How You Defined an Ace

A week ago, I thought we’d try something fun. Not everything I think is going to be fun actually turns out to be fun, but this one generated some pretty good feedback. Starting from the position that it’s impossible to arrive at a consensus definition of “ace,” given that it’s a subjective term applied to different pitchers by different people, I tried to gather some information from the community so we could see what you all seem to believe. I gave you the names of 20 current starting pitchers, and for each I asked a simple yes-or-no question — is the pitcher an ace? Thousands of you took the time to participate in the project, for almost literally no payoff.

Whatever payoff there is is to follow. I’ve collected all the voting results, and I think there’s a good amount to be learned. The data is always the best part, and though we still don’t have a word-by-word definition for an ace, it appears that there are some rules, of varying importance. Spoiler alert: the community agrees that Clayton Kershaw is an ace, as he got a “yes” vote in 99.3% of polls. He was included mostly as a test, because I’m always curious how many people are actively trolling any polling project I try to run. They’re always out there. And while 0.7% of voters is a small percentage, in this case that’s 44 people. That’s 44 original thinkers! I’m glad you guys found a means to brighten your day.

So, never trust a small fraction of the community. Trust the entirety of the community! I think that’s how this is supposed to work.

Real quick, before we get to the voting results, we can take a glance at the voting totals. This wasn’t a team-oriented poll post — you’d think that each pitcher would end up with a more or less identical number of votes. And though the ultimate distribution wasn’t insane, an uneven distribution still existed, and…

ace-voting-totals

…the Padres guy finished last, of course. So Padres.

But this is the thing you care about:

ace-voting-results

I decided in the original post that a pitcher would qualify as an ace if he simply got at least one more than half the vote. So while some pitchers are more inarguably ace-y than others, by this method, we’ve ended up with 10 of 20 pitchers getting the label. The line gets drawn right between Stephen Strasburg (57%) and Johnny Cueto (41%), with Noah Syndergaard almost but not quite tied with Cueto. Remember, this is based on a lot of votes, and I’m sure there are people among you who, say, think Syndergaard is an ace, but disagree on Strasburg. Those people are outnumbered! Which is what’s important, for these purposes, even though by definition no one can be wrong.

In that post, I didn’t include every good starting pitcher in baseball. That would’ve probably resulted in too many polls, and the community would’ve gotten exhausted. But based on the voting results for the selection of pitchers, I think the community would say there are about 20 aces in the game today. There are the above pitchers, and I’m guessing there are David Price, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, Zack Greinke, Jake Arrieta, Madison Bumgarner, Felix Hernandez, Matt Harvey, and Cole Hamels. Felix might be close to the line, after last season, and I’m not totally sure what the community would say about Jon Lester and Masahiro Tanaka. But the number is near to 20. Close to an ace per team, but still short.

There’s no number of regressions you could run to get to a statistical definition of “ace.” There’s no cutoff, no criteria, no number of 5-WAR seasons. That’s not how people operate, because most people have a feeling about a pitcher before they look at his playing history. It’s about the impression, the perception, and while there will be a close relationship between how a pitcher is perceived and how good he has been, it doesn’t mean there’s an equation to unlock. Maybe that’s sort of disappointing, but you can’t expect opinion polling to strictly obey any math. All we can really look for are clues.

To be honest, I was surprised by the community’s response to Strasburg. He just finished strong, but he had a pretty bad first half, and Strasburg has long suffered from a perception problem, at least in certain circles. There are people around the game who don’t think Strasburg is tough enough, and he’s also gone down the Tommy John road, so he fought an early rep for fragility. I thought the community might reflect those feelings a little more, but instead he exceeded the ace threshold, probably owing to his career 10.4 K/9. I think Strasburg was carried by his stuff — he hasn’t pitched to his ceiling, but his stuff is so good even missing his ceiling means he’s an excellent starter. Notably, Strasburg was not the ace of his own team last year.

And that’s interesting, because otherwise the community seems to value being The Guy. There’s a certain segment of the population here that believes an ace ought to also be the staff ace. The belief is that a pitcher can’t really be an ace if he’s overshadowed in his own rotation. I think the best example would be Sonny Gray (72%) vs. Jose Quintana (8%). Gray and Quintana have been awful similar the past season or two, but Gray has been the No. 1 in Oakland, while Quintana has been pitching behind Sale. That’s not the only factor — Quintana just in general is incredibly underrated — but Quintana here is penalized in part because of Sale being better. The same thing is also a contributing factor for Carlos Carrasco’s results (27%) and Syndergaard’s results (41%). The Indians and Mets have had too many good pitchers, so it’s been tougher for the talent to stand out individually.

Something else that’s pretty clear: once ace-hood is earned, it can be lost faster through under-performance than through injury. A few years ago Justin Verlander would’ve been an undisputed ace. He’s lost that, because he hasn’t pitched well enough. To some extent, the same is true of Cueto. Yet, Adam Wainwright came in at 72%, even though last year he started four times. Yu Darvish came in at 77%, even though last year he started zero times. And Jose Fernandez came in at 91%, even though he’s started 19 games in two seasons. Aces seem to stay aces until they prove they’re not aces on the field. When injured, they get the benefit of the doubt. Presumably not forever, but for a year or two, at least.

Dallas Keuchel goes to show that an ace need not be overpowering. Chris Archer and Gerrit Cole go to show that an ace label can be earned with one really strong season. As the latter two go, Garrett Richards demonstrates that label can be a fleeting one. It’s like an ace-label probationary period. I suspect what Syndergaard shows, beyond how it gets weird when there are other great starters on the team, is that people want to see an ace over a full season, and not just most of one. Now, Jose Fernandez hasn’t reached 30 starts in a season himself, but he has started 47 games overall. I’m guessing Syndergaard was the toughest choice for most people, and it wouldn’t be surprising at all if a year from now his support more than doubled.

That’s what I have for now, and I welcome any further input in the comments. Based on your responses, it looks like there are roughly 20 ace starters in the game today. The names shift around over time, but due more to under-performance than to injury. And it appears to help a great deal to be a team’s No. 1, even holding a pitcher’s performance constant. In closing, maybe we need to write more articles about Jose Quintana. Jose Quintana is really good.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

76 Comments
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Original Greaser Bob
6 years ago

Staff ace doesn’t explain Gray. If Gray, then why not Ross, Cueto, or Richards? Please give me some insight Gray voters.

Conrad Parrishmember
6 years ago

I’m not a gray Voter, but would suspect that the votes for him are as a result of him being in a smaller market, on a non-contending team. He’s truly the ‘guy’ in Oakland. He also pitched really well down the stretch last season, which puts his success at the forefront of fans’ memories of him. The fact that Gray was a first rounder coming out of college baseball powerhouse Vanderbilt is important as well. Nonetheless, I agree with you 100% that others should be considered more strongly along with or more than Gray.

Ryan M
6 years ago
Reply to  Conrad Parrish

Well, also, before last year all the A’s fans knew with SONNY GRAY was WINNING. From the moment he came up in 2013, and pitched down the stretch of a back-to-back AL West Championship run as a true rookie, starting Game 2 of the ALDS and outpitching the best SP of that stretch, Justin Verlander, then starting Game 5 of the 2013 ALDS….

Follow that up with the 2014 season, Gray was great in his first full season, and again, came up huge for Oakland, pitching a Complete Game Shut-Out in Game 162 to clinch the Oakland A’s third consecutive playoff birth on the last game of the season. So, last year was his first year on a “non-contending team,” and all he did was mess around and put himself in the Cy Young race as a 25 year old.

sheeks9
6 years ago

I would suspect post-season experience gives him the edge there.

I’m not saying that 13.0 innings of experience means he is better than Ross, but in my mind, that was my initial thought. He led a team that held the best record in baseball for a majority of the season in 2014. It just sort of adds credibility. It shouldn’t, but if I’m being honest, that was my initial thought.

SpongeBob
6 years ago

Gray is definitely the elephant in the room on this list, a 13.2 K-BB% last year is not ace material.

Cory Settoon
6 years ago
Reply to  SpongeBob

But that’s where it gets hairy. Roy Halladay for his career had a 13.5 K-BB%. I would say he was an ace.

JakeT
6 years ago
Reply to  Cory Settoon

Different era. The two have comparable GB%, but Halladay has career 78 xFIP- to Gray’s 89.

Jason Bmember
6 years ago
Reply to  Cory Settoon

I don’t think it’s wise to set single, arbitrary cutoffs for “an ace MUST hit this metric”. For any metric you choose, you can find a handful of pitchers that would generally be considered an ace that didn’t meet that criterion, and many who did hit the criterion that wouldn’t be considered aces.

Or, stated differently, there is no metric (or combination of metrics) that will include EXACTLY everyone that you would want and not exclude ANY that you consider aces. It’s good to have loose guidelines, but litmus tests, not so much.

TKDCmember
6 years ago

Honestly, I’m not sure how Cueto got such a low vote, but I will say that Gray has a career ERA of 2.88 and those three guys are 3.57, 3.30, and 3.65 respectively. While of course ERA is a very incomplete stat, I think perceptions of pitchers are created largely by what actually happens in their games, whether or not they have control over it (which of course we don’t really know to what extent they do).

Jason Bmember
6 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

Cueto suffered from recency bias; his number would have been MUCH higher before his poor half-season in KC.

(Which, to be fair, that half-season DID happen and should be a factor, it just may be weighed too heavily against his career as a whole.)

MS97
6 years ago

Gray has thrown at least 208 innings in each of the last two seasons. 33-20 career win-loss record. Ross has never thrown 200 innings in a season. Averaged less than 6 innings per start last year. Sub-.500 record each year of his career.

As far as Cueto goes, it’s probably a combination of his poor 2nd half and the fact that he always seems to outperform his peripherals. Could compare him to guys like Matt Cain and Jered Weaver. Great for awhile, but when the wheels fall off, it isn’t pretty. His results are certainly ace-like over the last 4-5 years though.

Conrad Parrishmember
6 years ago
Reply to  MS97

True, though Win-Loss record has minuscule importance in the way we evaluate pitchers. Especially at Fangraphs, just looking at something such as WAR tells you Ross had 4.4 WAR last year. Gray, had a WAR of 3.5. I understand your argument, though length of start in today’s super bullpen era is not very significant. Ross not going as far into starts is not as significant today because of the emergence of super bullpens.

Easyenoughmember
6 years ago
Reply to  Conrad Parrish

I disagree. In the Fangraphs piece about deciding whether or not to pull a starter the third time through the order, managers clearly preferred to be able to rest bullpens to be able to use the best relievers in future games. That’s why pitching around 200 innings (apparently exempting injury) seems to be a pre-requisite for being an Ace.

MS97
6 years ago
Reply to  Conrad Parrish

IP/start has a direct correlation to win-loss record though. Most teams only have 2-3 above average bullpen arms to make up those super pens. Those pitchers usually average about 65-70 innings per year. If your “ace” fails to go more than six innings regularly, it taxes the bullpen and leaves the long relievers and 6th innings guys to cover more often for the back end of the rotation. Definitely has a snowball effect.

Why do you think that Ian Kennedy just got a fat contract from a successful mid-market team? Those extra innings make a difference.

jdbolick
6 years ago

Here’s what I posted in the comments of the initial survey:

ERA can be “unfair” to a pitcher with a bad defense, tough park, unlucky sequencing, etc., yet stripping away those things entirely sometimes means missing on genuine skill deficiencies. For a generic pitcher X, I will assume that an ERA much better or worse than his FIP will regress, but when a pitcher has demonstrated a consistent pattern of remaining above or below that FIP, then you have to at least raise the possibility that something else is at work.

If you look at FIP, there isn’t much to separate Gray from Quintana, yet in ERA there is a substantial gap between them. ERA is certainly flawed yet it is also an actual rather than a theoretical result. Gray’s advantage cannot be attributed to his team’s defense (dreadful in ’15, good in ’14, and average in ’13), although some of it is attributable to the Coliseum. What stands out is that Gray ranks ninth among qualified pitchers over the last three seasons in lowest hard hit percentage allowed. Cueto is very similar and presumably would have earned the “ace” label if not for the perception that he lost his mojo in 2015. Richards is similar as well, but more of a poor man’s version of Gray.

Original Greaser Bob
6 years ago
Reply to  jdbolick

Just a thought to explain the difference. Gray has been really good at inducing mostly medium contact ground balls and the A’s infielders (except Semien) have been roughly league average at converting expected outs into outs. Is Gray’s ERA is getting Jetered?