It sounds like the question of an innocent child to a parent.
“Where do aces come from?”
The Red Sox don’t have one, and the absence of a reliable anchor has been palpable in the early season. In their last 10 games, the Red Sox have received just one quality start. They are tied for 25th in the big leagues in starts of six or more innings (6 to this point).
It’s a small window, still less than 10 percent of the season, but what’s been seen through it has not been so good, even as the team has executed well in other phases of the game to maintain a first-place perch for all but two days of the season (one of which was an off day after Opening Day).
Thus, it’s been easy to dwell on the same roster construction question that lorded over the winter to such a degree that it became a running joke among the actual members: Who’s the ace?
But the “who” question is, in some ways, secondary to a more challenging issue: How do teams get aces?
The Red Sox have been confronting that dating to the start of last year, when they were trying to decide how to proceed with Jon Lester. It continued through the trade deadline, when they landed some critical future pieces even while parting ways with Lester, then throughout a winter that saw Lester walk and the Red Sox pass on the high-end free agent market.
How could they let Lester walk? Why didn’t they go after James Shields or Max Scherzer? Why didn’t they make a more aggressive move for Cole Hamels? A decade ago, those reactions all would have been reasonable answers of first resort. In 2004, of the top 20 pitchers (by Wins Above Replacement, as determined by Baseball-Reference.com), six had come to their clubs as free agents and three more had been traded to the clubs with whom they finished that season after already assuming ace status in the game.
Aces could be found in free agency because pitchers remained aces not just into their 30s but into their mid-30s, late-30s, and even 40s. There were seven pitchers among the league’s top 20 in WAR who were at least 31 years old, topped by 40-year-old Randy Johnson and the 41-year-old Roger Clemens.
|Johan Santana||25||8.6||Rule 5 draft|
|Randy Johnson||40||8.5||Free agent|
|Curt Schilling||37||7.9||Trade (as ace)|
|Carlos Zambrano||23||6.7||International amateur|
|Jason Schmidt||31||6.7||Free agent|
|Oliver Perez||22||5.8||Trade (early big league career)|
|Joe Kennedy||25||5.6||Trade (early big league career)|
|Pedro Martinez||32||5.5||Trade (as ace)|
|Roger Clemens||41||5.4||Free agent|
|Carl Pavano||28||5.3||Trade (early big league career)|
|Ryan Drese||28||5||Trade (early big league career)|
|Livan Hernandez||29||4.9||Trade (established veteran)|
|Doug Davis||28||4.9||Free agent|
|Rodrigo Lopez||28||4.9||Free agent|
|Freddy Garcia||27||4.8||Trade (minors)/trade (as ace)|
|Al Leiter||38||4.8||Trade/signed long-term|
|Kelvim Escobar||28||4.4||Free agent|
The average age of the top 20 by WAR was 29.5 years old. Fast-forward to 2014. None of the top 17 pitchers by WAR were signed as free agents. One of the top 20 was in his age 31 season or older (32-year-old Adam Wainwright). The average age of the top 20 pitchers in the game had moved down just over a year and a half, to just under 28. So if aces weren’t coming from free agency or even – save for the midyear deals involving Jon Lester and David Price – trades, how did teams acquire the best pitchers in the game?
Eight opened the year with the team that drafted them and two more were with the teams that signed them as international amateur teenagers. One was claimed on waivers.
But there was something more. A startling seven of the top 20 pitchers by WAR were acquired in trades as players without big league track records of success. Many of them flourished in a way that proved completely unexpected, such as Corey Kluber, who went from a prospect of little profile to the Cy Young winner.
|Clayton Kershaw||26||7.5||Drafted/Signed long-term|
|Corey Kluber||28||7.4||Trade (minors)|
|Felix Hernandez||28||6.8||International amateur/Signed long-term|
|Cole Hamels||30||6.6||Drafted/Signed long-term|
|Chris Sale||25||6.6||Drafted/Signed long-term|
|Johnny Cueto||28||6.4||International amateur|
|Adam Wainwright||32||6.1||Trade (minors)|
|Max Scherzer||29||6||Trade (early big league career)|
|Jake Arrieta||28||5.3||Trade (early big league career)|
|Tanner Roark||27||5.1||Trade (minors)|
|Henderson Alvarez||24||4.6||Trade (early big league career)|
|Doug Fister||30||4.5||Trade (pre-free agency)|
|Phil Hughes||28||4.3||Free agent|
|Zack Greinke||30||4.3||Free agent|
|Collin McHugh||27||4.2||Waiver claim|
But while few examples are that extreme, Tanner Roark was hardly viewed as a future elite starter when the Nationals acquired him. Max Scherzer looked like a considerable injury risk and a potential future bullpen arm due to his pitch inefficiency when the Diamondbacks moved him to Detroit. Jake Arrieta was an Orioles castoff before he emerged as a dominant starter for the Cubs last year.
In 2014, then, as in recent years, the method with the highest probability of fronting a rotation with an ace has been drafting or signing a pitcher as an amateur (whether through the draft or international amateur free agency), helping him achieve some sort of developmental breakthrough, then retaining him for the long haul, or finding a pitcher with tremendous stuff that had yet to translate to results.
In other words, in the baseball landscape of 2014, the best odds of landing an ace were found in projection (through both amateur and pro scouting) and development, rather than by identifying a pitcher with the track record of an ace.
“Teams aren’t trading aces,” noted one major league evaluator, “so you’ve got to get them when they’re not aces.”
“Aces come from all over the place – they come from the international [market], the domestic draft, mostly the top end of the domestic draft, and they come from trades. Very few come from free-agent signings given that, traditionally, their age was such that when they signed, they’re aces in age but not in [future] performance,” the evaluator continued. “Lester, Shields, and those guys – in names they’re aces. Even if they are this year, will they be for that long? So I really think you’re looking at the younger demographic of players.”
That, in turn, offers context for some of the moves made by the Sox in the last nine months. Joe Kelly is a pitcher with crazy stuff – the high-90s two-seamer, an eye-level changing curveball, a slider from his college career that he’s dusting off – that has yet to turn into sustained excellence as a starter. He has the arm to create a sliver of hope that he can become what he showed for the first five innings of Wednesday’s start against the Rays (one run, seven strikeouts, dominance), rather than the one who unraveled in the sixth.
Eduardo Rodriguez, similarly, shows the stuff of a top-of-the-rotation starter. One American League evaluator who saw him recently in Pawtucket suggested that his stuff – a clear plus fastball and changeup, a slider that could play as plus in the future – looked to him like that of a pitcher whose floor is that of a No. 3 starter, with the upside of a No. 2 or even a No. 1, the sort of potential that left him marveling that the Red Sox were able to land him from the Orioles in exchange for two months of Andrew Miller’s services.
There’s an excellent chance that neither Kelly nor Rodriguez develops into an ace. Odds are stacked against any pitcher becoming a front-of-the-rotation starter, which helps to explain why some evaluators more or less refuse to turn in any pitcher as a future No. 1. But if trying to play the right lottery tickets, teams face a greater likelihood of long-term, sustainable payoff if they can find some ace-like raw materials that haven’t translated into results than if they stack their chips in front of a pitcher in his early-30s who has been an ace.
The probability of getting an ace in the short-term is greater with the established veteran strategy, but that approach carries immense longer-term risks given the low likelihood of being able to sustain top-of-the-rotation performance. And when they fall short of the expectations set for them, the consequences can be devastating.
Teams don’t construct their rosters depending upon buy-low players making somewhere around $1 million to become dominant. A team benefits immensely by finding the next Corey Kluber or Jake Arrieta, or by waiting for the next Garret Richards to emerge from their system, but if that doesn’t happen, they usually insulate themselves with solid mid- or back-of-the-rotation arms. But a $20 million a year pitcher who performs at the level of a $10 million or $5 million or $1 million arm? That’s an awfully big anvil that can drop on a club, flattening a roster into a squeaking, broken accordion.
That probability game will do little to address the Red Sox’ current rotation shortcomings. But, as they wait to see whether some members of their current quintet (or a pitcher in Pawtucket) might step forward, it does help to explain the construction of the rest of the team.
The Sox built an offense that can buy time to see if pitchers like Kelly and Rick Porcello and Clay Buchholz can assert themselves. They have a farm system that can allow the team to try to acquire a frontline starter later in the year if the need persists.
Such an approach is no guarantee of finding an ace, but it represents as sensible a bet as there is given the notion that a long-term track record of a pitcher performing at the level of an ace has itself become a red flag in considering the likelihood of future success.
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