Friday, March 13, 2009

Ask Sports Sturm: What is an Ace?

What makes an ace? Where is the definition of what constitutes an ace? The topic of today’s Ask Sports Sturm:

Dear Sports Sturm-

I heard you yesterday say that you thought Chad Billingsley is now a true ace. I have a hard time believing that, but first, I guess we need to know what you would consider an ace to be. Do you think each team has one? I would like to think that there are not more than a handful of aces in major league baseball, and that might eliminate Billingsley from being in that elite class.

Baseball Junkie

Believe it or not, after I threw that out on the air on Thursday’s show, I had to think myself about what constituted “ace” in major league baseball. I even googled it, to see if any baseball types have already done this study, and since I couldn’t find anything more than the occasional message board posts, I thought I would tackle the topic here.

So, after pondering it, here is what I decided for my ideas of what would constitute an ace pitcher in major league baseball today (given the state of stats in the late part of this decade:

1) – 200+ innings in the season . The idea here is that my ace has to take the ball 30+ times and average 6+ innings. I cannot have a fragile #1 starter if I am going to pay him ace money. Does he stay healthy? And does he pitch into the 7th inning on a regular basis? If he does, he satisfies my need for work load in a given season. This one is not really negotiable. A hurt ace is like having a Corvette that doesn’t run in your garage. What is the point? You still are paying for it, just not getting the positives.

2) - ERA under 3.50. Admittedly, this one is quite arbitrary, but I thought that in today’s baseball, 3.5 is a reasonable number. I know a sub 3.00 ERA is more attractive, but in this day and age, a sub 3 is nearly unheard of. I thought that baseball has changed enough to go sub 3.5.

3) - 200+ Strikeouts in the season . Again, you can likely be an ace without being a master of the strikeout, but I am a big believer in the art of missing bats. Strikeouts mean fewer balls in play. Fewer balls in play means less reliance in your defense. For instance, in a 7 inning start, if you are getting 7 strikeouts, you only need 14 plays made by your defense. The low strikeout guys need 20 plays made, where the butchers in the field can sabotage your efforts. I like my ace to be good enough that he will be great with any major league infield behind him.

4) Win more than 15 games . This is a highly controversial component of my “ace” definition, but I think it is one I am firm on. Obviously, you cannot get wins without your offense helping you and your bullpen helping you. But, I think that a true ace, assuming he is making 33 starts, must show the intestinal fortitude to emerge the winner in at least 15 of those starts. Tim Lincecum for San Francisco in 2008 is a great example of a 18-5 pitcher on a 72-90 team. That is a true ace performance. Yes, there will be no offense, and yes, there will be blown saves. You still have to get to 15 in my eyes.

5) Fewer than 1 hit per inning . This one is also one I am pretty committed to. There are quite a few pitchers who are able to perform a huge work load, but they give up 240 hits in 210 innings. I think this is Kevin Millwood affecting me, but regardless, the Mark Buehrle-types are not going to like it, nor are Aaron Cook or Jon Garland, but I think this is an important component of thinning the herd of what makes an ace.

So, again:
1) 200 innings+
2) Below 3.5 ERA
3) 200 K’s +
4) 15 Wins +
5) Fewer that 9 hits per 9

With that in mind, let’s check the numbers for 2008:


Table Tutorial

And that is the whole list. After looking at the results, I did wonder how Cole Hamels, Brandon Webb, Cliff Lee, AJ Burnett, and Roy Oswalt missed the boat.

Hamels only fell 4 strikeouts and 1 win short. Webb had 183 strikeouts, otherwise he hits all the checkpoints. Lee was 30 strikeouts short. Burnett’s ERA was 4.07. And Oswalt’s strikeouts were too low, and his ERA was slightly too high.

Perhaps I should be more liberal in my strikeout requirements. But that means we have somewhere between 7 and 12 aces in baseball. 7 if I am really firm in my numbers, and a full dozen if I make an exception for those other 5. That sounds about right to me. 12 pitchers had “ace seasons” in 2008.

What do you say we look at 2007?


Table Tutorial

Holy cow, just 3? Just missing the cut: Brandon Webb (6 strikeouts), Dan Haren (8 K’s), Scott Kazmir (2 wins). Also close, Halladay, Lackey, Hudson, and Zambrano.

So, 2007: 3 True “Sturm Aces” and 7 more close enough for a total of 10.

One more year, 2006:

J Santana19233.22.77245186

Table Tutorial

Just 3 here, With Brandon Webb close (K’s), Dan Haren, Chris Carpenter (K’s), Bronson Arroyo (K’s and 1 win), Oswalt (K’s), Halladay (K’s), Lackey (10 K’s and 2 wins) and Jeremy Bonderman (1 win and ERA).

So, 3 true “Sturm Aces” and 8 more close for a total of 11 in 2006.

The conclusion:

Each of the last 3 seasons, even if you allow the numbers to be somewhat flexible, you still can get just a dozen from each year. And the numbers reveal many of the same pitchers each year.

Sabathia, Johan, Webb, Haren, Halladay, and Oswalt are the 6 who seem to be routine on the list every year. The other 6 seem to change. But, quite an elite group.

Erik Bedard and John Lackey represent guys who don't quite get there, but are obviously close enough to consider in the mix when you are deciding who you have pay the big bucks.

Anaheim, Arizona, and Toronto all have had more than one guy, and the Yankees just bought two of them with Sabathia and Burnett.

I think this is what I am going to go with. My definition of an ace.

So, what do you think?


Travis said...

I think the strikeout component is idiotic. An out is an out is an out. I would personally like to see WHIP play a part in the rankings. As that is a better statistical indicator.

fickle said...

I think you should've found a pic of Walter Johnson or Christy Matthewson.

I like it the criteria, and I do think bubble players get in. There will always be the group that makes it, then the bubble group, then a clear statistical gap between the guys who just don't bring all of the criteria.

I think strikeouts should remain as a part of it. . .
1) as you said, this makes an ace valuable to any team
2) this is the best way of capturing the intangible intimidation factor
3) it's been so long since the Rangers had a strikeout pitcher, I weep

Unfortunately, pitch count hounds are killing strikeout pitchers. I saw Mitch Williams say on MLB network that in Asia, when a pitcher gets knocked around and taken out of a game, he goes to the bullpen and pitches a simulated game alongside the regular game. Limiting our pitcher's throwing is hurting them not helping them.

ryan said...

Your J.Santana from 2008 matches the second J.Santana from 2006.

Teletheus said...

I think Travis is idiotic. There's a huge difference between a pitcher singlehandedly striking a batter out and a pitcher relying on his defense to get the out.

David M said...

My #1 ace for the current season goes out to Bert Blyleven. Yeah he's retired, but I figured it's an entry about pitching and since he has led the no-name Netherlands (with the exception of the "great" Sidney Ponson) pitching staff to some amazing performances, and the second round of the WBC, I think he deserves a shout out. I know most players probably aren't in midseason form, but to hold the Dominican to three runs in 18 innings is amazing, and Puerto Rico to three in the first meeting was impressive too.

All I'm saying is some team out there (cough cough, the Rangers) really need to think about dishing out some dough to make Blyleven their pitching coach.

Hey Sturminator, check me out at, thanks.

Itzadavey said...

Edinson Volquez was 4 innings from making the list for 2008. Danks was 5 innings, 41 strikeouts and 3 wins out. Wouldn't that be a nice one two punch.