In baseball, perhaps more than in any other sport, a player is required to earn everything. From his first days as a professional, he has to fight through layers of farm system ball, beating out his contemporaries who are ultimately competing for the same spot in the majors. When finally making The Show, he has to prove himself in every game.
Want to be a closer? Prove you have a "closer's mentality." Want to bat cleanup? Prove you can be clutch with runners on. Want to lead off? Prove you have the necessary on-base and speed skills.
Every privilege, every responsibility that a player has is fought for until a reputation is established.
In most cases, such demands are healthy. They create a player development process that is necessary for helping players reach their potential. They force players to strive for consistency, and they support a culture of hard work and determination essential to a game in which even the best fail two-thirds of the time.
The problem is that some managers and organizations often take things too far. We've all witnessed teams keep their best bullpen arms in setup roles because those pitchers haven't yet "earned" the right to close. We've all seen a reputation for, say, defensive excellence, keep a guy in the lineup despite a total lack of offense even when his glovework fails to measure up in reality.
And just this year, we've watched the Yankees struggle with Derek Jeter, unwilling to move him down in the order simply because "Jeter is not a No. 9 hitter."
The point is that it's important to evaluate guys on an ongoing basis, but forcing a player to prove himself for too long before rewarding him with a key role can be detrimental to the team.
Enter Alfredo Aceves.
The Red Sox are searching for answers to the problems they've had with the back end of the rotation. John Lackey has been ineffective or injured for most of the year, and Daisuke Matsuzaka is now on the shelf for two months or more with an elbow problem. Even under the best case scenario, Boston needed a backup plan for these two, given how poorly they were throwing. But throw in the health woes and the situation gets extremely serious.
So far, the solution has been to spot start Aceves and Tim Wakefield. With all due respect to the seemingly ageless knuckler, I cringe every time he takes the mound. If the knuckleball is working, he should be fine, but if not opposing numbers can get real crooked, real fast.
Aceves is a much safer option. A better option. He's only 28, and has been successful for several seasons. But he's done so primarily as a reliever.
Alfredo Aceves is not a "proven starter."
Yet in his two spot starts for the Red Sox, he's allowed two earned runs in 11 innings. He's struck out eight while walking four, and has a sparkling 1.09 WHIP. Yes, these are only two starts. But Boston could hardly ask for more.
"Proven starter" or not, Aceves is getting the job done.
The question is how this success will be perceived. The Red Sox in general and Theo Epstein specifically are known for their ability to think outside the box. They're not bound by tradition and operate under a more modern, sabermetric view of the game.
So will Aceves' reputation as a reliever prevent the team from accepting him as a true starter? Or can Boston make the right call and give him the ball every five days?
Aceves has pitched himself into this position by doing well, and as the season wears on, he could just as easily pitch himself out of it if he struggles. But for now, all signs are positive. Assuming that Lackey is put back in the mix once he returns from the DL, it should be Aceves, not Wakefield, who sticks as the team's fifth starter.
On the year, Aceves is sporting a 2.22 ERA with a 1.06 WHIP and a 17:10 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The three times he's gone four innings or more, he's been brilliant. No Matsuzaka-like inconsistencies, no Lackey-esque implosions. Just solid pitching.
And it's not as though this is coming out of nowhere. Aceves was dominating in 2009, amassing a 3.54 ERA and 1.01 WHIP in 84 innings with the Yankees. Last season he pitched only 12 innings due to a back injury, but his 3.00 ERA and 1.17 WHIP were still outstanding. And for what it's worth, his career win-loss record now stands at a ridiculous 16-1.
I recently wondered what the team would do if Lackey is unable to bounce back, and to some degree, Aceves has answered that question. He's earned the right to be dubbed a starter.