Pittsburgh Pirates pitching prospect Braxton Ashcraft has put together an outstanding 2023 season thus far. However, with Ashcraft's atypical usage this season what is his long-term outlook?
One of the most surprising performances out of the Pittsburgh Pirates system has come from right-handed pitcher Braxton Ashcraft. Ashcraft was a second-round draft pick back in 2018, and his pro career didn't start off with a bang.
Through 2018-19, Ashcraft owned just a 5.48 ERA, 4.53 FIP, and 1.30 WHIP. Although he was still one of the Pirates' more notable pitching prospects, his first handful of starts (16 to be exact) didn't go over smoothly.
Then Ashcraft basically went on a hiatus, as he wouldn't pitch in 2020 because of the canceled minor league season. In 2021, Ashcraft only managed to work in 38.2 innings before undergoing Tommy John surgery. Not only did that eliminate Ashcraft for the rest of the 2021 season but the entirety of 2022 as well. But that hiatus didn't stop Ashcraft from coming back strongly in 2023. However, because of his outstanding 2023, you have to wonder: where does he fit into the Pirates' long-term plans?
So far this season, Ashcraft owns a 2.27 ERA, 2.98 FIP, and 1.03 WHIP through 43.2 innings. He is striking out a ton of batters, and his 29.9% strikeout rate, but more impressively is the fact he has a 4.6% walk rate. He has a 6.5 K:BB ratio. Among all minor league pitchers with 40+ innings pitched, he has the 10th highest K:BB ratio. The icing on the cake is Ashcraft's solid 0.82 HR/9 rate. He's not a ground ball machine, and his 42.9% ground ball rate doesn't stand out, but that is a decent remark.
But the Pirates haven't been utilizing Ashcraft as a typical starting pitcher. He's pitched less than 50 innings in 16 starts. For reference, of the seven Major League starters with at least 16 starts at the time of writing this, all have thrown at least 70 innings. None of Ashcraft's starts have lasted more than four innings, and so far, he has only not pitched more than three frames since returning to Altoona.
You have to understand why the Pirates have given Ashcraft an atypical workload. Ashcraft has pitched more innings this year than he did for the last three seasons. He's thrown more than 50 innings just once in his entire pro career, and that was in 2019 when he only threw 53.1 frames. Ashcraft went into 2023 as a 23-year-old with only 109.1 innings pitched competitively as a professional.
Ashcraft's stuff this year has looked pretty good. In his most recent outing, he was hitting the upper-90s and sitting around 97-98 MPH. That's some really impressive velocity, especially considering he was sitting low-90s pre-2023. He also throws his fastball with a lot of spin, so it has good carry to it. However, both his slider and curveball are average pitches, and his change-up is not a good offering.
However, some of that velocity uptick could be because the Pirates haven't asked him to go five or six innings yet. Ashcraft has yet to show how his velocity would play after throwing 60, 70, 80 pitches. Right now, he's only averaging about 40 pitches thrown per game. It might be easy to say his fastball would still be effective if he was sitting 93-96 stretched out as a starting pitcher instead of 96-98 as a 1-3 inning pitcher, but there's no doubt that added velo has helped him this year. Plus, losing some zip on his fastball might expose his other offerings. It doesn't help that he doesn't have a highly reliable secondary or breaking offering.
While that doesn't mean to just completely throw in the towel on any chance of him being a starting pitcher, and while I do want to see the Pirates at least try and stretch him out for five or six innings, his effectiveness might be related to the fact he's not facing opponents a second or third time very often, and his big-time fastball is helping his other, maybe not so impressive stuff, get by.
Long term, I think Ashcraft will end up as a reliever, but a good one. You also have to consider the potential logjam the Pirates will have with their starters. Next year, the Pirates will have to make a decision with some of their starting pitchers.
There are only five spots in the rotation for Mitch Keller, Paul Skenes, Jared Jones, Anthony Solometo, Thomas Harrington, Mike Burrows, Johan Oviedo, Luis Ortiz, Roansy Contreras, JT Brubaker, Hunter Barco, Max Kranick, and J.P. Massey. Some are returning from injury, and some probably won't be seen until the summer of 2024. But the fact of the matter is, adding Ashcraft to the mix further clogs things up. If Ashcraft is pitching well in a role that only lets him pitch 1-3 innings, then maybe it's best to keep him in said role.