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What’s an Ace?

April 22, 2011

One of the cool things ESPN does is produce a wide variety of podcasts for all the different sports. I mainly listen to the NBA Today, Fantasy Focus and Baseball Today podcasts, along with a podcast or two a week of one of their radio shows.

The other day on the Baseball Today podcast the hosts had a discussion on what qualifies a pitcher as being an “ace.” This got me to thinking about the topic and I thought it’d make an interesting post.

Some people might think there are only 30 aces in baseball, with each team having only one ace – their best pitcher. But then Bruce Chen, C.J. Wilson and some guy on the Nationals are “aces,” which is definitely not right. True, you might be the ace of your staff, but that’s just because no one else on the staff is any good. I think there are two definitions of “ace” in baseball. The first that comes to mind is: the best pitcher on a team’s staff. The second one, and the more appropriate one, is: a dominant, consistent pitcher whom any fan would want to take the mound for their team in a Game 7.

Oh, you don’t agree? That’s fine. But I think the label of ace belongs on only the best pitchers in the game, and not just on the best pitchers on each team. Chen, Wilson and many other “aces,” to some, aren’t dominant, haven’t proven that they are anything more than a mediocre-to-average pitcher on an underwhelming pitching staff and have never won anything.

Many of the guys I label as aces have won a World Series, a Cy Young or have been dominant for at least the past three years. But they don’t even have to be the best pitcher on their own staff. Take the Phillies for example. Is Roy Halladay the staff “ace”? Yes. But does that mean Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels aren’t aces? No. Lee was the ace of the Rangers last year; Oswalt was the ace of the Astros for 10 years; and Hamels was very ace-like in Philadelphia’s championship run in 2008, and at only 27 he’ll rank ninth among active pitchers, above aces CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander and Chris Carpenter, in career ERA once he throws 38 more innings to reach 1,000 career innings.

So a lot of this is based on a pitcher’s situation. You’re more likely to be called an ace if you’re the No. 1 pitcher on your team rather than the No. 3 pitcher on a dominant pitching staff, even if that No. 3 pitcher is far-and-away better than the No. 1 on a crappy team. No. 3 is overlooked by his superior teammates while Crappy No. 1 looks better compared to his inferior teammates.

When making the ace call you do have to look at some statistics. I like K/9, K/BB, HR/9 and H/9. Those stats show the true measure of a pitcher’s ability, and don’t make it look like Clay Buchholz’s 142 hits allowed last year were better than Hernandez’s 194 hits allowed (Felix led the league in hits per nine innings last year).

However, you can’t make the ace call on statistics alone, especially wins and win-loss percentage. You really want Carlos Zambrano and his .614 win percentage as your ace over Felix Hernandez and his .570 win percentage? I know you Cubs fans do, but Hernandez was the most dominant pitcher in the American League last year but barely broke .500, going 13-12.

The following pitchers are who I consider to be aces – consistently dominant, confidence-filling for fans and not necessariliy their team’s best pitcher.

National League

  • Roy Halladay
  • Cliff Lee
  • Roy Oswalt
  • Cole Hamels
  • Josh Johnson
  • Chris Carpenter
  • Adam Wainwright
  • Tim Lincecum
  • Matt Cain
  • Clayton Kershaw

American League

  • CC Sabathia
  • Jon Lester
  • Justin Verlander
  • Jered Weaver
  • Dan Haren
  • Felix Hernandez

Tough Omissions

  • Tim Hudson
  • David Price (Probably on the list after this year)
  • Zack Greinke – only one dominant year
  • Ubaldo Jimenez – same as Greinke, but he’s getting close

Future Aces

  • Gio Gonzalez
  • Tommy Hanson
  • Brett Anderson
  • Max Scherzer
  • Mat Latos

Judging by my “ace” listings it’s asinine to me when analysts say that a hitter faces tougher pitching in the American League. You hear it all the time. I’ve always believed there is better pitching in the National League, and the NL is represented much more in my lists than the AL is.

From → MLB

  1. Bruce Chen permalink

    I am ace

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