Identifying The Ace of Spades

When the Philadelphia Phillies shocked the baseball nation by signing coveted free agent pitcher Cliff Lee, many Phillies fans turned to the phrase “Four aces!” to describe their pitching rotation this season. No doubt, the Phillies had Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Lee, and Roy Oswalt, all pitchers that easily could be aces of their respective staffs had they not been assembled on the same roster. At the same time, Joe Blanton became the butt of many jokes, despite being a solid starting pitcher himself.

This season, the Four Aces have lived up to the moniker, as Halladay, Hamels, and Lee all have ERAs under 3.00, and Oswalt has a 3.79 ERA despite playing through a bad back. These pitchers certainly have helped lead a Phillies squad that is currently possessing the best record in the majors this season.

As for the Twins, last season saw the emergence of two pitchers worthy of being slapped with the “ace” label. Francisco Liriano was the young, flashy lefthanded pitcher that could mow down opposing lineups with strikeouts, while Carl Pavano was the steady, mustachioed righthanded veteran that relied on excellent control and inducing weak contact. Debates would spark amongst Twins fans over which pitcher should be crowned “ace,” as some would point to Pavano’s seeming ability to be consistent and in control for every start while claiming Liriano was a grab bag for every start. Meanwhile, the other group (typically those well-versed in sabermetrics) would point out Liriano’s strikeouts and excellent FIP, along with Pavano’s inability to miss bats.

As the calendar changed to 2011 and the season started, both pitchers seemed to do everything within their power to remove themselves from consideration as team ace. Pavano’s ERA reached its apex of 6.64 on May 8th after allowing 7 runs over 5 innings against the Boston Red Sox. Meanwhile, Liriano was even worse as he had a 9.13 ERA after the first month of the season, including handing out as many free passes as he was sending hitters marching back to the dugout.

These struggles paved the way for two new potential aces to appear in Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker. Blackburn did have an ERA over 5 after the first month of the season, but quickly started bringing that down in May. Meanwhile, Baker has been solid ever since getting past his first two starts of the season, as his ERA has never been higher than 4.12 since April 21st.

We all know that the Twins have turned things around since being 17-37, and a lot of that coincides with basically the entire pitching staff waking up. Feeling a little left out, Pavano and Liriano have found their strides as well, with Liriano having a 2.20 ERA in May and June, and Pavano having a 1.64 ERA so far in 4 June starts.

Add it all together, and the Twins seemingly have now found four aces of their own this season. Now, they’re certainly not as dominant as Philadelphia’s “Four Aces,” and some (like Blackburn) probably should never be considered as an ace at all, but we can’t deny that they’ve all done very well, whether their success has been for the whole season or just the past month.

Well then, who gets to be the ace of spades, the best card in the deck? For the Phillies, I don’t think there would be much argument against Roy Halladay, but it’s still fairly unclear for the Twins. In this case, I think the nod – at least for this season thus far – has to go to Scott Baker. He could be considered the 2011 version of the 2010 Francisco Liriano, as he’s been striking out just under one batter per inning and is currently carrying an ERA that is easily under 4. However, if Liriano and/or Pavano carry their success through this month and into July, one or both of them may be back under consideration as the best pitcher on the staff.

What do you think? Has Scott Baker legitimately become the ace of the Twins staff? Is Nick Blackburn the dark horse? Are Pavano and Liriano still the team’s top two starters, despite their struggles to start the season?

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One Response to “Identifying The Ace of Spades”

  1. Free Kevin Slowey « Off The Mark Says:

    [...] seems rather odd that I’m saying this so shortly after I wrote about how well the pitching staff had been doing lately, but it seems like the glaring weaknesses from Brian Duensing, Nick Blackburn, Carl Pavano, and [...]

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