Monday, August 24, 2009

What Exactly is an Ace?

Carlos Zambrano's injury a few weeks ago set off a firestorm of media criticism that went from calling him the most overpaid player to baseball to a lazy bum who needs to go. Often times these writers were presented with statistical information that showed despite his questionable attitude and his occasional outbursts, Big Z is one of the top pitchers since be became a full time starter in 2003.

With this in mind I started to think about what an ace is. Clearly most people have a definition in their mind of what an ace is. Clearly most don't put Zambrano into that level of pitcher. To find out what people thought an ace was I went to the TCB Twitter to see what people thought an ace was. 

I've combined the responses into one very long general definition. An ace is somebody who leads the staff by his actions and his pitching. His team knows they are going to win on days he pitches, nine times out of 10 he gives up only two or three runs. He eats up lots of innings which gives the bullpen a rest, and is able to go 200+ innings a season. Two plus pitches and excellent control are key, and they are able to work out of jams they create.

Take a moment and ingest that before I find if baseball even has an ace based on what we've gathered. I'm only going to look at current active pitchers, and we will eliminate players if they don't match all the qualifications. 

Let's start with our list of pitchers who may be aces. This list comes from me and our twitter followers. Jake Peavy, Mark Buehrle, Josh Beckett, CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, Cliff Lee, Johan Santana, Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Rich Harden, Carlos Zambrano, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Zack Grienke, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Dan Haren, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Derek Lowe, and Randy Johnson (he is still active).

Now that might not be a complete list, but it is a start and I don't think I missed any big names. So lets see if we can weed out those who don't make the qualifications.

Leads by his actions. I'm guessing they mean that the pitcher is on his best behavior and always exhibits himself as a "professional". Personally I think it's an irrelevant reason, but we are going with it anyway. Goodbye Big Z, Matt Garza, Randy Johnson, and Jake Peavy. All have had run ins with teammates, the media, or started problems with other teams. That isn't behavior an ace would show.

Able to go 200+ innings every season. Goodbye Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, John Lackey, Josh Beckett, Scott Kazmir, Rich Harden, Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, and Cliff Lee. All have had DL stints or seasons under 200 IP as starters.

Two plus pitches and excellent control. I'm using 3.0 BB/9 as the career cutoff. Goodbye Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Jon Lester, and Justin Verlander. All of them don't quite have the excellent control that an "ace" should have. 

Nine times out of 10 only gives up two or three runs. Let's change this one to never had a season with an ERA above 4, because nobody is that good. Goodbye Derek Lowe, Zack Grienke, Dan Haren, Felix Hernandez, and Mark Buehrle. If I really wanted to get picky this would be the end of Johan too, since he's had a few bad starts in a row this season, but I'm going to let it go.

That means one player in baseball right now fits the definition of ace as given by TCB readers/Chicago media members. Johan Santana. That's it. As I write this Santana is getting his elbow examined by doctors, meaning he too might fall victim to that pesky demand of staying healthy.

What does this exercise show? Well I hope it shows how unrealistic the expectations are for an ace pitcher, and how things are not always how they seem. Zambrano gets knocked in the media for being a hot head, yet that is something other players get away with (Ted Lilly for example). Z's stats stack up with the other elite pitchers in the game, yet people don't consider him an ace because he occasionally yells at the umpire or his manager?

Of active players Z's career ERA+ of 128 ranks ninth. Take out relief pitchers and he is seventh. His company includes Brandon Webb, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Roy Halladay, and Roy Oswalt. All time Z's ERA+ ranks 43. ALL TIME. Sandy Koufax's ERA+ is 131. Bob Gibson is at 127. This is elite company Z has put himself in so far in his career. He is an ace. 

He returns tomorrow night to pitch against the Washington Nationals. I know a lot of Cubs fans are upset that Z got hurt, why that turned into "ship his butt out of here" and "Z is just a headcase full of unfulfilled potential" I don't know. Ted Lilly and Ryan Dempster didn't get this sort of crap when they went on the DL. Accept Zambrano for what he is- one of the greatest Chicago Cub pitchers ever. I know that might be hard for all to accept, but it's true. 

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