If You Want The Job Done Right: Mulder and Halladay May Be The Last True Aces

The Ace ReportCorrespondent IJuly 25, 2008

Mark Mulder’s career probably ended last week, not with a bang but with a whimper. Mulder couldn’t get out of the first inning of the Cardinals game July 9 against the Phillies, throwing 16 pitches and getting only one out before leaving the game due to yet another injury, possibly the final setback of his extended comeback attempt.

Mulder’s gradual fade hasn’t gotten a lot of attention – it has been spread over three years to the point that people have just forgotten about him, and while his statistics are good, they were never eye-popping. One year leading the league in wins (2001), but no ERA crowns, no strikeout titles (never even in the picture on strikeout races, in fact), little jumping off the back of his baseball card.

But I, for one, will miss Mark Mulder. Not because of any connection to the A’s or the Cardinals; I have none. Not because of any personal connection to Mulder. I’ll miss him because he was one of the few true aces left in baseball, along with marvels like Roy Halladay (who finishes more games that he starts than any other team in baseball right now). I’m not talking about guys who put up the aforementioned eye-popping ERAs and strikeout totals and WHIPS; I’m talking about a stopper, a starter who can put his team on his back for a whole game and just carry them, even when nothing else is working for the team. The whole nine innings.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Johan Santana and think he’s an incredible pitcher; his arsenal is just devastating at times, and it’s just fun to watch guys like him pitch. He’s up to his usual tricks this year, with an ERA under 3.00 and stellar ratios all around. But were you aware that in his 194 career starts (to date), Johan has completed exactly 6 of them? In other words, Johan is an incredible pitcher and will give his team a chance to win almost every game he starts, but he will always need somebody else to finish the job. And even when that somebody else is his team’s closer, be it Joe Nathan or Billy Wagner or whomever, I think it’s safe to say that somebody else is a less talented pitcher than Johan himself. So a Johan start means you get Johan’s innings plus the less talented bullpen innings to finish the job. And those bullpen innings are too many to just give to the Nathans and Wagners – Johan has only once in his career averaged seven innings per start for a season, and that just barely in 2005 at 7.02, leaving 2-3 innings for less talented pitchers than himself, less talented pitchers who could lose the game.

I’m by no means arguing that Mulder is a better pitcher than Santana for a 162 game season – but rather that because he was able to go the distance when necessary, he was better equipped to win tough, close games, when the offense is getting shut down or in a slump (these kind of games, coincidentally, become more frequent in the postseason, where Mulder was incredibly successful).

One of my favorite games of all time – despite having no team-based rooting interest – was the April 23, 2005 game between the Astros and the Cardinals. Roger Clemens took the mound for Houston at the beginning of perhaps his most spectacular season as he managed to maintain a 1.87 ERA for the season despite winning only 13 games for the punchless ‘Stros. Opposing him were the Cards and Mulder. Mulder and Clemens traded zeros for 7 innings, after which Clemens headed for the showers (he averaged 6.6 innings per start that year and only finished the year with one complete game). Meanwhile Mulder kept on. He traded zeros for two more frames with Houston reliever Chad Qualls, and even threw a scoreless 10th before the Cardinals scored in the bottom of the 10th off of Qualls and Brad Lidge.

Clemens got a quality start, lowered his ERA, and earned the sympathy of fans who cried that he deserved to win since he threw seven scoreless innings (a refrain that would be repeated often that year, as Clemens frequently left games early and ended with no-decisions). But it was Mulder who did what he had to do to make sure his team won the game, even when they were getting shut down offensively. Since his team wasn’t scoring, he made sure he could win the game for his team by pitching efficiently and keeping his pitch count low enough so that he could go the distance and make sure the job got done right. If you want the job done right, sometimes you have to be willing to do it yourself. Seven inning “aces” shouldn’t complain when they get no-decisions or the bullpen blows their leads – if they want the wins, they should find a way to keep themselves in the game as long as possible and minimize innings pitched by inferior pitchers.

That might mean making sure the manager knows that you want to stay in the game. On July 4 this year, Johan was keeping the Mets in a close game against the Phillies, tied at 2 after 8. Santana had only thrown 95 pitches for the game and blew through the Phils in the 8th with a strikeout and two weak groundouts. It was obvious Santana could go nine. Yet when the Phillies came up to bat in the bottom of the 9th, it was Duaner Sanchez, and not Santana, on the mound. Johan Santana and other pitchers who are being paid to be aces for teams (don’t think that I’m picking on Johan alone here; there are plenty of other pitchers for whom this qualifies, and Johan is just a convenient example since I follow him more closely than others, such as Jake Peavy (7-5, 2.47 ERA this season), Dan Haren (8-5, 2.72), or the late-career Clemens, whose W-L records underwhelm compared to their performance) need to face one of two problems: 1)Get themselves to the point where they are able to pitch more innings and win more games for their teams, or 2)Make sure their managers know that they are able to do so and not get pulled too early with gas still in the tank.

Doing this will help teams’ performances tremendously. You can maximize use of your best pitcher – more innings by Johan or Peavy or Haren is better for their teams because it means less innings by the weaker bullpen pitchers. Giving your ace relievers a day off when the ace starter is going saves your best relievers for games pitched by lesser starters, when the relievers are more needed. It also saves bullpen arms from overuse, since even warming up without entering the game takes a toll on an arm. (Excuse me, I have to take a call…Strange, it’s a voice that calls himself Scott from L.A. and all he keeps saying is “Help. He’s after me again.”)

Right now, teams are paying their best pitchers a king’s ransom to be statistical wonders for seven innings. They’ll be better off if they can pay that king’s ransom for true aces.