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Searching for an ace

Every team has one.

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Detroit Tigers v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The number one starter or ace debate is fun, because the terminology is so malleable. “Ace” means different things to different people. Hell, it can mean different things to the same people.

For myself, an “ace” represents the top tier of starting pitchers in the league, but it can also be drilled down to a team level. All teams have an “ace.” It’s their best pitcher. Their number one starter. The guy who generally receives the ball on Opening Day. That’s their “ace.” Brad Keller was the Royals “ace” last year. Brad Keller is not an “ace” when discussing the top starters in the game.

Using the just-released PECOTA projections from Baseball Prospectus, I identified the best projected starting pitchers for each team and split them into tiers to rank each team’s “ace”. Obviously, some of these are no-brainers. And there are some that raise questions. Some names are missing, but that’s because PECOTA has them ranked as the second-best starter on their own team. It wouldn’t be a projection system (and PECOTA) without a few dubious names and numbers thrown into the mix, but that’s what keeps this interesting.

The following are the best starters from all 30 clubs as projected by PECOTA for 2020. For more on the 2020 version of PECOTA, click here.

Tier 1

Jacob deGrom - 6.94 WARP

Max Scherzer - 5.91 WARP

Clayton Kershaw - 5.64 WARP

This is the stuff. deGrom is projected to be a whole WARP better than the second closest starter, Scherzer. And Scherzer is damn good. Kershaw may not be KERSHAW! anymore, but PECOTA still loves him plenty. Old projection habits die hard.

Tier 2

Jack Flaherty - 5.27 WARP

Gerrit Cole - 5.21 WARP

Justin Verlander - 4.92 WARP

Feels kind of weird to hang a “Tier 2” around the arms of Cole and Verlander. But these are my tiers (and PECOTA’s projections) and we’re stubborn that way. Still plenty of class here.

Tier 3

Chris Sale - 4.31 WARP

Luis Castillo - 3.91 WARP

Shane Bieber - 3.64 WARP

Chris Paddack - 3.59 WARP

Kenta Maeda - 3.46 WARP

There’s quite a drop between Tiers 2 and 3, but it’s mitigated by the fact there are starters between Verlander and Sale. Walker Buhler, Noah Syndergaard and Stephen Strasburg aren’t listed here but point to the quality of the rotations of the Dodgers, Mets and Nationals, respectively. We’ve also come to the tier where you may have difficulty calling some of these pitchers “Aces” or “Number One Starters.” Sale battled injury and ineffectiveness last summer. Castillo, Bieber and Paddack all have pluses, but limited big league resumes. Besides, do they really jump to mind as number one starters? Maeda is an interesting name to find on this list as he’s bounced between starting and the bullpen and hasn’t been a particularly impactful starter. Still, PECOTA.

Tier 4

Brandon Woodruff - 3.29 WARP

Kyle Hendricks - 3.27 WARP

Aaron Nola - 3.26 WARP

Madison Bumgarner - 3.25 WARP

Blake Snell - 3.18 WARP

Solid, yet unspectacular. Still, most teams and their fans (besides the Dodgers, Mets and Nats) would love to have a starter of this caliber in the front of their rotation. Except probably Cubs fans. Cubs fans don’t like anything.

Tier 5

Corey Kluber - 2.73 WARP

John Means - 2.71 WARP

Jon Gray - 2.57 WARP

Caleb Smith - 2.54 WARP

Chris Archer - 2.51 WARP

Waiting for the Royals ace to appear, this is starting to get troubling. Means (Baltimore), Smith (Miami) and Archer (Pittsburgh) represent last place clubs. The Orioles and Marlins were worse than the Royals last year, for crying out loud. Gray (Colorado) is the projected best starter on a team that lost 90 games last year and was a three game winning streak (with a pair of walkouts) from finishing last in their division.

We’ve now covered 21 out of 30 teams. Onward…

Tier 6

Mike Soroka - 2.32 WARP

Lucas Giolito - 2.06 WARP

Here we have a pair of breakout starters from 2019 without a long track record of major league success so PECOTA is skeptical. Soroka finished with a 4.8 WARP last year, Giolito at 5.7 WARP. Projections are fun until they underestimate your ace.

Tier 7

Hyun-Jin Ryu - 1.98 WARP

Matthew Boyd - 1.97 WARP

Andrew Heaney - 1.76 WARP

Sean Manaea - 1.71 WARP

Ryu is an upgrade for Toronto and Boyd should be shopped to help the system in Detroit. Perceptions are weird. But sometimes true.

If your first reaction to seeing Manaea’s name here is to start typing a comment about how the Royals should have never made the trade for Ben Zobrist in 2015, please log off. Forever.

Tier 8

Jeff Samardzija - 1.45 WARP

I don’t know, man. Just seeing this made me make a whole tier devoted to Samardzija.

Two teams left…

Tier 9

Danny Duffy - 0.70 WARP

And there he is. There’s your “ace” Royals starter. At least projected by PECOTA.

In 2020, Duffy will be three years removed from his most successful campaign as a starter. That year, he pitched to a 3.81 ERA with an 8.0 SO/9 and 2.5 BB/9 to post a 3.87 DRA. According to Baseball Prospectus, in 2017 he was worth 2.8 WARP. (Duffy finished with a 3.5 WARP in 2016, but split his time between the rotation and the bullpen.) Since then, he’s scuffled with his command and fallen victim to the launch angle revolution. He’s never been one to keep the ball on the ground, but with the superball baseball and the uppercut swings, Duffy has seen his home run rate jump.

As Eno Sarris noted on Monday at The Athletic, last year Duffy gradually moved away from the curve (his worst pitch he would regularly throw) and started throwing his change (his best pitch) with greater regularity. The result were improved strikeout and walk rates in the second half of the season.

On the flip side, Duffy has seen his velocity decrease. His average fastball was down a tick from the year before, to an all-time low of 92.7 mph. He doesn’t get the velocity separation he once did between the heater and the change, so it will be interesting to follow Duffy’s pitch selection at the start of the upcoming season.

He certainly has the pedigree to be the best starter on the Royals staff. His inclusion so far down this list points not to a failing of the Royals’ left-hander, rather it’s an indictment of the current rotation. Last year, the Royals starters posted a 5.30 ERA, a mark that ranked 24th out of the 30 teams. Their 2.2 SO/BB ratio was 28th.

Duffy seems an afterthought to Keller these days. Can he step forward and claim his position at the front of the rotation? The stuff has never been questioned. Duffy simply has to find his comfort zone and execute. Consistently if he’s to emerge as the Royals’ top starter.

Tier 10

Marco Gonzalez - 0.22 WARP

The Mariners have five relievers projected by PECOTA to be better than their best starting pitcher. Looking down from Duffy at Tier 9, it feels safe to invoke the Bell Axiom here: Never say it can’t get worse.