RED MONDAY: Ashcraft Slider, a Goldilocks Catcher, Whiffs, Exit Velocity, the Week that Was

RED MONDAY: Ashcraft Slider, a Goldilocks Catcher, Whiffs, Exit Velocity, the Week that Was

Welcome to Red Monday, where Reds fans can start their week with clear-eyed analysis of how the team is doing and where it’s headed.

The Week That Was 

The Reds were 5-1 last week and are now 12-16 overall. They sit in fourth place in the NL Central ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Reds began the week sweeping the first-place Texas Rangers with three walk-off wins.

  • Monday The Reds fell behind early 5-1 in a rare poor start by Nick Lodolo. The Rangers bullpen walked two runs in to tie the game in the 8th. Then TJ Friedl, after failing to get down a bunt (never bunt) drove in the winning run on a line drive to right. Final: 7-6 Reds.
  • Tuesday The forecast was gloomy heading into the 7th. Luke Weaver had given up six runs and the offense had been silent. Trailing 6-0, the Reds staged a huge comeback, scoring a run in the 7th and six in the 8th for another 7-6 win. Nick Senzel, Jake Fraley and Jonathan India had big hits.
  • Wednesday The Rangers pushed across a run in the 9th to tie the game. But Nick Senzel smashed a two-run homer in the bottom of the inning for a 5-3 walk-off win. Graham Ashcraft pitched six innings of two-run baseball.

David Bell’s team headed to last-place Oakland for the first west coast trip of the 2023.

  • Friday The Reds won their fourth in a row, defeating the calamitous Oakland A’s 11-7. Luis Cessa, Derek Law and Fernando Cruz gave up runs. But the Reds bats prevailed. Jake Fraley homered. Nick Senzel continued his hot streak. Jose Barrero had a big two-run double. Lucas Sims continued to dominate in relief.
  • Saturday It looked like two early runs given up by shoddy Reds defense might hold up for the A’s. Down a run with bases loaded and two outs in the 9th, Jake Fraley hit first base with a broken-bat grounder, driving in two runs. Hunter Greene and four members of the bullpen combined to give up no earned runs.
  • Sunday The Reds finally lost a close one, dropping the series finale 5-4. Senzel stayed hot with a homer and single. Not the best day for Buck Farmer, Derek Law and Alexis Diaz.
  • Three-game road series with the San Diego Padres (9:40, 9:40, 4:10)
  • Home for three games against the Chicago White Sox (6:40, 6:40, 4:10)
Graham Ashcraft’s New-and-Improved Slider

By most standards, Graham Ashcraft had a successful rookie season for the Reds in 2022. In 19 starts covering 105 innings, Ashcraft posted a 4.02 xERA. He used a three-pitch portfolio made up of 51% cutters, 27% sliders and 21% fastballs. The cutter and slider came in at 97 mph (94th percentile) and the slider had an average velocity of 86 mph.

One metric that separated Ashcraft from his fellow rookies Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo was strikeouts. Greene (31%) and Lodolo (30%) had strikeout rates twice as high as the young Huntsville native (15%). While pitchers can succeed without a high K%, preventing balls from being put in play is an important weapon. Ashcraft compensated for that with his super-high ground ball rate (54.5%).

During the offseason, Ashcraft and the Reds pitching braintrust set out to find a way to boost his swings-and-misses while maintaining an elite GB%. Their focus was working on Ashcraft’s slider, which had not been an effective pitch for him in 2022. It measured -5.4 runs (below average) and -1.12 runs per 100 pitches. Ashcraft and his coaches came up with the idea of adjusting the grip on that pitch to make it seem more like a normal four-seam fastball.

The early results have been dramatic. Ashcraft has boosted the number of sliders he throws, substituting it for cutters for about 10% of his pitches. He’s been an equal opportunity deployer. Of the 183 sliders, 91 have been to right-handed batters and 92 have been to lefties. His slider velocity has jumped from 86 mph in 2022 to 89 mph in 2023. The grip has allowed Ashcraft to boost his spin rate from 2707 rpm to 2864 rpm. That’s the highest spin rate for a slider in the majors.

That adjustment has changed the pitch’s break in a fundamental way. Ashcraft has reduced the vertical break (downward) by an inch in favor of three more inches of horizontal (side-to-side) movement.

The new “Stuff+” metric (see Matt’s explainer post) rates Ashcraft’s slider at 159. That’s second-best in the league, only behind two-time Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom who scored 177. The third-best slider (Mitch Keller, Pirates) checks in at 139, so there’s a big gap.

Opposing hitters haven’t done much with the new Ashcraft slider. Opponent batting average against it has fallen from .235 in 2022 to .130 in 2023. Same with wOBA (.287 to .191), xwOBA (.269 to .235) and average exit velocity (86 mph to 82 mph).

Let’s look at a couple. While vertical movement remains a feature, note how sharp the pitch breaks to his glove side on a horizontal plane. Statcast measures the movement of Ashcraft’s pitch as 253% more than the average slider.

Here an Ashcraft slider breaks away from right-handed Austin Riley of Atlanta.

Ashcraft used his slider here to jam the Pirates lefty Jack Suwinski.

“It’s a completely different pitch,” Ashcraft said (Nightengale). “It’s holding that fastball plane a lot longer and it’s creating that swing and miss. That was something I needed last year.”

Sample sizes are still small, of course. But it’s worth noting that across his first five starts, Ashcraft has increased his strikeouts from 15% to 20% while maintaining a 56% ground ball rate. The pitch value of his slider has gone from negative in 2022 to 4.2 runs above average (2.25 for 100 pitches) in 2023. Ashcraft has used his new-and-improved slider as an out pitch even more than his trusty cutter.

The Goldilocks Catcher

The “Goldilocks principle” has applications in many fields, from economics to engineering. It references getting a situation just right after failed solutions in opposite directions. As you know, the first porridge Goldilocks tried was too hot, the second too cold, the third just right.

Ever since the Reds front office ditched veteran Tucker Barnhart, it has struggled to get the catching position anything-close to right. You would think that task would be relatively simple, since Tyler Stephenson is the obvious choice as Catcher One. But the Reds success finding a backup and managing the risk of injury to Stephenson has proven to be, well, a bear of a challenge.

In 2022, the front office didn’t seem to take the backup catcher role seriously. It started with a Cactus League competition between Aramis Garcia and Andrew Knapp. The Reds then tried Mark Kolozsvary, Chris Okey and Michael Papierski. On August 2, they acquired Austin Romine from the Cardinals who caught 37 games for the Reds and put up an wRC+ of 11. Chuckie Robinson was also in the mix. The thin gruel at Catcher Two became a huge issue when Stephenson ended up playing in only 50 games. For the record, none of the Reds 2022 non-Stephenson catching corps is now in the majors.

In 2023, the front office seems to have over-corrected for its negligence in 2022. The Reds jumped the starting gate and signed veteran Luke Maile to a major league contract on November 28. They followed that a month later with a major league deal to Curt Casali. That set up their stated plan to work Stephenson at first base and DH more, in an effort to minimize his risk of injury by reducing his time behind the plate. The Casali-Maile tandem would split time at catcher.

In isolation, the idea of two veteran, playable catchers to backup Stephenson is terrific. But from a broader, team-wide perspective it produces a less than fairy tale outcome. From the standpoint of managing a game, Casali and Maile are the same player. Both are right-handed batters who you wouldn’t want playing other positions. That’s a severe limitation considering they represent two of the four bench players when Stephenson catches.

The long-term plan to move Stephenson out of the catcher spot for a majority of games was questionable from the start. Stephenson’s bat plays well for a catcher. But as a first baseman or designated hitter — two important batting slots — he would be below average. That issue has been thrown under a bright spotlight with the emergence of Spencer Steer and Christian Encarnacion-Strand. The Reds will need to find playing time for them at 1B and DH, maybe as soon as later this season. Do the Reds want to tie up first base with a below-average batter when they have strong alternatives?

Once upon a time, but not that long ago, the Reds might have had their Goldilocks catcher in-house. In December, they selected Blake Sabol from the Pirates organization in the Rule 5 Draft. The 25-year-old Sabol had been a terrific hitter at the Double-A and Triple-A level in 2022. Sabol could have been a better fit as a third catcher than Maile. He bats left-handed and plays the outfield in addition to catching. David Bell could have used Sabol for matchups in late innings.

But the Reds traded Blake Sabol to the Giants the same day they acquired him.

Meanwhile, Sabol has caught 20 games for the Giants. And while he’s struggled with strikeouts and walks early, he’s hit five home runs and stolen two bases. His wRC+ is 110. Compare that to Casali (48) and Maile (90). Sabol has also played left field in five games for the Giants.

So, the Reds might have let an ideal short-term and long-term (Sabol is a rookie) backup catcher slip through their fingers.

The Reds have lurched from not enough catching to too much. Yes, Maile and Casali are legit backups. Both are considerable improvements over the parade of non-serious candidates from the previous season. But it does feel like the Reds grabbed the first two guys they could and didn’t fully consider how the combination would work in a broader sense.

The good news: The problem has an easy solution. To escape into the forest, Goldilocks simply jumped out a window of the bears’ home. Likewise, the Reds can cut or trade Luke Maile when it’s time to call up one of the top infield prospects. Like now. And live happily ever after.

CSW Check Up

Time for an update on the Reds CSW.

CSW is a pitching metric that stands for “called strikes plus whiffs.” Whiffs are a measure of pitcher dominance and called strikes are an element of command. Even though a pitcher’s CSW from an individual game may not reflect how he pitched that day, over time CSW is a good indicator of where the pitcher is heading. Here’s the good/bad scale for starting pitchers based on a few years of data.

Here’s how the Reds starters are doing, through Sunday’s game:

  • Hunter Greene (31%)
  • Nick Lodolo (33%)
  • Graham Ashcraft (25%)
  • Luke Weaver (32%)
  • Luis Cessa (23%)
EV Check Up

Here’s a hitting update.

Exit velocity (EV) is the speed of the ball as it comes off a bat. Average MLB exit velocity has varied from 88-88.5 mph over the past several seasons. Here are 2023 EV numbers for Reds players who have at least 20 plate appearances [through Saturday], excluding bunts:


  • Spencer Steer (91.0)
  • Wil Myers (90.6)
  • Jonathan India (90.6)
  • Tyler Stephenson (89.9)
  • Jose Barrero (89.4)

A good sign for Barrero to be above average in EV. Myers has hit it hard with few results to show for it.


  • Kevin Newman (86.1)
  • Jason Vosler (86.0)
  • Jake Fraley (85.1)
  • Nick Senzel (85.0)
  • TJ Friedl (84.5)
  • Stuart Fairchild (84.5)
  • Curt Casali (84.5)
  • Henry Ramos (84.0)
  • Luke Maile (77.9)

These guys are all well below average. Senzel is heading up lately. Friedl appears due for a regression downward. New guy Henry Ramos, yikes.

In Case You Missed It

Christian Encarnacion-Strand powers a home run in Des Moines Friday night despite swinging down and away in the zone. It was the first baseman’s fourth homer in three days.

[Image: MLB]

Steve Mancuso

Steve Mancuso is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up during the Big Red Machine era. He’s been writing about the Reds for more than ten years. Steve’s fondest memories about the Reds include attending a couple 1975 World Series games, being at Homer Bailey’s second no-hitter and going nuts for Jay Bruce at Clinchmas. Steve was also at all three games of the 2012 NLDS, but it’s too soon to talk about that.