Identifying the 'True Aces' of Major League Baseball Entering 2016
If we were to pitch a show about Major League Baseball's best starting pitchers to HBO, it would obviously be called True Aces. That's the easy part.
But we're here to consider what would be the hard part: casting it.
In a landscape so densely populated with dominant starting pitchers, it's hard to separate the regular aces from the true aces. Lest we water down what should be an exclusive club, we need ground rules.
- A good start is defining a "true ace" as a pitcher who is a virtual lock for at least 200 dominant innings in 2016.
- To help narrow the field, let's consider only pitchers with at least two straight years of ace-like pitching in their wake.
- Said ace-like pitching also has to be believable, to the extent that it's featured plenty of strikeouts, few walks and/or strong contact management.
- And though postseason excellence isn't a requirement, it's definitely a bonus.
In normal circumstances, we'd have a list with 10 names on it. But this list goes to 11, ranked from least-best to best-best, plus we have a whole bunch of honorable mentions. Let's get to it.
Here are some honorable mentions—otherwise known as the portion of the program that's going to have a lot of people huffing and puffing at our lack of respect for some clearly great pitchers.
- Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays: He reached his potential by posting a 3.23 ERA with 252 strikeouts in 212 innings last season. Now, let's see if he can do it again.
- Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates: He also reached his potential with a 2.60 ERA in 208 innings in 2015. Another year of that would elevate him among the best of the best.
- Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins: Watching his fastball-curveball combination leads to tingly sensations, and it's helped him post an average of 2.40 ERA in three seasons. But while he can certainly pitch like a true ace, he needs to prove he can handle the workload of a true ace.
- Sonny Gray, Oakland Athletics: His career 2.88 ERA and consecutive 200-inning seasons make him a tough omission. The trouble is that his dominance isn't easy to explain, as he's not yet a master at whiffs, control or contact management.
- Cole Hamels, Texas Rangers: There are years when he looks like a true ace, and there's no questioning his track record as an innings-eater. But in two of the last three years, ERA+ has rated him as only slightly better than an average pitcher. That's not a good look on a 32-year-old pitcher.
- Matt Harvey, New York Mets: Put his 2013 and 2015 seasons together, and you get a 2.50 ERA and a killer ratio of 5.57 strikeouts to one walk. The catch, of course, is that in between was a year lost due to Tommy John surgery.
- Jon Lester, Chicago Cubs: He was one of the game's best starters from the end of 2013 through the end of 2014, with an excellent postseason in the middle. But in posting a 3.34 ERA in 2015, he was often just OK.
- Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals: He couldn't be stopped in 2013 and 2014, racking up a 2.67 ERA across nearly 470 regular-season innings. But since he's now 34 and coming off a season in which an Achilles injury limited him to just four starts, well, we have our doubts.
OK, then. Now that Rays, Pirates, Marlins, A's, Rangers, Mets, Cubs, Angels and Cardinals fans are all good and ticked off, we can get on with the good stuff.
11. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
The common folk call Felix Hernandez "King Felix," and the throne upon which he sits is his track record.
Since 2008, the Seattle Mariners ace has compiled a 2.90 ERA, averaging 225 innings per year. And according to Baseball-Reference.com, he's second only to Clayton Kershaw in wins above replacement. He's won one American League Cy Young and arguably should have won another in 2014.
So, why does King Felix only barely crack this list? Well, he didn't look so kingly in 2015, posting a 3.53 ERA in 201.2 innings. His fastball velocity took a step down after a short-lived spike in 2014, helping to result in a problem with the long ball.
It all looked a bit too much like the start of a decline. And yet, we're obviously not sold that Hernandez is ready to vacate his throne.
In 2015, King Felix maintained a strong handle on a wicked arsenal of pitches—including a devastating changeup that many consider to be the best in baseball—and he benefited accordingly. He was one of only three pitchers to post a ground-ball percentage over 55 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio over 3.0. The other two were Cy Young winners Dallas Keuchel and Jake Arrieta.
Hernandez probably doesn't have many seasons as a true ace left in him. But if he has more well-rounded excellence like that in him, 2016 shouldn't be the threat to his throne that 2015 was.
10. Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
The New York Mets starting rotation features the most hyped trio of stars since the DC Trinity. We'd be remiss if we didn't consider at least one of them, so it's a good thing Jacob deGrom fits the bill.
He's been in the big leagues for only two seasons, but he's made his mark with a 2.61 ERA that checks in at No. 4 among qualified starters. This includes a 2.54 ERA across 191 innings in 2015, a performance that made him a National League Cy Young contender.
The 27-year-old looks even better under a microscope. In the process of his posting a studly 5.39 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2015, Brooks Baseball can show that he became a legit five-pitch pitcher. And as Owen Watson noted at Fox Sports, the velocity readings of deGrom's four-seam fastball, changeup and curveball are most reminiscent of vintage Pedro Martinez.
His fastball is especially impressive. In light of its mid-90s velocity and late action, it's not surprising when Baseball Prospectus reveals that hitters managed just a .181 average against it in 2015. That was the lowest of any pitcher who had at least 200 fastballs put in play.
And knowing that both deGrom's strikeout rate and walk rate improved in 2015, all he needs to do in 2016 is show he can handle more than 200 innings in the regular season. After his strong postseason work took him well over 200 total innings in 2015, that shouldn't be a problem.
9. Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians
Cue up the theme music from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, because it's time to talk about Corey Kluber.
The pitcher/cyborg known as "Klubot" won the AL Cy Young in 2014 on the strength of a 2.44 ERA across 235.2 innings. And since 2013, rWAR rates the Cleveland Indians ace as a top-10 starter.
Granted, Kluber did seem to take a step back in 2015. Though he pitched 222 innings, his ERA rose over a run to 3.49. As he heads into his age-30 season, there's no ignoring the notion that he's already peaked.
But Kluber was more dominant than last season's ERA lets on. According to Baseball Prospectus' "Deserved Run Average" metric, he was better than deGrom, Hernandez, Madison Bumgarner and Chris Sale. And though Kluber was indeed hit a little harder, his 5.44 strikeout-to-walk ratio was sixth-best among qualified starters.
Part of that equation is Kluber's strong control. But certainly the more eye-catching part is his stuff. He works off a sinker that sits in the low-to-mid-90s, and his cutter and slider are borderline unhittable. Both pitches have elite glove-side run, per Baseball Prospectus, and hitters managed just a .175 average against the two pitches combined in 2015, per Brooks Baseball.
Behind Kluber in Cleveland's rotation, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar are not to be underestimated. But until further notice, neither is quite on Kluber's level.
8. Dallas Keuchel, Houston Astros
If the rule is that all true aces must be power pitchers with big fastballs, Dallas Keuchel is the exception.
The Houston Astros ace doesn't even crack 90 mph with his average fastball, but he's compiled a 2.69 ERA in 432 innings over the last two seasons nonetheless. These figures put the 28-year-old among baseball's top five pitchers according to rWAR, and he's coming off an AL Cy Young-winning season highlighted by a 2.48 ERA and an AL-high 232 innings.
We noted earlier that only Keuchel, Hernandez and Jake Arrieta blended high ground-ball rates with excellent strikeout-to-walk ratios in 2015, but there's more to say about his mastery of the former. His contact-management mastery includes not only an MLB-best 62.6 ground-ball percentage since 2014 but elite marks in soft contact and hard contact as well.
For this, he mainly has his sinker location to thank. He's an expert at working it down and away from lefties and righties, thereby making them go get it. But Keuchel's best weapon is his slider. It has glove-side run reminiscent of Chris Sale's slider, and the .115 average against it was the lowest against any starter's slider in 2015.
With his special formula in hand, Keuchel showed last season that his 2014 breakthrough was no fluke. Let's also not forget that he excelled in a pair of postseason starts. Given the way he's going, 2016 could be something special.
7. David Price, Boston Red Sox
Look, you don't get $217 million for being an OK pitcher. Just ask David Price.
The newly minted Boston Red Sox ace has put up a 2.97 ERA and has averaged just short of 220 innings per year since 2010, a span in which rWAR puts him among baseball's top six pitchers. And in 2015, his 2.45 ERA won him his second American League ERA title in four years.
Price also has a 5.78 strikeout-to-walk ratio over the last three seasons, putting him behind only Clayton Kershaw among qualified pitchers. That reflects an ability to throw strikes that's nearly unparalleled, as only Phil Hughes has thrown strikes at a higher rate than Price since 2013. That's what you can do when you have an easily repeatable delivery and a mid-90s fastball.
However, Price doesn't rely on his heat as much anymore. In 2015, he put more trust in his cutter and changeup. The latter is only getting better with time, as it's gaining more arm-side fade and drawing more whiffs every year.
That's to say Price's pitching style is evolving beyond a straightforward grip-it-and-rip-it style. That's indeed what the 30-year-old needs to do at this stage of his career, and it provides hope that he'll fix his career's one and only weak spot: his postseason history.
6. Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs
Don't even think about calling Jake Arrieta a one-year wonder.
Though few seemed to notice, the Chicago Cubs ace broke out with a 2.53 ERA in 25 starts in 2014. Add that to his NL Cy Young-winning performance marked by a 1.77 ERA and 229 innings in 2015, and you get a pitcher who's second only to Clayton Kershaw in rWAR over the last two seasons.
Arrieta's 2015 season was a beautiful illustration of all-around dominance. His 4.92 strikeout-to-walk ratio was among the best in the league, and he managed contact better than anyone. He posted a 56.2 ground-ball percentage and, according to Baseball Savant, an MLB-low average exit velocity of 84.89 mph.
Though Arrieta has strong command, his dominance mostly stems from the sheer nastiness of his stuff. His heat sits in the mid-90s, and MLB.com's Mike Petriello can vouch that the spin rates on his sinker, slider, curveball and changeup are all elite.
"Stuff-wise, I think he's the nastiest right-handed pitcher in the league," Cubs catcher Miguel Montero told Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today. "Everything he's got is plus. I don't think any hitter feels comfortable facing him."
The only concern is that Arrieta seemed to break down as the Cubs advanced deeper into the postseason last year. He ended up throwing about 250 total innings in 2015, and his rough spring is making it look like that was a few too many.
But as far as red flags go, that's it. From every other perspective, Arrieta has earned his ace billing.
5. Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox
Chris Sale's weakness is his comes-and-goes durability. In the last four seasons, he's averaged slightly less than 200 innings.
But that's been the Chicago White Sox ace's only shortcoming. He has posted a 2.95 ERA and a 5.06 strikeout-to-walk ratio over the last four seasons, racking up more rWAR than every pitcher not named Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer.
Sale's dominance comes mainly from huge strikeout talent and underrated contact management. The reason for these abilities is twofold: His delivery looks modeled after some kind of medieval torture device, and his pitches are the stuff of science fiction. His four-seamer has mid-90s velocity and elite arm-side run. His changeup also has elite arm-side run. And among lefties, his slider has elite glove-side run.
"He and Kershaw are the two left-handers in baseball who can flat-out embarrass you," Jeff Francoeur told Jayson Stark of ESPN.com last summer. "When you face those two guys, they can make you feel like you never played baseball before."
The only thing that's held Sale back to this point is the lack of a strong defense behind him. If the White Sox change that in 2016, he may yet take another step forward.
4. Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
The book on Max Scherzer used to say he might be great, if only he could figure out where the hell the ball was going when it left his hand.
But that was a while ago. The Washington Nationals ace has compiled a 2.94 ERA and averaged over 220 innings per year since 2013, racking up more rWAR than everyone except Clayton Kershaw. He's won one Cy Young and has finished in the top five of the voting in each of the other two years.
And last year, the 8.12 strikeout-to-walk ratio Scherzer posted alongside his 2.79 ERA was the best in baseball. Better than 50 percent of the 31-year-old's pitches found the strike zone, and 71 percent of his pitches went for strikes. Basically, he was in attack mode all season.
That's the last thing opposing hitters want to see again. It's hard enough to hit him when he isn't in full-on attack mode. His fastball sits in the mid-90s with late life, and he held hitters to sub-.200 averages with each of his secondary pitches in 2015.
One gripe is that Scherzer doesn't manage contact especially well, as he's a fly-ball pitcher who is hit hard on occasion. But for the most part, he's too overwhelming for that to matter.
3. Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants
As much as we like it, rWAR has its limits. We know this because it only rates Madison Bumgarner as the 12th-best pitcher in baseball since 2013.
Poppycock. The San Francisco Giants ace is the only pitcher to pitch more than 200 innings with an ERA below 3.00 in each of the last three seasons. And in the middle of doing so, he also authored arguably the greatest postseason pitching performance ever in 2014. That's worth a few a lot of bonus points.
And the 26-year-old is only getting better. Bumgarner set a new career high with 218.1 innings in 2015, and he also sent his strikeout-to-walk ratio to a new high of 6.00. Only three qualified starters did better.
Bumgarner doesn't do it with particularly filthy stuff, as he only sits in the low 90s with his fastball, and none of his secondaries feature elite movement. Instead, his game is more about deception.
Bumgarner throws the ball like a sideways trebuchet, resulting in what Billy Butler called "tremendous crossfire" in a 2014 interview with Anthony DiComo of MLB.com. That's one thing that makes it hard to get a read on him, and his location pattern is another. By keeping his fastballs up and his cutters and curveballs down, Bumgarner further discombobulates hitters by changing their eye levels.
Of course, he also gets a boost from pitching regularly at AT&T Park. That advantage aside, though, Bumgarner has skills and creds that many other aces only wish they had.
2. Zack Greinke, Arizona Diamondbacks
Zack Greinke's new $206.5 million contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks will pay him more per year than any other player in history. So, he better be good.
Good news: He is. The 32-year-old discovered new levels of stupendousness as a Los Angeles Dodger over the last three years, posting a 2.30 ERA (second only to Clayton Kershaw) in more than 600 innings. And of course, he led all of MLB with a 1.66 ERA in 2015.
But, meh. Who needs to overpower hitters when you can outsmart them?
Greinke's craftiness extends beyond his superb 5.4 walk percentage since 2013. Lefty batters get fastballs and changeups away, whereas righty batters get fastballs and sliders away, and he does enough flirting with the outside edge of the strike zone against both to earn calls and swings outside the zone.
And Greinke's analytical approach doesn't stop there.
"He may know that he's going to make a pitch to a certain area, and he may want to move the shortstop somewhere, or move the third baseman in and back," former Dodgers bench coach Tim Wallach told Brian Costa of the Wall Street Journal. "He's involved in the whole part of it when he's pitching."
Elsewhere, Greinke doesn't get enough credit for his postseason work. With a 2.38 ERA in his last six October starts, there's little he's not accomplishing as an ace these days.
1. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
This is where it almost feels necessary to apologize for repeated uses of the phrases "second only to Clayton Kershaw" and "behind only Clayton Kershaw." Instead, we'll blame him for that.
It's what he gets for being so much better than everyone else in posting a 2.11 ERA and averaging 226 innings per season since 2011. According to rWAR, the Dodgers ace has been the best pitcher in baseball by a huge margin.
Not much changed in 2015. Kershaw may have managed "only" a 2.13 ERA in 232.2 innings, but metrics such as DRA, FIP and xFIP agree he was once again baseball's best. Considering that he struck out over 300 batters, posted just a 4.7 walk percentage and barely missed beating Arrieta in average exit velocity, well, it's kinda hard to argue.
And yes, Kershaw still looks like he was genetically modified to be an ace pitcher. The 28-year-old is sturdily built at 6'4" and 225 pounds, and his robot-like repetition of his over-the-top delivery allows for excellent control. Then there's the fact he has a fastball with good velocity and elite rise, one of the game's best swing-and-miss sliders and a curveball that nobody can hit.
"It's an awesome weapon that's unique in all of baseball," Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said of Kershaw's Uncle Charlie, via Anthony Castrovince of Sports on Earth.
The same notion sums up Kershaw himself. And even his most infamous shortcoming isn't all that terrible. He's often derided for his poor postseason track record, but in the last three years it features six good-to-great starts wrapped around two terrible ones.
Kershaw is more than a true ace. He's the true ace.