Instagram (ethanobstarczyk) and Untappd (Ethan_O).