It is a rare occurrence when you hear a scout describe an amateur pitcher as a future ace. The bar is set so high for such pitchers that even premium first-round pitching prospects are almost always likened to No. 2 or 3 men in a rotation. Most hurlers chosen later in the draft are written up as “back-end” starters or relievers.
True aces are few and far between.
I recently read a story of how Mark Wasinger, then scouting for the San Diego Padres, begged his club to take an Alabama high school righty by the name of Jacob Peavy in the 15th round of the 1999 draft. When asked, in retrospect, if he knew the 15th-rounder would one day win a Cy Young Award, Wasinger humbly deflected such praise, reciting his own report that predicted Peavy would become a No. 4 or 5 starter.
In other words, the very person who liked Peavy best of all as a prospect didn’t see him as a No. 1, either, but that’s exactly what Peavy has become.
Ace vs. True No. 1 Starter
It should be noted that there is an ongoing debate over what a “true No. 1” starter is, and it’s not synonymous with “ace”.
The ace of a staff is generally considered the team’s best pitcher, the one who starts Opening Day and ideally gets the most innings over the course of the season. Naturally, many aces from poor clubs would only be back-end pitchers on championship teams.
A No. 1 starter, in scout speak, is someone you’d die to give the ball to for Game One and Game Seven of the World Series. Those pitchers are stoppers; their turn in the rotation technically prevents losing streaks from accumulating during the season.
It is certainly subjective as to who qualifies as a No. 1 starter, but that is the ideology behind it. Therefore the ace pitcher of a last-place team who goes 8-13 with a 5.00 ERA is excluded from the conversation while the likes of Don Drysdale, who would routinely defer the Opening-Day assignment to the Sandy Koufaxes of the world, are given their due.
Nevertheless, I do think there’s something to be said for whoever gets the call on Opening Day. That pitcher has proven to his manager to be the best starter on his major-league team, and essentially every scout dreams of finding his team’s ace.
It’s also much simpler to identify Opening-Day starters than it is to subjectively label No. 1s. So where do the aces come from?
Before we investigate, let’s begin by stating five tenets that scouts generally believe are pertinent to describing future major-league aces:
1. Premium, high-ceiling pitchers come out of high school, while lower-ceiling, polished arms come out of college.
2. Ace pitchers have to be taken early in the draft, because those kinds of arms are few and far between.
3. Ace pitchers move quickly; if they’re not good enough to be in a major league rotation by a relatively young age, they’re unlikely to become elite.
4. Aces are power pitchers.
5. Ace starters must have very good pitchability beyond their stuff, which is developed mostly through experience on the mound. Therefore, converted position players and short relievers are at a great disadvantage in potentially becoming aces.
THE THIRTY ACES
I’ve tracked down all 30 Opening-Day starters from 2008 (see appendix below). In a nutshell, here are their demographics:
--Twelve of the 30 were first-round picks (that’s 40 percent, compared to 23 percent of all big leaguers).
--Seven of the 30 were taken after the first 10 rounds. The overlooked gems, in decreasing order of draft round, are Texas’ Kevin Millwood (11th round, 1993), Peavy (15th, 1999), Tampa Bay’s James Shields (16th, 2000), Florida’s Mark Hendrickson (20th, 1997), Houston’s Roy Oswalt (23rd, 1996), Pittsburgh’s Ian Snell (26th, 2000) and Chicago White Sox’ Mark Buehrle (38th, 1998).
--Ten of the 30 (33 percent) signed out of high school, 11 (37 percent) out of college, three (10 percent) out of junior college and six (20 percent) as international free agents.
--Most of the aces, 22 out of 30, were 24-or-under by the time they made 30 starts in the big leagues. But eight were at least 25 before they had a full season of starts under their belt, including Cincinnati’s Aaron Harang (25), Shields (25), Baltimore’s Jeremy Guthrie (29), Seattle’s Erik Bedard (26), New York Yankees’ Chien-Ming Wang (26), Hendrickson (29, now with Baltimore), Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka (27) and St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright (he made 30 relief appearances by 25, 30 starts by 26).
--Only C.C. Sabathia, who started on Opening Day for Cleveland, made 30 big-league starts before turning 22.
--Only Wainwright began his major-league career as a reliever. He is the only reliever-to-starter conversion in this group (In contrast to closers; as noted in an earlier column, I determined an overwhelmingly high starter-to-reliever conversion rate). It should also be noted that Wainwright was almost exclusively a starter coming through the minors.
--No one on this list of 30 is a converted position player, either. They were all primary pitchers from Day One—during their draft years and as minor leaguers. Atlanta’s Tim Hudson was a terrific two-way player for Auburn University, but he was the regular Sunday starter and drafted by Oakland for his work on the mound (This is again in contrast to closers, several of whom were position-player conversions).
--Subjectively, I would consider 18 of the 30 to be true power pitchers; those who throw 93-plus mph regularly, start-to-start, for 5-plus innings with leeway given for fastball movement.
--By the same metrics, I would consider six more to be “medium power pitchers,” those who live mostly in the 88-92 mph range during their starts. This group includes former Oakland ace Joe Blanton, Shields, Guthrie, Los Angeles Angels’ Jered Weaver, Millwood and Wainwright.
--I qualify the remaining six as finesse pitchers in the sense that their working velocity is generally below 88-92—though they may throw in that range at times. The “finesse” aces are Arizona’s Brandon Webb, Buehrle, Minnesota’s Livan Hernandez, Hendrickson, San Francisco’s Barry Zito and Colorado’s Jeff Francis. Incidentally, four of the six are lefthanded, but Webb is a perennial Cy Young Award candidate throwing mostly from 85-88 mph.
Revisting Conventional Scouting Wisdom
1. High School = High Ceiling
There is a higher percentage of high-school products among the aces, compared to other big leaguers, but it’s only slight (33 percent versus 25-30 percent).
More revealing is to take the cream of each crop. If Webb, Detroit’s Justin Verlander and Milwaukee’s Ben Sheets are the top three collegians, they are outshined by the top three high school (arguably Peavy, Sabathia and Toronto’s Roy Halladay), junior-college (Oswalt, Buehrle and Bedard) and international (Matsuzaka, New York Mets’ Johan Santana and Chicago Cubs’ Carlos Zambrano) products.
It’s certainly possible to become an ace out of college and you can’t ignore Webb, but the other amateur avenues have been more productive.
2. Aces are Drafted Early
It is powerful confirmation that 50 percent of the aces who were subject to the draft (12 out of 24) were taken in the first round. The bulk of these ace arms were identified and taken early.
But again, the exceptions stick out like sore thumbs. Sometimes you can get Webb in the eighth round or even a Buehrle in the 38th.
3. Ace Arms Move Quickly
This pattern can’t be refuted, either. If you reasonably exclude Hendrickson (who was playing in the NBA into his mid-20s) and Matsuzaka (Japan), you have only six who hadn’t logged 30 starts by age 25. But we’ll take late-bloomers like Shields (25) or Bedard (26) on our staffs, too.
4. Only Power Pitchers can be Aces
While 60 percent grade out as power pitchers by my subjective scouting measures, 20 percent throw with average power and another 20 percent are finesse pitchers. Francis only touches 90 when he needs it, but he was the No. 1 pitcher for a team that went all the way to the 2007 World Series.
5. Relievers and Position Players Can’t be Converted into Aces
There’s really not a convincing exception among this group.
As far as converting relievers, I believe it’s simply because starting pitchers can’t get by on pure stuff the way a short reliever can. It takes much more pitchability to get through the batting order three times than it does to get out of a single-inning jam.
Pitchability is only developed through years of practice. It is impressive that Trevor Hoffman went from a college shortstop to become one of the greatest closers of all-time, but it would be earth-shattering to me if a Hall-of-Fame starter is ever borne out of that same mold in the modern game.
It’s interesting to note that Zambrano and Hernandez, the Twins’ departed Opening-Day starter, have been excellent hitting pitchers while Hudson was once a middle-of-the-order hitter for Auburn.
For the sake of argument, let’s imagine if they would have favored hitting over pitching as youngsters the way closers Joe Nathan, Troy Percival, B.J. Ryan and Hoffman once did.
I would propose, in this scenario, that if they didn’t work out as hitters and were put on the mound later in their careers, they would have become relievers instead of the very fine starting pitchers that they are.
In the past 30 years, only two successful position player-to-ace starter conversions come to mind. One is the old Toronto Blue Jays work horse Dave Stieb, who was primarily an outfielder at Southern Illinois. He finally heeded the Blue Jays’ desire for him to pitch after a miserable pro debut at the plate. The second is former Oakland A’s ace Dave Stewart, who was converted from a high-school catcher.
Despite his lack of pitching experience, Stieb remarkably managed to make his first 30 big-league starts before his 23rd birthday. Stewart’s 30th start didn’t come until he was 27, but once the pitchability developed he was a stalwart starter whom other clubs dreaded facing in the playoffs.
Conventional Wisdom Holds True . . . To A Point
I’m honestly surprised at how well the results follow the five tenets. In my years of baseball research, I’ve grown used to uncovering mistruths and flaws in our popular scouting theories and am almost disappointed when scouting truisms turn out to be close to the mark.
Nevertheless, to each of these five tenets there are exceptions and notable ones at that. It goes to show yet again that great players can fall through the cracks and that golden rules in scouting can still be broken.
The group of 30 Opening-Day starters from 2008 includes, in alphabetical order, Erik Bedard (Mariners), Joe Blanton (A’s), Mark Buehrle (White Sox), Jeff Francis (Rockies), Jeremy Guthrie (Orioles), Roy Halladay (Blue Jays), Aaron Harang (Reds), Mark Hendrickson (Marlins), Livan Hernandez (Twins), Tim Hudson (Braves), Daisuke Matsuzaka (Red Sox), Gil Meche (Royals), Kevin Millwood (Rangers), Brett Myers (Phillies), Roy Oswalt (Astros), Jake Peavy (Padres), Brad Penny (Dodgers), Odalis Perez (Nationals), C.C. Sabathia (Indians), Johan Santana (Mets), Ben Sheets (Brewers), James Shields (Rays), Ian Snell (Pirates), Justin Verlander (Tigers), Adam Wainwright (Cardinals), Chien-Ming Wang (Yankees), Jered Weaver (Angels), Brandon Webb (Diamondbacks), Carlos Zambrano (Cubs) and Barry Zito (Giants).