On The Topic of “Aces”

Other than pointing out that Jack Morris wasn’t really any better than Orel Hershiser the other day, I’ve tried to steer clear of the Hall of Fame debate around here. Part of that is because gallons of virtual ink has already been spilled on the “Morris vs. Bert Blyleven” and “no, you can’t just baselessly accuse Jeff Bagwell of juicing” debates, and the world hardly needs another viewpoint on that. Also, none of this has really been Dodger-related, since no prominent Dodgers are up for inclusion.

However, a Twitter conversation I had with SI’s Jon Heyman (and for all the garbage everyone gives him, I respect that he’s at least willing to have the conversation, wrong as he may be) brought up a topic that we’ve been talking about here on this blog for years: the topic of “aces”. This has been relevant to the Dodgers for a while because uninformed media members continually state that the Dodgers need an ace, conveniently ignoring the ascent of Clayton Kershaw.

This all started this morning when Heyman asked, “why was morris ace of great teams and bert no. 2 on good/bad/soso teams?”

That right there is a huge problem, for two reasons. The term “ace” is so subjective, and in large part is not something a player can control. Remember, the point of advanced statistics is to eliminate the noise of things that a player cannot control and focus on the things he can. It’s why we know wins are stupid, because they don’t account for offense or defense. It’s why we know RBI are irrelevant, because it’s almost entirely dependent on coming to the plate with men already on base.

Trying to declare someone an “ace” is just as troublesome. First, what determines an “ace”? Is it being the Opening Day starter, as so many have pointed to in defense of Morris, who made 14 straight such appearances from 1980-1993? By that logic, Vicente Padilla was the ace of the 2010 Dodgers. (h/t Chad Moriyama on that one). Is it having the most wins? If so, Chad Billingsley was the ace of the 2009 Dodgers, and you don’t need me to remind you how people felt about him after the season. Is it who starts the first game of the playoffs, as Heyman seems to be claiming with Morris? If so, then Randy Wolf was the ace of the 2009 team, as though choosing your Game 1 starter doesn’t depend on opponent, location, or how the rotation lined up if you weren’t lucky enough to clinch early. In 1993, Jack Morris was 7-12 with a 6.19 ERA for a championship Blue Jays team. He started on Opening Day. Was he really that team’s ace?

So right there we can prove that identifying someone as the “ace” is subjective and nearly impossible. But it doesn’t stop there. Even if you could find a way to identify someone as the “ace” (yes, I’d suggest WAR or ERA+, but clearly that won’t satisfy everyone) there’s also the issue of competition. As I argued to Heyman, players don’t put together the roster, and neither do the managers who choose playoff and Opening Day starters.

What that means is that you could be the third best pitcher in baseball, but if you’re teammates with one of the two guys better than you, technically you’re not the “ace”. I’m sure there’s dozens of examples, but two that came to mind immediately for me were Don Drysdale and Tom Glavine. Drysdale’s a Hall of Famer, and Glavine likely will be. Yet for much of their careers, they were outdone by teammates Sandy Koufax and Greg Maddux, who are probably two of the five best pitchers of all time. Does not being the “ace” make Drysdale or Glavine any lesser pitchers, just because they happened to be paired with legends? I think not. It’s just more evidence why trying to determine an “ace” is silly, because I’m sure we would have preferred Glavine in the mid-90s to whomever you considered the Dodger ace at the time, like Hideo Nomo or Ismael Valdes.

Heyman’s reply to that was that Blyleven wasn’t paired with talent like that on the Twins, Pirates, and Indians, and therefore if he was really that good, should have been the unquestioned ace. Yet I’m having trouble seeing what exactly made him not the ace. He started on Opening Day 12 times, if that means anything to you, just one less than Morris. Is it because he didn’t start the first game of the playoffs? His teams made the playoffs just three times; in 1970, the first of those times, he was just 19 years old. In 1979, he’d pitched in the final game of the season, making him unavailable for Game 1, plus he had well-known personal issues with Pirates manager Chuck Tanner. The same happened in 1987, where he’d pitched Game 162 and pitched Game 2 while Frank Viola – a very good pitcher in his day – started Game 1. As Mike Axisa of River Ave Blues points out, C.C. Sabathia didn’t start Game 1 of the 2008 NLDS either. You know why? He was pitching a complete game on the last day of the season to push the Brewers into the playoffs. Yet you’d consider him an “ace”, wouldn’t you?

If Blyleven wasn’t seen as the ace of his teams at the time, it’s because unenlightened spectators of the day placed far too much importance in his unimportant win/loss record. It’s because circumstances out of his control prevented him from pitching Game 1 of the playoffs. It’s because we know more now than we did then.

But mostly, it’s because claiming someone as an “ace” is often impossible. There’s no standard for it. It’s often based on flawed statistics like wins, or a manager’s gut feeling on Opening Day, or who your teammates happen to be, or how the schedule plays out for the playoffs. There’s probably no such thing as an “ace”, and it shouldn’t be a concern in Hall of Fame voting.

(This will not stop me from calling Clayton Kershaw an ace all season long, of course.)

******

Back to the Dodgers, this isn’t good news for anyone hoping Ivan DeJesus would grab the 2B job in camp, thus pushing Juan Uribe to 3B and Casey Blake to LF. Over at Minor League Ball, John Sickels ranks his top 20 Dodger prospects. It’s no surprise that Dee Gordon, Jerry Sands, and Trayvon Robinson are the top 3, but DeJesus didn’t even make the list, rather placing in the honorable mentions. I said back in October that I didn’t think he was ready to make the leap to start the year, and Sickels’ assessment doesn’t add a lot of optimism there. That’s not to say I think DeJesus is a non-prospect – far from it. He’ll have a major league career, but it’s unlikely he’ll be above average, or someone we should be waiting on to break through. Yes, his AFL performance was impressive, but don’t put too much stock into small sample size stats against varying competition.

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