Defining the Ace: Baseball’s Rarest Breed

Dylan Carruba

I hear people calling pitchers aces all the time. It’s thrown around too easily when describing a good pitcher these days. I even found myself arguing with a friend who had given this title to a pitcher totally unworthy of this designation. I decided to look into it a bit. Where did the term come from? It’s pretty interesting.

Prior to use in baseball, the term ace, in addition to the first card in a deck,  was used to describe a fighter pilot in World War I who killed five enemies or more in aerial combat. Shooting down five planes, before getting shot down yourself, was seen as an amazing accomplishment almost unheard of. Aces were seen as heroes and men who were the best of the best. Elite, in a class by themselves. They put their country and their team first and could always be relied on in times of trouble to get the job done.

In baseball, many might define an ace as their teams’ number one starter, or the teams best pitcher, but an ace is the pitcher you want on the bump to stop a losing streak or keep a team in the game. An ace is the guy you can count on to go out every five days, and single-handedly win the baseball game. Aces are rare, and they’re starting to disappear, only a few still remain. An ace knows how to pitch, how to maneuver through a lineup, and has an exceptional command of every pitch he throws. Not every team has an ace, although they might have a solid pitcher who’s got top end stuff, and can overpower hitters.

There is no true definition to “Ace” in baseball, but I believe that an ace has to be better than just a number one starter. Aces have to make the opposing team think the game is over before it starts, these guys need to be doing things, no pitchers have ever done before. They strike fear into their opponents. They put their team on their back and carry them throughout the game. One theory I can shoot down is that an ace is a team’s number one starter. By this logic, Rockies starter Jon Gray is an ace. Nothing against Jon Gray, but he is far from an ace, he went 10-10 with an ERA of 4.61 in 29 starts. He threw 168 innings and had a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 0.3, meaning that he added almost no value to his team. He didn’t eat up innings and allowed more than four earned runs per 9 innings (RA9). I think we can all agree that the Rockies #1 starter Jon Gray is nowhere near ace status.

To abolish the theory that a teams’ best starter is an ace, Padres starter Jhoulys Chacin is the teams best. He started opening day and leads an exceptionally weak Friar rotation. He has a losing record in his career (49-60) with a WAR of -0.1 meaning that he has a negative impact on the Padres success. Chacin is the Padres best starting pitcher, but he’s a below average major league starter, calling him an ace is laughable. It’s fair to conclude from Chacin that a teams best pitcher is not always an ace.

I’m leaving Rick Porcello out of my list of aces. Although he won the Cy Young Award last season, he didn’t deserve to win it; Justin Verlander did, as he received more first-place votes, but we all know that voting systems are rigged these days. If the Red Sox were in a must win game, would they turn to Rick Porcello or go with David Price or Chris Sale? I know that Porcello is the third guy I’d go to and my $216+ million man is the guy I want throwing. Rick Porcello may have been a top two pitcher in the game, but I wouldn’t consider him elite, I think he had a good season, but he’ll never come close to repeating that success ever again, a one year wonder.

I’d say the term ace goes nicely when speaking about today’s elite, pitchers like Clayton Kershaw, Jon Lester, Dallas Keuchel, Corey Kluber, and Madison Bumgarner. These guys, give you more than a chance to win, every time they pitch. None of them overpower guys with 100mph fastballs, they just trust their stuff. They know how to pitch. They not only have control of their pitches, but they have command of them all too. Kershaw can drop a breaking ball wherever he chooses, Keuchel can make his cutter run in on batters hands 99 times out of 100, and Kluber’s slider is one of the game’s best. In the 2015 AL Wild Card Game, Dallas Keuchel shut the Yankees down, and prior to that game, everyone knew that the Yankees had no chance against him.  The game was over before it even started because the Yanks faced the best starter in the game at the time. Ace’s win just by walking into the building. All of the guys above have won at least one Cy-Young Award, and they all broke records in doing so.

Aces are game changers, they do things that haven’t been done before, and probably won’t ever be seen again.

What do you think an ace is? Who would you label as an ace?

3 responses to “Defining the Ace: Baseball’s Rarest Breed

  1. My favorite pitcher of all time was Ron Guidry of the 1978 NY Yankees. He WAS an ACE in my book!

    1. Greg Maddux-Amazing Stats

      Unlike Randy Johnson, he didn’t look like a super hero who threw 100 mph. He looked like one of us. He was 6’0, wore glasses, and dominated with pitches that didn’t look like they should dominate. In an era of oversized athletes and outsized personalities, Maddux was just a guy doing his thing and embarrassing everyone else in the process. There wasn’t anything particularly flashy about Greg Maddux, until you looked up two hours later, realized the game was over, and the opposing team had only managed a couple of weak singles.

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