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Chris Archer and the modern “ace”

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The definition has never been cloudier, but Archer is an ace

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

This is going to be one of those articles that maneuvers through the gnarly underworld that is semantics, so if that turns you off, you may want to head elsewhere.

However, as someone who believes that language is of the utmost importance, a common form of communication that not only allows us to interact but can often shape the thoughts and opinions of those who participate in the community, this is actually an important discussion.

Baseball-ese is one of the most unique languages. Those who are fluent use precious brain cells on phrases like “frozen rope” and “can of corn” that have totally different meanings in the real world, but are like a secret handshake signifying baseball fandom when used in the right context.

Baseball-ese runs so deep that there is literally a Baseball Dictionary:

And it’s really good. And reallllly long. There are three edition of this sucker, for goodness sake. Baseball-ese like any language is perpetually growing, morphing, and shifting with the culture surrounding it.

One of the oldest baseball terms is the word “ace.” For being such an old term, there is a lot of debate of just what the term means. The regular dictionary defines ace as: “the best pitcher on a baseball team.” The Society of American Baseball Research (the crew that lent their name to SABRmetrics) names Asa Brainard, a stud pitcher of the late 1800s, as the origin for the word, as he was nicknamed “ace,” and it stuck around to mean the best pitcher on a team.

However, in the modern era, there is plenty of debate over whether this is the best definition of the term.

As Dan Weigel lays out nicely in this Sporting News article, there are several tacks that can be taken when discussing a modern “ace.”

There’s the old school idea of simply the best pitcher on each team. There’s also the “best 30 pitchers in baseball” theory; there’s the “better than your typical number one starter” theory; and there’s the “statistical threshold” theory.

The reason I’ve been thinking about this word so much lately was Carl Gonzalez’s excellent debut article with DRays Bay. Gonzalez avoided using the elusive “ace” phrase in the title, but the question of whether Archer is an ace was prevalent throughout the article. And even more prevalent in the comments section.

Here are just a few of the comments from that piece (ignoring the comments that called Archer out with some obvious dog whistles):

“Archer has the stuff, and talks the talk. We need him to pitch consistently deeper into games and lead by example.

He is capable of more, and when he tells the young guys (Snell and Honeywell) to “know their role”, Archer first needs to assume his role as “Ace” first and foremost.”

- Homer Sampson

***

Not an “Ace”? He’s consistently in pretty elite company among starting pitching in MLB.

Over the past 4 years (2014-17)

Games Started – #1

IP – #6

xFIP- #20

K/9 – #11

WAR – #12”

- Pocoroba

And in immediate response to that:

“The detractors like to point out his bWAR though.

Chris Archer is an extremely valuable commodity who borders on elite, but there is no denying that he needs to do several things better to be considered universally elite.”

- Spurrier? I Hardly Know Her

It’s clear that both Archer, as well as the very word “ace” (or “elite” for that matter) are topics that can start debates on a is-a-hot-dog-a-sandwich level.

These comments were all interesting to me, but the one that really caught my attention was from DRB commenting All-Star, budman3. I’m going to post the comment in full because it made some very interesting points:

He needs to pitch like an ace.

Most of that starts with being able to pitch deeper into games. For his career (since 2013 when he stepped into the starting rotation full time), he has only made it into the 7th inning in 48 out of his 156 starts (31%). His average innings per start in his career is just over 6 IPG. Now, while six innings may be the norm for today’s starters with deep bullpens, or even avoiding seeing a line-up for the 3rd time, an ace needs to be much better than that. It may be OK for middle of the rotation guys but not for the best pitcher on a staff, IMO.

He does get some innings getaway from him and he does give up HR’s, sometimes at the worst of times (like when the Rays have a slim lead) and with very bad location but that happens. He is the best pitcher on the Rays, and pitching at the Trop has been a benefit to him but he does need to pitch much better on the road (1.20 WHIP in 2014 and 2015, 1.36 in 2015 and 1.40 last year as opposed to 1.38 in 2014, 1.07 in 2015 and 1.13 the last two years. His HR’s certainly have gone up over his career, especially on the road (1.2 PG) compared to (.08) at home.

But if there is another strength an ace should have is being the stopper on a staff. Pitch well enough and find ways to win when the team is on a losing streak or keeping momentum going when they need a run of games. In 2017, Archer’s record after a Rays loss was 5-6 with 6 no decisions. When they won, his record was 4-6 with 6 no decisions. And to be fair he pitched well enough in those 12 ND’s, but an ace has to hold leads in low scoring games especially when his team has trouble scoring runs. An ace has to be that much better than the other team and not only keep them in games but get the key outs when they matter the most. I think Archer just doesn’t have that extra something that one needs when talking about aces in baseball.”

- budman3

This comment gets at the crux of what I really want to talk about today.

MLB: Spring Training-Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

We all know that Archer is excellent the first two times through the order, only to fade his third time through the order. Budman cited an excellent stat with his percentage of starts going into the seventh.

In that vein, here are the top ten pitchers, by fWAR, over the past three seasons, and the percent of times they recorded at least one out past the sixth inning:

Top ten pitchers by fWAR 2015-2017

Pitcher fWAR 2015-2017 Percent over 6 IP IP 2015-2017
Pitcher fWAR 2015-2017 Percent over 6 IP IP 2015-2017
Clayton Kershaw 19.7 70.4 556.2
Chris Sale 18.9 74.7 649.2
Max Scherzer 18.0 64.3 657.2
Corey Kluber 17.9 69.9 640.2
Jake Arrieta 13.5 46.8 594.2
Jose Quintana 13.3 46.9 603.0
Zack Greinke 13.1 57.8 583.2
Chris Archer 13.0 40.6 614.1
Stephen Strasburg 12.9 45.3 450.1
Carlos Carrasco 12.8 55.2 530.0

Archer is indeed the lowest of the ten. However, a few points here. It’s not as if there is a massive gap between Archer’s 40.6 percent and Strasburg’s 45.3 - that’s a start or two a season.

Also, If we go by games started, Archer leads the pack with 101 games started over the past three seasons. Could there be some connection there? That durability in terms of games started means that, despite not making it as consistently far into the team as the rest of the top ten, Archer still ranks right in the top half of the pack (fourth) in terms of innings pitched among this group.

Sure, it’s nice to have your top pitcher give your bullpen a day off, but in the long run, it’s just as nice to avoid having to use a spot starter from Triple-A multiple times a season.

MLB: Spring Training-Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

What I think this really comes down to is that many people have come off of the “top starter on your team,” and “top 30 starting pitcher in baseball” definitions of the term ace.

There is no argument that Archer isn’t one of the 30 best pitchers in baseball. And there hasn’t been any debate as to who has been the Rays top pitcher in any of the past three seasons. Archer has made the Opening Day start each season since David Price left town, as he took the mantle of “team ace” after Price left town.

It appears as though fans have taken “ace” to a whole nother level. “Ace” now seems to imply future Hall of Famer. Jose Quintana, who ranks sixth in fWAR over the past three seasons, likely wouldn’t get the undisputed “ace” label. Looking around the modern baseball landscape, the people who don’t call Archer an “ace” would likely settle on only Kershaw, Scherzer, Sale, Kluber, Verlander, and Bumgarner as true “aces.” Want to know what that sextet has in common? They are all going to be hanging out in Cooperstown one day.

That’s too harsh a cut-off for the word “ace” (and it ignores the fact that by value determined by balls in play, Archer has been better than Verlander and Bumgarner over the past three seasons).

The modern ace doesn’t need to go eight innings each time out. He doesn’t need to go seven, even. There just aren’t enough guys out there that do that the majority of the time. Plus, we know the third times through the order effects even the top tier of pitchers (even the G.O.A.T Kershaw allows an OPS 75 points higher the third time through compared to the first time through).

Chris Archer is an ace. And while you may argue that this is all semantics, there are definitely impacts of this debate. As far as drawing fans to games (an issue the Rays Front Office is definitely going to have to deal with this season), being able to stake your claim to an ace is a big appeal. It also bolsters Archer’s long-term legacy. If Jack Morris (105 ERA+) gets the historical label of ace why shouldn’t Archer (108 ERA+)? It also can potentially lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. While Archer is a grown-ass professional athlete who clearly has had to believe in himself to get to this level, being surrounded by the term ace can only help to buttress his confidence. And if we’re going by old-school narratives like using the term ace, confidence is essential for pitchers.

This is certainly a debate that will rage until it’s just cockroaches and Twinkies inhabiting earth, but it shouldn’t be.

Archer is an ace.