by Micah Greenhill

Analyzing Graham Ashcraft’s First Few Starts and Next Steps as a Starting Pitcher

In a season that has seen the debuts of two recent first-round draft picks, Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo, Graham Ashcraft came onto the scene a bit under the radar. The 24-year-old right-handed starting pitcher had been listed by a few industry analysts as a prospect worth watching, but he was largely unknown to the greater baseball community.

After being promoted to the Major League roster on May 22 to start against the Toronto Blue Jays (one of my pet teams for this year!), Reds fans started taking notice. Against a very solid lineup, Ashcraft posted decent results. He pitched 4.1 innings and allowed two earned runs on four hits, two walks and one hit-by-pitch.

Over the course of his next seven starts, Ashcraft has had his ups and down, like any rookie pitcher. His most recent start, as of me writing this, was not pretty. Against the Chicago Cubs (my least favorite MLB team), Ashcraft only made it 2.1 innings, giving up 7 earned runs. Fans shouldn’t be too discouraged by this latest outing, though. Rookie pitchers have a tendency to be volatile, with some dominant starts and others where they look completely overmatched.

To get a better idea of what a player truly is contributing, we should look at a larger sample size of data. Past performance is not an indicator of future performance, but it does provide a better idea as to the type of pitcher that Ashcraft is and what we can reasonably expect from him for the remainder of the year.

Outcome Stats

For his rookie season, Graham Ashcraft has achieved solid on-the-field results. Traditional metrics show him to be roughly average, with a 4.53 ERA and 1.24 WHIP. Both of these metrics are very poor indicators of his true value to the team.

His underlying metrics suggest a bit of bad luck in his game and the possibility of positive regression. His FIP for the season is 4.16, with a 3.89 xFIP and 3.22 xERA. For the season, he’s currently listed as accumulating a respectable 0.5 fWAR.

These positive results are largely due to Ashcraft’s ability to induce weak contact. His average exit velocity given up (85.4 MPH) is elite, placing him in the 95th percentile for all MLB pitchers. He’s a ground ball machine, with a current ground ball rate of 54.7%. For context, the average MLB pitcher has a ground ball rate of about 42.9%, according to FanGraphs.

A ground ball pitcher can be fairly effective at limiting opponent runs. On average, a ground ball given up leads to a batting average of .239, a wOBA of .220 and an ISO of 0.020. Essentially, a high ground ball pitcher may give up a fair amount of hits, but they tend to be singles. In the small confines of Great American Ball Park, pitchers who keep batted balls on the ground — rather than in the air — are particularly valuable.

Ashcraft’s Next Steps

Graham Ashcraft has been an effective starting pitcher for the Reds, but he does have a few flaws in his game. Finding improvements in these areas could be the difference between Ashcraft being a solid starting pitcher and a legitimate ace.

So, where does Ashcraft have room to grow?

One area for growth is with right-handed hitters. Contrary to the norm for right-handed pitchers, Ashcraft does a decent job of getting left-handed hitters out. However, he has a significant reverse split. Lefties facing Ashcraft have a slash line of .200/.247/.256 with a wOBA of .227. Righties have a slash line of .314/.359/.500 with a wOBA of .373. In other words, he makes lefties look like minor leaguers, while righties tend to look like All-Stars.

One possible explanation for this reverse split is the horizontal movement of his cutter, which is his primary pitch. When he throws it, it tends to move sharply inside, jamming left-handed hitters. However, against a righty, it can move out across the plate, making it a bit easier to barrel up.

It’s a bit easier to visualize when looking at the heatmap for his cutter.

There are other ways that Ashcraft can improve as a starting pitcher. While he does an excellent job at inducing weak contact, he’s struggling to strike out opposing hitters. After all, you can’t get a hit if you don’t put the ball in play! Currently, Ashcraft ranks in the 7th percentile for strikeout percentage, striking out a measly 14.8% of the batters he faced (league average is 22.2%).

One explanation for this is that he essentially only throws two pitches. For the season, 82% of his pitches thrown have been either a cutter (48.8%) and a slider (32.7%). He occasionally mixes in a sinker (17.3%) as well. Each pitch has its strengths and weaknesses for Ashcraft.

 

That’s a decent pitch mix for a ground ball pitcher. His cutter and sinker have been extremely effective at inducing ground balls, with respective ground ball rates of 59% and 80%. His slider has also been fairly effective at creating swinging strikes. It pairs well with his cutter, which has similar movement but at a higher velocity. It also gets decent vertical movement (4.6 inches above average). However, he lacks consistent command of it, resulting in it being left over the middle of the plate.

Look at this heatmap for his slider and the wide range of locations for it.

He’s able to get it down in the zone fairly regularly, often leading to swinging strikes, but when he struggles to locate it, he leaves it right over the middle of the plate.

This failure to consistently locate his slider has led to a major problem for Ashcraft: Line drives. Currently, the line drive rate on his slider is at 32.5% (league average is 21%). In general, line drives are the most likely to land as a hit.  Since 2014, a line drive has a batting average of .685, ISO of .190 and wOBA of .684. In other words, Ashcraft’s slider is a bit of a high risk/high reward pitch, often ending in either a swinging strike or a line drive.

It’s possible that Ashcraft’s next step as a starting pitcher will be to design a new pitch to add to his repertoire. His cutter and slider show solid horizontal movement, so introducing a third pitch with vertical movement could be the answer here.

A comparable starter here would be Corbin Burnes. The ace of Milwaukee has a very similar pitching portfolio as Ashcraft. His go-to pitch, similarly to Ashcraft, is a cutter which is supplemented by a slider and a sinker. The major difference between the two starters is Burnes’s fourth regular pitch: A curveball. This portfolio of four pitches has led to Burnes becoming one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. Obviously, Burnes is a very special talent, and I’m not suggesting that Ashcraft will turn into a Cy Young candidate overnight simply by adding a curveball. However, if he can successfully introduce a new pitch with more horizontal movement into his repertoire, it’s possible that he’ll be able to create more strikeouts, significantly boosting his value to the team overall.

We can actually look to Ashcraft’s time in the minor leagues to get an idea of what results he is capable of achieving, if he can increase his strikeout rate. In 2021, during his time in AA, Ashcraft boasted a solid 9.21 strikeouts per nine innings, paired with a 60.5% ground ball rate. Over 72.1 innings pitched, he pitched to an ERA of 3.36, with a 3.19 FIP and 3.46 xFIP. Assuming he can increase his strikeout rate, while maintaining an above average ground ball percentage on batted balls, it’s reasonable to expect similar results on the MLB level.

Conclusion

In a year where Reds fans don’t have a lot to be excited about, it’s nice to have Graham Ashcraft. The rookie pitcher has been solid in his limited time with the Reds, and I’m hopeful that we’ll see him in the rotation for years to come. He’s not a perfect pitcher, but if he can continue to develop as a player by increasing his strikeout rate, there’s reason to believe that he can reach a high ceiling of production for the Reds.

Micah is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up watching games at Cinergy Field with his family. A recent MBA graduate, Micah has always had a passion for data analytics and uses his understanding of big data to better understand and appreciate what is happening on the baseball diamond and in the front office. When he's not watching baseball, you can find Micah and his wife frequenting different restaurants and coffee shops in the area. For questions and inquiries, please reach out to micahgreenhill@gmail.com.