You likely know by now that Cincinnati’s top pitching prospect, Andrew Abbott, made his first big league start against the Brewers on Monday night. It was an outstanding debut in many respects. After throwing 53 pitches in the first two innings, Abbott settled in and looked like a confident veteran. He didn’t allow a hit until the fifth inning,* and by the time he left the field to an ovation from the 13,687** in attendance he’d tossed six shutout innings, allowing just the one hit. [*Last Reds pitcher to allow no hits through the first four innings of his MLB debut: Johnny Cueto in 2008, according to Reds statistician Joel Luckhaupt. **It was a partial sellout.]
It was not, however, the first time I’d been mesmerized by Abbott’s ability and potential on the mound. I don’t remember the first time I watched him pitch; I know it was at some point in 2018, but I just can’t recall the precise game.
I do remember the last time I watched a full Abbott start before he finally strode onto the field wearing a Cincinnati Reds uniform. It was less than two years ago on a late June Sunday night in Omaha, Nebraska, when Abbott’s University of Virginia Cavaliers faced off against Tennessee in the College World Series opener back in 2021. Before 22,000-plus excited fans, Abbott was brilliant, spinning six shutout innings, allowing only five hits and striking out 10.
He was dominant that night, but Virginia fans had come to expect nothing less. In the last home start of his senior season at UVa’s Disharoon Park, Abbott threw 7.1 no-hit innings, striking out 16 Wake Forest Demon Deacons. He finished his Cavalier career as a consensus All-American, a first team All-ACC selection, a Golden Spikes Award semi-finalist, and a three-time member of ACC All-Academic team. Abbott struck out nearly 14 batters per nine innings in his career. He’s a Virginia legend.
The prior June, however, he’d been disappointed when he wasn’t selected in the MLB draft. He wasn’t the only one. “I was devastated for Andrew Abbott, I really was,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said at the time. “I was crushed for the young man because I felt like his talent and his ability dictated him going in a certain area, and it didn’t work out.”
It turned out to be an incredible opportunity for Abbott, in retrospect. You see, he’d spent pretty much his entire career at Virginia as a reliever. As a first-year (they don’t call them freshmen at Virginia, for reasons related to Thomas Jefferson), Abbott came out of the bullpen and logged six saves, struck out 13.76 hitters per nine innings, and was named to the freshman All-ACC and All-America teams. As a junior reliever, he put up a 1.35 ERA.
But in 2020, the MLB draft consisted of only five rounds instead of the 20 rounds of subsequent years. So Abbott went back to Virginia, where O’Connor promptly installed him in the starting rotation. He added an improved changeup to his already good fastball and curveball and went 9-6 with a 2.87 ERA in 106.2 innings pitched. He ranked third in the NCAA in strikeouts (162), ninth in games started (17), and 11th in strikeouts per nine innings (13.67).
Abbott shot up the draft rankings, and that July the Reds drafted him in the second round. He was uneven, however, in his first taste of pro ball, posting a 4.15 ERA over six starts. Last year, in his first full year as a pro, he dazzled at Class-A Dayton (3-0, 0.67 ERA in five appearances) before earning a promotion to Double-A Chattanooga.
Results at that level were once again mixed. In his first start for the Lookouts, Abbott struck out 12 hitters and walked none in 5.2 shutout innings. But the rest of the season was a bit of a rollercoaster, with Abbott having difficulty finding the strike zone more often than not. He finished the campaign with a 7-7 record and a disappointing 4.75 ERA.
Abbott was still considered a good prospect coming into this season. Ater all, as FanGraphs noted, he had just two post-high school seasons as a starter under his belt. But MLB Pipeline ranked him as just the third-best Reds pitching prospect in the spring; longtime Reds minor league analyst Doug Gray had Abbott as the fourth-best pitcher in the farm system. By all accounts, those were completely reasonable judgments.
And then 2023 happened. In his first three starts back in Double-A once again, Abbott was dominant, posting a 1.15 ERA and striking out 36 hitters while walking just three. The Reds wasted no time in promoting him to Triple-A Louisville, where he continued to perform brilliantly. In seven starts, Abbott was 3-0 with a 3.05 ERA and a 54/14 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His velocity was up, he was using his changeup more often, and the results were dramatic. Abbott’s 90 strikeouts between Chattanooga and Louisville are the most of any minor league pitcher this season.
By the time Abbott was inevitably called up to the majors, he’d shot up the prospect rankings and was widely considered as the best minor league pitcher in the Reds organization. The 24-year-old lefty did nothing in his first outing to dampen expectations, to be sure, and Cincinnati will need him to keep it up as they navigate this rebuild. The next-best pitching prospect in the organization is Chase Petty, who is still at Single-A Dayton. He’s been amazing (a 0.56 ERA in four starts, with 21 strikeouts and just three walks) but isn’t close to the majors yet.
But if Abbott pans out, the Reds will have four solid young pitchers with real upside in the big league rotation for the foreseeable future: Hunter Greene; Nick Lodolo (please get healthy, Nick); Graham Ashcraft; and Abbott. There isn’t a ton of pitching depth in the organization, but that’s a great place to start as the Reds seek to transition from rebuilding to competing.
As usual, however, my thoughts when it comes to these ol’ Redlegs begin to turn sentimental. Perhaps the greatest left-handed pitcher in Reds history is Hall of Famer Eppa Rixey, who, like Abbott, played for the University of Virginia. And in his debut, Abbott wore uniform number 41, the same number worn by another great Cincinnati lefty, Joe Nuxhall.
Are the stars aligning for Andrew Abbott? Is he destined for stardom? I don’t know, but I’m excited to see how this plays out.
Chad Dotson helms Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His newsletter about Cincinnati sports can be found at chaddotson.com. He’s @dotsonc on Twitter.