In my 20th installment of ‘A Day in the Life of a Minor Leaguer’ I sat down with Robinson, Texas, native and Pittsburgh Pirates pitching prospect Braxton Ashcraft.
Like I said above we have reached number 20 in the ‘A Day in the Life of a Minor Leaguer’ series. I never would’ve thought in a million years that this project would’ve grown to this magnitude. I’m very thankful for all of the Pittsburgh Pirates prospects that have participated and taken the time to speak with me.
Back to the business at hand, I had the utmost pleasure to speak with Braxton Ashcraft who hails from a small town outside of Waco, Texas called Robinson. The Pittsburgh Pirates pitching prospect was working around his mom’s house and was kind enough to take a break and speak to me.
How I like to start off every interview is to have the player describe who exactly they are off the field. We obviously can see the player on the field, but rarely do we get the chance to get a peek behind the curtain.
“I try to live the simple life and keep my mind clear. The reason I do that is because baseball more a mental sport than anything. What keeps my head clear as well as keeping me sane is being outside and being in the woods. That is the biggest thing for me as a pitcher is to just keep my mind clear. You spend so much time during the season thinking baseball, so you have to give your self time away to miss it; if you don’t, you will get burned out.”
Father time to this point is undefeated, and I’m quite confident that he will remain the champ. The one thing father time can’t take is legacies, and that’s what I wanted to know from Ashcraft. What is the one thing he wanted the fans to take away from his game when it’s all said and done?
“Ever since I’ve grown up, the biggest emphasis was playing the game of baseball right and respecting it. You have to respect the people that follow and idolize you. You’re given a platform to empower people and motivate people. If you go about it like a jerk and you don’t give your fans the time of day, then you leave no legacy at all or at least a good one.”
Ashcraft continued, “Whether I’m done next year, or 20 years I want to make sure that I set a good example for the people watching me play and motivate people to treat people right. I want people to say I carried myself well on the field and off the field. Sports is great, and all but that’s not what it’s all about.”
For a young man, influences are all around you, whether it is friends, teachers, or parents. For an athlete, there is usually some sort of driving force behind their decision to play sports. I wanted to know who that driving force was for Ashcraft.
“Definitely, my dad. Every kid is influenced to do something, whether it’s sports or not by the most influential person in their life, and that’s my dad. I grew up with my brother playing baseball, my sister playing softball, and my dad played baseball. My dad lives and breathes baseball. Naturally, I wanted to be a pro baseball player.”
Ashcraft continued, “I played other sports, but when it came down to it, my heart always came back to baseball. That’s the way I grew up. I was expected to play baseball. I wasn’t forced to though I wanted to. I hope to make connections within baseball and hopefully support a family with it. This is a super cool opportunity to have, and it’s incredible.”
We continued on the topic of inspirations, and we started talking about coaches in particular and who he thought had the most impact on his life on and off the baseball field.
“I grew up playing baseball with my dad and my best friend’s dad with little league and all that. I’d say, though, that my high school coach was the most influential coach in my life. We’d talk every day, and we’d go hunting until two or three in the morning on a school night. He coached my older brother, and he had a prior relationship with my family to start. We bonded, and that was the only other coach I had other than my dad before pro ball.”
This in-depth tale continued, “It was hard to separate from that because my dad didn’t baby me. He was harder on me than he was on anybody else. I can remember when I was younger, I would be standing in the outfield shagging fly balls, and I would act like I was shooting birds. Boy, would he tear me a new one sending me inside, grounded, all of that. There were high expectations, and that carried over to my high school coach. Having someone other than my dad and my family care for me and push me to become a better player and man was the most influential thing that could’ve happened to me.”
You could tell that his high school coach was very important to him because he continued even more. “One of the biggest things he taught me was humility. As every adolescent male humility is one of the hardest things to have. No one wants to take responsibility. That was the biggest thing I learned from him. It made me grow as a player, man, brother, son, and boyfriend. That’s why he’s the most influential person in MY CAREER!”
The next story made me chuckle a bit just because you could hear the pure joy in his voice. I asked Ahscraft if there was a particular memory that he looks back on and smiles at.
“We were ten years old in a 13U tournament, and we were at this big facility in Waco. I was pitching in the championship game playing the best team in Waco. There was around 3,000 people, and that’s not an exaggeration. There was a big TO DO I beamed this kid, and then he beamed me. Mind you, we were only ten or 13. I just look back on that and smile because we won the game, and that was the first time I played in front of a crowd where people were interested in what we were doing. That marked the first time I realized THIS is what I wanted to do for a long time!”
Draft day is a crazy day in itself for the fans, scouts, owners, general managers, and, most importantly, the players getting drafted themselves. Ashcraft was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2nd round of the 2018 draft, and I wanted to know what that day was to hear his name called early.
“I’ve had a lot of conversations with the people that went through this, and the biggest thing I took away is to be confident with your decision to either go to college or pro ball. I had signed with Baylor, and I was excited to go there, and I accepted if I got drafted or went to college, I was going to win either way.”
Ashcraft continued, “Let me tell you though, hearing my name called, I didn’t think I would get emotional, but I can’t describe the emotions I went through. It was euphoria for me. Spending 18 years of my life and with the help of the people who developed and helped me was incredible. Having tangible evidence that the hard work paid off is the biggest thing for me ever.”
The topic flipped to his first year with the Pittsburgh Pirates GCL club and what were the main things he could take away from his experience there.
“I went into the GCL, and it was kind of weird because I got there really late. I had shut down throwing, so it was a little odd. I had built up and stuff like that. Growing up in a small town in Texas called Robinson, getting drafted in the second round was huge. Pitching in 4-A baseball, you’re a big fish in a small sea. Then you get into pro ball; you’re just another fish and just another talented player. That’s the big thing I realized, and that’s where humility comes into play.”
Ascraft’s story continued, “I came in with a big head I was 18 and just got drafted, and I thought I was the man. Then my first outing BAM, BAM, BAM, and you go WHOA, let’s figure this out. I woke up after my first outing. If I’m going to make a career out of this, I got to listen to what my coaches are telling me and improve.”
His story switched to his arsenal and his consistency in the zone, “I threw a fastball, curveball in high school, and my changeup wasn’t very good because I never needed it then. I was wild in the zone I wasn’t able to go in, out, up, down, I was just a strike thrower. That was one of the biggest things I realized I couldn’t just be a strike thrower. I have to be a pitcher, and that’s been my focus in pro ball. I have to be able to repeat my delivery and make pitches where I want when I want. Just being a strike thrower doesn’t do much for you.”
Pitching coaches are like a fine wine; with age, they become better. In West Virginia last year Tom Filer was Braxton’s pitching coach along with the whole staff. I wanted to know what Tom taught him and what he was like to have in your ear.
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“I like coach Filer, he’s a great guy, and he cares deeply and is very passionate; that’s all you can really ask for in a coach in pro ball. We would sit down, and we could have conversations about things and dissect games. He wasn’t afraid to be real with you to me; that’s the most valuable thing in a coach at this level. You got to be able to have conversations and dissect everything from pitches, innings, and at-bats in games. I could have a no-hitter, but that’s not the point of emphasis with Files (Tom Filer) the point of emphasis is what we can improve on, and that is what we’d work on the next day. The biggest thing with him was there was always something to work and improve on.”
The discussion turned to his pitches, and the point of emphasis for me was asking if there were any new pitches he was working on at all or if he was just developing what he had.
“Doing throwing program every day, you always play around with different grips. While we have been back, I realized in pro ball; you can’t throw everything hard. There has to be some differentiation in the speed of your pitches. You see guys like Aroldis Chapman, he was blowing everyone away his first two years, and now guys are catching up to 101, and his slider is in the mid 90’s, and it’s not a hard adjustment to make as a hitter.”
He continued, “You have to have some fluctuation in your velocities you throw. If you throw everything hard, you’re not deceiving anybody. I started throwing more of a curveball and trying to stick to that. I want to stick to my two-seam, four-seam, curveball, and changeup. One pitch that isn’t close yet, but I’m developing is a cutter. I’ve had conversations with hitters, and they said one of the hardest pitches to hit is a cutter. My main focus, though, is getting really good at the things I do now.”
The scenario question is the one I love asking pitchers, although it isn’t in real time or actually happening. I want to know how they would handle a bases loaded 3-2 count and two outs what they would throw in that situation.
“Fastball for sure. To me, you grow up pitching fastballs. You move on to pitching changeups and breaking balls. You play catch with fastballs, and that’s my best pitch. In any situation as a pitcher, I feel like my best stuff is better than the hitter’s best stuff. I work on my best thing all day every day, and that’s my fastball. When the game is on the line, it’s my best against your best, and I think my best is better. You have to have that mentality, or you aren’t going to amount to anything as a pitcher or player.”
Workouts are hard to come by for some people during this time, and it’s a struggle even to find the right program for some guys. I wanted to know if that was the same for Ashcraft.
“Not really like I said, we grew up playing baseball in my backyard. We have a big baseball field, cage, football field, we have it all. We grew up playing sports, and that’s what my family is known for around here. We have our program that the Pirates strength coordinators sent us. I trust in that and the results that it has shown. For me, it’s been pretty normal. I know I’m lucky with the things I’ve been afforded in life. Baseball is not a cheap sport to play; I was fortunate to have two parents provide me with my needs and wants. We’ve asked all the players in the Waco area to come over and throw a bullpen if they need to. We have a lot of area for activities, so nothing for me has been different.”
Ladies and gentlemen, I know you’ve been waiting for this question, and that is the food question. I wanted to know where I could find some amazing food in his area. He told me there is a bar/restaurant in Waco, Texas, called George’s. “When you’re done eating your food, you’re going to want to leave and slap your momma; it’s that good.” In all seriousness, though, Braxton was such a great guy to talk to, and I’m excited to see how he does if there is a season this year.