Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 1, 2015

Is A Pair Of Aces A Winning Hand?

There are aces and then there are aces. Perforce every franchise in the Great Game has a pitcher who is the leader of his rotation. The role earns him the appellation “ace of the staff,” at least from the local media. But the reality is that truly outstanding pitching talent is neither so widespread nor so evenly distributed across the majors as to provide every team with a true ace. There are plenty of cases where the honorific says more about the overall mediocrity of the entire starting rotation than it does about the excellence of the hurler to whom it is accorded.

Before the advent of advanced metrics the simple measure of an ace was wins, with any pitcher who reached the 20-win plateau considered one of baseball’s elite players. Winning twenty games in a season is still a sure measure of an outstanding year; all the more so because the modern emphasis on pitch counts and situational relievers have combined to shorten outings for many starters, increasing the number of no-decisions over the course of thirty-two or thirty-three regular season starts. So far this year only Jake Arrieta, 21-6 in a breakout season with the Cubs, has crossed the threshold. Gerrit Cole of the Pirates and Dallas Keuchel of the Astros both have nineteen victories. But Cole has made his final regular season start, so only Keuchel, who will take the mound Friday night against the Diamondbacks, has a chance to join Arrieta as a 20-game winner.

Whether or not he does so the paucity of pitchers recording twenty or more wins is not unusual. The ten previous seasons produced an average of 2.2 such moundsmen, with either one or none at all in four of those years. At the same time, number of wins is no longer the metric of choice in evaluating talent on the mound. In 2010 Seattle’s Felix Hernandez won the American League Cy Young Award while posting a record of just 13-12. But the writers who voted for the Award recognized that the Mariners were offensively derelict, either shut out or tallying but a lone run in ten of Hernandez’s losses. They looked instead to his 2.27 ERA and 7.0 hits allowed per nine innings, as well as his Win Probability Added of 4.6, all of which led the league even while Hernandez recorded the most innings pitched.

So let us consider the statistics of a couple of pitchers. While neither will reach twenty wins this season, one has eighteen and the other just two fewer. The 27-year old left hander with a record of 16-7 has a paltry ERA of 2.16, third best in the majors. His WHIP of 0.89 and batting average against of .195 also rank him third in the Great Game by those two measures. His four complete games and three shutouts tie him for first place in those categories. He’s struck out 294 batters, making him the king of K’s by a wide margin. Of course Clayton Kershaw has already won three NL Cy Young Awards, including the last two. He was also named the senior circuit’s MVP last season, so there’s not much doubt that Kershaw is a certifiable ace. His 2015 statistics simply reinforce what fans already know, and add to his legend. One of those complete game shutouts came Tuesday evening, when Kershaw fanned 13 Giants while yielding just Kevin Frandsen’s single and a walk to Angel Pagan, both in the 3rd inning, as the Dodgers clinched the NL West crown.

Yet as great as Kershaw’s season has been, his 31-year old right-handed teammate Zack Greinke’s has arguably topped it. The latter’s ERA of 1.68 leads the majors, as does his WHIP of 0.85. Greinke’s batting average against of .188 is ever so slightly better than Kershaw’s and just a single point behind Arrieta’s. From the middle of June through late July, Greinke produced a scoreless streak of 45 2/3 innings, the fourth longest in the expansion era. A three-time All-Star and winner of the 2009 AL Cy Young, Greinke too is a proven ace, but his numbers this season in most statistical categories are his best ever.

What is truly remarkable about the seasons Kershaw and Greinke are having is the fact that both aces wear Dodger blue. One team with a pair of starters boasting an ERA under 2.50 and a WHIP of 1.00 or less is exceedingly rare, having happened only twice before. The first such instance was nearly a century ago, when two starters for the 1917 New York Giants produced such sterling numbers. The second was more than five decades in the past, back in 1964. That season a 28-year old left hander posted an ERA of 1.74 and a WHIP of 0.928. For the future Hall of Famer it was the second of four straight seasons that his ERA was below 2.50 and his WHIP less than 1.00. He was joined in ’64 by a 27-year old right-handed teammate, another pitcher with a reservation for Cooperstown, who put up a 2.18 ERA and 0.965 WHIP. The two were Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, giving the Dodgers a dominant share of the market for such combined pitching excellence.

Fans of the Great Game know how crucial good pitching is in the postseason’s short series, so surely with a pair of aces like Kershaw and Greinke the Dodgers must be the favorites in the playoffs. Well maybe, but then again maybe not. As great as the two Dodger aces have been, the rest of L.A.’s rotation has been a problem all season. Since the July 31st trading deadline Los Angeles is just five games over .500. In the same period four NL franchises have better records, led by the Cubs and Mets. Over in the AL the Blue Jays and Rangers will head into October as the hottest teams over the regular season’s final two months.

The Dodgers will face the Mets in the NLDS, with the site of the first game still in doubt. With their remarkable second half surge the Mets have brought fans and energy back to Citi Field, and while they have no starter who can match the numbers that Kershaw and Greinke have posted, New York’s young starting rotation is both strong and deep.

Dodger fans have every right to be proud of their two fantastic starters. But two pitchers alone don’t win a World Series. In 1917 the New York Giants lost in six games to the Chicago White Sox. And for all of the dominance that Koufax and Drysdale displayed in 1964, that Dodger team finished two games under .500. So Los Angeles manager Don Mattingly knows that he needs more than just a pair of aces. Then again, he surely also knows that he could have been dealt a much worse hand.


  1. So, which of these pitchers, in your opinion, should win the NL CY Young Award?

    • Hi Bill,

      My vote would go to Kershaw, as explained in Sunday’s post. However I expect Arrieta to win the award, and this is one year when I don’t feel that there is any “wrong” vote among the top three. The Cub and both Dodgers have all had great seasons.



      Michael Cornelius


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