The Reds Find Another Ace in Their Deck

Nick Lodolo emerges as the team’s third potential ace starting pitcher, after finding his control over the past few months.

Something funny happened over the last few weeks, and if you’ve been tuned out of this Reds season lately—and no one could blame you if you have—you may have missed it. Cincinnati Reds rookie pitcher Nick Lodolo just staked his claim as the ace of this pitching staff for the foreseeable future.

To be fair, this really shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. The 6-foot-6, 205-pound left-handed hurler had been a top prospect long before any of us had heard his name. You probably know that Lodolo was drafted by the Reds in the first round of the 2019 draft (No. 7 overall) after an outstanding college career at Texas Christian University, where he was given first- or second-team All-Big 12 honors in each of his three seasons. But that was actually the second time Lodolo had been drafted in the first round. The Pirates selected him shortly back in 2016 after he graduated from Damien High School in La Verne, California, but he chose to go to college and defer his professional dreams.

Well, those dreams are coming alive now and, thankfully, in Cincinnati rather than Pittsburgh. Lodolo made his MLB debut earlier this season, and while his first couple of starts were shaky, he’s shown glimpses of serious potential when he’s been able to stay on the field. Lodolo missed more than two months with a lower back strain, but since he returned to the mound in early June you can almost see the improvement with each inning of experience he accrues.

In fact, over the last month, Lodolo has been among the very best pitchers in all of baseball. In his last five starts, he’s 1-1 with a 2.43 ERA in 33.1 innings pitched, striking out 38 hitters while walking just six. If you want to use an admittedly crude measure like pitching WAR to judge his performance, only three pitchers in either league have been better than him in the last month.

And he keeps getting sharper. Lodolo’s most recent outing was the best of his young career. He tossed eight innings (a career high) of five-hit, two-run ball, striking out 11 Brewers (another career high) and walking none. Those last two stats (11 Ks, no walks) are what excite me most.

Lodolo has always had good stuff. His fastball sits in the mid-90s, and he mixes in a curve that dazzles with incredible movement. He also has an effective changeup he uses more sparingly. The curve is what gets everyone’s attention around baseball, as highlighted every five days by Rob Friedman, the so-called “Pitching Ninja.” Whenever Lodolo takes the mound, Friedman’s Twitter feed becomes a series of short videos of Lodolo making big league hitters look silly. (Examples here, here, and here.) It’s glorious.

As a junior, his final season at TCU, Lodolo made huge strides with his command, which was one of his calling cards at his various stops in the minor leagues. But early in his big league career, he struggled at times to keep from walking batters; in his first 10 starts, he walked 24 in 47.2 innings. He’s cut that number to six in his last 33.1 innings, and the result has been more consistency. That’s a K/BB ratio of 6.33; only one NL pitcher has a better ratio than that. Small sample size caveats abound here, obviously, as Lodolo’s full-season K/BB ratio is 3.33. But his minor league K/BB ratio was 9, so he’s regularly demonstrated the ability to command the zone while striking out hitters since he was drafted. I’m optimistic.

Reds catcher Austin Romine has noticed the improvement. “He’s just commanding his stuff to the point where now he’s able to add more behind the pitches and still command them,” Romine said. “We’re seeing it a lot. A lot of heaters up, good curveballs down, guys looking foolish on swings and getting overpowered. He keeps getting better every start. It’s fun to watch and fun to catch.”

It’s definitely fun to watch. Are we seeing the emergence of the next Reds ace? Perhaps, though you’d like to see Lodolo have more time as an apprentice before handing him that (fictitious) mantle. Alas, the Reds have traded away two aces (Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray) in the last six months, so the franchise is certainly in search of an ace.

For his entire professional career, Lodolo has seemed to fly a little under the radar. Or maybe he’s just flown a little under my radar; after all, I’ve written about two other rookie pitchers this season (Hunter Greene and Graham Ashcraft) without devoting a full column to Lodolo. There’s no question that he’s been somewhat overshadowed by uber-prospect Greene among Reds fans.

That’s partly due to Greene’s other-worldly talent. But it’s also because, shortly after he was drafted, Lodolo’s first minor league “season” was behind closed doors thanks to the pandemic, so we didn’t get an immediate idea of how polished the lefty really was. From the time he started pitching, however, he’s been mostly brilliant; in 25 starts over four different levels of the minor leagues, Lodolo was 2-3 with a 2.42 ERA in 81.2 innings, striking out 126 while walking only 14. Those are eye-popping numbers. Now we’re seeing on the big league level what Lodolo has been doing all along: just getting hitters out and making them look silly in the process.

So who will be the ace of next year’s Reds? Probably Lodolo, since he’s two years older than Greene and has shown a bit more success at the big league level so far. I still think Greene has the highest ceiling of any pitcher I’ve ever seen in a Reds uniform; he has the talent to be a legitimate superstar. I’m not sure Lodolo can reach the same heights, but I’m certain that he has a higher floor than any of the other Reds rookies. He’s going to be a good big league pitcher for a long time, health permitting.

If we’ve learned anything, however, it’s that there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect. Greene and Ashcraft are working their way back from injury, and Lodolo has missed much of this season to stints on the IL. Nothing is guaranteed.

Ultimately, though, who cares? “Ace” is a meaningless term designed to give baseball writers and fans something to debate. In Lodolo, Greene, and Ashcraft, the Reds have a trio of talented young pitchers that provide something to dream about for 2023.

Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.

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