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How Today's MLB 'Aces' Have Changed from 25 Years Ago

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How Today's MLB 'Aces' Have Changed from 25 Years Ago
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images
Clayton Kershaw's picture should be next to the word "Awesome" in the dictionary.

They just don't make ace starting pitchers like they used to.

And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

We baseball fans tend to think of old-school players as superheroes capable of superhuman feats. When we think about ace pitchers even from as recently as 25 years ago, for example, we think of Roger Clemens punching out 20 hitters in a game and of Nolan Ryan throwing no-hitter after no-hitter.

But the ace pitchers of today have a few advantages on the ace pitchers from 25 years ago. They're not indestructible supermen, but that doesn't mean they're not better pitchers.

If you'll just follow me this way, we can take a look at a few specifics.

 

Which Aces Are We Talking About Here?

The first thing we need to clarify are the time periods at play here.

When I say "25 years ago," I mean 25 seasons from the 2012 campaign. The 2013 season is underway, but it hasn't given us nearly enough data yet.

So we're talking 1988 to 2012, not 1989 to 2013.

But since I didn't want to compare just one season's collection of ace pitchers to another season's collection of ace pitchers, I made things more definitive by drawing pitchers from three-year windows: 2010 to 2012 and 1986 to 1988.

Then I narrowed things down by using FanGraphs WAR, plucking out the top 20 pitchers from each three-year stretch with a minimum of 450 innings pitched.

The guys from 2010 to 2012: Justin Verlander, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia, Jered Weaver, Zack Greinke, David Price, Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Jon Lester, Dan Haren, C.J. Wilson, Anibal Sanchez, Gio Gonzalez, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, Ian Kennedy and Mat Latos.

And the guys from 1986-1988: Roger Clemens, Teddy Higuera, Mike Scott, Frank Viola, Bret Saberhagen, Dwight Gooden, Mark Langston, Mark Gubicza, Mike Witt, Nolan Ryan, Bruce Hurst, Charlie Leibrandt, Danny Jackson, Bob Welch, Orel Hershiser, Mike Moore, Jimmy Key, Jack Morris, Dave Stewart and Rick Reuschel.

You could make a case for this guy or that guy needing to be included in this group or that group, but these two collections feature some fine aces. For the purpose of comparing one era to another, they'll do nicely.

Now then, about the whole superhuman supermen thing...

 

On Workloads: A Comparison of Innings

Here's a statement that isn't going to shock you in the slightest: It turns out that ace pitchers from the 1980s were more prolific workhorses than today's ace pitchers.

Yeah, yeah. Obvious point is obvious. But this is a point that really hits home when the innings compiled by the 2010-2012 ace pitchers are placed next to the innings compiled by the 1986-1988 ace pitchers.

The first thing you'll notice here is the fact that seven guys from the 1986-1988 crowd logged over 700 innings in that three-year stretch. Only two guys, Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander, have done that among the contemporary aces.

For that matter, even the average for the 1986-1988 crowd is over 700 innings, a figure that dwarfs the average of 634 innings compiled by the contemporary crowd.

And indeed, it says a lot that the last guy in the 1986-1988 column is Nolan Ryan. He wasn't much of a workhorse in those three years compared to where he was earlier in his career, yet he still averaged a little over 200 innings per season between '86 and '88.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Nolan Ryan led the National League in strikeouts in 1987 and 1988.

Ryan himself understands that expectations for ace pitchers are just plain different in this day and age.

"I remember it used to be that 300 innings was the benchmark for an ace," Ryan told Bob Nightengale of USA Today in 2008. "If you were a starter, you were expected to pitch at least 250 innings. Now, you may have one guy go 200 innings on your whole staff."

In fairness, some of today's aces may actually be capable of pitching 300 innings in a season. We're just highly unlikely to find out for sure, A) because teams have no choice but to be cautious given how much money aces are making nowadays and B) because teams have long since discovered that relievers are people too.

Per FanGraphs, seven relievers compiled 200 appearances between 1986 and 1988. Between 2010 and 2012, 25 relievers compiled that many appearances. That's a sizable difference that speaks volumes about how much more relievers are a part of the game now than they used to be.

Explanations aside, the point here does go to the old aces. They were indeed bigger workhorses.

But could they strike guys out like today's aces?

 

On Dominance: A Comparison of Strikeouts

The answer: No they could not.

There were some darn good strikeout pitchers back in the day, but there weren't as many of them as there are now. That's a reality that shows up when comparing the strikeout percentages (strikeouts / batters faced) compiled by the two camps.

The Ryan Express, not surprisingly, was quite the strikeout machine in the late 1980s. However, you can see that he's one of only five members of the 1986-1988 crowd who managed to strike out over 20 percent of the batters they faced. The 2010-2012 crowd features 19 such guys.

Like the innings comparison, this would be another sign of the times. Elite strikeout pitchers used to be relatively rare. Now they're commonplace in what is clearly a golden age for the strikeout.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
It also helps that guys like Justin Verlander exist.

I've already written about the various factors contributing to the rise of the strikeout in recent years, and I'll briefly go over them again here. One is the fact that hitters are less juiced than they were back before PED testing was implemented in 2005. Umpires have been calling more strikes ever since the PITCHf/x era began in 2007. Most pitchers throw hard nowadays.

But perhaps most importantly, pitchers and pitching coaches have never been better informed about the habits of hitters. If a pitcher wants to know how many low-and-away sliders Miguel Cabrera swings at when the count is 2-2, he can look that up in about 10 seconds. 

It used to be only the power pitchers who could rack up strikeouts back in the day. Now all pitchers are capable of doing it, and you can see that the aces of the day are having no trouble whatsoever leading the way.

They're not just better at racking up strikeouts. They're also better at avoiding free passes.

 

On Control: A Comparison of Walks

For all the things that have changed in the realm of pitching over the years, one thing has always remained true: Walks are pretty much the worst thing in the world.

Indeed they are, and today's ace pitchers don't issue as many of them as the ace pitchers from the 1986-1988 crowd. Here's a look at how their walk percentages (walks/batters faced) compare.

Here you can see that four contemporary pitchers posted better walk percentages over the last three seasons than Rick Reuschel did between 1986 and 1988. In fact, the lowest walk rate between 1986 and 1988 belonged to Doyle Alexander, and it was only 4.9 percent.

Beyond that, you can see 12 modern aces with walk rates below seven percent, compared to eight pitchers from the 1986-1988 crowd. There are 17 modern pitchers with walk rates below eight percent, compared to 14 for the other side.

This would be yet another sign of the times. Modern pitchers know that they're not going to be left out there to throw an absurd amount of pitches and compile an absurd amount of innings, so they need to be as efficient as possible. To that end, they can help themselves a great deal by not walking guys. 

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Cliff Lee probably knows his umpires.

Beyond that, the low walk totals are another thing that can be chalked up to the abundance of information that's out there now. In addition to being able to scout hitters like never before, pitchers and pitching coaches can scout umpires like never before. 

"We do have their tendencies in the dugout on the wall. The name of the umpire and his tendencies, what they call and what part of the zone they call strikes," Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington said in 2010, via the AP.

Washington was a player in the 1980s, and he noted that things were much different back then: "When I was playing, we just knew he was a high-ball umpire or a low-ball umpire, whether he was a pitcher's umpire or a hitter's umpire."

And the answer he gave when asked what's changed: "Technology."

You can rest assured that the Rangers aren't the only team out there scouting umpires, and you can rest assured that the aces are doing their homework on the blue guys as well.

So we know that modern aces are better strikeout and control artists, but how much better are they compared to the older guys?

 

On Standing Out: A Comparison of League Averages

We tend to know who all the ace pitchers are because of how much they stand out. They're just so much better than all the other pitchers out there. They're just that far above average.

The big question: How far above average are contemporary aces compared to aces from the 1986-1988 window? Are they further away from the field, or closer to it?

To answer this question, we obviously need some averages.

Here's a look at the ERA, strikeout percentages and walk percentages compiled by starting pitchers in the 2010-2012 and 1986-1988 windows (the links go to FanGraphs).

Window ERA K% BB%
2010-2012 4.14 18.0 7.6
1986-1988 4.09 14.6 8.2

The differences in strikeout and walk percentages reflect the league-wide changes we were discussing above, but the similarities between the two ERAs reflect the reality that we're talking about two fairly similar run-scoring environments. We're comparing apples to oranges, to be sure, but at least our apples and oranges are roughly the same size (or whatever).

We've already looked at the strikeout and walk percentages of our two groups. Here's a look at their ERAs.

The 2010-2012 collection of pitchers features 10 pitchers whose ERAs were at least a full run below the league average. Smush all their ERAs together—which is admittedly not the most statistically savvy thing to do here—and you get an average ERA of 3.23.

That's 0.91 points below the league-average ERA for starters between 2010 and 2012, which is impressive.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Roger Clemens' 2.80 ERA between 1986 and 1988 was 1.29 runs below the league average.

By comparison, the 1986-1988 collection of aces features only five pitchers who compiled ERAs at least a run lower than the league average. Collectively, their 20 ERAs averaged out to 3.39, which is 0.70 points below the league average for starters in that span.

So in the ERA arena, the point goes to modern pitchers.

In the strikeouts arena, the 2010-2012 collection of aces features five pitchers whose strikeout percentages topped the league-average by at least five points. As a whole, they topped the league-average strikeout percentage by 4.5 points.

The 1986-1988 collection of aces features six pitchers who topped the league-average strikeout percentage by five or more points. However, it also features four pitchers whose strikeout percentages were below the league average, and on the whole the 20 pitchers did only 3.6 points better than the league average.

Another point for modern aces.

In walks, the 2010-2012 collection of aces features 10 pitchers who beat the league-average walk rate for starters by at least a point. As a whole, they did 0.90 points better than the league average.

The 1986-1988 crowd featured nine pitchers who beat the league-average walk rate by at least a point, but also five pitchers who did worse than the league average. As a whole, they did 0.58 points better than the league average.

Make that three points for modern aces, which makes it game, set, match.

 

Frustrating Limitations and Final Thoughts

As far as comparison studies go, this was a simple one. It unfortunately had to be.

Just as pitchers now have all the data they need to study hitters and umpires, we now have all the data we need to study pitchers from afar. We can analyze them from their ground-ball percentages to their home run per fly ball rates to how many pitches they throw to how hard they throw them to how effective each of their pitches are and so on.

Alas, the data only stretches back so far.

As much as I'd love to tell you whether or not modern pitchers have better or worse ground-ball rates or better or worse home run per fly ball rates, I can't. Nor can I show you which pitches old-school pitchers were throwing, much less how often, how hard or how well. All we have to go by for stuff like this are the legends, which obviously don't have much statistical credibility.

As such, there are many, many unknowns at play here. We don't know how modern ace pitchers compare to old-school ace pitchers down to the last detail, and I doubt we ever will.

But based on what we looked at, it's clear that contemporary aces are better at the art of pitching than old-school aces. They don't pitch as many innings, sure, but they're better at striking guys out and at not walking guys, and they generally have better ERAs . And collectively, they perform that much better than the average pitcher than the old aces.

Maybe they're superhuman after all.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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