Atlanta Braves "Five Aces" poster

Do the Braves have an ace? Do they REALLY need one?

“Ace” Mike Minor

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.

“Ace” Julio Teheran

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).

“Ace” Brandon Beachy

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.

“Ace” Kris Medlen

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.

“Ace” Paul Maholm

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.

“Ace” Tim Hudson

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.

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  • fireboss

    There’s not much controversy about what constitutes an ace and it’s not about seasonal awards or ERAs. An Ace is the guy who stops losing streaks shuts down the best lineups and finds a way when his team is up against it. He’s the guy who throws his hat on the mound and the other team say “It’s gonna be a long day.” An Ace is the guy who, when the chips are down his team may not win (Smoltz in 91) but an Ace finds a way not to lose.

    Aces are power arms, not because you can’t be a magnificent pitcher without one -see Greg Maddux – but because a power arm can overcome mistakes that a finesse pitcher might struggle to pitch around. Post Season winners have an Ace or Aces in their pocket. Matt Cain. Chris Carpenter, Madison Bungarner,CC Sabathia, Cole Hamels,Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling . . .

    You can get to the post season without one but winning when the other team has one without one is problematic at best.

    Being an Ace is as much mental as physical, AJ Burnett for example has the physical attributes but lack mental toughness. You can be a team’s best pitcher and not be an Ace until you show you’re Ace-ness under pressure more than once. In the NL right now there are Aces (sometimes more than one) in places. Kershaw, Cain, Bumgarner, Wainwright, Harvey, Zimmermann and Lee are universally considered Aces. The media considers Strasburg and ace but most other teams don’t, they would rather face him than Zimmermann.

    The Braves have a collection of 2s and 3s with a 5 pitching like a 3 right now but they don’t have an Ace. It’s not that these very talented guys can’t be that guy on the day or in Zito’s case for a season but an Ace is the go to guy when everything is on the line. The Braves do not have that guy. Currently Minor is pitching like that guy and starts game 1 if it’s next week. Medlen has shown signs of being right there with him of late, Hudson is the guy if there’s a question in your mind because Huddy will fight and scratch and claw his way through a game and keep his team in it. Teheran is a ways away from consideration and Maholm should be a last resort in any post season start.

    Aces are rare and therefore expensive. The were spoiled by year of having 2 or 3 in the rotation regularly. They don’t have one now.

    • cheadrick

      i totally disagree, not with the basics of what you said, but with your belief that there’s “not much controversy about what constitutes and ace”. I personally don’t even like the word…. because if you have a room of 9 people, you are always going to get more than 1 opinion on who is the ace of a team, a rotation, the division, the league, etc. It’s totally subjective. I might say Mike Minor is the current ace of the Braves’ rotation, but he hiccupped bad in his last outing, so is he no longer an ace, if he ever really was? Some might say Huddy, because he is a veteran, finds a way to get the job done often when he’s in a slump, etc., but he has had a terrible year by comparison to previous years. Was he, is he, or has he ever been an “ace”. You see my point. I will never be convinced it is a good word to use. The so-called criteria for an ace will always be a matter of opinion.

      • carpengui

        I’m actually gonna go with the fireboss on this one (and I like his explanation), while adding this: while every team has a #1 starter (kinda by definition), not every team has an Ace.

        An Ace is an unquestioned quantity with a long-term (5+ years) track record… if you’re thinking “well, he was an Ace last month, but his last couple of starts haven’t been there”, then he’s not an Ace.

        King Felix, Verlander, CC. Aces. Halladay – injury-sidelined Ace… but he’s still an Ace.

        Hudson? Not quite there, IMHO. Kerschaw – almost has that track record. Darvish? Needs more time. Hamels? No. Lee? No.

        Medlen, Minor, Beachy have all flashed Ace-like stuff for months in a row, but, the Ace is the kind of guy who gets a bronze likewise outside the stadium after he finishes playing.

        • cheadrick

          As I said, my issue is with the word. Semantics? Perhaps. Everyone knows who is a good pitcher and who isn’t. I just don’t like the word, which is what I said. There is no baseball dictionary I know of that defines that word.

          • carpengui

            Oh, I can help there:

            Just another service I provide. XD

          • fireboss

            There’s a nice post on the Hardball Times. My only quibble with his definition is the 200 K he wants. I think Cain’s post season performances stand the test. But it is a minor quibble, the definition is pretty good.


          • Benjamin Chase

            So how do you know a guy is an ace if he never reaches the postseason?

            I’d argue that Brad Radke was an ace until his shoulder was shredded and he retired, but he rarely pitched in a postseason until the latter part of his career.

          • fireboss

            For me he doesn’t have to. The question I always ask when I’m told this or that guy is an Ace is did he dominate the opposition and for how long. Radke certainly ate innings and may well have been the Twins number one but he falls short of an Ace (for me anyway). His ERA and WHIP were high and his strike outs too low. He was generally a league average numbers guy and those numbers look a lot like Bronson Arroyo’s at the same age though he walked fewer hitters.

        • Benjamin Chase

          See, that’s just it, I’ve heard from the better-known analysts out there definitions ranging from the top X-amount of pitchers in the game (usually 10-25) to a loose definition of a guy who gives you 7+ with a solid ERA every time out (which is maybe 3 or 4 in the whole league). I didn’t want to get into all that as what I found, Cy Young awards or not, the top “ace” pitchers didn’t correlate to winning the World Series. The best starter of the World Series winning team the last 5 years averaged 13 wins and 202 innings in the regular season. Those aren’t small numbers, but I think when people think ace, they think 20 wins and 225 innings of sub-3 ERA ball.

          • cheadrick

            Yep, when people “think” ace, they think different things. That’s my only point… the subject is and, for me, will always be subjective.

      • fireboss

        Really? You might get that sitting around a table but ask them who they want on the mound in game 7 and they’ll give you s list of names Sabbathia, Smoltz, Beckett, Schilling, Cain and their ilk. . Those are Aces whatever you want to call them. They’re clutch performers and give their team a “we WILL win today” attitude when they take the field. Minor may be out number 1 now or Medlen or but, of our rotation there’s no one we send out who is that guy.

        • Benjamin Chase

          I wouldn’t put Beckett near the other 4, and Cain is a step below as well, though not as miscast as Beckett. Beckett is remembered for his performances in 2003 and 2007, but he’s nearly single-handedly ended two postseasons in Boston and posted above-4.5 ERAs now for 3 of the last 4 years. In fact, in his time in Boston, he had more seasons over a 5 ERA than under a 4 ERA.

          • fireboss

            Beckett is past his prime now but between 2003 and 2007 he threw 72 2/3 post season innings posting finishing with a record of 6-2, an ERA of 2.60 and a WHIP of 0.744. At the end of 08 and in 09 he pitched with nagging back issues and was a shadow of his former self. Maybe that was long enough for the Hardball Times article I linked below but he was the post season guy during that time.

          • Benjamin Chase

            He had two good postseasons, but between 2003-2007, he was never healthy, only having a sub 5 ERA with 200IP during the season once in that time. Definitely not an ace.

    • Benjamin Chase

      A few issues with this:

      First, Greg Maddux is arguably the greatest right handed pitcher that any of us have ever seen. He’s certainly not a “power” pitcher. Tom Glavine was certainly an ace, as Cliff Lee absolutely has been without throwing anything over 93.

      In modern pitching, we don’t see anyone but Verlander doing the 1, 4, 7 postseason starts like the old “ace” guys used to do, so you can absolutely win a series facing a team with an ace if you have a whole group of great starters that outpitch all the rest of their starters. It has been done, and in the last ten years we’ve seen a team take a world series based on a rotation of very good starters with no great one, let alone an ace.

      I have my biggest issue with the last part. I truly believe Yu Darvish is an ace right this minute, and I believe he was pitching as one from midseason on last year. Yes, that means he was pitching as an ace in his rookie season, but I consider an ace as the guy who’s pitching as an ace in that moment. Would you rather have Yu Darvish or Roy Halladay start for you in a must win game tomorrow?

      One interesting thought is how we view pitching. WAR for pitchers is still an inexact science, but if you took Fangraphs’ version (considered the better for pitching comparisons in many circles), and take out the top 10 in the last 5 seasons, you have this order: Cliff Lee, Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Jon Lester, Tim Lincecum, and Dan Haren. If you want to expand that to the top 15, you add in (in order): Jared Weaver, Cole Hamels, Adam Wainwright, Ubaldo Jiminez, and Matt Cain (with James Shield 0.1 fWAR behind Cain). Yes, there’s a regular season ace and a postseason one, but if a guy is a bonafide ace, it should show up in the statistics. The ace discussion is very similar in the circles I’ve been in to the discussion on “clutch”. It’s there, but how in the world can you show it or measure it?!

      • fireboss

        Maddux was certainly the finest pitcher I’ve ever seen and the argument for him as an Ace is compelling and he fits every criteria so okay i screwed that up.

        Darvish or a healthy Halladay? Easy, Halladay. But Darvish certainly qualifies consistently and it looks like he can but Doc’s numbers were consistently superior. From 2002 through 2012 Doc was 181 and 83 with a 3.07 ERA and a 1.119 WHIP striking out 1831 batter but walked only 408 and compiled an ERA+ of 143. No one even approaches those numbers. So if I’m offered Halladay from 2007-8,9 10 or Darvish. It’s Doc.

        • Benjamin Chase

          That’s why I said tomorrow. We tend to hold onto these labels far beyond the time that they’re useful and be hesitant to give them out until they’re too well established. I’d take Darvish any day of the week and twice on Sunday any time in the last year over Halladay.

          • fireboss

            He’s certainly been superb for 18 months and he appears to have the mental toughness. I don’t doubt his potential but longevity is required as well. Check out he Hardball times post. It’s a pretty good guide though like everything there are shades of opinion