Monday, March 23, 2009

Ask Sports Sturm: What is an Ace?

To the extremely shrewd blog reader, this may appear as a complete reprint of a project I was working on 10 days ago for a radio segment known as "Ask Sports Sturm."

As a point of reference, please understand that I am a sports dork first and foremost. Most of my blog posts will either be a fiery sports opinion or a "super dork" sports research project. I may try to stray from my M.O., but those are my two pitches that have worked for me.

The Ask Sports Sturm projects are fairly involved and lengthy, but hopefully you will find them as grounds for a sports argument with me or with your other sports buddies. So, with that in mind, here is the latest "Ask Sports Sturm":

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?

Here is what Mike Hindman thought after I asked his opinion (you will learn that we have an odd relationship that is somewhere between respected adversary and argumentative brothers):

I'd say that an Ace (as opposed to a legit #1), regularly goes over 210 innings with a K/9 of at least 7.5 and a K/BB of 3.0 or better who holds the opposition to a .230 batting average and a .650ish OPS.

Johan, CC Biggs, Halladay and Brandon Webb are the only true Aces in my mind. Hamels & Lincecum appear to be on their way, but are too young to say for sure. A real Ace posts up year after year after year.

Peavy is pretty marginal. Away from his very pitcher-friendly home park, he's not nearly as special.

Billingsley is pretty good, but really no better than Danks (especially when you adjust their numbers for park factors). Billingsley's K/9 is special, but his opponents' average and OPS are higher than Danks's and Chavez Ravine is much more pitcher-friendly than US Cell. Neither of those two is in the Lincecum / Hamels league.

What say you, InsideCorner reader (assuming you made it this far)?

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