Ace and Wild Card?(Icon/SMI)

I’ve moved across the Atlantic, to a country where “hardball” connotes a five-day-long game with occasional breaks for tea. But that won’t stop my rants from coming. Today’s will be about fantasy values and pitching depth. Does it matter if a pitcher is an ace on his own team?

On a recent martially inclined fantasy baseball podcast, one of the round-table members argued that one reason why Clayton Kershaw would likely be more valuable than Jonathan Sanchez is that Kershaw is probably going to be the “ace” on his team, while Sanchez is at best behind Lincecum and Cain on the Giants. (By the way, their conversation was spurred by Troy Patterson’s provoking article.) I’m not going to relitigate the Sanchez-versus-Kershaw debate, but rather just focus on whether a pitcher being an ace or not affects his value. This canard about the value of aces is actually repeated too often to ignore.

Of course aces are better pitchers than their mid-rotation counterparts. Johan Santana is better than Mike Pelfrey. That’s why Santana is the ace of the Mets. Aces are often associated with some harder-to-quantify characteristics like “a big-game pitcher” and the ability to bring losing streaks to a halt. You can bring those attributes to the conversation if you want to argue whether Josh Beckett or Jon Lester is the ace of the Red Sox, if you like. Ace status is updated infrequently: In March, a pitcher is chosen as an ace based on his expected performance for the season, and he usually remains the ace, barring injury or a trade, unless performance issues become extreme (e.g. Chad Billingsley and Kershaw this year).

In any case, the important thing is to not confuse the causational flow: A pitcher’s ability affects his qualifications to be a team’s ace, not the other way around. In fantasy, you don’t care whether the games are big or small or whether the pitcher’s team previously lost its last five games (a losing streak) or just lost five out of its last six (not necessarily a losing streak).

If pressed, I’m sure some of those who argue the “ace theory” will come up with some scanty points to support their case. I’m not going to use any data to dispel these points, in part because data on a pitcher’s spot in his rotation is hard to find. A bunch of points that really go either way are:

  • Ace pitchers may get a start or two more on average over the season if the manager starts them on Opening Day and after the All-Star break and otherwise reshuffles his rotation favorably. On the other hand, aces may be held out at the end of the season to make sure they’re ready to go for Game One of the playoffs.
  • Aces, if anything, are more likely to play against tougher opponents. A manager might try to get his best pitcher to pitch against the team’s rival. And, at least on Opening Day, the ace is more likely to have an opposing ace as a starting pitcher.
  • A young pitcher, like Kershaw, may benefit by being the second-best pitcher, if the ace tutors him a bit. However, Kershaw could just as easily get that help if Greg Maddux or Pedro Martinez become the fifth starter on the team.

In any case, these are likely extremely marginal issues. Was Dan Haren any more or less valuable to your fantasy team when Brandon Webb was injured? Was Cole Hamels any better or worse because the Phillies acquired Cliff Lee? Should you care if Roy Halladay ends up on your keeper’s team (assuming he stays in the rotation)? I don’t think so.

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  1. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Great topic for a rant, John. Mind if I join ya?

    People like to talk out of both sides of their mouth regarding being an “ace” and what it even means. Sometimes you hear “ace” referred to in the way it is done so by the guy referenced in the column. Sometimes you hear people say that not every team has an ace.

    I’m going to say this as simply and explicitly as possible, if the term “ace” is being used to simply designate the best pitcher on a team, it is an utterly meaningless distinction, for fantasy baseball or any other purpose. You know who morphed the usage of this term into such a disingenuous machination, it could have only been player agents searching for marketing tools. Coming into last season, only Jeremy Guthrie’s agent could have referred to his client as Baltimore’s “ace” with a straight face.

    I presume the etymology of this label has something to do with a deck of cards. Can we accept that as a safe assumption, fellas? I’d say so.

    Okay, so not every card hand has an ace. Sometimes, you are playing a hand 5-card of poker and you are dealt two aces in the same hand, say the ace of Haren and the ace of Webb. Sometimes you are dealt a bunch of low value cards, and by definition one of them is going to be the highest in your hand, but that doesn’t make that card an ace!

    (Now, some may say that every suit has an ace, so that supports the every team should have an ace perspective. They may say that I’m comparing teams to “hands” when I should be comparing them to suits. I say, nice try, but no dice. Rotations change often, like hands in cards. The value of its components change relative to the rest of the hand and to all the hands held by other players. Suits are too static for this comparison. Intuitively, “hands” makes a lot more sense. Just trust me.)

    So, getting back to my rant, the appeal of using the definition of “ace” as the best pitcher on each individual team is that it is clean. There’s little subjectivity involved. My contention that an “ace” is a pitcher that overwhelmingly likely to be better than whoever else the team opposing his is starting is a little sloppy. Where we draw the line is subjective; how small is the group? I’m far more willing to live with the subjectivity whether John Lackey is really an ace, than accept, for simplcity’s sake, a definition that implies either Dan Haren or Brandon Webb is not, while somebody currently on the Washington Nationals is. I fail to see how this can even be disputable.

    And, to underscore John’s point, if anything, as fantasy owner of a player like Kershaw or Sanchez’s stature, you’d PREFER he pitch later in the rotation to minimize the likelihood of matching up against the Lincecum’s and Santanas of the world. And, that’s assuming that 1-1, 2-2, etc. match-ups are more likely than match-ups of pitchers in different rotation spots – which I’m not nearly certain is the case.

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