Graham Ashcraft is S’more Than a Quick Treat

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Once there was FanGraphs – and it was good. But then came Stuff+ and things were even better. Granted, it also came with Pitching+ and Location+ but we’re going to use Stuff+ as our initial Guidestone today, considering the quickness of its stickiness in the face of our early season samples.

Need a quick Primer+, first? Perfect! Owen McGrattan has already written an excellent one. But here are some (very) quick bullet points to get ourselves started:

  • Stuff+ looks only at the physical characteristics of a pitch (velocity, movement, spin rate, etc), with the model also capturing the effects of seam-shifted wake, and vertical attack angles. In short, how nasty is it?
  • Stuff+ is not as predictively powerful as the Pitching+ model (which also includes the location and count considerations from Location+) but is stickier from year to year, and start to start, also becoming reliable more quickly (80 pitches).

The above is the bare minimum and I highly recommend reading the linked primer to get a better handle on how it all works. But let’s go ahead and jump in by checking on the starting pitchers with the highest Stuff+ scores so far in 2023, using a 110 Stuff+ as our (mostly) arbitrary cutoff:

2023 Starters w/110 Stuff+ min
Name Team 2023 GS 2023 IP 2020 Stuff+ 2021 Stuff+ 2022 Stuff+ 2023 Stuff+ Stuff+ +/-
Jacob deGrom TEX 3 16 138 148 139 157 18
Hunter Greene CIN 3 14 129 138 9
Shohei Ohtani LAA 3 19 102 119 126 135 9
Graham Ashcraft CIN 2 13 109 128 19
Spencer Strider ATL 3 16 125 134 124 -10
Drew Rasmussen TBR 2 13 125 118 106 121 15
Nick Pivetta BOS 2 10 112 115 107 121 14
Gerrit Cole NYY 3 19 128 128 130 119 -11
Shane McClanahan TBR 3 17 115 112 119 7
Corbin Burnes MIL 3 17 116 133 126 117 -9
Dustin May LAD 3 18 99 130 104 116 12
Dylan Cease CHW 3 16 106 119 124 115 -9
Yu Darvish SDP 2 11 110 119 114 115 1
Blake Snell SDP 3 13 105 114 119 115 -4
Sandy Alcantara MIA 3 18 113 118 120 114 -6
Andrew Heaney TEX 2 7 97 93 97 113 16
Hunter Brown HOU 2 11 116 113 -3
Aaron Civale CLE 2 12 105 90 101 112 11
Taijuan Walker PHI 2 9 109 100 105 112 7
Brandon Woodruff MIL 2 11 113 114 114 111 -3
Yusei Kikuchi TOR 2 9 105 106 107 110 3
Michael Kopech CHW 2 10 127 113 110 -3

Stuff+ passes the most important test: Does your pitch metric rate Jacob deGrom the best by a wide margin? Done and done. We even get a great example of good early stuff(+) not necessarily equaling great results. Signed, Yusei Kikuchi’s 6.75 ERA and 1.50 WHIP.

Big increases, however, are more interesting, even in these tiny samples, given the questions it begs. Are these old pitches that are moving differently, whether up, down, or forward? Is one pitch moving differently, or multiple? Or, maybe a new pitch entirely has joined the arsenal – what, why, and how?

With those answers in hand, we can at least attempt to judge the most important question of all; are these changes the new normal, or just small-sample flits in the wind? Choose wisely and one can succeed in the fantasy margins of anticipating new levels of success for pitchers. Choose poorly and you might just get Brito’d, Kutter’d, etc’d.

Comparing Stuff+ in 2022 to 2023, can you guess who has seen the biggest increase?… There’s a hint in the article title:

Largest Improvements in Stuff+
Name Team 2023 IP 2020 2021 2022 2023 Stuff+ +/-
Graham Ashcraft CIN 13.0 109 128 19
Jacob deGrom TEX 16.2 138.0 148 139 157 18
Alex Wood SFG 7.2 89.0 99 91 109 18
Sean Manaea SFG 8.0 92.0 98 89 106 17
Andrew Heaney TEX 7.2 97.0 93 97 113 16
JP Sears OAK 9.2 87 103 16
Hunter Gaddis CLE 12.2 72 87 15
Drew Rasmussen TBR 13 125 118 106 121 15
Nick Pivetta BOS 10 112 115 107 121 14
Dustin May LAD 18.1 99 130 104 116 12
Kris Bubic KCR 11 91 79 80 92 12
Aaron Civale CLE 12.2 105 90 101 112 11
Joey Wentz DET 7 83 93 10
Eduardo Rodriguez DET 16 86 80 90 10

The metric continues to pass the “Does Jacob deGrom just get more ridiculous?” test. A+, Stuff+. But the largest increase belongs to a mere mortal, Graham Ashcraft, whose 128 Stuff+ trails only deGrom, Hunter Greene, and Shohei Ohtani. Small sample be damned – this is some pretty solid company.

And this is also very new, as Ashcraft’s stuff (and results) were as mediocre as they come during his 2022 debut. He ran a 4.89 ERA (4.21 FIP) and 1.42 WHIP over 19 starts for the Reds, posting just a 15% K% and 8.4% SwStr%. While there were a few gems amidst the mediocrity (a couple of eight-inning wins, three starts with 8 K), the balance of bad far outweighed the good. A third of his starts lasted less than five innings, ten came with three or fewer strikeouts, and in three he allowed 6+ ER – his final three starts ended with just a total of 7 K and a 12.00 ERA over 12 IP.

However, the Ashcraft we saw in spring training was far different, humming along to a 2.60 ERA in five starts, finishing with a dominant six-inning performance against the Padres, allowing just one hit and striking out 10. And he hasn’t slowed down too much in his first two starts, allowing just three runs in 13 IP against Pittsburgh and Atlanta, while collecting 13 strikeouts.

The first question, is which of Ashcraft’s three pitches (sinker, cutter, slider) is driving the overall increase in Stuff+? Trick question; it’s all three. Kind of.

The Cutter

This is Ashcraft’s bread-and-butter; thrown around half the time and sitting 97 mph, but can also hit 99-100 mph. And a part of his overall increase in Stuff+ definitely belongs to it, currently with a 125 Stf+ which is up 12 points from 2022.

A lot of that weight is being pulled by the increased horizontal break, which has moved from 0.6 inches in 2022 to 2.3 inches early on in 2023. Or, going from 40% below average to 58% above average. But even if that number tightens up as his velocity builds, this is a fairly significant change considering it still comes with high-90s heat.

Or, in terms of tangy zip, that’s like going from mayonnaise in 2022:

To a miracle of whip, now:

That new zip is being powered by a lot more spinning, with the cutter averaging 2550 RPM in 2023, continuing the upward trend from last year’s second half:

It’s not that Ashcraft went from a low-spin cutter to a high-spin – it’s more about much of a rare bird its combination of spin and velocity is. Since 2019, only three other pitchers besides Ashcraft have thrown more than 100 cutters that were at or above 96 mph and 2500 RPM. Two are relievers (Emmanuel Clase and Camilo Doval) and the other is Corbin Burnes.

And really, we could also pull our 100-cutter minimum way back because only 17 pitchers have even thrown one:

Cutters Since 2019 (>96 mph, 2500 RPM)
Player Pitches Pitch (MPH) Spin (RPM)
Emmanuel Clase 1397 99.7 2627
Corbin Burnes 695 96.6 2728
Camilo Doval 421 99.3 2627
Graham Ashcraft 144 97.5 2571
Kenley Jansen 21 96.5 2643
Bryan Shaw 18 96.5 2551
Walker Buehler 5 96.3 2782
Wander Suero 5 96.3 2612
Dustin May 4 96.2 2710
Nathan Eovaldi 4 96.9 2542
Michael Lorenzen 4 96.3 2610
Matt Bush 4 96.1 2617
Cy Sneed 2 96.1 2525
Blake Treinen 2 96.2 2571
Brusdar Graterol 1 96.0 2567
Andre Scrubb 1 96.7 2548
Yu Darvish 1 96.5 2578

High speed and spin alone do not a great fastball make. But it’s a good place to start; especially when you’re capable of a combination that only a few other pitchers are.

The overall numbers against Ashcraft’s cutter have been poor (.136 AVG, .133 BABIP, .318 SLG) but it’s also not wise to get hung up on results in such a tiny sample. Allow just a few big hits and the numbers would swing wildly. But besides what actually happened, it is useful to see how batters have been interacting with the cutter.

Or, rather, how they haven’t been:

Graham Ashcraft Cutter
2022 2023 +/-
SwStr% 7.7 11.1 3.4
Whiff% 15.2 20.4 5.2
Chase% 29.2 28.9 -0.3
Swing% (in zone) 67.9 76.6 8.7
Whiff% (in zone) 11.8 22.2 10.5

 

His overall whiff rates have risen but they’re also not world-beating. His 11% SwStr% and 20% Whiff% would’ve respectively placed him around #80 and #95 if compared to the 139 pitchers that have thrown at least 100 cutters since the start of 2022. But while batters aren’t chasing the pitch more often, what they’re trying to do against it in the zone is more notable.

Batters are swinging (and failing) more against his cutters in the zone at rates that would again put it in rare company. Only seven starting pitchers in 2022 (min 200 cutters) had higher than Ashcraft’s current 76.6% zSw% and only two were above his 22.2 zSw%. Getting more swings against thrown strikes certainly doesn’t have to be a good thing because you might just be serving up bad pitches too juicy to resist. But my antennas tend to pop up when any pitch is getting more swings and whiffs in the zone. And most times when you get up near a 20% zWhiff%, good things are happening.

The Sinker

Ashcraft’s sinker is easily the worst of his three pitches but it’s also clearly his third option, coming in at just 12% usage early on, down from 22% in 2022. But the sinker’s purpose isn’t to be a great pitch on its own, it’s more about working in concert with, and playing off, his table-setting cutter.

It starts with the same premium velocity as his cutter, and has also seen an early jump in its spin rates:

However, he’s also only thrown 23 of them in 2023, so let’s not get carried away. But it’s the “how it moves”, in general, that makes it a good pairing with his cutter (and slider). Ashcraft’s sinker isn’t sinking or breaking as much as last season, but again, it’s 23 pitches. However, we’re still seeing a big deviation in its inferred and observed spin axis (-60 min in 2022, -45 min in 2023) telling us that seam-shifted wake effects are coming into play, with the sinker’s SSW moving in the opposite direction as what’s driving his cutter (+45 min in 2022, +30 min).

Pitch pairs that move like this are particularly interesting to me as it is easy to visualize the difficulty batters might have with them if they’re already tunneling well at high velocity. If SSW effects are also pushing the pitches in different directions, handling high-90s heat gets that much slippier. Especially when your third pitch can drop the bottom out at any time.

The Slider

Ashcraft has leaned more into his slider in 2023, with its 41% usage (up from 27%) coming mostly at the expense of the aforementioned sinker. And this also isn’t 2022’s slider; it’s the all-new “More!” version.

More spin!

More velocity!

More break!

I said more break!

No – More! BRING ME THE ANKLES OF JI-MAN CHOI!

The slider is not only being thrown more than last year but also coming in harder (88.8 mph vs 85.8 mph) and with significantly more break, both in raw movement (12.5 inches from 11.0 inches) and compared to pitches thrown at similar velocity/extension (8.8 inches vs avg from 6.3 inches vs avg). All that leaves us with a slider that is up from a 123 Stf+ in 2022, to a 149 Stf+ so far in 2023. Also known as, “second only to Jacob deGrom”.

Imagine having to deal with all that fast(er)-breaking noise while also guarding against a high-spinning, high-velo cutter that only a handful of guys can throw, plus another sinking heater to keep you honest.

It’s times like these when I’m reminded how truly hard professional baseball must be.

Looking Fantasy Forward

Am I already putting Ashcraft up with his more universally-touted teammates, Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo? As much as I and my many shares would love to, we can’t already jump the gun on a spring training + two starts sample. New improvements don’t always bear sustainable fruit and Ashcraft also has a couple of fantasy lodestones hanging around his neck in a home ballpark that only cosplays as major-league dimensions and a supporting cast (both on offense and in the bullpen) that looks unlikely to assist him much in picking up Wins.

But even with those headwinds, I’m still buying – buying the stuff, buying the strikeouts, and buying Ashcraft in any trading league where I can. And while he’s probably already rostered in all leagues with any sort of depth, a 28% roster rate on ESPN tells me he’s not quite universal. Yet.





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NL Rulesmember
10 months ago

Great stuff – entertaining mix of writing, stats & gifs. Plus it’s always nice to hear good things about players you like and have on your fantasy teams — and I’ve got him everywhere (no one cares..though I actually like hearing about other people’s fantasy teams).