It's not that far from Neosho, Missouri to Neuroscience Group Field, but Timber Rattlers pitcher and 2018 fourth round pick Aaron Ashby has had quite the adventure along the way. Since the end of May Ashby has wrapped up his collegiate career at Neosho's Crowder College, signed his first professional contract and graduated from the minor leagues' rookie level, earning a promotion to Wisconsin on July 29.
"It's been awesome. I've met a lot of really awesome people in the organization and I can't wait to keep meeting more people. It's been a dream so far," Ashby told the Rattler Radio podcast following his Midwest League debut. Ashby pitched six scoreless innings in that game and picked up his second professional victory.
"He came as advertised: A young left-hander who's not afraid to throw the ball over the plate. He used a good mix of fastball-change, fastball-slider that I'd heard about. He has a little bit of a baseball background to begin with, so the first step was in the right direction," Timber Rattlers pitching coach Steve Cline said.
For any player selected in the MLB draft the leap from amateur to professional baseball includes a significant upgrade in quality of competition, and this was certainly true for Ashby. He was the only player drafted from his entire collegiate conference (the Midwest Community College Athletic Conference, a six-team junior college league in Missouri) in 2018.
"Our area scout there, Drew Anderson, did a great job getting to know the kid as well and getting some feel for him, and just having a good idea of what he wanted to do," Brewers Director of Amateur Scouting Tod Johnson said. Anderson's list of previous signees includes 2014 second round pick and 2015-17 Timber Rattlers outfielder Monte Harrison.
Ashby dominated junior college competition in 2018, posting 156 strikeouts over 74 2/3 innings. Slightly less than half of all the batters he faced were retired on strikes. He finished with a 2.29 ERA in a league where only one other pitcher worked at least 50 innings and kept their ERA under 4. He was easily the highest drafted player in the history of Crowder's program, replacing 2009 11th round pick Bubby Williams.
"He's a lefty who has good fastball velocity, threw strikes with his fastball, would show two breaking balls, and usually one of them would flash above average, either the curveball or the slider depending on the day. He's super-athletic, repeats his delivery well, and if you look at his track record as well, in junior college he was obviously successful and pounded the zone," Johnson said.
Ashby is hoping to follow in the footsteps of two other Crowder alums who went on to extended MLB careers: Joe Boever made 516 MLB relief appearances over a 12-year career as a member of the Cardinals, Braves, Phillies, Astros, Athletics, Tigers and Pirates. The other notable Crowder alum had an even more distinguished career: Aaron's uncle Andy pitched 14 years as a major league starter with five franchises, threw over 1800 innings and made back-to-back All Star appearances in 1998 and 1999. Both Boever and the elder Ashby joined the professional ranks as undrafted free agents.
Johnson said he and his scouting team "always notice" when a player they're following has MLB bloodlines.
"It's certainly something where it helps you see that he's got some genetic markers going in his favor," Johnson said of Ashby's MLB lineage. "A lot of times, depending on how close the relation is, it's something that indicates his physical projectability, depending on how physical the person they're related to happened to be. We're always looking at that, whether their relatives are former professional players or just in general, trying to figure out what this kid who's 18 or 20 now look like when he's 25, to have an idea for that. So it's a factor in his favor but not a huge factor for us, necessarily."
Cline also noted the opportunity that comes with having a former big leaguer in the family.
"It's just really nice that they have the opportunity to have someone that has pitched minor league baseball or pitched in the big leagues as well. Certainly, if you pay attention you can learn something," Cline said.
As a left-hander with good command and multiple breaking balls in his arsenal, Johnson said he's not surprised that Ashby has experienced immediate professional success.
"After the way he pitched in junior college we expected him to go out to rookie ball and do well at Helena," Johnson said. "We were hoping he would pitch his way out of there pretty quickly and get him to Wisconsin, which is what happened. And he's done well there. He's got enough stuff and certainly some idea of what to do with it that it's not surprising that he's doing well at those levels."
Throughout his brief professional career Ashby has been facing hitters that haven't seen him or his arsenal before, and he said that gives him the slight upper hand.
"I think it gives me an advantage because there's kind of that doubt there, a little bit. But they have scouting reports of me, and I have scouting reports of them, so it kind of goes both ways," Ashby said.
While Ashby's fastball has been clocking in around the low 90's with Wisconsin, Johnson noted that he still has the capacity to get stronger and has shown the ability to throw harder in the past.
"He's got a great frame," Johnson said. "We'll obviously get him on our strength and conditioning program and add some size to him. He honestly doesn't need to throw all that much harder: I think he's been up to 96, which is pretty good velocity for a lefty. For him it's probably less about throwing harder and more about just becoming more consistent with executing all of his pitches and commanding everything. If it ticks up and he adds some velocity that's a bonus, but it's not something that he has to do to be successful at this next level."
Success at the professional level requires pitchers to adapt and make adjustments as the competition level gets higher. Cline, however, stressed the importance of letting a pitcher like Ashby demonstrate what he can do before the adjustment process begins.
"When they first sign we like to let the guys pitch," Cline said. "Our scouts saw something in him, we made him a pretty high round pick. So I like to let a guy pitch, show me the things you can do and the reasons why we signed you. Certainly we'll talk a little bit about some things along the way, some things we like to do as an organization, but right now, show us what you can do."
Ashby walked a combined four batters over six outings and 28 2/3 innings between his last four appearances with Helena and his first two with Wisconsin, but he cited command as the biggest thing he still needs to work on in the final month of the Midwest League season.
"I think there's still room for improvement, to have that pinpoint accuracy on every single pitch. So I think that's what we'll continue to work at," Ashby said.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.