This Is Plus Command: Prospects Phil Bickford, Joe Musgrove

Now that we’ve seen the triple-digit velocities of the Major League All-Star Game, let’s take a look at two prospects who sit in the low 90s with their fastballs! If that’s not exciting enough, neither one has what you might consider a plus secondary pitch! They’re not at the top of any prospect lists! Wait. Why are we going to talk about Phil Bickford and Joe Musgrove, anyway?

Because they have plus command. Command isn’t a thing on which you can easily put a number. Not only are minor-league strike zones more, uh, diverse than major-league ones, but so is the level of competition. A pitcher with a blazing fastball can fill up the zone with poor command and produce low walk rates. Think of Jose Berrios, who recently came up to the big leagues after putting up great walk rates in the minors — and this despite reservations on his organization’s behalf about his command. The command didn’t look sharp when he got to face big leaguers.

Plus command is a funny thing, though. When it’s not paired with elite stuff, it can be denigrated. Some don’t think much of misters Bickford and Musgrove. But, since Eric Longenhagen got a good look at those two at the Futures Game, and I had a chance to talk with each, let’s combine our views to take a clear look at these two and see what particular struggles they have, and what they have to say about fastball command. Turns out, they each have some unusual movement on their fastballs, and ideas on how to improve the rest of their repertoires.

Giants starter Phil Bickford has an interesting story. After his fastball ticked up to the mid-90s during his senior year in high school, the Blue Jays drafted him in the first round. When he didn’t sign, two possible reasons floated around baseball.

According to Longenhagen, “Teams have always wondered about the medicals” that Toronto saw back in 2013. But he’s been fine since. “He’s never had surgery,” Longenhagen added. “And, save for some relatively small fluctuations in velocity over the last few years, there have never been any weird red flags.”

The other theory regarding why Bickford remained unsigned was that it was a gamble for more money. That might be true; if so, however, it was a poor gamble. Bickford doesn’t have the velocity of a top prep arm, and was drafted eight picks lower by the Giants in 2015 than the previous season, despite having a good freshman season at Cal State Fullerton. He lost at least a half-million dollars by not signing with the Blue Jays.

In any case, velocity readings don’t tell the full story of Bickford’s fastball. “His stuff has always played a little better than the the radar gun would lead you to believe,” is how Longenhagen puts it.

Part of that is movement. “People that catch it definitely say that it looks different and has the illusion that it rises,” said Bickford. Ride is one of the hardest things to scout in my estimation, but if you watch Longenhagen’s video from the Future’s Game, you might see some of that finish that makes it hard to square up the fastball.

But the other part of that fastball playing up is, of course, the command. Commanding to the bottom of the zone is a prerequisite in baseball these days, but Bickford adds the ability to command it high in the zone, too. “It’s always good to go up in the zone, but you have to go up with authority. Don’t miss in the happy zone,” the player pointed out. “It’s an effective thing for me to have, though.”

Throwing a riding fastball high in the zone is step one. Improving the secondaries has been the rest of the picture. “When you want to finish someone off, I’m confident in throwing those secondary pitches,” Bickford said of the development process. “You gotta keep throwing them to all parts of the plate, because if you want to keep going, and moving up, fastball command does help a lot but you gotta have those secondaries as well.”

Longenhagen provides some optimism for the other pitches. “His slider has gotten harder — it was in the 78-81 range with frisbee action for me at CSN and is now in the mid-80s with mostly vertical drop — and the changeup is coming, albeit slowly,” he said. “I still think he’ll add a cutter eventually.”

Bickford’s FOSH change grip, which comes off the weaker fingers.

The pitcher focused on the change more, and was enthusiastic about the grip on which he’d settled. The modified split-finger change grip allowed him to throw it just like a fastball and get the movement he needed. “I found my changeup even more this year,” he said at the game. “I’ve been throwing it more, getting more comfortable with it. Multiple counts: that’s been the biggest change. Believing in my changeup more. Modified split change. Just hold it like that and throw the shit out of it.”

Bickford’s command of a rising fastball is rare, but not quite unique. Joe Musgrove’s situation, on the other hand, is singular. Literally. He throws a one-seam fastball, something of which I’ve only heard passing mention in the past.

The rare one-seam fastball grip. Musgrove does not catch a seam with either finger.

While Bickford has rise, Musgrove thrives on sink. But it’s a different kind of sink with that different kind of grip. “I get a little more downward action than side to side,” the Astros’ righty told me before the Futures Game. The grip was a godsend, actually. Musgrove has an over-the-top release point and found that a traditional two-seamer wasn’t working for him last year. “I started losing it and it wasn’t sinking or running, so Bryan Radziewski told me to try the one-seam,” he remembered. “The more you stay on top of the one-seam, the more downward action you get it on.”

That meshing of arm slot and movement also helps him with the command and the ball-in-play results on the fastball. “It presents well as strikes, and appeals to the hitter,” Musgrove said of his one-seamer, “but it also shows up in a different spot than they think it’s going to be. It’s got a little velo on it and it looks good for a good amount of time. It’s a ground-ball pitch, and I’m a guy that likes to pitch for contact.”

Longenhagen agreed about the command with Musgrove, and lauded him for stepping out of a cohort that doesn’t usually produce interesting prospects. “Most guys who spend four years in complex-level ball don’t make it,” Longenhagen pointed out. “Musgrove is the rare prospect who already has 6 control.”

Now that Musgrove is on the other side of shoulder soreness and back in command of that fastball, he can concentrate on his other pitches. Check out his “host of average secondary pitches” as Longenhagen put it, in a video recorded by the same:

The pitcher felt that his work on the changeup was starting to bear fruit. “My changeup’s gotten a lot better this year, I’ve used it a lot more,” Musgrove said. “They want you to develop all your pitches and throw all of them for strikes, and I want the same thing for myself. In order to get up to the big leagues and face the best of the best, you have to be able to throw all your pitches in the zone for strikes at any time, and any count.” The fact that he’s throwing 10-12 changeups a game is a pretty good sign that he trusts the pitch.

If you watch the videos of both of these guys, you’ll see that they can command the fastball up and down and out, with flashes of good work inside. Commanding to all four quadrants is rare in the big leagues, and so they have step one behind them. The better news, though, is that they know that to get beyond the back of the rotation, they have to refine their secondary pitches. The best news is that they’ve made some progress there, with Bickford’s slider getting tighter, his new grip on his change providing hope, and Musgrove showing more confidence in his change.

The very best news is that this might be plus command, but that’s not all it is.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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5 years ago

Hard to say what it looks like as a hitter but I feel like a one-seam fastball would be easily identified as a hitter. Would just look like a line down the middle of the ball, nothing else really looks like that, even his change-up, unless he somehow throws it with the same grip, but I could be wrong.

Jetsy Extrano
5 years ago
Reply to  Begs1429

Can a hitter see the two red lines down a two-seam fastball, where the seams arc around the spin axis? Versus a four-seam with no visible lines, because the only ones would be way on the sides? I don’t know, certainly couldn’t tell you firsthand.