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.
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.
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:
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?
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:
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.
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?