Opening Day is here, and that means prediction season has arrived. Like any respectable blog, we’d be remiss if we didn’t throw our hat in to the ring.
Here are four bold predictions for Reds pitchers for the 2023 season, one per writer.
Alexis Diaz will set a franchise record for Saves in a single season. (Steve Mancuso)
Last season, Alexis Diaz burst through the bullpen door straight from Double-A and into our veins. The rookie’s first Major League appearance came in the second game of the opening Atlanta series, where the 25-year-old Diaz pitched a clean 7th inning with two strikeouts. The young Puerto Rican reliever would go on to pitch in 59 of the team’s games.
Because it was one of the few bright moments of the 2022 season, we think of Diaz’s emergence as closer happening earlier in the calendar. In fact, Diaz’s first save came more than a month into the season. His second was notched four weeks later. That slow early pace wasn’t his fault. You remember the 3-22 start. You might not recall Tony Santillan and Art Warren recorded the saves in Atlanta. The other Reds save in April came from Lucas Sims — his only one of the season. Santillan recorded a couple more saves before hitting the IL with a season-ending back ailment in mid-June. After that came the disastrous Hunter Strickland Experiment as Closer.
It wasn’t until August 27 that Alexis Diaz recorded two consecutive Reds saves. He ended the season with just 10.
Yes, there were nits to pick in his performance — too many walks (13%), too few ground balls (30%) — but by the end of the campaign, he stood head-and-shoulders above anyone else in the Reds bullpen. And, since there aren’t any new names in the reliever corps, that’s how he’ll begin the 2023 season.
Jeff Brantley holds the record for most Saves in a single Reds season with 44 in 1996. Jeff Shaw, who had 42 the following year, has the second most. If you’re thinking the Reds won’t give Diaz enough chances to set the record, consider the 1997 Reds that Shaw pitched for went 76-86. Next on the list is Danny Graves in 2004 with 41 saves. That team also won just 76 games.
Three factors suggest Alexis Diaz can surpass those Reds legends. First, Diaz was a solid pitcher with an excellent strikeout rate (32.5%) his rookie season. Second, he’ll face no competition for closing out games. While David Bell likes to mix-and-match at the back end of games, the talent level this year doesn’t allow it. Finally, the Reds offense is projected to be one of the weakest in the league. So, while there may not be as many games to save, the leads the Reds do have in the 9th will tend to be smaller.
Hunter Greene finishes in the top ten for NL strikeouts, with over 200 Ks. (Mike Perry)
Like many rookie pitchers, Hunter Greene’s first season in MLB had its ups and downs. At times, he looked incredibly polished and dominant, making even premier hitters look silly. Other times, he showed significant struggles, with his fastball often landing in the outfield seats. After being shut down for a brief time due to shoulder fatigue, Greene returned to the mound and appeared completely unhittable, pitching to an ERA of 1.06 in September with 29 strikeouts over 17 innings pitched.
In his rookie year, Greene only pitched in 125.2 innings, yet he struck out a whopping 164 hitters. That’s an average of 11.8 strikeouts per 9 innings. Had he pitched in enough innings to qualify, Greene would have the second best K/9 ratio in the National League, right beyond Carlos Rodon (11.9). Assuming health and greater consistency, it’s reasonable to think that Greene could pitch in 150-175 innings. If his strikeout rate stays the same, this range of innings would give him 197-230 strikeouts for the season (a feat accomplished by only 13 starting pitchers in all MLB last year).
Graham Ashcraft nearly doubles his strikeout rate. (Kyle Berger)
Graham Ashcraft made his MLB debut for the Reds in 2022, throwing 105 innings across 19 starts. He put up solid but unspectacular numbers, finishing with a 4.89 ERA backed by a 4.21 FIP, 4.09 xFIP, and 4.22 SIERA. Ashcraft walked just 6.5% of the batters he faced, though he struck out only 15.3%.
That’s where the bold prediction comes in. Ashcraft will nearly double his strikeout rate in 2023. The 15.3% strikeout rate was by far the lowest of Ashcraft’s professional career. The 20.5% rate he posted in 35 ⅓ AAA innings in 2022 was still a step backward from his previous track record, and a lot of that can likely be attributed to facing tougher competition for the first time.
According to the Stuff+ model developed by Eno Sarris of The Athletic, Ashcraft’s stuff is above average, potentially indicating that he should be striking out batters at an above average rate. Sarris also has a new model that predicts a pitcher’s strikeout rate going forward, and it projects Ashcraft’s rate to rise to 20.2%, a 32% increase from the rate he posted last season.
The Reds’ catchers have also spoken of Ashcraft’s pitches in very high regard this spring, with Tyler Stephenson even comparing Ashcraft to Corbin Burnes, who posted the 10th-highest strikeout rate among all pitchers with at least 100 innings last season at 30.5%. Baseball Savant echoes the comparison, with Burnes being the most similar pitcher to Ashcraft in velocity and movement. While Ashcraft may not quite fully double his rate to make it to Burnes’ level, it seems likely that he should trend upwards in 2023.
A recent spring training performance saw Ashcraft strike out 10 batters in six innings, offering another hint of optimism. Though that on its own doesn’t mean a ton, especially being a spring game, it would be Ashcraft’s career high in strikeouts for a single game. Ashcraft credited it in part to improvements made with his slider, which included developing a new grip this offseason. Look for Ashcraft to make strides with his strikeout rate throughout the season, potentially allowing him to unlock a new level of performance.
Nick Lodolo is a top-10 NL pitcher in WAR and earns Cy Young votes. (Matt Wilkes)
Hunter Greene and Graham Ashcraft often steal the headlines for their electric stuff, but Nick Lodolo was arguably the Reds’ top rookie pitcher in 2022. Lodolo led the trio in bWAR (2.8) and fWAR (1.8), finishing tied for sixth in NL Rookie of the Year voting. The lefty finished the season with a 3.66 ERA, 3.97 xERA, 3.90 FIP, and 3.49 xFIP in 103.1 innings. Lodolo had a 29.7% strikeout rate, finishing 13th among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched.
Lodolo only got better as the season moved along, adding more movement to his curveball and better distinguishing his fastballs, which Justin Choi outlined at FanGraphs. The TCU product throws plenty hard (63rd percentile velocity), but he has an arm angle that makes it tough for hitters to pick up the ball and generates a lot of horizontal movement. All four of his pitches — sinker, four-seamer, curveball, and changeup — got at least three inches of horizontal movement above average. Lodolo also got ground balls at a 46.0% clip, which was actually well below his minor-league rate (51.4%) but still comfortably above the MLB average (42.9%).
Lodolo was one of three pitchers in baseball last year threw at least 100 innings, registered a strikeout rate above 29%, and had a ground-ball rate above 45%. The other two? Brewers ace Corbin Burnes and Rays ace Shane McClanahan.
Additionally, Lodolo dominated left-handed hitters, holding them to an absurd .109/.226/.130 slash line and a .183 wOBA. He was vulnerable against right-handers (.344 wOBA), something he’s trying to address by developing his changeup. If he can take a step forward with that pitch and get righties out more consistently, Lodolo is going to be tough to beat.
Over a full season, with a year of MLB experience under his belt, I’m looking for Lodolo to take another step toward stardom. Steamer projects Lodolo to rank 15th in the NL in WAR. I’ll do you one better: Lodolo finishes in the top 10 in WAR and earns some down-ballot Cy Young votes. (And for the record, I wouldn’t be surprised if Greene accomplishes both feats, too.)