How Bucs No. 6 prospect is finding 'autopilot'

June 22nd, 2024

This story was excerpted from Alex Stumpf's Pirates Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

During his last conversation with this reporter at Spring Training in Bradenton, Fla., Pirates Minor League righty Braxton Ashcraft shared his excitement that, for the first time in what seemed like half a decade, he was entering a season with a clean bill of health. Having undergone surgeries to his non-throwing shoulder, his knee and to his right elbow UCL (Tommy John surgery) since becoming a professional, Ashcraft was entering a season finally healthy and able to pitch without restrictions.

“It’s nice to go out again and know I don’t have a three-inning limit,” Ashcraft said over the phone this week. “More or less a full starter workload. Not have to worry about scheduled deloads, all that jazz. Just being able to go out and pitch every six days.”

Ashcraft is feeling more like a pitcher again, and as the team’s No. 6 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, he is excelling. He has struck out 71 with a 3.23 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP over 64 innings this year, a performance that saw him rise from Double-A Altoona to Triple-A Indianapolis earlier this month.

Ashcraft has already thrown more innings than he ever has as a pro, and it seems safe to assume some workload management or inning monitoring will come eventually. Right now, though, he’s found the “autopilot” mindset that’s eluded him for years -- that spot starting pitchers get to when they have thrown around 60-70 innings and they start to settle in, rather than overthink their mechanics, their pitch usage or whatever else. And after years of learning how to take care of his body after his surgeries, Ashcraft knows how to better condition himself to stay in good shape.

“At this point this year, I don’t think I’ve ever felt better, healthier -- whatever you want to phrase it as -- as a pitcher in my career,” Ashcraft said.

Now that he’s pitching uninterrupted, Ashcraft has shown why he skyrocketed up the team’s prospect board over the past season, and why the Pirates selected his contract to protect him in the Rule 5 Draft last winter. His fastball is averaging 95-96 mph this year, and both of his breaking balls -- a slider and a curveball -- are getting over 2,500 RPM of spin.

Actually, it may be closer to three breaking balls at the moment. That slider can teeter the line between a cutter and a slider, depending on the situation and what he wants to do with the pitch. It doesn’t quite have traditional movement, and by Ashcraft’s assessment it’s closer to a gyro slider, if anything -- one that can tunnel off of his four-seamer while trading in some early movement for velocity. But he can get some extra movement and back foot it to hitters when he needs to.

The way Ashcraft sees it, most pitchers will focus on how a pitch starts and focus on their delivery from that starting point -- or they zero in on where they want the pitch to be located and work backwards from there. He falls into the latter category: So if he’s aiming for a certain spot that needs a little more movement, he knows how to adjust to achieve that location.

“It’s not necessarily like a physical manipulation,” Ashcraft explained. “It’s a thought process, and the thought process takes care of the movement of the pitch.”

It’s working, and it’s why Ashcraft has already been promoted once this season. Could it happen again before 2024 is through? He’s technically just a phone call from the Majors, and while he’s focusing on being where his feet are, he doesn’t want Indianapolis to be the last stop.

“That’s always the goal, to go out and force the team’s hand to put you somewhere that you aspire to be,” Ashcraft said. “Ultimately, nobody aspires to be in Double-A, Triple-A, High-A ball, whatever it is. Everyone aspires to be in the big leagues. For me, that was the thought process going into this year. It doesn’t matter where I start, just do everything I can to make a case for myself to contribute at a high level in the big leagues.”