In early May, all signs pointed to Clay Buchholz becoming the next great ace in Major League Baseball.
Of course, injuries have halted his Cy Young-caliber campaign, further delaying Buchholz's ascension from excellent young starter to top-of-the-rotation stalwart capable of headlining a staff through production, consistency and durability.
As Red Sox fans come to grips with the reality of not seeing Buchholz until after the All-Star break, it's time to wonder if the 28-year-old can match health with an outstanding arsenal on the mound.
Watching Buchholz over the first few months of 2013 has made one thing abundantly clear: He's an improved pitcher, and not just over the 4.56 ERA posted in 2012. The ability to fool batters with ridiculous movement and post strikeout rates (8.6 K/9) better than any time before has helped Buchholz elevate himself over even his 2.33 ERA performance of 2010.
Of course, there's more to being an "ace" than just possessing the ability to limit runs scored when on the mound. Actually being on the mound is critical. Over the years, the moniker of "innings eater" has garnered a bad rap, usually signaling puns about Joe Blanton's weight rather than the ability to soak up innings.
Many pitchers can dominate in short bursts, but ability to combine run suppressing pitching and volume innings is what separates the good pitcher from the very best.
Defining an ace can be difficult and subjective, but it's not crazy to believe that most general managers around the sport would rather start their rotations with the guarantee of, say, 220 innings of really, really good pitching over the prospect of, say, 165 innings of great pitching.
Why? The difference in innings must be soaked up by long relievers, middle-inning arms or replacement-level pitchers who don't belong in the big leagues. The 220-inning horse may give up a few more runs in this scenario, but those are 55 innings of good baseball over the prospect of really, really poor fill-in arms.
When assessing Buchholz's career to date, including the likelihood of more time on the shelf here in 2013, it's impossible to call him an ace because he's never completed a 200-inning season in the major leagues.
Over the years, as sabermetrics have become a part of the mainstream view of individual players, the correlation between WAR and the Cy Young voting is becoming more and more pronounced. Of course, the formula for WAR, regardless of the source (fWAR or bWAR), weighs the amount of innings pitched heavily.
The last five seasons have produced nine individual Cy Young winners (Tim Lincecum won the NL Cy Young in back-to-back seasons in 2008 and 2009). Regardless of your individual system for labeling aces, it's impossible to argue that David Price, R.A Dickey, Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Roy Halladay, Zack Greinke, Cliff Lee and Tim Lincecum were aces in their best years, respectively.
It's no coincidence they all pitched at least 200 innings during those award-winning seasons, thus finishing with extraordinary WAR totals. Outside of Dickey (5.8 WAR in 2012), every member of the group finished their Cy Young campaigns with a 6.5 or better WAR, topped out by Greinke's ridiculous (10.4 WAR) season in 2009.
Producing that kind of value without hitting the 200-inning plateau is one of the rarest feats for a starting pitcher in baseball history. In fact, according to Baseball-Reference.com, only 17 pitching seasons since 1901 have produced a 6.0 or better WAR despite less than 200-innings thrown.
While Buchholz's 2010 was excellent, he didn't quite reach the mark, leaving this debate open for 2013 and beyond. If the Red Sox right-hander can come back soon after the All-Star break and pitch at the level he was in April and May, he may post the 18th season in history of great value vs. limited innings, but it won't be easy.
Buchholz has transformed himself from good to great on the mound, but lingering injury issues are clouding the questions around his status as a true ace.
Until he hits the 200-inning mark, it's hard to put him in the same category with the Kershaws, Hernadezes and Lees of the sport.
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