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Aces High or Aces Low? Do you Need an Ace to Win the World Series?

Posted by Jamie Cameron , 02 March 2018 · 754 views

Aces High or Aces Low? Do you Need an Ace to Win the World Series? Jamie 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. 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 number one 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 what an ace pitcher “is”. 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 – case closed. 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.”

Alright – 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 number 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 trade deadline that year, 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, some of its not – 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. Nine times out of ten, he’s giving you the best possible chance at winning that game. 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 who 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), though 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 lead 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, at the deadline, 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 9 innings of 1 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 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 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 number 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 number 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 that 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 7th 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 Romero or Gonsalves or someone else. Maybe our version of Keuchel and McCullers is staring us in the face. Whoever that pitcher is, if we expect to compete in October – not just “get there”, but actually be a threat to win it all – 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. Sure, it helps, but it’s certainly no guarantee, ask the Dodgers (side bar – we both included this reference prior to comparing pieces, so I left it in). Can the Twins win the World Series without a true, legitimate number one 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 is 4 guys who could dominate 4 consecutive innings in Greg Holland, Wade Davis (remember when they were on the same team), Kelvin Herrera, and Ryan Madson. The Royals threw the fifth most innings in the majors during the regular season, trailing only the Dbacks, Rockies, Reds, and Phillies (who were all average to terrible teams). In other words, no other good team relied on their bullpen the way the 95 win Royals did. The Royals bullpen ranked 17th in K/9 (8.38), 10th in FIP (3.56), and 7th in WAR (4.8). If you isolate these stats just accounting for their top 4 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 (we are not alone, Twins fans). By 2015, the bullpen revolution was well and truly on with team like the Yankees stacking the backend 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 amount 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 layers who rose through their teams’ minor league ranks. In the case of KC this group was comprised of Hosmer, Moustakas, Salvador Perez, and Lorenzo Cain. KC was 7th in runs scored in 2015 with 724. They hit 139 HR, well below the MLB average of 164 for the 2015 season. The Royals did rank third in the league in doubles (300), sixth in triples (42), and 10th in OPS (.734). The Royals offense, similarly to the Twins, was built around a terrific outfield anchored by Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain (combined 10 WAR). So, the Royals had a solid offensive core anchored around an excellent outfield. Sounds familiar. For comparison, the Twins offense in 2017 was one of the best in baseball, finishing 7th 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 has 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 trades to KC he struggled mightily, amassing a 4.76 ERA the rest of the way, giving up a 1.45 WHIP, and giving up a ton more contact. My point here is simply that while the Royals may have ‘had an ace’, he certainly didn’t perform like one in the portion of the regular season he was with KC (as a sidebar, this is exactly the type of trade the Twins should be looking to make if they are in contention in July). While Cueto didn’t pitch well for the Royals in the regular season, they did have strong performers in their rotation, including Edinson Volquez, and the late Yordano Ventura, both of whom had strong seasons.

Conclusion
Cueto did ultimately play a big role in the Royals postseason. Yet, even in the highest leverage situations, his results were mixed. In the unbelievable ALDS VS Astros he had one excellent start and one awful start. He had one poor start in the ALCS VS 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.

For me, the similarity for me between the Royals 2015 team and the Twins in 2018 is strong offensive lineups, with pitching staffs which can keep them in most games. It remains to be seen whether the 2018 Twins have enough depth in their rotation and enough stability in their bullpen to hold as many leads as the 2015 Royals created for themselves. 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. Not specifically by imitating their incredible bullpen, but rather, being on the front end of a trend such as bullpen stacking which can give a mid-market team the shove it needs into the post-season, where anything can happen.

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 media 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 – let alone used in conversation – the terms exit velocity, launch angle and heat maps even 2 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!

  • Dave The Dastardly and Andrew Thares like this



I think both arguments are valid. However, at the end of the day, all sports and successful teams therein, are built as a team. A strong defense goes a long way to assisting said ACE as well as every other pitcher on the staff. A strong offense produces runs, which ultimately decide the outcome, whether it be 1-0 or 11-10. A weak bullpen can do a lot to damage a team's overall record, and certainly their chances to win an important series of any sort. I'd offer up several Tiger teams of recent past. And the Royals are a clear example of the bullpen holding thing together, albeit their rotation certainly wasn't a bad one. Over a full season, or a series, there are a lot of ways to win, as well as lose. Stating the obvious? Perhaps so.

But here's a caveat to the ACE arguement; two really good teams, one with an ACE and a couple solid starters and the second team lacking said ACE but having 3 rather legitimate #2 starters, I'd probably go with the second team.

And that's where the Twins are now, 2018 at least. Let's say a healthy Santana is the same pitcher he was last season, or close to it. Berrios has the best pure stuff on the staff and should be better in 2018. Largely successful in previous years, young enough to still have upside, just how good can/will Odorizzi be? Of course, looking beyond 2018 is a different story, but similar tale via trade, FA, promotion and development of Gonsalves, Romero, Thorpe, etc.

My final answer short, there is a major argument for that true #1 guy in your staff. But good defense, potent and versatile offense, (the Twins have both), and a quality bullpen, (they may have built one and have additional arms close), a team can absolutely win it all without that true ACE. But you need those 3 #2 guys you can march out to the mound.
    • Platoon and Dave The Dastardly like this
Defense, and pitching is defense, wins the most consistently in any sport. That's because it's more easily repeatable. And that's magnified in the baseball playoffs, where offenses cannot feast on the 4-5 starters. Doc has a point on the 3 number 2's theory. But it is complicated if you get stuck in the WC one and done. Other than that, I would rather have the 3 number 2's than a 1,3,4 combo.
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Matthew Lenz
Mar 03 2018 08:42 AM
Fun read! I would tend to agree with John, but I also think Platoon brings up a good point. I’d take a good but maybe not dominant pitching staff over an Ace and a not so good pitching staff any day.
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Andrew Thares
Mar 03 2018 09:24 AM

Good read guys! Here is my view on the whole Ace vs No Ace thing.

 

I believe that having an option to shutdown the opposing team for an extended number of innings in a postseason game is critical. Whether that comes from an Ace in the rotation, or through a stable of dominate relief pitchers, that option is needed somewhere.

 

While this doesn't guarantee success in the playoffs, what it does is it puts your team on more of a level playing field with the other teams in the playoffs.

 

No matter who the Twins play in a playoff series, they are all but guaranteed to have an option in their pitching staff where they can shut the Twins offense down during at least two games in a series. If the Twins don't have the ability to do the same to the opposing team's offense, then they are at a huge disadvantage going into the series. 

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Dave The Dastardly
Mar 03 2018 01:09 PM

I've never given much credence to the "Ace Pitcher" theory. In football you need an "ace" quarterback because he takes the field every game (barring injury of course). Baseball? A pitcher takes the mound every 5th game. That's 20% of the season - again, barring injury. Even if the team wins every time the ace takes the mound, we're talking maybe 30 wins. When's the last time any pitcher won 30 games? How many pitchers have won 20 games in a season in the last five seasons? I think the answer to that question is something like 10 or 12. Too lazy to check that right now. But I bet I'm close.

 

I'm with Doc, give me three No. 2's, a strong defense and some big bats. Three of a kind beats a single ace every time.

Yes, and it should've been Ervin Santana in the wild card game, especially given the early lead.

He performed that role for the Twins in 2016 AND 2017, sadly losing many a low-scoring game or to the bullpen, that would ruffle the feathers of many a player overtime.

And, as the recent free agent marketplace showed, none of the Big Four was really that shutdown ace, although Davish has the potential, but maybe not the overall poise.

True longterm Aces are few and far between. Some have moments, but gew have careers...which is why it was nice to see Jack Morris rewarded for his fine work with the Hall of Fame. He was an ACE, albeit one with solid run production being his efforts. But also a workhorse.