As weird seasons go, Graham Ashcraft is really having one for the Cincinnati Reds

As weird seasons go, 2023 is right at the top of the list for Graham Ashcraft of the Cincinnati Reds.

The Cincinnati Reds starter has alternated for large swaths of 2023 between being the reliable anchor of a postseason contender and the worst pitcher in the game.

And it hasn’t been a game-to-game thing. Ashcraft began well, lapsed very suddenly into a six-week long period of utter incompetence, and emerged at an All-Star level of performance for the season’s second half.

The result is a strange concoction of a line that reflects no part of Ashcraft’s actual 2023 season, but does illustrate the statistical problem with averages.

Through 22 starts encompassing 121 innings of work, his numbers judge Ashcraft by his 4.91 ERA. That’s six-tenths of a run worse than the MLB average for 2023.

Here’s the thing to understand about Ashcraft in 2023. At no point in those 22 starts has he been a 4.91 pitcher. Far from it … in both directions.

In his first half dozen starts (through May 2), Ashcraft looked like the reliable second or third starter the Reds projected him to be at season’s start. He averaged six innings per start, and allowed just eight earned runs. That’s a 2.00 ERA … an All-Star quality pace.

Then something happened. Speculate all you want about whether it was an injury, loss of confidence, a combination or some unknown factor, but between May 7 and June 24, Ashcraft made eight starts, and got absolutely shellacked in almost all of them.

For that six-week period, he averaged only four innings per start and surrendered 47 earned runs, an unimaginable ERA of 12.82. He gave up eight runs in two innings to the White Sox, seven runs in five innings each to the Rockies and Cardinals, 10 in four innings to the Brewers, and six in four innings to the Braves.

His ERA rose from 2.00 to a breathtaking 7.17, raising questions of how long the Reds were willing to run him out on the mound for more abuse.

Why did Ashcraft utterly lose his ability to get batters out so suddenly? There’s no agreed-on answer. He did go on the bereavement list in late April following the death of his grandmother, shortly before the black portion of his season began, for reasons that have not been publicly elaborated on. So grief might have been a distraction.

Then in mid-June, the Reds placed Ashcraft on the injured list with what was described as a calf contusion. It’s possible he had been trying to pitch through that injury.

Whatever happened to derail Ashcraft’s performance, his recovery from incompetence was as sudden as his collapse into it. Returning June 24, Ashcraft absorbed one final beating that night at the hands of the Braves, and has since been close to unhittable.

In his eight starts since June 25, Ashcraft has averaged working into the seventh inning while allowing just 11 earned runs, basically one and one-third earned run per start. Put another way, he has allowed just one more earned run since June 25 than he did in a single four-inning June 3 outing against the Brewers.

His peripherals are equally bizarre. Through those first six solid starts, Ashcraft had a 1.17 WHIP that any starter would be comfortable with. In that six-week period from May 7 to June 24, his WHIP nearly doubled, to 2.21. But since June 30, it has returned to its normal level and better, at just 1.04.

The only thing that hasn’t changed is the buzzard’s luck that seems to follow the Cincinnati Reds any time Ashcraft takes the mound. And it doesn’t necessarily involve Ashcraft. In mid-July, Ashcraft delivered six solid innings against the Brewers, allowing just one run. But that was enough to get the Reds beaten 1-0.

Ten days later, again against the Brewers, Ashcraft allowed just two runs through five innings. But Milwaukee walked off the Reds and closer Alexis Diaz 3-2.

Against Washington on August 4, Ashcraft pitched eight innings and left with a 3-3 tie, only to watch Diaz lose 6-3 in the 10th. Then on August 9, Ashcraft left after seven innings, leading 4-1. The Reds bullpen gave Miami three tying runs in the eighth and a winner in the ninth.

So despite the strong last two months, Ashcraft’s record since June 25 is only 3-1 with three very painful no-decisions.

Weirdly inconsistent. That’s been Ashcraft in 2023.