Do Championship Teams Really Need an Ace?

Do the Red Sox really need an ace? Chip takes a look.

'Jon  Lester' photo (c) 2011, Keith Allison - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Entering this season, the Red Sox hoped to have a pair of co-aces in Jon Lester and Josh Beckett and a third pitcher in Clay Buchholz who could be a bonafide number two starter.  If you look solely at ERA for each of these three pitchers, you’ll find that all three have been somewhat underwhelming.  Entering Thursday’s night’s game, Beckett is leading the way with a 4.44 ERA.  Lester and Buchholz follow with 4.80 and 5.54 marks respectively.  Ok.  Perhaps, underwhelming is a bit of an understatement.

Regardless of ERA, there are a few reasons for optimism.  Both Lester and Beckett are underperforming their FIP by considerable amounts.  This fact is probably of little comfort to most Red Sox fans.  In general, we care about actual results to theoretical performance.  It’s understandable, but there is some evidence they’ve been the victims of poor luck this season.  Buchholz, on the other hand, has overcome his disastrous first six starts to produce a 3.60 ERA and 46/16 K/BB ratio since May 11th.  (He’s actually looked even better since May 27th posting a 2.91 and 39/8 marks.)

Objectively, we know all three pitchers aren’t pitching at their true talent levels.  Sometimes pitchers have bad seasons, and it’s certainly possible we’re seeing three “bad” seasons simultaneously.  That said, it hasn’t stopped the lunatic fringe members of Red Sox Nation to irrationally scream and whine and demand ridiculous trades.  Case in point, Earl Nash of BoSox Injection had this to say about the Red Sox’s two “ace holes”:

The abject failure of their #1 and #2 rotation Jokers, The Lester and The Josher, forces the hand of the Red Sox to “go all-in” to acquire an “ace,” for any chance at the Playoff Pot, or start re-shuffling the roster, now.

Forget all this Happy Horsesh/t Talk about trade rumors;  trading for the likes of Dempster, Garza, Rodriguez, Saunders and any other “sub-ace” pitcher is a waste of time; the Sox need to make a big move for Greinke, Hamels, or King Felix Rodriguez.

But are Ben, John & Larry willing to face their fundamental problem: their “Ace Hole”?

(Note:  Felix Rodriguez?  Oops!)

I’ll let the classiness waft over you for a second.  It’s ok.  I’ll wait.  (pause for effect)  Are you overwhelmed with classiness yet?  Alright, great.  Let’s continue.

Other than Mr. Nash’s complete and total inability to think either rationally or logically, it’s his absolutely trade offers that really make his article. I implore you to take a look.  They’re really quite breathtaking–and by breathtaking, I mean they’re so hilariously bad that most GMs would literally die laughing from their awfulness.  To quote my good friend David Schubert of Curse of Benitez and Sabeanmetrics fame, they’re the very definition of a “Lyle Overpay.”  Actually, that may not even be a strong enough term.  Emptying out the farm system for an three month rental (or the unbelievably unavailable King Felix) might be the worst thing a team with overwhelming payroll inflexibility could do.  Let me put it simply.  With all due respect to the author, let’s all be glad he’s not the Red Sox General Manager.*

Let this be a warning to anyone who feels it’s acceptable to litter our comments section with multiple links to their own articles on different sites.  I don’t mind one link being included in a comment as a starting off point to a larger discussion, but four different comments with links is completely inappropriate.  This is not the forum for you to increase your site’s page views.  By doing so, you’re inviting me to check out your site, read your ridiculous ideas (at least in this case), and openly mock you in an open forum.  If you’d like me to read or link to your articles, there is a protocol:  email me and ask me to check out your work.  I’ll read and provide honest and constructive feedback.  If you do it the wrong way, I will hammer your most irrational ideas.  And for what it’s worth, I have no ill will towards Mr. Nash, only his completely irrational point of view.

Still, his article got me thinking.  Do teams really need an ace to win a championship or at least reach the World Series?  Does the conventional wisdom hold up?  To be clear and upfront, I will not be considering any pitchers with “one off” seasons as aces.  Any pitcher can have one good season.  To be considered an ace, teams must have a clear track record of ace-quality performance that still remained during the season in which his team won a championship.

Let’s look at the last ten World Series to see if it holds up.

2002 – Anaheim Angels vs. San Francisco Giants

Angels – The Angels had an interesting rotation in that while it was very deep, it lacked an ace of any kind.  Kevin Appier had been ace earlier in his career when he was in the Angels, but his ace-quality performance was robbed after a series of arm injuries a couple of years earlier.  Aaron Sele had strung together four seasons with impressive win totals, but those were largely a function of run support and pitching for good teams rather than quality performance.  (Also, he was injured and missed the playoffs.)  John Lackey would eventually become an ace, but that time was not in 2002.  Jarrod Washburn was easily the closest meeting that definition, posting a 3.74 FIP and 4.5 fWAR.  Still, ace was never a term that fit Washburn, as he never repeated his success.  Despite a true, or even a de facto, ace the Angels won their first World Series.

Giants – The Giants had a pretty solid rotation with Livan Hernandez, Russ Ortiz, and Kirk Rueter holding down spots two through four.  (Yes, I’m being serious.)  As good as the rest of the rotation was, Jason Schmidt was that much better.  In 2002, he struck out 25.5% of the batters he faced and produced a 3.11 FIP and 4.4 fWAR in value over 185-1/3 innings.  He was the clear staff ace, and remained as such for four more seasons afterwards.

2003 – Florida Marlins vs. New York Yankees

Marlins – You could certainly argue that Josh Beckett wasn’t a true ace at the time the Marlins won the World Series.  If you want to make that argument, I won’t fault you too much.  In 2003, Beckett was unbelievably dominant when he was healthy.  He struck out 25.3% of the batters he faced, and produced a 2.94 FIP and 3.9 fWAR in only 142 innings.  Once you factor in his insane run through the playoffs, his acehood could not be more clear.  He remained the Marlins ace for two more seasons before being traded to the Red Sox.

Yankees – The Yankees had four pitchers who could have easily fit into one of the top two spots of most team’s rotations.  Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, and David Wells all put together quality seasons.  In a way, it’s almost shocking they didn’t win the World Series that year.  That rotation was pretty stacked.

2004 – Boston Red Sox vs. St. Louis Cardinals

Red Sox – Entering the season, the Red Sox figured they’d have two aces in Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling.  While Pedro’s performance was certainly acceptable, it was a far cry to what we’d been used to seeing throughout the years.  Luckily, Schilling stepped into the role and took charge.  Not only did he put together an unbelievably dominant season in 2004, but he also put together a postseason that will be talked about for decades to come.

Cardinals – Chris Carpenter was the team’s clear ace in 2004 (and would continue for several seasons afterwards), but got injured in September and missed the playoffs.  In his place, the Cardinals started Woody Williams, Matt Morris, Jason Marquis, and Jeff Suppan.  While each of those guys were decent-to-good pitchers at the time, none of them would ever be confused with an ace.  Due to Carpenter’s injury, this will be the first to join the Anaheim Angels as the second team to reach the World Series without an ace.

2005 – Chicago White Sox vs. Houston Astros

White Sox – This club had one of the deepest rotations in recent memory.  Like the 2002 Angels though, it’s unclear they had a true ace.  Mark Buehrle is probably the closest thing, but many don’t consider him a true ace because he doesn’t strike batters out.  In almost every other circumstance, I’d agree completely.  With Buehrle, I feel I must make an exception.  Yes, he was unconventional in his success, but his success was consistent and enduring.  He qualifies in my book.  Interestingly enough, Ozzie Guillez considered Jose Contreras the staff ace in 2005 and 2006.

Houston – Rocket, Pettitte, Roy Oswalt.  This team didn’t have just one ace, they had three.  It’s shocking this team was swept in the World Series.

2006 – St. Louis Cardinals vs. the Detroit Tigers

CardinalsUnlike the 2004 World Series, the Cardinals had their ace this time.  He followed up his spectacular Cy Young season in 2005 with a third place finish in 2006.

Tigers – Justin Verlander…need I say more?  Well, ok.  Maybe I should.  Yes, he was a rookie.  Yes, his innings pitched and strikeout totals were the lowest of his career.  Still, he led the staff in multiple categories, and was arguably the best pitcher on the staff.  (You could argue that Jeremy Bonderman was better in 2006 based solely on peripherals.)  His performance since that season only furthers his case as an ace.

2007 – Boston Red Sox vs. Colorado Rockies

Red Sox – Curt Schilling was still on the staff, but this time it was Josh Beckett leading the charge.  After putting together a season in which he finished second in the Cy Young Award voting to C.C. Sabathia, Beckett put his team on his back and carried them to their second World Series championship in four seasons.  How good was Beckett in the post-season?  He produced a 1.20 ERA and an unbelievable 35/2 K/BB ratio in 36 innings.

Rockies – Entering the playoffs, the Rockies rotation included Aaron Cook, Jeff Francis, Josh Fogg, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Franklin Morales.  It’s not exactly reminiscent of the 1971 Baltimore Orioles. Francis was this team’s “ace,” but he wasn’t an ace in the true sense of the word.  Jimenez would grow into an ace of sorts eventually, but he hadn’t even established himself by this point.  I think there’s a pretty good case to be made that this team reached the WS without an ace.

2008 - Philadelphia Phillies vs. Tampa Bay Rays

Phillies – Cole Hamels was the clear staff ace entering both the season and the playoffs.  His outstanding run during the 2008 playoffs (1.80 ERA and 30/9 K/BB ratio in 35 innings) cemented this reputation.  His performance may’ve slipped back a bit in 2009, but he regained his acehood the following season.

Rays – The Rays really didn’t have an ace in 2008.  Scott Kazmir had beenthe guy, but he lost his grip on that title early on that season.  After 2008, he completely fell apart.  James Shields was given the de facto role, and he was even given the nickname “Big Game James.”  It never really fit, and his 3.24 ERA and 17/8 K/BB in 25 innings indicated his was more of a good big game pitcher than a great one.  Shields would end up putting up a few quality seasons afterwards, but none were quite ace-worthy.  (Although, 2011 was close.)

2009 – New York Yankees vs. Philadelphia Phillies

Yankees – The interesting thing about the Yankees is that their rotation only went three deep.  That’s a rarity these days.  Luckily for them, they had Sabathia heading their rotation.  C.C. had struggled in previous postseasons, but things were different in 2009 when he went on an outstanding run that helped the Bombers capture their first title since 2000.

Phillies – The 2009 season was a tough one for Hamels, the 2008 postseason hero.  He struggled at times with big innings and random stretches of poor luck.  Not wanting to give up on the season, the Phillies traded for Indians’ ace Cliff Lee.  Boy did he pay dividends.  His 1.57 ERA and 43/6 K/BB in 40-1/3 inning made Hamels performance the season before look pedestrian in comparison.  As well as he pitched, he couldn’t lead the Phillies back to the promised land.  Still, it should be noted that he started the only two games the Phillies won that series.

2010 – San Francisco Giants vs. Texas Rangers

Giants - While Matt Cain was clearly the best pitcher for the Giants during the playoffs, two-time CYA winner, Tim Lincecum was the staff ace.  I know.  It’s really hard to argue against Cain’s 0.00 ERA in 21-1/3 postseason innings.  Still, Lincecum was more dominant (43 strikeouts in 37 innings), had a lower WHIP, made two additional starts, and had the regular season hardware on top of it all.

Rangers - Cliff Lee returns, but this time it’s with the Rangers.  Same story, different day for him.  He put together another amazing season before blowing through the first two rounds of the playoffs without breaking a sweat.  He wasn’t quite as lucky in the World Series, but no pitcher is perfect.  After getting having a rough outing in Game 1, but bounced back in Game 5.  It wasn’t quite good enough.  Lee proved to be mortal in the postseason.  Still an ace, but not as superhuman as we’d once thought.

2011 – St. Louis Cardinals vs. Texas Rangers

Cardinals – When Adam Wainwright suffered a torn UCL during Spring Training that required Tommy John surgery, most figured the Cardinals chance to win a championship was over.  Enter Chris Carpenter, the Cards’ #1A to save the day.  He produced a 5 fWAR season, and put together a solid run in the postseason.

Rangers – One could argue that C.J. Wilson isn’t really an ace.  He wasn’t the ace on the 2010 Rangers team, and he’s not the ace on this year’s 2012 Angels. (In fact, he’s their number three starter.)  Still, he was clearly the ace of the 2011 Rangers staff, and likely would have been in 2010 had Lee not been acquired.

In conclusion…

As we’ve seen, this is one case where conventional wisdom holds up pretty well.  Having an ace on your staff isn’t a “must,” but it certainly goes a long way towards helping your team reach win the World Series.  If any of the one of the Lester, Beckett, or Buchholz group can step up to lead the team down the stretch and in the playoffs, they have a chance to win a championship.  Maybe it won’t be a good chance, but it’ll be a chance nonetheless.

Categories: Boston Red Sox Clay Buchholz Jon Lester Josh Beckett

After being slapped with a restraining order for stealing Nick Cafardo's mail, I was forced into retirement for a brief period of time. As fun as it was to lounge around the community pool and play shuffleboard with noted internet columnist, Murray Chass, I quickly felt a yearning to write again. Now in my second tenure with Fire Brand, I have set lofty goals of achieving world domination, ending the plight of the hipsters, and becoming BFFs with Mike Trout. I am fluent in two languages (Sarcasm and English, in that order); have an intimate relationship with M&Ms; firmly believe that Lucille is the best character on Arrested Development; and spend my spare time trolling select members of the Boston media. You can follow me on Twitter @Chip_Buck.

8 Responses to “Do Championship Teams Really Need an Ace?” Subscribe

  1. Nick V July 20, 2012 at 10:34 AM #

    I for one don't want the Red Sox to trade for anyone named Felix Rodriguez.
    http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=112

    • ChipBuck July 20, 2012 at 11:50 AM #

      Wow. I didn't even catch that when I read it. I really wish I had. That's freaking hilarious.

    • Danny July 20, 2012 at 2:55 PM #

      Hah! Nice.

  2. Walt in Maryland July 20, 2012 at 1:44 PM #

    Think how much better the Sox' chances would look right now if Lester was pitching the way he did in 2010. Without parsing the meaning of the word "ace," let's just say that teams need good pitching to win championships. But we already knew that. :)

  3. Danny July 20, 2012 at 9:32 PM #

    Ozzie considered Contreras an ace? Well, I never really considered Ozzie a baseball guru anyways, I guess.

  4. filmsandfilmmakers July 22, 2012 at 5:25 PM #

    Before you threaten to "openly mock" someone in an "open forum" (certainly you mean 'public forum'), you probably shouldn't plagiarize your most blatant stab at it from Aaron Sorkin. Because it's a line from a movie doesn't mean you can just invert it and appropriate it for your own use.

    "I’ll let the classiness waft over you for a second." Indeed. Or as Sorkin put it: "I need a second to let the classiness waft over me".

    Here's another great bit:

    "Other than Mr. Nash’s complete and total inability to think either rationally or logically, it’s his absolutely trade offers that really make his article. I implore you to take a look."

    I'm implored, thank you. I'd take the time to laugh at Mr. Nash's inability to think either rationally or logically, but I'm not entirely certain what an 'absolutely trade' offer is.

    Who do you know at ESPN that made you an 'affiliate'?

    • Danny July 22, 2012 at 7:49 PM #

      Why are you even here? This is a Red Sox blog. Nobody here is particularly interested in your opinion of Chip's writing.

      For what it's worth, you might be the only person on the internet to consider a movie reference "plagiarism." I assume you'll be moving on to, I don't know, every other blog on the internet to criticize them for the same thing, correct?

  5. Sean July 22, 2012 at 7:44 PM #

    I just came here for some comic relief after today's Ace hardware pitching gem.