The Rays have been particularly aggressive with promotions for their minor league pitchers this season, moving guys like Blake Snell, Taylor Guerrieri, Brent Honeywell, and Jacob Faria, or relievers Andrew Bellatti and Brad Schrieber up the ladder at paces we Rays fans aren't used to seeing.
Among that mix is 2014 draft pick Steve Ascher, a reliever out of SUNY Oneonta now pitching for the Port Charlotte Stone Crabs.
After he was drafted in the seventeenth round, Ascher had a good showing in rookie ball with the Princeton Rays, and then continued to impress this Spring, earning a direct promotion past the GCL and Class-A affiliates to High-A.
Ascher has proven himself thus far, and has shined in the impressive pitching staff for Port Charlotte. After another two scoreless innings last night, he's dropped his ERA to a sterling 1.37 over 59.0 innings pitched—and yet he's done so with only 30 strikeouts, paired with 17 walks.
As Ascher is one of the few lefties in the Rays system right now, I was curious as to just how he's getting it done. He was kind enough to talk about his experience of being thrown into the fire and getting results.
When did you first find out you were being promoted to High-A? Did you have a sense that the Rays liked your stuff in Princeton?
I'd heard a lot of good things, just needed to make sure I threw well in spring training and hope for the best. I started the first game in extended and threw two perfect innings. Four days later I was told I was going up to High-A.
I don't think I realize how well I've done. I just go out there and try to do my job and compete.
Did you feel like it was an aggressive promotion?
I've always seemed to play up to the competition. I was a little nervous, but I just wanted to show that I could compete at any level, and I think I've proven that I can do well in High-A.
How would you describe your game? Do you pitch to contact?
I pitch to contact much more now than I did in rookie ball. My strikeouts have been on the rise since the beginning of the season, but I'm only concerned with getting the outs, however they come.
Right now I'm trying to perfect my curveball, and work on throwing a cutter that Doc and Dewey* are helping me with.
*Steve "Doc" Watson is the pitching coach at Port Charlotte, Dewey Robinson is the Rays roving minor league pitching coach.
Fastball: I only throw a two seam fastball. My biggest adjustment for strikeouts is getting fastballs in, which opens the outside up more. I've always thrown a lot of fastballs, and I'm mixing my pitches up a lot more this year.
Split-Change: I learned it my last year in college. I wasn't able to throw a circle change for a strike, so my coach showed me a few grips and the split change stuck. It has become an out pitch for me. My change is definitely my second pitch, curveball would be third. Velo is around 80, about 10 mph slower [than my fastball]. The movement is big for me because it's the same way as my 2 seam but drops about 6-10 inches as well
Curveball: I think it's more of a slurve than a curve or slide. Not quite 12-6 but not just a slider either. 74-76 MPH.
Cutter: I just started working on it with Dewey in July. Have only thrown it 10-15 times in games. I threw it once in the last two games. It's more of a work in progress, but definitely getting much better. In my longer outings I bring it out, it's about 83-85 with a few inches of cut. So it's just another look since my fastball is a 2 seem. [Now] I can go through a lineup more than once much easier.
What do you see as your trajectory in the Rays system?
Dewey Robinson and I spoke the other day and it seems that we both like how I've produced out of the pen. So I think right now as a big-leaguer it's looking like I'd stick in the pen.
I'm just going to continue proving myself in the spots I'm out. I think there is more opportunity in the bullpen than as a starter, because you get the throw every couple days, instead of every fifth game.
When you sit with Dewey, do you guys get into the numbers?
Dewey has said that my numbers are great out of the 'pen, but nothing specific. You realize that it's a lot more than just stats [when you're] coming out of the bullpen. We more so work on pitches and just concentrate or what I need to do to continue throwing as I have.
Bullpen wise you need to come out and just shut it down and throw up zeros. And if you do have a bad outing, come back the next day knowing you'll throw up zeros.
Numbers are obviously a large portion of it, but no one really talks too much about the stats. The numbers will always be there, but it's more about what you can do to continue your success, or what you need to do to be more successful.
One stat that so often goes unnoticed is inherited runners scored. For us relievers, we need to make sure that if we come in with bases loaded and one out, we minimize the damage.
You're at an advantageous position of being in Port Charlotte with a lot of older players coming through on rehab. Have you been able to pick up any insights?
I try to talk with all the players that come through, position players and pitchers. The main advice I've heard is that the difference between the next few levels is mostly mental; being able to deal with failure.
Favorite Lion King character?
I'd say. . . Simba.
A solid answer.
Thanks to Steve for taking the time. We don't often hear from relievers in the low minors, and I appreciate his perspective on developing pitches and working for that next result. We won't see him on TV much this year or in front of any PITCHf/x cameras, most likely, but Rays fans should have plenty of chances to catch him pitching for the Stone Crabs. If you've done that, especially if you've sat behind home plate, let us know in the comments what you saw.
You can follow Ascher on twitter @StevenAscher.