Labels have always intrigued me, not least of all how they are used in baseball. Some, like “closer” or “run producer,” aren’t always accurate, but they are at least indicative of what the player does. Chad Qualls keeps finishing games despite necessitating the Chad Qualls Support Group (of which both Jay Jaffe and I were members, thanks to fantasy issues) in no small part because he’s a “proven closer.” Plenty of people might dispute the proven part of that designation, but it’s hard to say he’s not a closer. He finished 44 games in 2009 and 29 games in 2010, ergo he is a closer.
While few labels in the game are as malignant as closer, there is one that is inspires more debate.
A few weeks ago, I called Francisco Liriano an ace on Seth Stohs’ Podcast and caught a reasonable amount of flak for it, so I decided to look deeper into the issues surrounding the term. Since, unlike run producer and closer, it isn’t something you do so much as something you are.
As typically happens with these broad queries, the large question broke down into several more specific ones. While a longer piece elucidating the answers is coming, I thought opening up some of those questions as a starter ahead of some more concrete data might lead to an interesting discussion.
- On staffs with multiple top pitchers—The Red Sox and Phillies come to mind—does being the second best pitcher preclude one from also being an ace?
- Consistency is obviously very important to pitchers, but how many seasons does it take for a good pitcher to become an ace?
- Acknowledging the ebbs and flows that all pitchers go through, should it matter if a pitcher is consistently above average or alternately great and mediocre?
- Since award voting is a poor measure of a player’s actual skill, how often does a pitcher need to be Cy Young-caliber?
- Cliff Lee has obviously been a force over the last few seasons, but the start of his career was much less auspicious. What role should his lesser past play in our evaluation of his current success?
- How much—if at all—should reputation or recognition matter?