Aces: Part One

The impact of an ace, a Game 1 or Game 7 starter, on a Major League team is without a doubt the most fascinating difference-making phenomenon in roster construction. In my brief experience of scouting, I’ve only projected one pitcher as an ace (more on this later), and I wasn’t super comfortable about that evaluation. People try to build boxes to throw these pitchers in; some people will say that a pitcher’s stuff must meet certain criteria (one 80-grade pitch and two 70s, for example), some place more emphasis on pitchability and command, saying that both need to be 80s for him to reach ace status. There might exist appropriate grading criteria for determining aces, but I certainly haven’t settled on a set of rules yet.

I often think about this issue. There are so few legitimate aces in baseball—somewhere around 10—and if you have the opportunity to get one, you should almost always pull the trigger, in my opinion. On Monday night, David Price, despite not having the best command of his stuff or having complete control of his mechanics, allowed just a pair of runs over nine innings against the Texas Rangers. I had long thought of Price as a potential ace. In 2012, when the southpaw implemented his cutter, used his off-speed pitches more often, and generated a lot more ground balls, I thought he was there. I had my doubts at times in 2013, but the way Price pitched down the stretch has me sold. My vision might be clouded by Price’s performance on Monday, but calling him an ace is certainly not an outrageous claim.

Consistency plays a very important part in the determination of ace status, and you don’t really scout consistency. This list of pitchers I’ve seen multiple times this year is a very short one, and there will probably be less than five pitchers who I’ll see three or more times next spring. At the Major League level, however, we have game score, which is a simple way of judging a start. Vince Gennaro, president of SABR and consultant to MLB teams, has a system for ranking starting pitchers. The particulars of the system are described here, but one thing I particularly like about Vince’s system is how he considers consistency. Vince looks at a pitcher’s average game score, and finds the standard deviation from the mean to determine how dependable a pitcher is.

This winter, I’m planning to do a project where I tinker with game score to find something more appropriate for judging a pitcher’s performance. Game score is a great jumping off point, and there are various other methods out there, but I haven’t found one that I like yet. In my opinion, an ace pitcher is capable of using his weapons to produce outs, often with his defense’s ability in mind. Would a pitcher throw a 2-2 fastball inside to a right-handed hitter if he has little confidence in his third baseman or his left fielder? An ace makes those bets in one direction or another. Game score places emphasis on the strikeout, but strikeouts, while fun to watch, are inefficient ways of getting outs. I’m not sure how exactly to rectify this issue with game score, but it’s a subject that definitely deserves more attention.

Today I’m left with a mess of criteria for determining acehood, both as a scout and as a sabermetrician. There are only a handful of certain aces, then there’s a tier of outstanding no. 2 starters, who fans argue for as aces. Then there’s a group of solid no. 3 starters dubbed aces of rotations that lack ones and twos. Next week I’ll be writing about the value of the ace, but I’m mostly fascinated by the difficulty in creating such distinctions.

In April of 2012, I saw Jose Fernandez pitch in a Sally League game. His pitchability, command, and stuff were jaw-dropping. He had a pair of easy 70-grade pitches and an idea of how to execute them. I nervously thought of him as a potential ace. Then, when working on Baseball Prospectus’s top prospects list, another BP staffer noted the same things that I saw, and I was ready to cast my vote for Fernandez as the no. 1 pitching prospect in baseball. I think this is because I valued Fernandez’s command and pitchability more than anything else, but the tug of war between great stuff and great execution will continue to challenge me and other evaluators in the game.

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