The ace vs. ace myth

I am expanding on some comments I made in astromets' fanshot linking to this Bob Klapisch column.  Among other things, Klapisch wrote this:

The Mets won’t dare say there’s anything wrong with Santana, but it’s clear that Mike Pelfrey has emerged as their primary weapon. There’s no shame in that, except that Santana continues to draw opposing teams’ aces, as he did on Sunday against CC Sabathia, and is afforded little if any run support.

That  the staff ace regularly has to square off against the other team's ace is one of the most oft-repeated mantras in baseball, and it is also one of the most demonstrably untrue statements made by writers.

For the moment, we're going to look past the deeper logical flaw of assigning slot rotations to pitchers.  I know we don't like labeling guys #1, #2, etc, but for the most part, I think it's fairly easy to identify another team's ace.  Now, the staff "ace" is not always the best pitcher that particular year - like this year with the Mets and Santana and the Yankees and Sabathia - but generally speaking I'm okay with referring to certain guys as aces or number ones. 

At any rate, this observation is empirically wrong.  But before looking at the evidence, let's think about it logically.  On the opening day of the season, generally the number one pitcher of each team is going to face the other.  There are exceptions, but that's usually how it goes.  And so for the first few times through the rotation, the respective teams' aces will square off against one another.    But that only holds for a brief time.  As the season wears on, teams' schedules change. Further, maybe one of the teams' skips its fifth starter in the early goings when there are days off while the other does not.  Then a guy gets pushed back a few days for injury and the rotation gets shuffled around.

Long story short, rotations don't remain in sync very long.  As teams play different schedules, deal with injuries, shuffle their rotations around, etc., it stands to reason that rotations will move around and number ones won't always being squaring off against other number ones, number twos against number twos, and so on and so forth.

So let's look at the actual breakdown of Santana's starts this year.  Here is who he has faced, in order of appearance:

Josh Johnson, Livan Hernandez, Jaime Garcia, Tom Gorzelanny, Hiroki Kuroda, Jamie Moyer, Tood Wellemeyer, Josh Johnson, Kris Medlen, CC Sabathia, Yovanni Gallardo, Clayton Richard, Mat Latos, Justin Masterson, and CC Sabathia.

So he's started against Josh Johnson twice, Sabathia twice, and Gallardo once.  That's 5 staff aces in 15 starts.  If we're being generous, we could add Livan Hernandez to the mix.  Meanwhile, he's also started against such "aces" as Gorzelanny, Wellemeyer, Medlen, and Masterson.  He's faced the bottom of the other team's rotation nearly as much as he's faced the top.

Lest this be considered an aberration, I've actually gone back and checked his opposing starter for each of the 59 starts he made in 2008 and 2009.  First 2008:

Mark Hendrickson, John Smoltz, Ben Sheets, Cole Hamels, Tim Redding, Ian Snell, Dan Haren, Matt Belisle, Andy Pettitte, Tim Hudson, Andrew Miller, Hiroki Kuroda, Randy Wolf, Dan Haren, John Lackey, Felix Hernandez, Andy Pettitte, J.A. Happ, Jonathan Sanchez, Johnny Cueto, Joe Blanton, Kyle Lohse, Roy Oswalt, Josh Banks, Odalis Perez, Jeff Karstens, Roy Oswalt, Kyle Kendrick, Ben Sheets, Cole Hamels, Mike Hampton, Tim Redding, Sean Marshall, Ricky Nolasco.

Sure, he starts off against some stiff competition, but as the season progresses, the quality of his opposing starter declines sharply.  For every start against a Roy Oswalt and Ben Sheets there's a Tim Redding or Kyle Kendrick.  And while some of the guys not technically considered aces - Dan Haren, Andy Pettitte - are pretty good, again basically only about a third of his starts come against the other team's "ace."

And now for 2009:

Aaron Harang, Josh Johnson, Yovanni Gallardo, Scott Olsen, Josh Johnson, Chan Ho Park, Derek Lowe, Randy Johnson, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jordan Zimmerman, Zach Duke, J.A. Happ, A.J. Burnett, James Shields, Chris Carpenter, Mike Burns, Joe Blanton, Johnny Cueto, Kenshin Kawakami, Mike Hampton, Jason Hammel, Joel Pineiro, Tim Stauffer, Matt Cain, Kenshin Kawakami. 

It's essentially the same story.  As soon as the season gets going past April, he's squaring off the bottom end of the rotation as much as the top.

I did a similar sort of analysis in 2007 for John Smoltz.  Guess what: about one-third of his starts were against the other team's "ace."

I realize that among the annoying, cliched things that sports-writers spew, this might be one of the least offensive.  But it is a pet peeve of mine.  And it also goes to show that this idea that you line up your pitchers somehow to have ace go against ace, just doesn't happen.  Therefore it's even more absurd to try to come up with some sort of 1-5 ranking of pitchers.  Except for the first few weeks of the season and then the post-season, it's a completely meaningless and arbitrary way to look at a pitching staff.

This FanPost was contributed by a member of the community and was not subject to any vetting or approval process. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions, reasoning skills, or attention to grammar and usage rules held by the editors of this site.

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