How You Defined an Ace by Jeff Sullivan February 11, 2016 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… …the Padres guy finished last, of course. So Padres. But this is the thing you care about: 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.