Monday, March 4, 2024
AnalysisCincinnati RedsMLBNational LeagueNL Central

Graham Ashcraft is (Ash)Crafting a Great Rookie Season

Graham Ashcraft, the flame-throwing righty, steadily rose through Cincinnati’s minor league system. Pictured here is Ashcraft throwing a pitch during an April contest with Louisville earlier this season. This photo is marked for reuse by creator Minda Haas Kuhlmann. License

Graham Ashcraft made his Major League debut on May 22 of this season, throwing 4.1 innings and surrendering two runs. This was a spot start, as the Reds needed to find a pitcher to fill in for Connor Overton, who had been scratched due to back soreness. Ashcraft wasn’t even on the Reds 40-man roster, as he had been a substitute player for one of the four Reds who chose not to vaccinate themselves from COVID-19 when the team traveled to Toronto. Ashcraft enjoyed a respectable debut and was returned to the minor leagues when the Reds returned to the United States. The buzz around Graham did not go with him — many people were still reeling over his first major league pitch that clocked in at 99.7 miles per hour.

Amidst the team’s series against the San Francisco Giants merely a spot in the rotation later, Ashcraft returned to the big leagues. He situated himself in the rotation right after Hunter Greene, thus creating potentially the most potent young rotation in baseball. Since his return to the Major Leagues, Ashcraft impressed, throwing 19.1 innings over his next three starts and only allowing one run within those innings. In his next two games he was less impressive, allowing 10 runs in 9.2 innings. Even with his rough stretch, Ashcraft has been able to maintain solid overall statistics on the season.

Going into tonight’s (June 24) start against San Francisco, Ashcraft has a 3.51 ERA on the season. The underlying statistics tell essentially the same story, as he is sporting a 3.45 xERA, 3.88 FIP, and 4.14 SIERA. To understand his production relative to the rest of the league, know that he has an 80 ERA- and a 93 FIP-, statistics that are comfortably above average. If you prefer the more mainstream ERA+, his mark of 136 means that he is 36% better than the league average.

As established with his first major league pitch, Ashcraft throws hard. He throws the hardest cutter in the Major Leagues among starters by far — only Corbin Burnes comes within three MPH. He throws the second hardest sinker among starters, with only Cy Young candidate Sandy Alcantara ahead of him. With a 97 mph sinker and 97.3 mph cutter, one would expect Ashcraft to strike out a lot of batters, right? In an era where Aroldis Chapman and Hunter Greene are faces of flame-throwing pitchers, it seems to be a given that these pitchers also utilize the strikeout.

The reality of Graham Ashcraft’s profile is that he relies on the groundout instead of the strikeout. His K% is in just 6th percentile and his season-high strikeout amount is five (which he achieved after pitching seven innings and facing twenty-six batters). At 56.1%, his groundball% is more than eleven points above the MLB average. To be a successful pitch-to-contact pitcher, a pitcher, especially one that is on Cincinnati, must generate ground balls and limit fly balls. Ashcraft has been able to thrive in a stadium nicknamed “Great American Small Park” doing just that.

In the minor leagues, Ashcraft didn’t have the same profile. From 2021 to 2022, he sported a 34.2%, a 25.3%, and a 20% K% in single-A advanced, double-A, and triple-A, respectively. Ashcraft’s pitch-to-contact prowess is no accident, however, as he stated in an interview with C. Trent Rosecrans of The Athletic that “I’m trying to get in there and get in and out as fast as possible, getting soft contact.”

The idea of “[getting] in there and [getting] out” is what has enabled Ashcraft to go so deep into games this season. By generating quick outs and managing contact, Ashcraft is extraordinarily pitch-efficient. This adds huge value to a team like the Reds, which has had notable futility from the bullpen this season. The deeper Ashcraft goes into games, the better chance the team has of winning. In the three games that Ashcraft has gone into the 7th inning, the Reds have won.

Ashcraft’s third primary pitch is the slider he uses as his strikeout pitch. The slider has elite movement (vertically and horizontally) which leads to missed bats when he locates it correctly. He tends to bury it, often splitting the area between the strike zone and the dirt. This provides solid contrast to his cutter and sinker, which he throws much higher in the zone. It features a solid 30.2% whiff%, giving some versatility to a volatile profile. The volatility of Ashcraft was shown in his most recent starts against St. Louis and Milwaukee. He allowed a home run in each of those starts and allowed a combined 17 hits over 9.2 innings. When the hits fall, the pitcher falls.

Courtesy of Baseball Savant

I expect Ashcraft to maintain his success. Earlier in the season it was difficult to temper expectations when watching Ashcraft dominate lineups in early June. However, his 3.51 ERA is much closer to his true talent than the 1.14 ERA he had at one point this season. This is no dig at Ashcraft. If he keeps this up, he is poised to be a very good starter for a long time. As a mid-rotation starter, Ashcraft will be essential to the long-term plan for the Reds.

I think that Ashcraft will begin to strike out more batters while maintaining his overall approach to the game. When looking at pitchers with similar velocity who don’t strike out many batters, none strike out as few as Ashcraft. See: Brusdar Graterol and Jordan Hicks. Corbin Burnes, who has extremely similar velocity and movement to Ashcraft, is an elite strike out pitcher. Evidence suggests that if Ashcraft has a more balanced approach to pitching, the strikeouts will follow.

The summation of this article is that Graham Ashcraft is an interesting pitcher who’s success depends on batted balls staying on the ground. Strikeout issue aside, he has been a huge help to a Cincinnati team that has been marred by injuries and poor performance. At the time of publishing, Ashcraft is slated to start against the Giants in his seventh game of the season. The last time Ashcraft faced San Francisco? He threw 6.1 innings of shutout ball. If you choose to tune in, expect to see a copious amount of groundballs.