The present may not be bright for the Reds, but the future sure is. Led by upcoming aces Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo, plenty of gems are promised in the near future. The former throws 100 mph fastballs more than any starter in baseball and the latter boasts an elite curveball. They both have a prospect pedigree that suggests they’ll be able to lead this rotation for years to come.
In 2021, Lodolo and Greene were the number one and two prospects respectively in the Reds’ organization, according to MLB Pipeline. The other top pitching prospects in the minors included Lyon Richardson (#9), Tony Santillan (#11), Christian Roa (#12), Vladimir Gutierrez (#14), Riley O’Brien (#16), and Bryce Bonnin (#18). The group of promising pitchers gave the Reds a projected future five-man rotation with plenty of depth. Following the saying “There’s no such thing as a pitching prospect”, none of these guys would end up sticking in the rotation, and most wouldn’t dent the Major League roster.
However, way down at #20 on the list sat Graham Ashcraft. A 2019 sixth-rounder with a 60-grade fastball without much to complement it, there was little hype surrounding the big right-hander. With little hope in the 2021 campaign and few big league-ready starters, the Reds turned to him in May to eat innings and keep the pressure off their young, star hurlers. It was earned after he posted a 2.29 ERA (35.1 IP) with a 20.5% K% in eight starts at AAA. Outside of throwing in the high-90s as a starter, he did little to spark the attention of pitching gurus and fantasy managers alike.
The first year of Ashcraft’s MLB career ended after 105.2 innings with unsavory ratios (4.89 ERA, 1.42 WHIP) and uninspiring strikeout ability (15.3% K%). Here’s how his trio of offerings performed in 2021:
The only saving grace was his velocity as his repertoire didn’t induce many swinging strikes or ground balls.
Graham Ashcraft, 88mph Slider, 100mph Cutter and 98mph Sinker.
Y'all should be paying attention to this man. pic.twitter.com/uA3qtBXMW2
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 8, 2022
There weren’t many fantasy drafters convinced that Ashcraft would take a step forward in 2023. Across the entire offseason, his ADP was almost 500 (478.42) in Draft Champions drafts on the NFBC platform. It was somewhat warranted given his previously mentioned performance, lack of strikeouts, unsubstantial arsenal, pitching in a terrible pitcher’s park, and being a member of a poor team. Not exactly the recipe for a successful season.
So far in the early going of the 2023 campaign, Ashcraft has looked like a different pitcher. I know that sounds cliché, but I don’t say it just to point out that he’s been more successful. The path he has taken to get there has morphed him into a pitcher that barely resembles the Ashcraft of 2022. Is the unheralded prospect with an unimpressive debut finally breaking out and becoming the secret weapon nobody knew the Reds had up their sleeve?
(Ash)Crafting the Secret Weapon
In the offseason, one of Ashcraft’s main focuses was improving against right-handers. It was warranted given that his .232 BAA and 2.96 FIP against left-handed batters far surpassed his performance against righties (.323 AVG, 5.43 FIP). Instead of incorporating a changeup to diversify his arsenal, Ashcraft worked on the shape and consistency of his slider, a pitch that can be elusive to hitters from both sides of the plate.
It wasn’t hard to find a note on Ashcraft’s CBS news page sending me to an article by Bobby Nightengale of the Cincinnati Enquirer noting the effectiveness of the reworked spinner. A new grip led to plenty of success in the backfields and translated to strikeouts in Spring Training. This year that has been the most apparent difference in his repertoire.
Graham Ashcraft's 8Ks. 🔥 pic.twitter.com/WHUFzIyr8K
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 23, 2023
The slider is being thrown more (up 11.8% to 39.5%), indicating his confidence in throwing it, and its characteristics have altered drastically. Most notably, the pitch is coming in nearly three mph faster at 88.8 mph (8th-fastest in baseball). It’s added two inches of horizontal break, removed four inches of vertical break, and has gained nearly 170 rpm (Savant). All of these numbers don’t mean much unless they are paired with success, and that’s what makes the change so impactful.
Typically, sliders are used to miss bats. That isn’t the case for this breaker. Ashcraft has used it to induce grounders and weak contact. It has induced an opponent AVG of .167, supported by an xAVG of .173. The lack of hits is due to the pitch allowing hard contact just 17.5% of the time (down 2.3% from last year) and forcing grounders a lot more than in the past (+19.6% to 47.8%). It’s a trustworthy out-getting pitch without having to get called strikes or whiffs. All-in-all, the overall success of the pitch is encapsulated by its ascension into above-average PLV territory (5.18).
Graham Ashcraft, Mean Sliders. 😠 pic.twitter.com/vuuU8pZNxj
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 15, 2023
Meanwhile, the cutter and sinker are still doing their thing and are aided by the success of the slider. The former’s velocity has fallen a mile per hour, but that hasn’t stopped it from cutting 7.6% off its HC% to 20.5%, leading to an even further improved PLV (5.32). The latter is a pretty reliable third pitch, if not just for its ability to hit triple digits. What it lacks in suppressing hard contact (covered by the other two offerings) it makes up for in keeping the ball on the ground (69.2%) and improving in PLV (4.66).
Ruben Amaro Jr scouting report for Graham Ashcraft:
– tremendous slider
– excellent slider
– everything is hard
– everything moves pic.twitter.com/DQRLzl85bn
— Absolutely Hammered (@AH_Pod) April 15, 2023
His complete repertoire has earned him a top-three spot on the Stuff+ leaderboards, a stat that stabilizes and becomes meaningful quite quickly. His 132 mark places him in elite company between Shohei Ohtani and Spencer Strider. The new slider grades out as the second best of its kind by Stuff+ at 158, trailing only Jacob deGrom. If Eno Sarris and Max Bay’s invention is any indication, we’ve got a special pitcher on our hands. We have seen all of the pitches working in concert to make Ashcraft one of the early breakout pitchers and one of the few bright spots in Cincinnati.
Deploying the Secret Weapon
Here’s how Ashcraft has faired across his first four starts of 2023:
|4/2 vs PIT||7||4||1||1||6|
|4/10 @ ATL||6||6||2||3||7|
|4/15 vs PHI||6||4||0||4||4|
|4/21 @ PIT||5||3||2||3||4|
It’s been great! He’s performed as expected in his easy matchups and has surprised many with good performances against strong opponents. The one thing sticking out like a sore thumb is the dueling directions of the walk and strikeout rates. Ashcraft limited free passes to an enticing 6.5% rate last year, but in 2023, that has risen all the way to 11.3%, which is currently the ninth-worst among qualified starters. Luckily, the increased strikeouts have offset the inflated walk rate, as he’s bumped his K% up 6.6 points to 21.6%, marking an improvement in one of the most crucial stats in all of baseball, K-BB% (+1.5% to 10.3%).
However, it’s still concerning that after racking up 13 punchouts and just four walks across his first two outings, he’s fanned just eight across his past 11 innings while walking seven. It’s been directly correlated to a lack of whiffs and the slider not being thrown for strikes. The latter is understandable as Ashcraft irons out the kinks of his new pitch, but the former is something that I think holds him back throughout the year.
His overall swinging strike rate has remained unchanged at 9.2% which isn’t indicative of the increased strikeout rate he’s shown. As much as I’ve waxed poetically across a number of podcasts about strikeout and walk rates stabilizing across just 50 plate appearances or batters faced – he’s faced 97 – the threshold is the same for SwStr%. That leads me to believe that not only his strikeout rate is destined to drop or remain in the low-20s, but that…gasp…he’s a Toby! That doesn’t mean he can’t be an elite one.
The best comp to Ashcraft in my opinion is 2022 AL Cy Young Award finalist Alek Manoah. Obviously, the pedigree is different and, no, I’m not just making the comparison because they’re both large human beings, but the parallels between their skillsets and repertoire are clear. Manoah is also a pitcher that relies heavily on heaters with a slider to keep hitters off balance. What he lacks in strikeout ability, he makes up for with his contact-suppressing skills. He also eats innings like it’s his favorite meal.
The main differences between the two are the velocity, the walks, the grounders, and the dawg. Ashcraft features velocity that may give him a ceiling that rivals Manoah’s, but it’s going to take him throwing more strikes to attain it. He also takes advantage of his large frame by pitching deep into ballgames. He even trumps Manoah in the ground ball department, helping him avoid the perils of Great American Ballpark. It does feel like the main factor separating them is Manaoah’s fire and passion for the game, but hearing Ashcraft speak in interviews and watching him get fired up after inning-ending strikeouts is reminiscent of his contemporary.
Get fired up for Graham Ashcraft! 🔥
Ashcraft picked up his second win of the year yesterday, with six scoreless innings. It's the second time in his career he's thrown six innings or more in three consecutive games.
He was very happy with his two-seam fastball. pic.twitter.com/fNDzPpFUFR
— Bally Sports Cincinnati (@BallySportsCIN) April 16, 2023
In the end, there is work to do for Ashcraft, but the good thing is that it’s cut out for him. It’s reassuring that there is such a successful comp for him and I think it’s emblematic of a bright future for the right-hander. As for this season, the one in which moves are actionable, I think it’s a wait-and-hold. He’s clearly in rhythm right now, but a sub-2.00 ERA is obviously not sustainable, especially with his inability to garner whiffs.
Without a doubt, I think he will be a serviceable Toby that you can count on throughout the year because he does such a good job of limiting hard contact and eating innings. Additionally, his Stuff+ numbers hint at a pitcher that could be one of the best in baseball if he makes a couple of changes and continues to learn how to be a Major League starter. However, the lack of strikeouts massively reduces his potential fantasy impact and there are no signs pointing to it improving. Adjustments can and will be made, so it’s yet to be seen if he’s a tweaked plan of attack away from missing more bats, but at this moment, we can only go off of what we’ve seen. Harnessing the power of a lethal slider and overwhelming heaters is a tall task, but is one that could pay massive dividends. The Reds truly have a secret weapon in their midst, but do they even know how powerful it could be?
Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)