Raise your hand if you had Hunter Greene as the top Cincinnati Reds pitcher this year. Mine’s up, who else? Okay, how about everyone who had Nick Lodolo? I know you’re out there. Alright now, who had Graham Ashcraft? Oh, put your hand down, you did not.
I kid, I kid. Out of a million Reds fans in the world, I’m willing to admit that six or seven of the zaniest ones might have called Ashcraft’s incredible start to the 2023 season. The rest of us fell for the Reds young righty-lefty combo – and who could blame us? When one vaporizes hitters with fastballs that scorch the earth and the other buckles hitters with looping curves that generate their own gravity, it’s easy to miss out on the other guy.
But now, Ashcraft is impossible to ignore. And he’s pitching in a way that’s, well, a little less spectacular. This is not to say that Ashcraft doesn’t have good stuff. It’s just that… it doesn’t always look glamourous. Or that this can keep working. Or that any of this makes sense. I’ll explain.
See, with Greene and Lodolo, they are the Future. The big-time prospects the Reds are counting on to turn the baseball tides of misfortune. Both Greene and Lodolo were highly-touted, top-100 MLB prospects entering their rookie seasons. While they’ve both experienced up-and-downs, they’ve both shown – on numerous occasions – just how elite they have the potential to be. The Reds know this, and that’s why they already locked up Greene to a long-term extension in April just a year and change into his career.
Ashcraft was a different story. Though he posted solid numbers in his minor league career, he never garnered the kind of attention Greene and Lodolo did. He wasn’t seen as a franchise savior. He was, kinda… just another guy. Not anymore.
Right now, Ashcraft leads all National League players with a 2.2 WAR (wins above replacement, for those uninitiated, is a sort of catch-all statistic that is meant to represent a player’s value, in terms of wins added to a team, in comparison to a replacement-level player). In other words, you can make a really compelling argument that he’s been the best player in the NL so far. And while advanced statistics like WAR aren’t always the end-all-be-all, Ashcraft’s traditional stats are outstanding as well. Check this out:
Through six starts, Ashcraft has a 2 - 0 record, and that’s despite the Reds 13 - 18 record and the 21st ranked offense in the MLB
He’s allowed just one home run in 36 innings, the lowest rate for any qualifying pitcher in the NL
His 2.00 ERA is 4th in the NL, and that’s while playing half his games in the hitters’ paradise that is Great American Ballpark
He’s also gone five or more innings in every start this year, while never allowing more than two runs in any start
That’s NL Cy Young material – and from the guy that most thought was, at best, third in the Reds' pitching rotation. It’s amazing that we've gotten to this point. And it’s not just that Ashcraft took the less heralded route to baseball success – it’s how he’s doing it too.
Ashcraft doesn’t look like many starting pitchers. He doesn’t use a wind-up, instead opting to pitch exclusively out of the set position (or the stretch, as it’s sometimes known). This isn’t unheard of, with pitchers like Yu Darvish, Stephen Strasburg and Noah Syndergaard having experimented with the technique, but it’s more of a relief pitcher thing. It’s not bad, obviously. Just odd.
But the oddness with Ashcraft doesn’t stop there. Not only does Ashcraft look like a reliever when he starts to throw, his pitch selection looks more like a reliever’s than a starter’s as well. So far this season, Ashcraft has primarily thrown three pitches: a sinker, a cutter, and a slider. And here’s the rub with all these pitches: none of them are really off-speed.
Of course, there’s nuance in this conversation. You can make an argument that Ashcraft’s slider is his off-speed pitch. Fine. But that’s a stretch.
Typically, off-speed pitches are change-ups – a pitch designed to be thrown and look exactly like a fastball, but 10-15 MPH slower than the pitcher’s fastball. Ashcraft…doesn’t really have a change-up. Or a curveball. Basically, Ashcraft just throws hard stuff, harder stuff, and hardest stuff.
Somehow, it’s working. Pitchers who throw gas all day are, again, usually relievers, but Ashcraft has taken a reliever’s approach and reliever’s repertoire and turned it into tools for a high-caliber starter. It’s remarkable. You’d expect batters to start to get used to seeing mostly hard-thrown pitches, especially after facing Ashcraft in their next at-bat, but the Reds’ 25-year-old righty has found a way to almost completely avoid hard contact.
This brings me to the most fascinating stat of all for Ashcraft’s super start: his bizarrely low strikeout rate for a dominant pitcher of 6.8 per 9 innings (SO/9). Intuitively, you’d expect a pitcher with a tiny ERA and unblemished record to have way more strikeouts. Ashcraft isn’t strikeout adverse by any means, but he hardly measures up with some of the K-artists in the league today. Gerrit Cole of the New York Yankees, for example, is the only pitcher in baseball with a higher WAR than Ashcraft, and his SO/9 rate is 10.0.
So, what I’m saying is Ashcraft is an overlooked, unglorified pitcher who looks and throws like a reliever, and pitches to contact in a league that strikes out nearly a quarter of their at-bats. That, my friends, is called an outlier. It’s really something special, even if it is only early May. The Reds have been looking for a home-grown ace since Johnny Cueto left town in 2015, and while Greene and Lodolo got most of the hometown love, it’s Ashcraft that’s taken the lead – and he’s doing it in a way that’s completely, totally unique. Raise your hand if this still doesn’t make sense: yeah, me neither.