Do You Need An Ace To Win The World Series?
Image courtesy of Jake Roth-USA TODAY SportsJamie Cameron here. If you haven’t been reading John Olson’s Four-Six-Three Blog at Twins Daily, get on it. He’s been churning out some really great content. John is also a great Twitter follow (@Four_Six_Three). Recently he posted a thread which caught my attention, essentially attempting to answer the question; does a given team need an ace in order to win the World Series? So I did what any Twitter secret admirer would do, and slid into John’s DMs.
"John, you don’t know me, but this thread is super interesting, how would you feel about writing a collaborative piece for Twins Daily?," was my smooth pickup line. John, ever the good sport, agreed, so we came up with a premise; let’s have a debate within an article. Let’s go toe to toe and try to answer the question; do the Twins need an ace to win the World Series? John will argue for, I will argue against. We’d love you to weigh in, and your thoughts on the format. Thanks in advance for reading!
Ace up your Sleeve: The necessity of a “true” number one
by John Olson
Throughout the past offseason, I have been adamant about the necessity of an ace. If the Twins truly want to take the next step, they need to have a front-line, No. 1, ace starter. Assembling a decent rotation, something stable enough to win you some games in a weak division, maybe secure the second Wild Card – well, that’s all fine and well, I suppose. If the goal is to win the last game, it may be a near impossible task to do it without having a true No. 1 starter.
I think we need to get some semantics out of the way first, before we can make any cogent arguments. There isn’t a good way to, non-subjectively, define an ace pitcher. If you simply define an ace as a teams’ number one pitcher in the rotation, their Opening Day starter, then well, every team in the league already has one. This isn’t true; I think we can all agree. Even with the incredible season Ervin Santana had last season, I don’t think he fits the mold, either. Like Justice Stewart said, in 1964 when asked to define the threshold of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”
All right – Get on with it, already
So, what’s the point, right? Laid out plainly, take a look at the last 10 World Series winners. What do all of them, invariably, have in common? They all either had, or acquired at some point during the season, at least one ace in their rotation. This seems like a very “cherry-picked” piece of evidence – not all teams are built the same. Some teams have had the league MVP, others had a league-leading offense, some the best overall pitching staff, others were somewhere in between. What they all did have is the ability to hand the ball, every fifth day, to an established No. 1 starter.
Admittedly, having an ace in the rotation doesn’t guarantee any championships – just ask the LA Dodgers – but an ace does seem to be a prerequisite for any team that considers itself a true contender. Plenty of teams, for example the 2014 Oakland A's who added Jon Lester at the deadline, have anted up for the postseason when they felt their window was open.
Anything can happen in the MLB Postseason, but...
Bats get hot; bats get cold and the same goes for pitching. Clayton Kershaw, one of the greatest left-handed pitchers in MLB history, has had the label of pitching outstandingly in the regular season but falling flat come October. Some of that’s fair – but push comes to shove, ideally, you’re giving the ball to Kershaw. He’s your Ace. He’s your Stopper. He’s” the guy” that will right the ship. That’s why teams pay out the nose for them in trade, that’s why when they come on the free agent market, they’re a unicorn. If we take a look back in recent history, there isn’t a team which has won it all, without having at least one Ace pitcher.
The Astros, ’17 Champions, had Dallas Keuchel (who had a 1.67 ERA pre-All Star break), who was hampered with injuries mid-season, felt the need to add another ace-quality pitcher, Justin Verlander, to the rotation. That seemed to work out. Verlander pitched to the tune of a 1.95 ERA in the second half, was the winning pitcher in Games 1 and 4 in the ALDS, Games 2 and 6 in the ALCS. Verlander was a force in the 2017 postseason, and one of the Astros most potent weapons.
The 2016 Chicago Cubs had a three-headed monster rotation of Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks. None of those pitchers had an ERA higher than 3.10 during the season, but Lester in particular led that staff in xFIP, K/9 and IP. He pitched Games 1, 5 AND appeared in 3 innings of relief in Game 7 to break the curse in Chicago.
The 2015 Royals, perhaps the weakest case for "necessity of an ace" in the last 10 years, wanted to add to their arsenal prior to heading into the playoffs. The Royals traded for Johnny Cueto, who had a 2.73 ERA and 113K’s with the Reds in the first half. Slotting him alongside rising star Yordano Ventura and Edinson Volquez, the Royals poised themselves for a World Series run. Although Cueto pitched poorly in the second half of the regular season, he started (and won) Game 2 of the World Series, pitching nine innings of one-run baseball.
Giants ace Madison Bumgarner had the most impressive overall pitching performance, in my opinion, in World Series history in 2014. Jon Lester (again) led the Red Sox as their number one starter in 2013. Bumgarner (again) pitched the Giants to a World Series win with a 0.00 ERA over 7 IP in their 2012 Series sweep. Chris Carpenter in 2011. Tim Lincecum in 2010. CC Sabathia in 2009. Cole Hamels in 2008.
All of these pitchers, all aces at that point in their careers. All of them World Series Champions. In fact, 2005 is the last year in recent memory where a group of pitchers – none of whom is considered a true ace – were part of a World Series winner.
So, what does this have to do with the Twins, exactly?
In a one game play-in, who do you want to take the ball? Santana was excellent in 2017, but to call him an ace is overselling him. He has a career ERA of 4.02 and a career FIP of 4.24; he has been brilliant in short bursts and he is what he is – a decent No. 2 or 3 starter on a good team. It's wholly unfair to pin last year’s Wild Card loss on Ervin; the entire roster lost that one. I would expect they would say the same. I like Santana; I just don't like him as my No. 1.
The Twins are sorely in need of a pitcher who, when handed the ball, can pitch out of a jam reliably. Get the strikeout when you really need it. A starter who knows he can depend on his defense, but can also generate those outs on his own.
As I mentioned previously, Santana had a great season, but his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) - out of 58 total qualifying pitchers per FanGraphs – was 43rd. That mark lodges him solidly between Ty Blach, Ivan Nova and Dan Straily. His 4.46 FIP, paired next to a 3.28 ERA, gives a 1.18 point discrepancy – or simply put, he depended heavily on the defense behind him.
This isn't meant to pick on Erv. He had a good season. He finished seventh in Cy Young voting. But don't be mistaken, he's not an ace.
Perhaps the Twins are where the Astros were in 2015. Maybe Jose Berrios will develop into that guy, or Fernando Romero or Stephen Gonsalves or someone else. Maybe our version of Keuchel and Lance McCullers is staring us in the face. Whoever that pitcher is, if we expect to compete in October, we’ll need an established front-line guy. Preferably two.
Aces Low: Why You Don’t Need an Ace to be World Champions
By Jamie Cameron
Do you need an ace to win the World Series? Absolutely not. Can the Twins win the World Series without a true, legitimate No. 1 starting pitcher? Yes they can. For this half of the debate we’re going to use a team as a case study – the 2015 Kansas City Royals.
Who needs an ace when you have a super-bullpen?
Let’s dig into what most folks remember about the 2015 Royals: their bullpen. The Royals actually didn’t have the best bullpen in MLB during the regular season. What they did have was four guys who could dominate four consecutive innings in Greg Holland, Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera and Ryan Madson. The Royals bullpen threw the fifth most innings in the majors during the regular season, trailing only the D-Backs, Rockies, Reds and Phillies (who were all average to terrible teams). In other words, no other good team relied on its bullpen the way the 95-win Royals did. The Royals bullpen ranked 17th in K/9 (8.38), 10th in FIP (3.56), and seventh in WAR (4.8). If you isolate these stats just accounting for their top four guys, they tell a more dominant story. Madson, Herrera, Holland and Davis combined for a 9.2 K/9, a 3.02 FIP, and 4.2 of the bullpen’s entire 4.8 WAR, over 243 regular season innings. There’s a recipe for post-season success if I’ve ever seen one.
What about their rotation?
OK, everyone remembers, the bullpen was good, but what about the rotation? KC’s rotation must have at least been solid to support an outstanding bullpen. Not really. Interestingly, 2015 was a record-breaking season. There were 2,006 occasions where starting pitchers did not make it through the sixth inning (Twins fans know all about that, amirite?) There are only 2,430 MLB games in the regular season, that’s just under 83% of games where starters are not making it through six innings. By 2015, the bullpen revolution was well and truly on with teams like the Yankees stacking the back-end of their bullpen. The Royals just did it better than anyone else. The Royals rotation in the regular season was pretty poor. They ranked 23rd in the league in WAR (7.9), 24th in inning pitched (912.2), 26th in K/9 at 6.49, and 29th in xFIP at 4.48. Hardly intimidating numbers going into the post-season. As a frame of reference, the Twins starters combined for an xFIP of 4.92 in 2017 (using 16 starting pitchers), and an absurd number of sub-par arms.
The homegrown, high quality offense
The Royals did have a really strong offense in 2015 which was anchored by lots of good hitters and an excellent defense. Looking back, there are some pretty obvious similarities between the 2015 KC offense and the 2017 Twins offense. Both were constructed around a young core of talented players who rose through their teams’ minor league ranks. In the case of KC this group was comprised of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez and Lorenzo Cain. KC was seventh in runs scored with 724. They hit 139 HR, well below the MLB average of 164 that year. The Royals did rank third in the league in doubles (300), sixth in triples (42) and 10th in OPS (.734). Their offense, similarly to the Twins, was built around a terrific outfield anchored by Alex Gordon and Cain (combined 10 WAR). For comparison, the Twins offense in 2017 was one of the best in baseball, finishing seventh in runs scored (815), 13th in doubles (286), 10th in triples (31) and 9th in OPS (.768).
An ace in the hole and the story of the 2015 post-season
Let’s address the elephant in the room. The Royals DID have an ace. On July 26th 2015, the Royals traded for Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb and Cody Reed for Johnny Cueto. Royals’ fans must have been beside themselves at the time. In the first half of the season with the Cincinnati Reds, Cueto had been dominant. In 130 IP, he had a 2.62 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 2.0 BB/9 and 8.3 K/9. After he was traded to KC, he struggled mightily, amassing a 4.76 ERA and 1.45 WHIP the rest of the way. The Royals may have had an ace, but he certainly didn’t perform like one in that portion of the regular season. Luckily for the Royals, they did have strong performers in their rotation, including Edinson Volquez and the late Yordano Ventura.
Cueto ultimately played a big role in the Royals postseason. Yet, even in the highest-leverage situations, his results were mixed. In the unbelievable ALDS vs. the Astros he had one excellent start and one awful start. He had another poor start in the ALCS vs. the Blue Jays, and one incredible start in the World Series against a flat New York Mets team. While Cueto was a bonus for Kansas City, he certainly wasn’t the reason they won the World Series.
The similarity for me between the '15 Royals and this year's Twins club is their strong offensive lineups and pitching staffs which can keep them in most games. It remains to be seen whether the Twins will have enough depth in their rotation and enough stability in their bullpen to hold as many leads like those '15 Royals. The Royals had an ace by name but not by performance. Their offense and their bullpen was good enough to ameliorate the limitations of their rotation, which was OK, but still better than the Twins rotation. If the Twins want to contend for a World Series, they don’t need an ace, but they absolutely need more depth in their starting rotation. In addition to using the 2015 Royals to argue the case against needing an ace pitcher, for me, they offer the Twins a blueprint. KC's incredible bullpen would be tough to emulate, but the Twins could be on the front end of a trend such as bullpen stacking.
The conclusion after the conclusion – from John
We’re in the middle of a paradigm shift in baseball. Teams are tanking, racing to the bottom trying to ensure a high draft spot. Young, controllable talent is the currency of a franchise. The Yankees, Dodgers and other high payroll/large market teams are trimming the fat to get under luxury tax thresholds and the penalties associated with repeat offenders. Raise your hand, and be honest, if you knew about terms like exit velocity, launch angle and heat maps even two years ago.
The establishment of an ace pitcher as a staple of a rotation isn’t quite as “new age” as some of these things, but it’s there.
Who do you give the ball to in a must-win game? That’s a no-brainer in Dodgertown. Maybe it depends on the matchup with the teams that boast having two or more of these guys (looking at you, Chicago Cubs/Houston Astros). Any way you look at it, you've got to like your odds of winning when you have an ace up your sleeve.
What are your thoughts? Is having a true number one pitcher necessary or luxury when it comes to winning a World Series? Let us know!
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