Drawing an ace

When you’re trying to figure out where aces come from, the first step is trying to decide for yourself what an ace looks like. Obviously, he has to be pretty good. For me, the pitcher has to be a workhorse. The team must be able to count on the man at the top of the rotation for 200+ innings per year, essentially every year.

I started with the list of ERA leaders from the past four seasons among starters who had pitched at least 800 innings. I tried to look at pitchers who finished high in Cy Young voting multiple times, as well as basing my list off of a number of other statistics, but in the end I believe this list best encapsulates what my definition of what makes a pitcher an ace.

An ace has to be dominant. In most cases, that means multiple 200+ strikeout seasons. This criterion bumped Matt Cain off the list, as much as that pains me as a San Francisco native: The workhorse for the defending World Series champions doesn’t have a 200-K season to his name. Jered Weaver has only one, his 2010 campaign in which his 233 strikeouts were the best in baseball, but he followed that up with 198 strikeouts in 2011 so I’m going to give him a pass.

Obviously this is all very subjective, but I’m really just trying to put together a list of aces that I feel good about. I added another two pitchers to the list, two I believe have matured into aces within the past four years, in Adam Wainwright and David Price. Maybe you have issues with the inclusion of one of these pitchers, or maybe Zack Greinke isn’t really an ace in your opinion, but it’s my article and that means I get to do what I want.

My final list of aces, along with their numbers over the past four seasons is as follows:

Clayton Kershaw Dodgers 128 56 32 836.1 289 874 2.60 3.36 20.8
Felix Hernandez Mariners 134 59 40 954.0 264 894 2.81 3.22 24.2
Roy Halladay Phillies 122 68 34 879.2 136 779 2.87 2.97 24.5
Adam Wainwright Cardinals 99 53 32 662.0 174 609 2.95 3.19 16.2
Justin Verlander Tigers 135 78 31 953.2 251 977 2.95 3.28 28.6
Cliff Lee Phillies 124 49 39 887.2 131 811 2.98 3.11 25.3
Jered Weaver Angels 130 67 33 859.2 221 747 2.98 3.91 17.8
David Price Rays 119 61 31 772.1 255 713 3.18 3.59 15.2
CC Sabathia Yankees 129 74 29 905.0 246 821 3.22 3.41 23.4
Cole Hamels Phillies 127 53 37 833.2 200 789 3.28 3.28 16.6
Zack Greinke Dodgers 128 57 33 833.1 205 824 3.37 3.15 23.5

Here’s that same list, with their amateur origin and draft round and pick.

Price: Vanderbilt, 1(1)
Verlander: Old Dominion, 1(2)
Weaver: CSU Long Beach, 1(12)
Lee: Arkansas, 4(105)

High School
Greinke: Florida, 1(6)
Kershaw: Texas, 1(7)
Hamels: California, 1(17)
Halladay: Colorado, 1(17)
Wainwright: Georgia, 1(29)

Hernandez: Venezuela, $710,000 signing bonus

Based on the same data I used for my last article, last year’s end-of-season 40-man rosters included 211 starting pitchers. Of those, 92 were drafted out of college, 73 were taken from high school, and 46 were signed on the international market. Given this distribution, we can make a few observations about the origins of the list of aces.

It’s interesting that there’s only one international ace, given that about a fifth of starters are signed from outside the U.S.

In a couple of years, Yu Darvish and possibly Johnny Cueto could step into the ace conversation, but for now Hernandez stands alone as the ace who doesn’t hail from the United States. It’s tough to know how this bodes for prospects like Julio Teheran and Carlos Martinez, who have had the “ace potential” tag put on them but will have to beat the current odds to become an international ace like Hernandez.

As I’ve referenced before, if a guy has ace potential, it’s usually clear very early. Many potential aces flame out, suffering injuries or failing to refine their command to the point where they can be placed in this category. However, if a guy’s going to be an ace, he has to have the stuff, and that’s usually clear from an early age. With that said, it’s obvious that Cliff Lee has taken a very different path to “ace-dom” than any other pitcher on this list. Every other draft-eligible pitcher was a first-rounder, while Lee lasted until the fourth and saw 104 amateurs picked ahead of him.

The Lee who pitched his junior year at Arkansas looked almost nothing like the dominant ace we know today. Lee pitched his first two years out of high school at Meridian Community College in Mississippi then returned to his home state to pitch for the University of Arkansas. Lee threw 64.2 innings, taking the ball for nine starts and 16 total appearances. He gave up 32 earned runs, producing a 4.45 ERA, and led the staff with 77 strikeouts.

Perhaps the most surprising part of Lee’s college line is that he issued 52 free passes for an astronomical walk rate of 7.24 BB/9. This is incredible given that nowadays Lee’s trademark is his superlative control. To put this into perspective, consider that Lee walked two more batters in his 64.2 innings at Arkansas than he did in 445 innings in the major leagues in 2010 and 2011 combined.

Lee excepted, however, if a guy’s going to be an ace, generally it’s clear during his amateur career that he has the stuff to do so. While it might simply be an artifact of the smaller sample size, I’d argue that this may be one explanation for the higher percentage of aces who come from high school despite college pitchers representing the majority of drafted starters in the majors. If a team thinks a high school pitcher has the stuff to one day act as a No. 1 starter, it’s likely to draft him early and pay him big to convince him to forgo his college commitment.

Overall, while there’s no sure-fire recipe to find an ace (as the doctrine of TINSTAAPP suggests), this investigation does shed some light on why teams are still willing to go after the upside of high school pitchers despite college hurlers being more likely to produce at the big league level. The younger starters may not be as good a bet to make it to the bigs, but when they do fulfill their potential, teams can end up with that rarest of the rare commodities in baseball, a true ace.

While the biggest contracts may go to the game’s sluggers, largely because of the uncertainty that comes with repeating a simply unnatural action thousands of times, there may be no asset more valuable than a reliable starter who can inhabit the top of the rotation and dominate every five days.

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9 years ago

I agree. Would love to see which players were drafted from HS in round one… for my own benefit of course. I’m in a keeper auction league that has a subsequent minor league draft and carrying over minors to majors keeps them a low cost for up to 3 years of MLB service.

9 years ago

This list is incomplete without Cain.  Also, despite the atrocity that was 2012 for Lincecum, his 3 prior years probably still good enough for him to be included as well.

Doug Wachter
9 years ago

Scott… totally agree that the international market gets complicated. Overall, I’ve got 107 Dominicans and 81 Venezuelans in the majors. Among starters, it’s much more Dominican-heavy, with 31 from the island and just 11 from Venezuela.

Dave… appreciate the input. That could be the next step, and possibly my next article, so stay tuned.

Steve… Both Giants starters were tough omissions for me, but I think Timmy’s shorter track record and bigger blowup makes me feel more reasonably jettisoning him than a guy like Halladay who also had a tough year but has had a longer record of excellence and less red flags over the course of his career. Cain’s never had a 200 k season and last year was the first time since 2006 that he’s beaten the league average k rate by more than a percentage point. While his impressive ability to consistently beat his FIP has been noted many times the home/road splits suggest to me that he’s in the group a notch below an ace (a 7, from a scouting perspective, but whatever you want to call it) and pitching half his games at AT&T has allowed him to put up ace-like results. That said, if he’s an ace for you I don’t fault you for it, as he’s an incredible pitcher, but he slips just under the bar for me.

9 years ago

Weaver’s basically the same guy as Cain from a numbers standpoint with the exception of Weaver having that one 200-strikeout season. They both see significantly better results on the road than at home during their careers, and their overall strikeout rates are very close. I just don’t see how you can omit Cain when Weaver is so similar.

9 years ago

Fascinating article Doug. I would be interested to hear your opinion on how this research may change how teams stockpile and value their minor league pitching talent. According to your data, only about one out of every twenty pitchers in the Majors can considered to be an ace. However a lot of teams are unwilling to trade their top pitching prospects in any deal even though the chance of them becoming aces are very slim.

On another note, you say that “if a guy has ace potential, it’s usually clear very early.” If that’s the case, shouldn’t teams be more willing to trade some of their pitching prospects? In other words, if a team has a pitcher that they don’t believe will ever be an ace and aren’t sure about how he will perform in the Majors – wouldn’t they be better off trading him earlier and trying to get some return for him?

9 years ago

I thought it interesting that you’d put up Cueto as a potential “looming” ace—what have you seen from him so far that suggests he’s on the right path?  His k rate doesn’t seem high enough for him to get to 200 per year and pitching for Cincy has a lot to do with his W-L record.

David P Stokes
9 years ago

I’m not sure why you think that Cliff Lee didn’t show that he had “stuff” at Arkansas.  He was striking out more that 1 batter per inning, so he had stuff.  He obviously didn’t have control (or at least didn’t show it—64.2 innings is a pretty small sample size for a starting pitcher).

And while highly drafted H.S. pitchers may be more likely go on to become aces than pitchers drafted out of college, the pitchers drafted out of H.S. are also much more likely to be busts.

9 years ago

First off, Doug, great article.

However, I view this as where Sabermetrics is still too dogmatic and inflexible, ironically, much as sabers has leveled criticism on old school baseball lifers.

I understand that Matt Cain does not do what the DIPS dogma says pitchers should do, which is strike out hitters.  However, sabers rarely acknowledge that there are pitchers who don’t fit nicely under DIPS as productive as Tom Tippett’s nice analysis of baseball history within the context of DIPS found.  He found categories of pitchers who provided value by doing certain things differently than others, and one was being able to keep their BABIP lower than the mean of roughly .300.  Even his study did not really identify Cain, he probably best fits the “crafty lefty” category that Tom had.

Still, even if he does not really fit any category, his results are clear:  .268 BABIP during his career, .298 BABIP for the MLB during that time.  That is a .030 difference, which is huge.  I went through his seasonal stats and added the extra outs he got instead of the hits that other pitchers would have given up, to the K’s he had, and that resulted in him having 3 seasons of 200 strikeouts. 

I know that getting an extra out is not the same as getting a strikeout, but one of the reasons he’s been able to do that is because he gets a lot of weak contact, his infield fly rate is much higher than other pitchers, and that’s basically as good as a strikeout in most instances.

His career is 15% IF/FB and the MLB average is 12%, so that would explain the .030 difference in BABIP, at least for flyballs.  That still leaves his groundballs, and there are still many even if he is an extreme flyball pitcher, but last season, the total was 213, so at minimum, he had one season where he reached the equivalent of 200 strikeouts, if you add his infield flyballs to his strikeouts.

9 years ago

to show a random year as a sample of what first round pitchers can do, I took 2004:
Elite: verlander, Weaver
good: niemann, huston street
mlb replacement level: humber, Sowers, glen perkins, HP Howell
busts: Wade Townsend, Thomas diamond, Purcey, Lambert, tankersley, Matt Campbell, Zach Jackson, orenduff, lumsden, matt fox, jeff marquez, brett smith, eric beattie, durkin, hoyman, mike rogers
so 23 college pitchers

High school
Elite: gio gonzalez, YOvani Gallado
good: homer Bailey, phil hughes
mlb replacement level: Billy Bray
busts: Mark Rogers, ELbert, waldrop, hurley, rainville
10 HS pitchers.

So the HS guys were 20% elite, 20% mid rotation, 10% passable MLBer, and 50% total busts

College is 8% elite, 8% mid rotation/closer types,  21% roster fillers, and 70% total busts.

SO if you are thinking about taking a college arm or a HS arm, this would show that you should be going HS to get a better arm.  The other reality is that there are less HS arms that were worth the look (but that means more to MLB teams than fantasy)

9 years ago

Both lists are very impressive. I think I would favor the college prospects of an ace a little more with experience. Now you can throw Strasburgh in that list.

9 years ago

First, nice job on thinking up your last article. Should be a lot of ideas out of that.

For starters,  I would like to see the international market split into its parts and examined. For instance, you mentioned 75% of International pitchers were from the Dominican or Venezuela. What % is What? I’m guessing 70/30 Dominican. Very few (6) MLB teams have an affiliate in Venezuela yet all team have one in the Dominican.

An oversimplification of how it works but its 30 teams producing 70 guys to 6 teams producing 30. And mabey aces are not whats being produced by six teams in Venezuela but other types of stars are. And why is there no Asian Acadamy anywhere. There should be enough players in Japan, South Korea and Australia to warrant one.

Dave S
9 years ago

Sabathia is missing on your second group of lists.

ie. Where was he drafted?

Dave S
9 years ago

looked him up:

High school, California, 1(20)

As high schoolers drafted in the 1st round seem to be the best bet, I’d be interested in seeing a breakdown of all pitchers drafted (and signed) in the first round, out of high school, in the last “X” years.  And maybe a corresponding list of college 1st round pitchers also.

9 years ago

Regarding Lincecum, this article in the Chron explains his poor 2012:  http://blog.sfgate.com/giants/2013/02/26/sf-giants-lineup-for-tim-lincecums-game-against-the-dodgers/

In it, he basically admitted that he came into last season out of condition and stamina.

That validates my scenario on Lincecum: started out bad, affected confidence starting spiral down even though he was in condition, cleared out head at ASB, pitched great in second half until stamina runs out, leading to poor starts at end, but with rest and not as much usage in the pen, he was able to pitch well in the playoffs for us, mostly.

I think he’ll return to pre-2012 goodness, and be the ace he’s always been.

9 years ago

I find it funny that most of the comments section has dissected the reasons why Cain and Lincecum should have been included in the list.  And yet, BOTH were 1st round picks (Lincecum was 1-10 out of college and Cain was 1-25 out of HS).  Including the two actually supports the article’s conclusions even further.

I was never much of a believer in TINSTAPP, but I think the theory holds even less water today than it did 5 years ago due to MLB teams vastly improving their drafting skills and strategy over the last 5-10 years.