4 early but encouraging trends we’re watching with the Reds

I’ll be honest: early in the season, it can be tough to find topics to write about and analyze. The sample sizes are tiny, making it hard to put much stock into the performances we’re seeing so far. That being said, we can still use what we know about players from past seasons and watch for early data points that are worth monitoring moving forward.

After a series sweep at the hands of the Mariners that featured way too many walks and little offense, Reds fans could use some optimism. The obligatory small sample size warning applies to what you’re about to read, of course, but here are some encouraging data points I’m monitoring for Reds players early in the year (stats updated through Tuesday).

More whiffs for Graham Ashcraft

Graham Ashcraft has gotten off to a solid but inconsistent start in his big-league career. While there’s no denying the quality of his pitch arsenal, he has dealt with lapses in command and struggled to find a dependable third pitch that keeps batters from sitting on his cutter and slider. He also hasn’t missed many bats. Ashcraft can be effective by inducing weak contact and ground balls. But strikeouts are still important because they have no chance of becoming a hit. Through his first two big-league seasons, Ashcraft posted a 16.7% strikeout rate, fifth-lowest among starting pitchers with at least 150 innings in that span. Even with a small year-over-year improvement from his rookie season, he still ranked in the 14th percentile in K% in 2023.

In 2024, the 26-year-old has been focused on throwing his sinker more, with its usage up from 10% last year to 24% this season. While the pitch hasn’t been elite, it’s given hitters a different movement profile to contend with. That, along with better command (his 105 Location+ is up from 99 last year), has helped Ashcraft elicit more swings and misses even with a notable dip in Stuff+ on his slider (from 166 to 112).

Ashcraft has a 25.3% strikeout rate (65th percentile) through his first 17.1 innings this season. His 29.8% whiff rate (73rd percentile) is up significantly from last year (22.1%), as he’s getting more whiffs on both his cutter (27.3% in 2024 vs. 17.1% in 2023) and slider (42.5% vs. 32.9%).

Ashcraft is doing this while continuing to maintain a 50% ground-ball rate (72nd percentile), though his hard-hit rate (also 50%) is something to keep an eye on.

It’s a bit of a cliche in the baseball analysis world, but Ashcraft looks much more like he’s pitching this year than simply trying to throw the nastiest stuff possible. It appears he’s traded some movement, particularly with his slider, for better command, and the results have been solid through three starts (4.00 ERA, 3.28 xERA, 3.13 xFIP). Will he maintain this improved command and increase in whiffs? Only time will tell, but there’s a lot to like about Ashcraft’s start to the 2024 season.

Better pitch framing from Tyler Stephenson

Last season was one to forget for Tyler Stephenson, who stayed healthy after an injury-riddled 2022 but had his worst year as a professional. In addition to diminished offensive production, he was one of the worst defensive catchers in baseball. Stephenson’s fielding run value (-11) ranked in the third percentile, as he fell in the bottom 22% in blocking, pop time, and throwing out baserunners. But his lowest marks came on his pitch framing (5th percentile).

Statcast has a metric called “catcher framing runs” that measures how well catchers get called strikes on pitches thrown along the edges of the strike zone. Like other defensive metrics, players are compared to their peers, meaning zero is average; negative numbers are below average; and positive numbers are above average. Last year, Stephenson had a 42.0% strike rate on pitches on the edge of the zone, which came out to -9 catcher framing runs — the fourth-worst mark in baseball. He was good at getting called strikes at the top of the zone, but really struggled to do so on pitches low in the zone and on the outside corners.

Like many catchers around baseball, Stephenson has adopted the one-knee technique on a full-time basis this year and the initial results are promising. He’s increased up his called strike rate by five percentage points to 47.0%, just above league average (46.2%). He’s seen particular improvement in getting called strikes on the corners of the plate. Here are his 2023 (top) and 2024 (bottom) strike rates in each zone:

In the places where it’s most common for catchers to steal strikes (zones 12, 14, 16, 18), Stephenson has shown improvement across the board. The one-knee approach is also yielding positive results with his blocking. He’s currently in the 65th percentile in blocking runs saved after being in the 22nd percentile last year.

Harder contact, more consistently

It’s no secret that every batter steps to the plate trying to hit the ball with authority. Harder contact leads to better outcomes for hitters and, quite often, their teams. As a club, the Reds have done a solid job of hitting the ball hard, even without Matt McLain and Noelvi Marte. Entering Wednesday, Cincinnati ranked sixth among MLB teams in hard-hit rate (41.7%), eighth in average exit velocity (89.3 mph), and fifth in barrel rate (8.9%) — big improvements over last year when they were in the bottom five in all categories.

Having sluggers like Elly De La Cruz (87th percentile in hard-hit rate) and Christian Encarnacion-Strand (66th) from the jump certainly helps. But several holdovers from last year are also making louder contact in 2024, including De La Cruz.

Here are the biggest improvers in contact quality:

However you slice it, Spencer Steer, Will Benson, Stephenson, and De La Cruz are hitting the ball harder — and doing so more often — than they did last season. Benson has already set a new career high for maximum exit velocity twice this season. For Steer (176 wRC+), De La Cruz (143), and Benson (122), this early improvement has meant great results. Stephenson (75) hasn’t done a lot of damage, but his .276 BABIP figures to go up if he keeps hitting the ball hard.

Something Steer and Benson excel at that could take De La Cruz and Stephenson to another level is elevating the baseball. Sweet-spot rate is the percentage of batted balls hit at a launch angle between 8 and 32 degrees. These are typically line drives. Benson and Steer rank in the 75th and 62nd percentile, respectively, in sweet spot-rate. De La Cruz and Stephenson are 33rd and 29th, respectively.

Signs of improved pitch recognition for Elly De La Cruz

No one who’s watched Elly De La Cruz doubts his physical gifts. Since he burst onto the top-prospect scene a couple of years ago, plate discipline has been the biggest limitation to his offensive ceiling. We saw it last year as he struggled with pitch recognition throughout the final three months of his rookie season. Teams fed him a steady diet of breaking balls and off-speed pitches, with very few fastballs. At times, the 21-year-old was too aggressive. Later in the season, he was too passive and let hittable pitches go by. He appeared unsettled in his approach, and poor pitch recognition wasn’t helping.

We’re seeing glimmers of improvement early in his sophomore season. While De La Cruz still has work to do to bring down his chase, whiff, and strikeout rates, he’s walking more (10.0 BB%) and not letting as many hittable pitches go by. His overall swing rate is about the same as last year (45.1% vs. 45.5%) and he’s swinging at slightly more pitches in the zone (62.0% vs. 60.7%). But he’s been more aggressive on middle-middle pitches — appropriately classified as “meatballs” by Statcast. He’s swinging at these pitches 93.3% of the time, up from 69.4% last season.

We can see it illustrated in his swing/take profile:

In his rookie year, De La Cruz cancelled out his positive run value on swings (+7) with takes (-7) on pitches in the heart of the plate. So far this year, he’s at a +3 run value on swings in the heart of the plate and -1 on takes.

There will likely always be an element of aggressiveness and swing-and-miss to De La Cruz’s game. Making smart swing decisions will be critical for him to maximize the damage he can do, and there’s still a lot of development ahead. He’s only 22 years old, after all, the seventh-youngest player on an Opening Day roster this year. But the fact that he’s swinging at more hittable pitches is a small sign he’s making strides in his approach, and it has really shown up on the field over the last 10 days. This will be worth watching closely to see if it’s a small blip or a sign of things to come for De La Cruz.

Featured Image: Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire

Matt Wilkes

Matt Wilkes got hooked on Reds baseball after attending his first game in Cinergy Field at 6 years old, and he hasn’t looked back. As a kid, he was often found imitating his favorite players — Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Sean Casey, and Austin Kearns — in the backyard. When he finally went inside, he was leading the Reds to 162-0 seasons in MVP Baseball 2005 or keeping stats for whatever game was on TV. He started writing about baseball in 2014 and has become fascinated by analytics and all the new data in the game. Matt is also a graduate of The Ohio State University and currently lives in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.