One of the common marks against the Braves this season from national writers is the team’s rotation construction without an “ace” leading the way. The typical comments are along the lines of “the Braves have a deep rotation, but no real #1 or ace pitcher” or “during the season, the Braves should be fine, but who takes the ball that first game in October?”
It is that second assertion that I really wanted to look into. While defining an ace is a mess to no end, I wanted to see if there was any correlation between having the best pitcher in the league and winning the World Series. I went back to the start of the wild card format, and I found that, in fact, there were seasons where the World Series participant from one league also had the Cy Young award winner from that same season. That number, however, is incredibly small. Four Cy Young’s were won by a member of a team in the World Series, but none since 2001 (2001 Randy Johnson of the Diamondbacks, 2001 Roger Clemens of the Yankees, 1996 John Smoltz of the Braves, and 1995 Greg Maddux of the Braves). Only two of those (Johnson and Maddux) won in the same season that their team won the World Series.
Well, that seemed very low, so I looked beyond the winners into the yearly voting. In the last five seasons, there has been one World Series team with even a 2nd place finisher (Justin Verlander of the 2012 Tigers), but then the next best finishers were a pair of 4th place finishers (C.C. Sabathia of the 2009 Yankees and Brad Lidge of the 2008 Phillies). In all, in the last 5 seasons only 8 pitchers even received a Cy Young vote from a team that made the World Series, two of which were relievers (Brad Lidge in 2008, Brian Wilson in 2010).
So, the Cy Young award winner doesn’t translate to World Series success. So what?! Most awards are based on an individual season and wouldn’t correlate, right? Wrong. While only one pitcher has even achieved a 2nd place finish in the Cy Young award while participating in the World Series in the last five years, 3 times the MVP winner participated in the World Series (Buster Posey of the Giants in 2012, Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers in 2012, Josh Hamilton of the Rangers in 2010), 3 times the Rookie of the Year participated in the World Series (Buster Posey of the Giants in 2010, Neftali Feliz of the Rangers in 2010, and Evan Longoria of the Rays in 2008), and even twice the Rolaids Relief Man appeared in the World Series (Brad Lidge of the Phillies in 2008 and Mariano Rivera of the Yankees in 2009). So the correlation of Cy Young award winners compared to other awards is quite low.
Those of us old enough remember watching guys like Jack Morris and John Smoltz in game 7 of 1991. Neither pitcher was even the top vote getter on their own team in the 1991 Cy Young voting (Minnesota’s Scott Erickson finished 2nd and Atlanta’s Tom Glavine won the NL award). We all view game 1 of the World Series as the game where the “ace” is pitched, yet the last five years has seen three game one starters out of 10 that even received a vote for Cy Young that season.
How does this relate to the Braves this season? The Braves have a great rotation of experience and young arms, any of whom could go on a postseason run to help the team as a postseason ace, akin to the role Smoltz pulled for the 90s Braves, very seldom the best pitcher on the team each season, but the guy the team turned to in the postseason. I could see any of Julio Teheran, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, or Brandon Beachy go off for October. Consider these numbers for one month production from each of those four: Medlen, Sept/Oct 2012 – 4-0, 1.26 ERa, 0.72 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 9.2 K/BB; Minor. May 2013 – 4-0, 1.98 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 4.33 K/BB; Teheran, June 2013 (one start left in the month) – 2-2, 2.39 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 9.0 K/BB; and Beachy, April 2012 – 2-1, 1.05 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 7.0 K/9, 2.86 K/BB.
Any of those performances over one month would be an “ace” in the postseason, and that doesn’t even address the two veteran Braves starters that could be called upon to open a series, much like Charlie Liebrandt was in 1991, in spite of Tom Glavine being the Cy Young award winner and John Smoltz having already blown away Pittsburgh and completed the clinching game 7. The Braves may not have an “ace” in the eyes of media or analysts, but that can be just fine as the season moves forward.