Yesterday, Joe Maddon announced, to no one’s surprise, that David Price would take the ball in Game 1. In the grand scheme of things, starting the first game is pretty insignificant. All five starting pitchers that start the season in the rotation are of equal importance and, through a 162-game season, Game 1 isn’t any more important than Game 143.
BUT, players [in] a Major League clubhouse [are] [is] sort of like [the animals on] Animal Farm.: all players are equal, some players are more equal than others. So, to the five guys in a rotation, the Opening Day Starter is a big deal because, by naming an Opening Day starter, the skipper is also naming the one of the guys the team’s best pitcher.
Now that David Price has officially been named the club’s best pitcher by management (a title he has probably held since early last year but, Opening Day only comes once a summer), I think we have to ask an obvious question: Is David Price the first true Ace in club history?
Let’s start with the list of opening day starters because, based on my premise above, a pitcher cannot be his team’s true Ace until the team’s management designates him as the best pitcher. Please be warned, this is going to be an ugly list. If you have small children, this is probably a good time to cover their eyes:
1998 Wilson Alvarez
1999 Wilson Alvarez
2000 Steve Trachsel
2001 Albie Lopez
2002 Tanyon Sturtze
2003 Joe Kennedy
2004 Victor Zambrano
2005 Dewon Brazelton
2006 Scott Kazmir
2007 Scott Kazmir
2008 James Shields
2009 James Shields
2010 James Shields
Right off the top we can throw out DBo, Sturtze, Kennedy (whose greatest achievement in baseball is either his 0.49 ERA in two months at AA that somehow got him promoted all the way to the bigs or his success in convincing the beat writers that his brutal black eye was caused by the tailgate hatch on his SUV), Zambrano (who was in the Devil Rays’ inaugural minor league camp in 1996 as an infielder) and Albie (seriously Chuck? Albie Lopez was the best we could find that year? I liked Albie a lot but, seriously? I think my brain blocked the memory of this happening.).
We can also dispose of Trax (who was just hanging on for a few more rides by the time he arrived in Tampa Bay) and Alvarez (because Rolando Arrojo was the best pitcher on the 25-man those two seasons).
That leaves Scott Kazmir and James Shields as potential “Aces.”
Kaz is tricky for a couple reasons. First, in 2006 and 2007 he was among the only positives in the Devil Rays fold so, we as fans obviously overvalued him. Also, he was pretty good. He struck out 10+ hitters per nine innings in both 2006 and 2007 and, when he was on, flashed electric stuff.
But, Kaz also walked a lot of hitters and burned himself out early in games with high pitch counts. In the end, Kaz was occasionally dominant, occasionally underwhelming, and regularly inefficient. I don’t think he qualifies as a true “Ace” because, while his starts were always intriguing, they were never consistently dominant.
Jamie presents the exact opposite conundrum. He is remarkably consistent as a starting pitcher but, rarely dominant. In 2008, 2009, and 2010, Shields pitched to a FIP of 3.82, 4.02, and 4.24. In those same seasons, his BABIP was .287, .308, and .341. I think it is fair to conclude from those numbers that Shields is a 4-run-per-nine pitcher because, based on his BABIP, he was as lucky in 2008 as he was unlucky in 2010. That makes the median number of 4.02 (earned in a season where his BABIP was exactly where you’d expect it to be) seem like his talent level.
Shields apparently has some good leadership qualities that lead the young pitchers to emulate his work habits (another example of his leadership is the professional way he is handling the news that Price has finally surpassed him as the Opening Day starter) and, he is a pretty consistent starting pitcher. But, I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue that a pitcher who is pretty certain to allow 4 runs every 9 innings qualifies as an “Ace.”
That leaves the big lefty from the hills of Tennessee. I am not sure we know exactly what David Price is capable of yet. He was very good last year (the hitters of the American League voted him as the league’s best pitcher, an award I think is more prestigious than the acclaim of sportswriters that comes with the Cy Young) but still only pitched to a 3.42 FIP and a 4.3 WAR. (By comparison, Kaz pitched to a 3.36 and 3.45 FIP in 2006 and 2007).
I don’t think those numbers show that he has reached “Ace” status yet. And, if he meets the 2011 predictions on FanGraphs, he won’t be there. But, looking at his numbers, he definitely has improved year-over-year and, he is still really new to professional baseball. Assuming 2011 is the start of 4 consecutive Opening Day starts (and, God willing, many more after a nice extension), and assuming continued improvement from Price, I think 14 is the closest thing this club has ever had to a bona fide “Ace.”