Aces Are Great, But There Are No Guarantees

Joe Torre hasn't yet announced his opening day starter, but the Associated Press speculates that Clayton Kershaw just might be in line for that honor.  If he does get tabbed for the April 5 start in Pittsburgh, Kershaw would be the third-youngest opening day starter in LA Dodger history:

Youngest LA Dodger Opening Day Starting Pitchers
Pitcher Year Age
Fernando Valenzuela 1981 20 years, 159 days
Don Drysdale 1958 21 years, 266 days
Clayton Kershaw* 2010 22 years, 17 days
*projected

At 22 years old, is Kershaw ready to lead the rotation?

I was listening to ESPN Radio 710 this afternoon at lunch.  Hosts Brian Long and Andrew Kamenetzky conducted a reasonable discussion of whether  or not the Dodgers needed to acquire an ace to head their rotation.  I didn't agree with everything they had to say, but the conversation was free of the usual overly emotional pleas involved in such a discussion.  However, A. Martinez said something that got me thinking.  I can't remember the exact quote, and the abbreviated podcast of the show doesn't include it, but here is a paraphrasing of what he said:

Look at the teams last year who made the biggest pitching acquisitions: the Yankees with CC Sabathia, and the Phillies with Cliff Lee. They both got to the World Series.

This connection seems logical on the surface, but a deeper look reveals the correlation may not be that simple.  Let me start by saying I would have loved for the Dodgers to acquire Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay this offseason, however unlikely it may have been (Halladay and his no-trade clause was set on Philadelphia, and it seems unlikely the Phillies would have traded Lee to their NLCS rivals).  Having a great pitcher at the top of your rotation is always a good thing, but it's important people realize there are not only costs for these moves (in both prospects and money) but also alternatives.

Author and baseball historian Eric Enders wrote an article for the Maple Street Press 2010 Dodgers Annual entitled "Aces Are Wild Cards," which explored the mixed results of acquiring an ace.  It's a great article, one of many reasons you should buy the annual.  Along those same lines, just by looking at the two pitchers identified by Martinez as the top pitching acquisitions of 2009 (Sabathia and Lee), we can clearly see the fickle nature of both ace pitchers and short playoff series.

In 2007, Sabathia won the American League Cy Young award.  He won 19 games with a 141 ERA+, and led the majors in innings pitched.  By all accounts, he was an ace.  The Indians made the playoffs and actually held a 3-1 lead over the Red Sox in the ALCS (leading to the classic Manny Ramirez "it's not like it's the end of the world" quote) before succumbing to Boston.  Sabathia made three playoff starts that season, and gave up 15 runs in 15.1 innings.

In 2008, Sabathia was even better.  After a midseason trade to Milwaukee, CC lead the Brewers to the playoffs with a superhuman effort -- he was 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA in the National League, a staggering 255 ERA+ -- and he again led the major leagues in innings pitched.  Another ace season for Sabathia.  In the playoffs, he made one start, giving up five runs in 3.2 innings, and the Brewers lost in round one to the Phillies.

I'm not saying Sabathia isn't a great pitcher, but rather pointing out a true ace pitcher doesn't always lead to automatic postseason success.

Cliff Lee followed Sabathia's footsteps as a Cleveland Indian Cy Young winner turned National League conqueror, joining the Phillies at midseason.  Don't get me wrong, Lee was superb after joining Philadelphia.  He posted a 3.39 ERA (125 ERA+) in 12 regular season starts, then turned it up in October with a 4-0 record and 1.56 ERA in 40.1 postseason innings.  However, if you are going to argue an ace is necessary to take it to the next level, how can you reconcile that the Phillies went farther without Lee (winning the World Series in 2008) than with him (losing the World Series in 2009)?

 

If anything, Lee's success should be a lesson in patience.  If you think Chad Billingsley's second half was bad last season, take a gander at Lee's 2007.  Lee sported a 6.29 ERA, 5.48 FIP, and 5.48 x-FIP that season, and was sent to the minors.  Heading into 2008, Lee had a career 4.64 ERA, and a 94 ERA+ in 129 career games.  He then went 22-3 and won the AL Cy Young award.

Pitcher Years Ages IP W-L HR/9 BB/9 K/9 ERA ERA+ WHIP
Cliff Lee 2002-07 23-28 741.2 54-36 1.3 3.1 6.7 4.64 94 1.375
Chad Billingsley 
2006-09 21-24 634.0 47-30 0.8 4.1 8.2 3.55 119 1.375

As mentioned, the Phillies were somehow able to win the World Series in 2008 without acquiring a much needed ace starter.  They did, however, get an ace performance in the postseason from their own product, 24-year old Cole Hamels.  He made five starts in October 2008, and the Phillies won them all.  Hamels posted a 1.80 ERA, averaging seven innings per start.  Might young Clayton Kershaw pull a Hamels this year? It's not out of the question:

Pitcher Years Ages IP W-L HR/9 BB/9 K/9 ERA ERA+ WHIP
Cole Hamels 2006-07 22-23 315.2 24-13 1.3 2.6 9.2 3.68 125 1.175
Clayton Kershaw  2008-09 20-21 278.2 13-13 0.6 4.6 9.2 3.36 120 1.331

In 2009, despite being basically the same pitcher as 2008 in the regular season, Hamels struggled mightily in October, posting a 7.58 ERA in 19 postseason innings.  Again, this speaks to the fickle nature of pitching, even at its highest level.

All three of these pitchers -- Sabathia, Lee, and Hamels -- demonstrate the up and down nature of pitching.  Pitchers, even aces, have their ebbs and flows.  Ace pitchers are wonderful to have, and it's perfectly reasonable to want one, or even two.  However, even though they improve your hand, they don't guarantee anything -- nothing ever can -- and there's reason to think the Dodgers are holding a pair of aces in Kershaw and Billingsley.

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