Surprise! The Reds Have Another Breakout Rookie Pitcher

Graham Ashcraft has come out of nowhere to steal the spotlight from rookie phenoms Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo so far this season.
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Over the weekend, the Reds snapped a seven-game losing streak by edging San Francisco, 4-2. Key to the victory was a dominant pitching performance from a Cincinnati rookie hurler who went eight innings, surrendering just two runs on six hits. He also struck out eight batters without walking a single one, running his season record to 4-1 with a 3.27 ERA.

Observers have been predicting this all season. After all, we’ve discussed the Reds’ rookie pitchers for months, namely top prospects (and former first-round picks) Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo; see here, here, and here. So it shouldn’t be surprising in the least that one of these guys is starting to look like the ace of the team.

Hang on … I’m being told that the pitcher in question is not Greene or Lodolo. It’s Graham Ashcraft. The same pitcher who was cut from his college baseball team at Mississippi State after barely playing, collecting two wins and two hip surgeries in two years. The same big right-hander who transferred to Alabama-Birmingham the following season and posted a 5.63 ERA, with most of his appearances coming out of the bullpen, before the Reds took a flyer on his sizzling fastball in the sixth round of the 2019 draft (the same year Lodolo was selected with the seventh overall pick). Yep, that’s the guy.

One year before making his big league debut in May, Ashcraft was toiling in Single-A. By the end of last season, he’d worked his way up to Double-A Chattanooga, but there was a reason Ashcraft had never appeared on a Top 100 prospect list (he’s currently ranked as the fifth- or seventh-best Reds prospect now, depending on your source): He was mostly an unknown until last season.

During the pandemic season of 2020, Ashcraft wasn’t well-regarded enough to earn a spot at the Reds’ alternate site, where Greene, Lodolo, and Jonathan India impressed with their development. So he was stuck with “selfie coaching,” as assistant pitching coach Eric Jagers called it (that process was detailed by Charlie Goldsmith in this terrific piece). The results were good, if not spectacular: an 11-4 record over the two levels with a 3.00 ERA.

I’ll concede to being a wait-and-see observer on Ashcraft not because of his lack of pedigree, but because I feared that his lack of a pitching arsenal might doom him to the bullpen. After all, he really only has a fastball and a slider, and you can count the number of great big league starters who only have two pitches on one hand. To be sure, it was a really great, triple-digits fastball with a ton of movement, but big league hitters can hit a fastball.

Of course, as it turns out, the Ashcraft who pitches for the Reds now doesn’t have just two pitches. He still has the dynamite four-seam fastball, which is really a cutter with such movement that he sometimes doesn’t know where it’s going to go. This season, however, he has added a two-seam fastball, a sinker that moves in the opposite direction, and that’s made all the difference.

According to Goldsmith, before the 2022 season, Ashcraft asked Jagers what he needed to do to be a big leaguer this season:

Jagers took that question to the Reds’ pitching leadership group, which includes coaches and coordinators and is led by Reds director of pitching Derek Johnson. Ashcraft walked too many hitters in the minor leagues, and the group thought that Ashcraft could use another consistent pitch to add to the mix against right-handed hitters.

“We likened Ashcraft to a Sonny Gray-esque style pitcher,” Jagers said. “Sonny had the cut action on his four-seam, and that allowed him to have a really nasty two-seam fastball. We wanted Graham to focus on the two-seam (sinker).”

Now Ashcraft has “a few different fastballs within one pitch,” as Reds manager David Bell describes it. Add in a terrific slider that, by some measures, is his best pitch (he gets more swings-and-misses with the slider than with either the cutter or sinker), and you have a guy with elite-level stuff. While he’s had a couple of rough starts, Ashcraft has mostly been a fantastic bright spot in an otherwise difficult Reds season. (For what it’s worth, he’s also thrown what’s been identified by Statcast as a changeup on eight occasions this season.)

What I like most about Ashcraft, however, is his bulldog attitude on the mound. He’s a big guy (officially 6’2″, 240) with a big fastball, and while he’s just a rookie he attacks hitters like a 10-year veteran. He also wears his emotion on his sleeve, and teammates have noticed. “Confidence is everything,” catcher Aramis Garcia says about the rookie. “You can feel it when you’re catching him, you can feel it when you’re watching him in the dugout. Whenever you can take the mound or step in the box with confidence, it’s a difference-maker.”

Now everyone, including yours truly, is reconsidering Ashcraft’s ceiling. With Greene having an up-and-down season (though not a disappointing one) and Lodolo spending much of the season on the injured list, Ashcraft has forced his name into the conversation. All of a sudden, a trio of Greene-Lodolo-Ashcraft for the next few seasons looks like the makings of a top-tier starting rotation. And if the Reds do the right thing and keep Luis Castillo and Tyler Mahle wearing the red and white, Cincinnati could have the best rotation in baseball in a couple of years.

Of course, we know that the Castellinis won’t do that, but we can always dream, right? And I’m glad to welcome Graham Ashcraft into those dreams. After all, hopes and dreams are all we have as Reds fans these days.

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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