Authored by Jason Follain - 14th July, 2011 - 6:12 pm
A term that has come into question as of late, on some of the more popular message boards at least, is the definition of Ace. Many times, a number one starter will be pegged as the ace of that particular, but when we are looking at Major League Baseball as a whole, acehood takes on a much more significant meaning.
One of the reasons this argument has gotten a lot of play lately is, of course, the Philadelphia Phillies collecting as many aces as are contained in the deck of cards you used for the last Texas Hold Em tournament you held. While it is hard to argue that any member of that quartet isn not worthy of the title, the problem lies in where you draw the line. The 2011 season has not been kind to Roy Oswalt to date, but his peripheral statistics are not that far off from his career norms and there is not reason to believe that he cannot return to form when he returns from his back injury.
Let us use Oswalt as the first case study. Here is a guy who was clearly the best pitcher on his previous team, the Astros, for just shy of a decade. There is no doubt that he was the ace of the Astros, but was he an ace through the lens of baseball as a whole? Simply put, I think the best way to do this is to compare him to his peers during the time period in question. Oswalt has been a stud on the mound since the moment he arrived at the big league level in 2001.
Of the pitchers who accumulated at least 1000 innings from 2001 through 2010, Oswalt ranks third in WAR (according to fangraphs), third in ERA, sixth in FIP and tied for seventh in WHIP. Only six pitchers amassed more innings pitched than him and four of those were named Livan Hernandez, Mark Buerhle, Barry Zito and Javier Vazquez. Those are all good pitchers in their own right, but I do not think any of them will be labeled aces when all is said and done.
So, it seems that Oswalt passes the test. Where does that leave us? I think the most difficult questions to answer in this discussion are:
- How many aces are there at any point in time?
- What should you expect, performance-wise, from an ace?
The latter, in my opinion, is a simpler question than the former. As much as a cop-out as it sounds like, I believe that there are as many aces as guys who prove that they are. That is to say, the answer to the second question defines how to quantify the answer to the first.
There are scores and scores of pitchers who have produced at ace level for a season or two, only to fall back to earth. Hence, my first tenet for induction into acehood is consistency. If a pitcher is unable to replicate his numbers from season to season and continually baffle opponents without the hitters of the league figuring him out, then he has no business in this discussion. The up and down nature of guys like Josh Beckett and Javier Vazquez put them in this category. For the sake of comparison, most everyone with half a brain believes Roy Halladay to be an ace. Since 2002, Halladay has had seven seasons in which he started at least 30 games (the 2004 and 2005 seasons were injury shortened and, since then, he has been the model of health). In those seasons, his lowest season WAR total was 5.7 and his highest was 8.0, good for an average of 6.9 WAR. Throw in the fact that it seems that he is only getting better with age, Halladay is the gold standard for consistency.
The second tenet we must address is the need for a standard of performance, night in and night out. Typically, a starting pitcher is considered elite when he has the ability to regularly push his ERA below 3.00. However, there are few pitchers that can maintain that sort of excellence for an extended period. For instance, the only pitcher with an ERA under 3.00 in the aughts is Johan Santana, someone who was widely considered the best pitcher in baseball for the early part of the decade. It is extremely difficult to maintain this kind of excellence throughout an entire year, much less over the course of a career.
What can be said, without question, is that a team should believe it will be victorious every time they send an ace to the hill. Of course, it does not always happen, but it cannot be underestimated the idea of giving your teammates hope in that the offense will not feel the need to score a ton of runs to walk away that day with a win. In this day and age of specialized relievers, starters are not expected to go the distance every time out. Aces, on the other hand, should build up a reasonable expectation that they will go at least seven innings and yield two or less runs. Any pitcher is going to toss up a few clunkers over the course of a 34 start season, but those should be the rare exception for those that would like to be considered elite.
At its most basic level, pitching is an exercise limiting the ability of the other team to score. Not that all pitchers fall under this blanket, but the best way to do this is to strike out as many batters as possible and to walk as few as possible. Leaving your fate in the hands of the defenders behind you will more than likely lead to worse numbers over long periods of time. Excellence in these categories usually are measured by having nine plus strikeouts and two and half walks or less per nine innings. This is much harder to peg exactly where an ace should be because pitchers have different methods of shutting their opponents down. Generally speaking, however, if a pitcher strikes out more than anyone else and walks less than anyone else, they will likely be near the top of the leaderboards in every other statistic developed to measure pitching success.
Durability is the third tenet in determining if a pitcher has reached acehood. Pitchers have a higher attrition rate than any other position on the diamond, that is to say the injury risk is ever-present. Exceptional pitchers are hard to come by. Even harder to come by are exceptional pitchers who are able to deliver season after season of 200 inning workloads. For example, I doubt many would argue that Josh Johnson has ace-type stuff, but he has only been able been able to bring his career 2.98 ERA to the mound an average of 20 starts per season. Durability is obviously not his strong suit and it is definitely keeping holding him back from many classifying him along with the other aces in the league.
At any given time, there certainly are not as many aces as there are teams, therefore drawing a distinct line between number one starters and aces. To prove this point, keep in mind that Luke Hochevar, Tim Stauffer, Jeremy Guthrie and Mike Pelfrey all started on opening day for their respective teams. In contrast, there are surely more than a handful, as the Phillies could not have collected all of the aces in the league. However, the quantity of aces is not something you can say there are X number of every year.
Aces are few and far between and the list will be different based on who is making it. Mine goes a little something like this:
The Four Horsemen of the Phillies: Halladay, Lee and Oswalt have all earned their status over time, while Hamels, before this season in my opinion, was on the verge of acehood. He has taken a significant step forward in 2011, cementing his status along the way.
Tim Lincecum: If two Cy Young Awards in his first two seasons did not convince you, he followed that up with a stellar 2010 postseason leading his team to a World Series title.
Felix Hernandez: The King has done nothing but dominate opposing hitters since the moment he stepped on the field at the tender age of 19. Fresh off his first Cy Young award, Hernandez is well on his way to another 6+ WAR season.
CC Sabathia: Sabathia may not have the sparkly ERA that many of his fellow aces sport, but playing in the American League East will have that effect. I think he gets overlooked at times, but there is no doubt in my mind that he should be lumped in with the best of them.
Jered Weaver: This season is going a long way towards proving that Weaver belongs in the fraternity. Proving that 2010 was not a fluke, Weaver continues to dominate opposing lineups to the point where he can no longer be left off of this list.
Jon Lester: Another victim of the A.L. East, Lester would no doubt have much better numbers in any other division. Armed with a filthy, four-pitch repertoire, some assert that he is the best lefty in the game.
Justin Verlander: When a guy racks up multiple no-hitters, you know something is going right. Verlander is in the midst of a two and a half year stretch that few can say they have matched, during which he has compiled 9.3 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 1.097 WHIP and a 3.10 ERA.
Clayton Kershaw: The relative youth of Kershaw almost kept him off of this list, but his 2011 season is too hard to ignore. He has improved every season, with the most significant improvement coming this year having limiting his walk to 2.41 per nine innings.
Honorable Mention: Tommy Hanson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Tim Hudson, Dan Haren, Zack Grienke