Game 7 of the World Series. Your number one starter is on the mound: a Ryan, a Seaver, or perhaps a Gibson. The guy with nerves of steel and the most electric stuff on the team. The guy that can go nine innings and put the team on his back. This is the guy who you want the ball in his hands with the light on and the pressure cooking. This is your best pitcher. This is the definition of an ace.
The following rankings are players who we feel best fit the attributes of an ace, while also taking into account past performance and future projection. While there are more than just five aces in the game, that is how many we have on this list. Apologies to the honorable mention guys!
In terms of up-and-coming right handers, some names to keep an eye on are Dylan Bundy (Orioles), Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon (Pirates), and Taijuan Walker (Mariners). All four are power arms with ideal bodies and repertoires to fronting a big league rotation. However, given the attrition rate of pitchers, there is no guarantee these precocious arms will have any major league glory. This attrition capability is something that was definitely accounted for, as you will see with our very first name on the list. Any averse trends could start a chain reaction that could cause a pitcher to flame out prematurely. With that said, we also could not completely ignore past performance and did reward players based on their previous successes. As I just said, a perfect example of this is our number five right hander in the game today.
A season that culminated with 20 wins and a third place Cy Young finish was just another year for Angels ace, Jered Weaver. Although lacking the power arsenal typically seen from an ace, Weaver's finesse repertoire has been incredibly successful over the years. In terms of just simple run prevention, Weaver has been the very best in the American league over the past 3 years (2.73 ERA).
It should be noted that there were a couple of trends that prevented Weaver from ranking higher on this list. With a declining K/9 rate (9.35 in 2010; 6.77 in 2012), waning fastball velocity (89.1 mph in 2011 to 87.8 in 2012), and recent injury history (battled back and shoulder trouble throughout 2012), there are some legitimate concerns for Weaver heading into this season. Obviously, as a pitcher has to rely more and more on his defense, he is more susceptible to the whims of BABIP. Any drastic changes in BABIP or team defense could have a damning effect on the pitcher at hand.
Additionally, Weaver's back and shoulder issues that plagued him in 2012 leave him vulnerable to more serious problems in the future. Furthermore, these weaknesses could only be further compromised given his mechanics that include severe spine-tilt, something that is typically not a sign of healthy mechanics (see picture above).
Even with these concerns, Weaver still has his control (2.15 BB/9 past three seasons) and should greatly benefit from having an all-world defensive outfield trio of Mike Trout, Peter Bourjos, and Josh Hamilton given his extreme fly ball tendencies. While I am wary of Weaver repeating his performances that made him one of the very best in the game, I still have confidence that Weaver can be an ace-like starter at the big league level.
Last year, Weaver was a 3.7 win pitcher despite only throwing 188 innings because of his battle with injuries. Assuming full health (which is no guarantee), I see Weaver being about a 4-4.5 win pitcher next season.
While just about every diminutive Dominican with a devastating change-up gets slapped with a mini-Pedro label, Johnny Cueto has been the closest to meeting the hype. Even though he doesn't exactly meet Pedro's absurdly high standards (something in which NO ONE does), Cueto is a damn good pitcher in his own right, and deserving of his spot on this list.
This past year, Cueto built on his breakout 2011 campaign (in which he had a league-leading 2.31 ERA) with a more-than-respectable 2.78 ERA, league runner up pitcher WAR total of 5.8, and highest ERA+ among qualified starters (152). Additionally, Cueto improved both his walk and strikeout rates to 2.03 BB/9 and 7.05 K/9, respectively.
Keep in mind, Cueto has the unfortunate task of pitching in the hitter's haven of Great American Ballpark. This especially hurt Cueto early in his career, as he was more of a fly ball pitcher. However, Cueto has learned to adapt to his home environment by gradually improving his ground ball and home run rates practically on an annual basis, something of which can be owed to an increasing reliance on his excellent changeup. This growth has greatly aided Cueto from being killed in Cincy's small park, which in turn, has allowed him to thrive in this typically hostile environment.
Accounting for these improvements as well as his Cy Young caliber performance, Cueto should once again be one of the best pitchers in the National League. While he might not be considered an ace by many, I like Cueto's overall skillset and hope his name starts to reach a wider audience. Fronting the rotation for a legitimate pennant contender, Cueto has a realistic shot at being a 4.5+ win player in 2013.
Certainly the most hyped pitching prospect of recent memory, if not of all-time, Strasburg has experienced quite a start to his professional career. His unbelievable and thrilling 14 strikeout debut (something that I still get goose bumps watching). His unfortunate and tragic injury that required Tommy John surgery, of which prematurely ended his promising rookie campaign. His controversial "innings limit" that saw dogged media scrutiny throughout the summer.
Yet, through all of this, his performance has never wavered, with all signs pointing to a Cy Young caliber season in 2013. In fact, Strasburg would have been in the Cy Young race last season if not for the aforementioned innings limit (only threw 159.1 innings). This of course prevented him from racking up the more impressive cumulative statistics (wins, strikeouts, etc) seen from other candidates even while having similar or better rate numbers.
For example, Strasburg had a strong 3.16 ERA and absurd 11.13 K/9 rate despite only having 15 wins and 197 strikeouts. Additionally, Strasburg posted the best FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) in baseball last year, a statistic that accounts only for things a pitcher can absolutely control (strikeouts, walks, and home runs). This statistic indicates what a pitcher's "true" ERA should be, and with Strasburg's FIP being 34 points better than his ERA (2.82 to 3.16), it is reasonable to think that Strasburg pitched even better than given credit for.
While I understand this ranking could be considered aggressive given his limited amount of innings thus far, Strasburg's combination of talent and numbers are just too much for him not to be this high. Remember, these rankings take into account both past performance and projection, both of which serve Strasburg well. With a substantially looser innings leash, Strasburg could very well double his 2.7 win campaign, en route to possibly the first of many Cy Youngs.
It shouldn't be a surprise that the richest pitcher in baseball is also on the short list for the very best. When I profiled the "King" the day his contract details first emerged, I liked the deal for a variety of reasons, even with the inherent risk that comes with being a pitcher.While there were some external factors I liked about the deal (namely, keeping a fan base happy), the biggest positive was none other than Hernandez himself. He's a workhorse (200+ innings past five seasons), prevents runs (career 3.22 ERA), strikes guys out (career 8.3 K/9), keeps the ball on the ground (career 54.4 GB%), and has an excellent walk rate (2.67 BB/9). He's that freakin' good.
While some pessimists point to a drop in fastball velocity (93.3 mph in 2011 to 92.1 in 2012), he combated that with the best strikeout, walk, and home run rates of his career. To those that say he will be hurt with the fences coming in this year at Safeco Field (Seattle's home park), Hernandez's ground ball tendencies should prevent him from being hurt much, if at all, by this change. The "King's" overall mastery of his craft honestly doesn't give me a lot of things to say other than he really is that good.
Hernandez finished fourth in the CY voting and was worth 4.6 wins for the Mariners in 2012. Expect more of the same as Hernandez is entering his physical prime at the ripe age of 27, with a good probability of posting another Cy Young caliber campaign.
1. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
Just as it is obvious that Felix Hernandez is that good, it is just as obvious that Justin Verlander is the best pitcher in the game (or at least in my opinion anyways). Following an impossible to repeat performance in 2011, which capped him both the Cy Young MVP, Verlander practically did just that, finishing second in the Cy Young voting to David Price. He once again led the league in innings (238.1), K's (239), ERA+ (160), and pitcher WAR (7.6), and actually had better peripherals than he did in his otherworldly 2011.
In fact, I think he was just as deserving of the Cy Young this year, and if not for his extreme amount of success the year prior, he might have won it. As with Hernandez, there isn't a whole lot to nitpick with Verlander. He's the prototypical ace, with at least three elite pitches (fastball, curveball, changeup), excellent command (2.27 BB/9 last year), incredible durability, and a bulldog mentality. Heck, he is even dating Sports Illustrated cover model Kate Upton, and has his eyes set on being the first $200 million pitcher in the game. The guy literally has everything going for him!
Overall, Verlander is a stud and the bona-fide ace of an entire generation. He was over 7 wins last year and has showed no signs of slowing down. Years from now, I believe we will look at Verlander the same way we look at Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, and Bob Gibson. He's a hall of fame talent deserving of all the superlatives. Quite simply, he's that good.