When you’re trying to figure out where aces come from, the first step is trying to decide for yourself what an ace looks like. Obviously, he has to be pretty good. For me, the pitcher has to be a workhorse. The team must be able to count on the man at the top of the rotation for 200+ innings per year, essentially every year.
I started with the list of ERA leaders from the past four seasons among starters who had pitched at least 800 innings. I tried to look at pitchers who finished high in Cy Young voting multiple times, as well as basing my list off of a number of other statistics, but in the end I believe this list best encapsulates what my definition of what makes a pitcher an ace.
An ace has to be dominant. In most cases, that means multiple 200+ strikeout seasons. This criterion bumped Matt Cain off the list, as much as that pains me as a San Francisco native: The workhorse for the defending World Series champions doesn’t have a 200-K season to his name. Jered Weaver has only one, his 2010 campaign in which his 233 strikeouts were the best in baseball, but he followed that up with 198 strikeouts in 2011 so I’m going to give him a pass.
Obviously this is all very subjective, but I’m really just trying to put together a list of aces that I feel good about. I added another two pitchers to the list, two I believe have matured into aces within the past four years, in Adam Wainwright and David Price. Maybe you have issues with the inclusion of one of these pitchers, or maybe Zack Greinke isn’t really an ace in your opinion, but it’s my article and that means I get to do what I want.
My final list of aces, along with their numbers over the past four seasons is as follows:
Here’s that same list, with their amateur origin and draft round and pick.
Price: Vanderbilt, 1(1)
Verlander: Old Dominion, 1(2)
Weaver: CSU Long Beach, 1(12)
Lee: Arkansas, 4(105)
Greinke: Florida, 1(6)
Kershaw: Texas, 1(7)
Hamels: California, 1(17)
Halladay: Colorado, 1(17)
Wainwright: Georgia, 1(29)
Hernandez: Venezuela, $710,000 signing bonus
Based on the same data I used for my last article, last year’s end-of-season 40-man rosters included 211 starting pitchers. Of those, 92 were drafted out of college, 73 were taken from high school, and 46 were signed on the international market. Given this distribution, we can make a few observations about the origins of the list of aces.
It’s interesting that there’s only one international ace, given that about a fifth of starters are signed from outside the U.S.
In a couple of years, Yu Darvish and possibly Johnny Cueto could step into the ace conversation, but for now Hernandez stands alone as the ace who doesn’t hail from the United States. It’s tough to know how this bodes for prospects like Julio Teheran and Carlos Martinez, who have had the “ace potential” tag put on them but will have to beat the current odds to become an international ace like Hernandez.
As I’ve referenced before, if a guy has ace potential, it’s usually clear very early. Many potential aces flame out, suffering injuries or failing to refine their command to the point where they can be placed in this category. However, if a guy’s going to be an ace, he has to have the stuff, and that’s usually clear from an early age. With that said, it’s obvious that Cliff Lee has taken a very different path to “ace-dom” than any other pitcher on this list. Every other draft-eligible pitcher was a first-rounder, while Lee lasted until the fourth and saw 104 amateurs picked ahead of him.
The Lee who pitched his junior year at Arkansas looked almost nothing like the dominant ace we know today. Lee pitched his first two years out of high school at Meridian Community College in Mississippi then returned to his home state to pitch for the University of Arkansas. Lee threw 64.2 innings, taking the ball for nine starts and 16 total appearances. He gave up 32 earned runs, producing a 4.45 ERA, and led the staff with 77 strikeouts.
Perhaps the most surprising part of Lee’s college line is that he issued 52 free passes for an astronomical walk rate of 7.24 BB/9. This is incredible given that nowadays Lee’s trademark is his superlative control. To put this into perspective, consider that Lee walked two more batters in his 64.2 innings at Arkansas than he did in 445 innings in the major leagues in 2010 and 2011 combined.
Lee excepted, however, if a guy’s going to be an ace, generally it’s clear during his amateur career that he has the stuff to do so. While it might simply be an artifact of the smaller sample size, I’d argue that this may be one explanation for the higher percentage of aces who come from high school despite college pitchers representing the majority of drafted starters in the majors. If a team thinks a high school pitcher has the stuff to one day act as a No. 1 starter, it’s likely to draft him early and pay him big to convince him to forgo his college commitment.
Overall, while there’s no sure-fire recipe to find an ace (as the doctrine of TINSTAAPP suggests), this investigation does shed some light on why teams are still willing to go after the upside of high school pitchers despite college hurlers being more likely to produce at the big league level. The younger starters may not be as good a bet to make it to the bigs, but when they do fulfill their potential, teams can end up with that rarest of the rare commodities in baseball, a true ace.
While the biggest contracts may go to the game’s sluggers, largely because of the uncertainty that comes with repeating a simply unnatural action thousands of times, there may be no asset more valuable than a reliable starter who can inhabit the top of the rotation and dominate every five days.