Identifying the 'True Aces' of Major League Baseball Entering 2017

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistApril 5, 2017

Identifying the 'True Aces' of Major League Baseball Entering 2017

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    Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw.
    Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw.Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    What makes a "true ace," and how many are there in the game today?

    There's a "know it when I see it" element to this question, obviously. But let's define a few parameters:

    • Sustained excellence. We're looking for guys with extended track records. Multiple 200-inning seasons are essentially a prerequisite, while top-five Cy Young Award finishes and postseason dominance are admired but not required.
    • In his prime. A true ace is a pitcher who has achieved top-level success and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Once-great hurlers whose glory days are fading because of age or injuries don't qualify. 
    • Unequivocally the best pitcher on his team. This seems self-evident, but it does squeeze out some potentially worthy candidates, such as the San Francisco Giants' Johnny Cueto or the Chicago Cubs' Jon Lester.

    With that in mind, here are MLB's nine true aces, plus a handful who didn't quite make the cut for No. 10.

Honorable Mentions

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    New York Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard.
    New York Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Felix Hernandez, RHP, Seattle Mariners

    A year ago, Felix Hernandez would have been a no-brainer. The six-time All-Star and 2010 Cy Young Award winner slipped from his throne last season, however, posting his highest ERA (3.82) since 2007 and fewest innings pitched (153.1) since 2005. A solid spring hinted at a comeback, but it's worth wondering if the soon-to-be 31-year-old will ever be king again.

    Noah Syndergaard, RHP, New York Mets

    Noah Syndergaard will have a place on this list soon enough. He has the look of a true ace, he has the triple-digit stuff of a true ace and, at age 24, he's probably going to get even better. For now, though, with less than two full big league seasons under his belt, Thor's resume is simply too thin.

    Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, New York Yankees

    If you add his body of work in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball to the impressive things he's done in pinstripes, Masahiro Tanaka is in. He had his best season with the Yankees in 2016, but he's still yet to crest the 200-inning threshold. At age 28, with his elbow problems less of a distraction, he may get there.

    Jose Quintana, LHP, Chicago White Sox

    When the Chicago White Sox shipped Chris Sale to Boston, fellow lefty Jose Quintana became the team's best pitcher. He's quietly logged four straight 200-plus inning seasons with ERAs of 3.51 or better. Still, this is his first chance to pitch as a legitimate No. 1 (unless and until he's dealt). Let's wait and see how he responds. 

Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Jon Durr/Getty Images

    There was nothing ace-like about Chris Archer's 9-19 record and 4.02 ERA in 2016.

    Scratch beneath the surface, however, and you'll find a 3.41 xFIP that hints at some bad luck and a 3.25 second-half ERA.

    Archer has put together two consecutive 200-plus-inning, 200-plus-strikeout seasons. He was a top-five AL Cy Young Award finisher in 2015. He's entering his age-28 season.

    If he pitched in New York or L.A., he'd be a superstar. That could happen if the Tampa Bay Rays fall out of contention and decide to dangle him at the trade deadline or next winter.

    For now, he's a true ace toiling in a small market.

Cole Hamels, LHP, Texas Rangers

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    The "best pitcher on his team" thing is debatable with Hamels, who shares top billing in the Texas Rangers rotation with right-hander Yu Darvish. 

    Where Darvish has been an injury-prone enigma, however, Hamels has been a picture of consistency.

    A four-time All-Star and four-time top-10 Cy Young Award finisher with the Rangers and Philadelphia Phillies, Hamels has surpassed 200 innings in eight of the last nine seasons.

    He turned 33 in December, so his run of dominance may be nearing its end. Until further notice, however, he's the best starting pitcher in Texas, which should totally earn him a decorative belt buckle or something.

Jake Arrieta, RHP, Chicago Cubs

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Jake Arrieta was otherworldly in 2015, posting a 1.77 ERA with 236 strikeouts in 229 innings en route to an NL Cy Young Award.

    He was merely good in 2016, posting a 3.10 ERA in 197 frames, though he still threw a no-hitter and earned a third consecutive top-10 Cy Young Award finish.

    He's entering a contract year, so look for the hirsute Chicago Cubs righty to be at the top of his game in 2017.

    He showed flashes of it in his first start Tuesday, a 2-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.

    "His strike-throwing and the hitters' reactions to the pitch I thought was nice to watch from our dugout," said Cubs manager Joe Maddon, per Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune. "It's like he had been a couple years ago." 

Justin Verlander, RHP, Detroit Tigers

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Justin Verlander should have won the 2016 AL Cy Young Award. You know it; I know it; Kate Upton knows it.

    In all seriousness, the Detroit Tigers right-hander was back on top of the world, logging his most innings (227.2) and posting his stingiest ERA (3.04) since 2012 and leading the Junior Circuit with 254 strikeouts.

    Add it to a body of work that includes an AL Cy Young and MVP award and a pair of no-hitters.

    Verlander turned 34 in February but teased big things and bigger velocity on Tuesday, striking out 10 White Sox in 6.1 innings as Detroit rolled, 6-3.

    "He's pitching as well as I've seen," said Tigers skipper Brad Ausmus, per USA Today's Bob Nightengale. "And his velocity has come back even more than I would have predicted. When I first got here [in 2014] he would touch 95. Now, he touches 97 for the first time."

Corey Kluber, RHP, Cleveland Indians

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Corey Kluber has strung together three straight 200-plus-inning, 200-plus-strikeout seasons and won the AL Cy Young Award in 2014.

    His legend was solidified in the 2016 postseason, when he posted a 1.83 ERA with 35 strikeouts in 34.1 innings and became the first pitcher since 2001 to make three starts in a World Series.

    Yes, the Cleveland Indians lost his Game 7 start in heartbreaking fashion. No, that doesn't diminish what the Klubot accomplished.

    Now, in his age-30 campaign, Kluber could seal his legacy by pitching the Tribe to their first title since the Harry S. Truman administration. 

Chris Sale, LHP, Boston Red Sox

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    Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

    Chris Sale has never made a postseason appearance, a result of playing his entire career with the White Sox.

    That should change in 2017, as Sale plies his trade with a talent-laden Red Sox club.

    Even without an October resume, however, Sale easily clears the true-ace bar. He's pitched more than 200 innings in three of the last four seasons while striking out more than 200 and finishing in the top five in AL Cy Young voting in all four. He turned 28 in March, so he's at the peak of his prime.

    It remains to be seen how he responds to the Beantown scrutiny, but his manager isn't worried.

    "He's been in the big leagues quite a while," said Boston skipper John Farrell, per's Scott Lauber. "Even for those guys who haven't put on a Red Sox uniform, they're aware that certain markets, there's a tremendous amount of passion and expectation. I'm confident he embraces that." 

Max Scherzer, RHP, Washington Nationals

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    Max Scherzer joined some elite company in 2016 when he became just the sixth pitcher in baseball history to win the Cy Young Award in each league.

    The other five? Gaylord Perry, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens and Roy Halladday—true aces all.

    Scherzer also boasts four straight 200-plus-inning seasons, a record-tying 20-strikeout game and two no-nos.

    He's been so good, in fact, he inspired FanGraphs' Craig Edwards to call the seven-year, $210 million deal he signed with the Washington Nationals prior to the 2015 season a "bargain." 

    He'll turn 33 in July, but there's no reason to expect anything less than more furious dominance from Mad Max.

Madison Bumgarner, LHP, San Francisco Giants

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Madison Bumgarner has been plenty good in the regular season, posting six straight 200-plus-inning seasons, striking out more than 200 in each of the last three and finishing in the top five in NL Cy Young voting twice.

    His name, however, is synonymous with postseason brilliance.

    In 102.1 playoff innings, Bumgarner owns an 8-3 record and 2.11 ERA. Those numbers, while impressive, undersell what he's accomplished.

    Bumgarner has won a pair of do-or-die NL Wild Card Games, a pure test of a pitcher's intestinal fortitude. He's 4-0 in the World Series and came as close as any player can to single-handedly winning a title in the 2014 Fall Classic.

    He's a stud, plain and simple, who gets studlier as the lights heat up. Plus, he hits dingers

    Oh, and did I mention he's still somehow just 27 years old?

Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    There are so many ways to illustrate Clayton Kershaw's brilliance. You can point to his three NL Cy Young Awards and NL MVP trophy. You can note that he's led the Senior Circuit in strikeouts three times and walked fewer than one hitter per nine innings in 2016.

    Or, there's the fact he missed two full calendar months with a balky back last season but still tied for the FanGraphs WAR lead among pitchers.

    Here's my favorite, howeverKershaw's stats and accolades through nine seasons stacked next to those compiled by Los Angeles Dodgers legend Sandy Koufax in 12 seasons:

    • Kershaw: 126-60 record, 2.37 ERA, 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings, three NL Cy Young Awards and one NL MVP.
    • Koufax: 165-87 record, 2.76 ERA, 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings, three NL Cy Young Awards, one NL MVP.

    Koufax got into the Hall of Fame on that body of work. Kershaw is 29 years old.

    Really, the only thing left is for him to pitch the Dodgers to their first World Series since 1988. Stay tuned.


    All statistics current as of Tuesday and courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.