San Diego Padres pitcher Joe Musgrove hoping to lead hometown team to a title
By Pedro Moura
FOX Sports MLB Writer
In October 2014, a British expat in San Diego began to work with several professional pitchers on their strength and conditioning.
Jono Green’s group was a "ragtag bunch," he said, full of unrefined athleticism. That fall, he guided them into shape and endeavored to build a cheerful community. When Christmas neared, he approached the pitchers with an opportunity.
His wife, an artist, was putting on a coloring-book competition. He went down the line: Did they want in?
Most players declined. "They were too cool," Green said. But when Green got to Joe Musgrove, a massive, 22-year-old right-hander languishing in the low levels of the Astros organization, he noticed him grinning.
"Hell, yeah," Musgrove said. "Do you have materials I can borrow?"
Yes, Green said, his wife had plenty of supplies. What did he have in mind?
Actually, Musgrove said, he’d go to the nearby Michaels and acquire his own. Weeks later, he turned in his painstaking work.
"By God, he put so much effort in," Green said. "He just created this freakin’ masterpiece."
As he has ascended into a breakout star with his hometown Padres, Musgrove has continued to compete in the Jolly Dolly arts and crafts competition. In 2020, he secured his first win with a disco-themed mask.
"He doesn’t care if he looks silly," Green said. "He brings effort and energy to everything that he does, and it doesn’t actually matter if he wins. He just wants everybody to have a good time."
Musgrove brings childlike joy to each day. When he snapped his team’s 53-year no-hitter drought in his second start this season, he brought San Diego one of the best moments in its sporting history. He matches the upstart club’s excited energy.
Joe Musgrove is all smiles as he celebrates the first no-hitter in Padres franchise history last month at Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
"Joe could be walking at you from 30 feet away, and you’d be like, ‘Oh, this guy’s got good vibes,’" said Kevin Goldstein, a former Astros executive. "The vibes are always there, and they are always exuding from him. I just think of him as such a positive force as a person."
A decade ago, Musgrove made the choice to meet life this way. He had been a joyous child, the product of a performing-arts elementary school and a growth spurt that enabled him to dominate any sport.
Then, when he was 15, Musgrove's father, Mark, suddenly contracted Guillain-Barré syndrome. His immune system attacked his nerves and paralyzed him, hospitalizing him for six months. Joe spent most nights at the hospital, trying to help his dad cope while he felt rudderless and increasingly tense.
"I could see that my effort was starting to go down, my friendships were starting to fall apart. I wasn’t being there for my friends," Musgrove said. "I wasn’t being myself. I was living this miserable life because my dad was going through something tough, and I was trying to wear his feelings, too. I didn’t want him to feel like I was having this great life while he was sitting there struggling."
After months that way, Mark Musgrove confronted his son one day back at their home in El Cajon, California. A lifelong baseball fan, he believed his boy had the potential to turn professional. He warned him not to squander it. To stress the message, he spoke bluntly: He might not live through this, and the family needed Joe to handle the responsibilities he would leave behind.
"It sounds severe, but we didn’t know what was gonna happen. It was all unknown," Musgrove said. "That persona of being the man of the house, doing things I wasn’t comfortable doing, helped me pull out of that little funk. I’ve been the same way since."
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Dominick Johnson, the son of late longtime major-leaguer Deron Johnson, is Musgrove’s distant cousin and godfather. Dominick was Musgrove’s first pitching coach, his entry into elite baseball, his introduction to the 1970s-era workouts designed by former Phillies trainer Gus Hoefling and celebrated by greats Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt.
Each Hoefling session entails 40 minutes of active discomfort. It calls for participants to keep their eyes closed throughout a circuit of push-ups, sit-ups and assorted movements. Drinking water is prohibited. Toweling off is prohibited.
At 14, Musgrove thought it was a great physical workout. Johnson always told him the perfect Hoefling workout translated to total focus. He never understood, but he kept doing it.
"I’m just now starting to understand what you’re supposed to get out of that workout," Musgrove said this week. "It’s a training of the mind. You’re uncomfortable, and you’re telling yourself you’re comfortable."
On April 9, Musgrove was deeply uncomfortable. He slept terribly, and he lacked his customary command during his pregame bullpen session. But his outing against the Rangers started off well, and it kept going. Musgrove guzzled so much water that his bladder ached, but he used the Hoefling practice to convince himself he didn’t need a bathroom break.
As he maintained his no-hitter through the middle innings, his friends and family back home became agitated. Green, a couple of beers in, lost control of his emotions in the eighth inning until the camera cut to an apparently calm Musgrove in Globe Life Field’s visiting dugout. Green took a big breath through his nose, his chest rose, and his worries were gone.
"Oh, shit! He’s doing it. He’s doing the mental training, and I’m not," thought Green, whose GRx Baseball is now a partner with Symbiotic Training Center in nearby Poway, California. "Oh my God, it works."
When he was interviewed on the field after the game, Musgrove said he had never been so focused in his life. By then, Johnson was bawling. "It was a cry of joy," he said. "I knew that this was his dream."
He called Musgrove minutes later. "Joe," he began, "I’m really glad you established your fastball."
The joke was that Musgrove hadn’t at all. He threw only 15 fastballs among his 112 pitches that night. As the pressure mounted over the final three innings, he threw exclusively sliders, cutters and curveballs.
For that, Musgrove credits Nate Walker, a childhood teammate who worked in baseball operations for the Rays and Blue Jays after his college pitching career ended. Sensing an opening for an outsider to teach players the data on which he saw teams evaluating them, Walker left the front office and started a company, Diamond Solutions, that provides players individualized analytics reports.
From Walker, Musgrove learned he didn’t need to throw his fastball so often, even as he gained strength and corresponding velocity over the years. They agreed his slider was his best pitch and devised a plan to play his curveball and cutter off of it. "His strength is spin, glove-side spin," Walker said.
Although he didn’t advise Musgrove to exclusively throw those pitches, he retroactively endorsed the decision to scrap everything else.
Musgrove managed to hold his water and stay calm between innings during his no-hit performance. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
In the minutes after Musgrove completed the feat, as the San Diego metropolitan area celebrated, Green found himself lamenting the one misfortune that disqualified Musgrove from a perfect game: his fourth-inning pitch that hit Joey Gallo’s knee. Then he heard Musgrove tell reporters after the game that he considered himself lucky the pitch hit Gallo, Texas’ best hitter. If not, he said, he might’ve given up a hit to him.
"Dammit, there it is again, the positivity you were supposed to be practicing, seeing the good in everything," Green said. "That’s just how he has become as he’s grown up."
As a high schooler, Musgrove was a pure physical marvel, 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds, larger than everyone else. He demonstrated enough pitching aptitude that the Blue Jays drafted him 46th overall in 2011. They soon traded him to Houston, but for four years, Musgrove couldn’t climb out of short-season ball with either organization.
A series of injuries hindered his development and limited his training. After 2014, Johnson sent the pitcher to Green, who immediately attacked the low-hanging fruit he saw within Musgrove’s body.
"The guy couldn’t squat to save his life," Green said.
He lacked mobility, particularly in his lower half. The trainer described Musgrove’s ankles as "terrible," his hips as "bad" and his face as "nothing like it looks now."
Green reasoned that if Musgrove had been able to succeed at all, given his myriad deficiencies, he might dominate after resolving them.
He might be right.
By March 2015, Musgrove knew how to deadlift, sprint and even squat, and he cruised through three minor-league levels that season. He went months without issuing a walk. For the year, he struck out 99 men and walked eight, and the next year, he was in the majors. He proved to be a useful swingman with the Astros, but then he became the centerpiece in their trade for Gerrit Cole after their World Series win.
In his first two seasons in Pittsburgh, Musgrove continued to be a competent but unexceptional starter, prone to big innings. When he encountered trouble, he said, he’d calculate how he could get out of the jam rather than attacking the first batter. "It’s nothing but a lack of focus," he said.
But he finished 2019 healthy, at least, and throwing harder after implementing a shorter arm action that he copied from Shane Bieber and Lucas Giolito. Then 2020 brought the pandemic shutdown, and the pro players who trained with Green formed a bubble to stay in shape. Whenever someone was exposed to COVID-19 or had to leave the bubble, they together went to get rapid tests.
The girlfriend of Cleveland outfielder Jordan Luplow worked as a mobile-testing nurse in the area, and they went wherever she was. They celebrated each negative result as it was announced, then returned to the gym to continue their workouts. When gyms were closed by government mandates, Green loaded up his truck with equipment and met players at parks or beaches.
"We freakin’ crushed the quarantine," Musgrove said.
Back in Pittsburgh, Musgrove strung together a few dominant starts to conclude the abbreviated season. In the offseason, it was widely rumored the Pirates planned to trade him, and multiple teams came close enough that they called Johnson to conduct research. The family hoped it’d be the Padres who made the deal, but after San Diego swung consecutive deals for Yu Darvish and Blake Snell, that thought was gone.
Three weeks later, it happened. The Padres aimed to assemble a rotation that could challenge the behemoth Dodgers’, with Musgrove slotting into the middle of it. So far, he has thrown more like an ace.
Through six starts, Musgrove owns a 2.38 ERA. He has struck out 47 and walked just seven, like he’s back in Class-A, like he set out to do here.
"Goals are goals," Green said. "The only difference is perspective. A no-hitter to Joe might be Mark being able to walk up and down stairs."
Mark Musgrove can move around on his own now, using crutches. He can attend his son’s starts 15 miles from home. He’s far better than he once was.
Musgrove's parents, Joe and Diane, joined him as he was honored for his recent no-hitter. (Photo by Matt Thomas/San Diego Padres/Getty Images)
Joe Musgrove knows he is lucky that his dad made it through the worst of the illness, that he is making enough money to supply the security his family lacked after the onset, that his own health has improved enough for him to become a successful starter, that he’s pitching back home for a contender, that he can stop by his parents’ house for breakfast at his leisure, that he was the one to end the Padres’ 53-year no-hitter drought.
"It’s overwhelming," he said. "But it’s starting to hit more and more every day. What feels good for me, most of all, is that they have something to be proud of now."
There might be more to come. The Dodgers appear to be imperfect. The Padres have a chance to unseat them and achieve another franchise first: a World Series title. Musgrove said he has never desired anything more in his life, and he will be part of the race, embracing the chase.
"Really, it’s just a great example of somebody who’s worked his ass off, stayed with it and never really gave up on himself," Walker said. "Now, he’s living his dream on the highest level."
Musgrove is doing it by leaning into what he started to learn as a teen, before he lost his way. He is fixating on the task in front of him and rejecting everything else. He has found that it works in his artistic pursuits, his training and his pitching alike.
"You just try, and you let yourself go," he said, "and you end up with something cooler than you expected."
Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He most recently covered the Dodgers for three seasons for The Athletic. Previously, he spent five years covering the Angels and Dodgers for the Orange County Register and Los Angeles Times. More previously, he covered his alma mater, USC, for ESPNLosAngeles.com. The son of Brazilian immigrants, he grew up in the Southern California suburbs. Follow him on twitter at @pedromoura.