ATLANTA -- The new-look Graham Ashcraft continues to watch the difficulty level tick up and up. And he continues to thrive.
First it was Spring Training, where the second-year right-hander turned in one quality outing after another. Then it was his first regular-season start -- seven strong innings against the Pirates. On Monday night, Ashcraft stepped up to yet another challenge: the deep and powerful Braves in their own ballpark.
Yet again, he delivered. Armed with his new-for-2023 slider, Ashcraft tossed six-plus impressive innings at Truist Park as he continued making the case that the Reds have three potential stars in their rotation, not just two. Cincinnati suffered a 5-4 loss in 10 innings, but Ashcraft did everything that could be asked of him.
“He’s incredibly competitive, and he has the stuff to go with it,” said manager David Bell. “You can do a lot of great things with those two qualities. And we’ve seen it now for a year-plus. He’s just going to keep getting better.”
As the Reds consider not only their immediate future but also the longer term, the potential emergence of Ashcraft casts a lot of things in a different light. If Ashcraft is a legitimate quality big league starter this year, Cincinnati’s 2023 ceiling gets higher. If he’s a star over the coming years, the already-bright future looks even sunnier.
And while it’s easy to dismiss two starts at the beginning of a six-month season, it’s the how that really provides reason for excitement. Ashcraft reshaped his slider over the offseason, giving it less (or even no) downward break and significantly more velocity. That makes it much harder for hitters to distinguish from his cutter and sinker, in turn making all three pitches more effective.
“It’s just holding that fastball plane a lot longer,” Ashcraft said. “And it’s just creating that swing and miss. That was something I needed last year, and I just started to find it, figure it out now. … You can tell by the swings. Guys are swinging like it’s a heater, and then they’re way out front or just missing it by a mile.”
As a rookie in 2022, Ashcraft showed flashes, to be sure. He struck out eight Giants over eight innings in June, and he tossed 8 1/3 without an earned run in Miami in August. But the body of work was inconsistent, his strikeout rate was one of the lowest in the game and he scuffled down the stretch.
Granting that it’s early, Ashcraft looks different this year. He’s throwing that slider not only harder but also more often. He’s getting more swings and misses on his cutter. Oh, and he’s still throwing in the upper 90s with both his sinker and his cutter.
That’s a handful.
“He throws very hard, and he has great movement on his ball,” said Braves catcher Sean Murphy, who hit the game-ending homer in the 10th. “He threw the ball well. He kept us off balance.”
The Reds have already seen what lefty Nick Lodolo can do, and it’s tantalizing. Hunter Greene throws harder than any starter in the Majors and is just a year removed from being one of the top prospects in baseball. Should Ashcraft approach his considerable potential, that forms a troika that could be the envy of many an organization.
And it won’t be long until a wave of immensely talented offensive prospects begin arriving. Names like Elly De La Cruz and Noelvi Marte loom on the horizon. Even with all three starters graduated from prospect status, MLB Pipeline ranks the Reds’ remaining collection of talent as the fifth-best farm system in the game.
But this is not just about the future. Not at all. Ashcraft is getting good hitters out now.
The right-hander found himself in trouble regularly on Monday, but just about every time, he wriggled out. He dodged a two-on, no-out jam in the first, two on and one out in the second, a leadoff single in the third and a leadoff double in the fourth. Eventually, a Murphy RBI double put the Braves ahead in the sixth, but they had to earn it. That’s no small task against a lineup as dangerous as Atlanta’s.
Ashcraft will have to keep doing it. That’s how the Major Leagues work. But he’s showing he has the tools to be a real challenge to even good big league hitters right now and going forward.