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.

Let’s Talk About “Aces”

I’d hoped to wait a little longer to move past 2009 and get into the real offseason stuff, but since the drumbeats are already starting (okay, and work is really boring today, too) we might as well get out ahead of what is sure to be a defining issue of the winter:

OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD WE NEED AN ACE NOW NOW ACE ACE

Which is basically the impression I’m getting from the general public right now. As always, Bill Plaschke’s the one who starts the negativity train rolling:

For the Dodgers to fulfill that promise, the first bit of education must occur in the front office, which needs to realize something that everyone from here to Nicaragua now understands.

They need an ace, or they will continue to be NLCS jokers.

The fact that they had to start castoff Vicente Padilla in Wednesday’s critical game makes one sort of statement.

The fact that Padilla was a complete wreck, giving up six runs in three innings, just confirms that statement.

In this championship series, the Dodger starters were 0-3 with a 12.59 ERA, and even the best bullpen in baseball couldn’t save that.

The ERA statement is a little unfair – so much of that is due to Hiroki Kuroda’s disaster in Game 3, and he’d likely have started a game regardless -  but for once, Billy’s not completely wrong. The pitching wasn’t championship quality in this series, and I don’t think anyone disagrees that upgrades will need to be made in the starting rotation if the Dodgers are going to go any further next year.

acefrehleyHere’s the thing, though, as I learned while listening to some hilarious calls on KABC’s DodgerTalk after the game (and good lord, Josh Suchon, I have no idea how you have the patience to deal with some of the comments you get there). Most people don’t seem to understand just how difficult it is to acquire an “ace”. It’s not like you snap your fingers and one just appears,  and as we’ve been through so many times, the fact that Ned Colletti didn’t come up with one in July says much less about his ability as GM than it does about the ridiculous demands made by Toronto for Roy Halladay and Cleveland’s questionable decision to accept Philadelphia’s package for Cliff Lee.

There’s so few pitchers of that quality that even exist, and if you have one, you’re not giving him up. On the rare occasions that one does hit the market, you’re either going to be paying a crushing price in talent, an enormous free agent contract, or both.

So before we start an offseason filled with bleatings of “we need an ace! I don’t care what it costs!” let’s try to define just how possible that’s going to be.

1. What is an ace?

aceventuraHow do you define an “ace”? There’s all sorts of nebulous ideas out there you’ll hear, like “knows how to win”, and “playoff tested”, and “veteran toughness”. Those are all bullshit. How many times have you seen Zack Greinke, Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay, and – until this year – Cliff Lee in the playoffs? Yet, you’d still consider them “aces”, right? No, we’re going to do this with stats.

Let’s go with two Baseball Prospectus measures on this – VORP, and SNLVAR, which is “Support Neutral Value Above Replacement”, i.e., taking out the variables of offense and defense to measure just a pitcher’s contributions. (Full explanation here.)

So how many “aces” were there in 2009? One per team? Well, when you get down to #30 on those lists, you get names like Ted Lilly and Kevin Millwood. Quality pitchers to be sure, but hardly anyone’s definition of an “ace”. Completely arbitrarily, the top 20 seems to be a more appropriate cutoff, just based on the names there. As it happens, 19 names make the top 20 on both the VORP and SNLVAR leaderboards, with Jered Weaver and Wandy Rodriguez making one and just missing the other. We’ll include them, give Johan Santana, Brandon Webb and Jake Peavy injury exemptions, and go with 24 total pitchers; quibble all you want about whether these guys are “aces”, this is just unquestionably who the top pitchers were in 2009 – plus those three.

2) Who are the 2009 aces, then?

zackgreinkeZack Greinke
Adam Wainwright
Felix Hernandez
Tim Lincecum
Roy Halladay
Chris Carpenter
Jair Jurrjens
Matt Cain
Cliff Lee
Javier Vazquez
Justin Verlander
Wandy Rodriguez
Dan Haren
Josh Johnson
Clayton Kershaw
CC Sabathia
Jon Lester
Randy Wolf
Ubaldo Jimenez
Edwin Jackson
Jered Weaver
Johan Santana
Jake Peavy
Brandon Webb

I’m sure a few things jump out at you from that list, like “there’s two Dodgers on it!!” (yep, we’ll get to that in a second) and “what about guys I know like Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt and John Lackey?!” Well, I shouldn’t have to explain Hamels, who got kicked around by the Dodgers twice in the NLCS after a mediocre season, and Oswalt’s been declining for four straight years, down to just league-average in 2009. While Lackey’s a solid pitcher, ERA’s of 3.75 and 3.83 the last two years hardly have him beating down Cy Young’s door. If Cy Young had a door. And wasn’t dead.

3) Oooh! Aces!! I want them now! Gimme gimme gimme! The cost be damned!

So now that we’ve defined 24 “aces”, what are the chances of the Dodgers actually ending up with any of these guys? 

No chance in hell, teams won’t move them, at least this offseason division (13): Zack Greinke, Adam Wainwright, Edwin Jackson, Justin Verlander, Jon Lester, Jair Jurrjens, Cliff Lee, C.C. Sabathia, Chris Carpenter, Johan Santana, Jake Peavy, Wandy Rodriguez, Jered Weaver

No chance in hell, within the NL West division (5): Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Ubaldo Jimenez, Dan Haren, Brandon Webb

No chance in hell, hates the West Coast division (1): Javier Vazquez

Already Dodgers (2): Clayton Kershaw, Randy Wolf

Let’s not overlook that last point. While no one considers Wolf to be a top-level guy, by all measures he was one of the best pitchers in all of baseball in 2009. And Kershaw? Just leave the kid alone and let him be awesome. He’s done nothing but improve in his short career, dominating for much of 2009. You could make the case that he’s an “ace” right now – I did already, in July, pointing out that:

Look, what Kershaw is doing right now is simply unbelievable, as his 2.76 ERA is good for 11th in all of baseball. Forget his age for a moment, because the performances we’re seeing are outstanding no matter what year his was born. In the 9 starts since his 2.2 inning struggle on June 10, Kershaw’s pitched 56 2/3 innings… and given up all of five earned runs. That’s an ERA of 0.80, which would be awesome if it didn’t make the blood rush to my head hard enough to make me think I’m going to pass out. Really, you think there’s anyone in baseball that’s going to improve on that? There’s a pretty solid case to be made that Clayton Kershaw has been the best pitcher in baseball for the last two months, and that’s even with Mark Buehrle doing nothing but throwing perfect games lately (he gave up 8 ER in 3.1 IP four starts ago).

If a guy like that is our best pitcher in 2010, I think I’ll be more than okay with that. Still, the only thing better than one ace is two, so…

4) So there’s only three aces who may or may not be available?

Sure seems that way - Felix Hernandez, Josh Johnson, and Roy Halladay, and even they’re not for sure. Hernandez made it to the bigs even earlier than Kershaw, and was outstanding at age 23 this year (19-5, 2.49 ERA, 217 K), so the only reason he even might be on the market is because he’s only a year away from free agency and the Mariners might not think they can keep him. If they make him available – a big if – it’s going to cost an ungodly haul of prospects and at least $180m in contracts, because he’s that good.

joshjohnsonJohnson would be available for the same reason, as he’s in his arbitration years and the Marlins may not be able to afford him. He’s less of a sure thing than Hernandez if only because he had two years of arm troubles, but he came up huge this year (15-5, 3.23 ERA, 209 IP). However, he’s not free agent eligible until 2012 (I think), so the Fish might not feel pressure to move him just yet.

And then there’s Halladay, yet again. There’s no question that he’s on a Hall of Fame trajectory. But there is going to be a question about whether the new Toronto GM, Alex Anthopolos, is going to be as absurd in his requests as J.P. Ricciardi was. Either way, Halladay’s a free agent after 2010, so if you’re going to give up a boatload of prospects to get him, you’ll want to sign him – but how much are you going to want to give a guy who’ll be 34 in 2011 with over 2000 innings on that arm?

5) So you’re saying there’s no ace coming?

Well, I’m saying that there’s already an ace here in Clayton Kershaw, and I’m also saying that anyone who’s given up on Chad Billingsley is a fool. Don’t forget, the two aces everyone wanted to trade Billingsley for – Lee and Halladay – each ended up back in the minors after establishing themselves in the bigs. I’m not saying Billingsley needs to be farmed out, just that he’d hardly be the first young pitcher to struggle for a bit before regaining his game.

As I see it, there’s only those three top-tier guys that might be available. I think the cost for Hernandez would be prohibitive, and I don’t think the Marlins are ready to move Johnson. Now if the price for Halladay has dropped due to A) only getting him for 2010, rather than the ’09 playoff push as well, and B) a new boss in town who’s more reasonable, then I’d be interested in exploring that – as long as it doesn’t take Kershaw or Billingsley.

No one wants to improve the pitching staff more than me; you just can’t forget that there’s only so many guys like that out there. After all, they wouldn’t be “aces” if every team had a bunch, would they?