By: Ryan Kaufman
The most impactful member of the Colorado Springs Sky Sox this season is not who you might think. It is not a top prospect in the Milwaukee Brewers system, or even someone that fits the idea most people have of a prospect. It’s 30-year-old catcher Nevin Ashley.
Ashley is experiencing a career renaissance in his 10th year of professional baseball and his new team is reaping the benefits.
A sixth round pick of Tampa Bay in 2006 out of Indiana State, Ashley is playing in his fourth different organization and his third in three years. Despite coming off a year where he hit just .246 with 2 home runs and 24 RBIs at the Pirates Triple-A Affiliate in Indianapolis and finding himself with a new parent club again, Ashley thought 2015 would be a good year.
“I made some adjustments in the offseason and I came into Spring Training pretty confident,” Ashley says. “(Sky Sox Hitting) Coach (Bob) Skube made some minor adjustments, since then I’ve really taken off.”
He is being a bit modest. Ashley is putting up numbers that have not been seen from him in his career at the Triple-A level. His .320 average is the highest it has been at the beginning of June since his last year at Double-A in 2010. The .288 mark he is putting up against right-handers is his best since 2007. He has hit four home runs this season (including a grand slam) and driven in 24 runs, which puts him on pace to put up career-bests in both of those categories.
Being in professional baseball for nearly a decade, one would expect that a hitter would become more patient and would panic less. This would be an understatement in Ashley’s case. When behind in the count, he has hit .292, nearly 100 points higher than the average he finished 2014 with in those situations.
Ashley is not just setting the bar at a new level for himself, but he is pacing teammates and other catchers in the Pacific Coast League. Of the current members of the Sky Sox roster, he has the 2nd best batting average behind only fellow catcher Robinzon Diaz who has played in a third of the number of games that Ashley has. He is second in the PCL among backstops in slugging percentage, on-base percentage, and OPS and is 3rd in batting average.
As impressive as his performance at the plate this season has been, it has been his performance behind it that has impressed those inside the Sky Sox clubhouse.
“He does a great job of calling games,” Manager Rick Sweet says. “He works well with the pitchers; he does a good job of applying our game plan, and then adjusting the game plan as the game goes on.”
There is statistical proof to support Sweet’s assertion. Every pitcher in the Sky Sox rotation has a better ERA with Nevin Ashley catching them.
The largest differentials are with Drew Gagnon (Miller Park Prospects #40 prospect) and Tyler Cravy (Miller Park Prospects #34 prospect), who just made a spot start for the big club. With Ashley calling pitches, Gagnon gives up seven fewer runs per start. Cravy has an ERA of 3.14 in games Ashley catches. His ERA otherwise is 10.50.
The ace of the staff, Taylor Jungmann (Miller Park Prospects #8 prospect), averages three more runs per game throwing to someone other than Nevin Ashley.
“We’re in sync with each other,” Jungmann says. “I don’t have to shake him off anymore, he’s great back there.”
At this point in his career, Ashley takes more pride in his role of helping develops young pitchers and their numbers rather than his own stats. “Teaching them small things, how to set up hitters, how to read hitters, that’s what I love to do.”
This chance to shine has come from Juan Centeno’s promotion to the Brewers after Jonathan Lucroy was injured. Ashley knew that once that happened, his name would be on the lineup card on a daily basis and was determined to make the most of it.
“It gives me a chance to show what I can do at this level,” Ashley says. “I have to take advantage of it as long as he’s gone and keep doing what I’m doing.”
Centeno is now back with the Sky Sox, which presents Manager Rick Sweet with an interesting dilemma. Go back to the catcher that was expected to play every day at the beginning of the season or stay with the one that is swinging a hot bat and has turned around his young pitching staff. It is nothing against his skipper, but Nevin Ashley probably does not feel too bad that he is making Sweet’s job a bit tougher