Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Are Two Aces Really Better Than One?

Well, it's official. Cliff Lee is leaving town and Roy Halladay is taking his place. The jury is still out on this trade, but the consensus among Phillies fans is that the Phillies should have dealt their prospects for Halladay and retained Lee, at least for 2010, The idea being that Halladay and Lee would form an unstoppable duo (and having Cole Hamels are the 3rd starter wouldn't hurt either) and would virtually guarantee, barring injuries of course, that the Phillies take home the 2010 crown.

That all sounds great on paper, but is it really true? Does having two legitimate "aces" really lock down anything? Common sense would say that it does. After all, what team would want to face two elite starters in a playoff series, especially a best-of-five? And yet, thinking about it, it seems like almost every year there is a team with a couple elite starting pitchers who supposedly no one wants to face in October...but not many of those teams actually won anything.

That got me thinking today and I have done some research on the subject. Obviously it's a bit tricky because, after all, what defines an "ace"? Cole Hamels was considered the ace of the 2008 Phillies but there's no doubt that Cliff Lee was the ace in '09 and that Roy Halladay will be the ace of the 2010 team, despite Hamels' continued presence. It generally means the team's best pitcher, but clearly a team can be considered to have two aces, as would have been the case if Halladay and Lee were paired. There's no surefire answer, but it seemed to me that the best way to pick out teams with multiple aces was to find teams that had two or more pitchers finish in the top five of the Cy Young Award voting. It's not a perfect system, but it at least provided a basis for the discussion.

Since 1995, the first year when the wildcard was implemented and the playoffs had three rounds, there have been eighteen teams with two or more "aces", by my definition. Four of these teams won the World Series: the 1995 Braves, 1998 Yankees, 2001 Diamondbacks, and 2004 Red Sox. So of the teams that sported multiple aces, 22 percent won it all. That doesn't sound too good on its own, but it doesn't tell the whole story.

For starters, only one of these eighteen teams did not make the playoffs. The lone exception was the 2002 Red Sox, who finished 2nd in the AL East and missed the wildcard, despite getting brilliant seasons from Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe. That team won 93 games (the same number as the 2009 Phillies) so it's not like they were a terrible team, but then again it's a bit hard to say they were simply unlucky as their record would not have won them any division or wildcard in either league that season (though perhaps not having to play the 103-win Yankees so many times would have helped). Based on that it is fairly safe to say that having twin aces gets you into the playoffs.

But making the playoffs is not really the point. First, the Cy Young voting often comes down to who has the best win-loss record (or that at least plays a major role), so the pitchers in contention for the award are going to be on good teams the vast majority of the time. Second, making the playoffs has to be considered a given for this study. Had the Phillies ran out Halladay and Lee in 2010, missing the playoffs would not have been a valid option. Besides, the purpose of that deal would have been to lock up a World Series, not another division title. It is worth noting, however, that if you are of the persuasion that the MLB playoffs are basically random, due to the small number of postseason games in comparison to the 162-game regular season, then you could argue that just getting there is good enough, that the titles will happen, given enough opportunities. But try telling that to the Braves, who won fourteen straight division titles and just one World Championship.

As for the teams that did make the playoffs, as mentioned, only four out of seventeen won the Series. However, it's not entirely fair to say that the remaining thirteen teams blew it. If the argument to be made is that teams with one ace (or perhaps no ace) are better than those with two, then the two-ace teams that lost to other two-ace teams cannot be counted. There are only two examples: the 2001 Mariners and the 2001 Yankees. The Mariners lost to the Yankees, who went on to lose to the Diamondbacks. The Diamondbacks of Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson. So they don't count.

All of the sudden, we're down to eleven two-ace teams that were unable to defeat teams with fewer aces in the postseason. That would mean that 36 percent of the playoff teams that employ two aces and don't run into other two-ace teams, win the World Series. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, not so fast. If look more closely, a lot of these teams really did have an ace, even if they had more than one great pitcher.

The 2004 Red Sox had Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez, who finished 2nd and 4th, respectively, in the Cy Young voting. However, this was Schilling's team. He had the more impressive stats, took a bigger role as a team leader, and was the unquestioned choice as the #1 starter in October. Martinez actually had a down year (by his standards) with a 3.90 ERA.

The 1998 Yankees had David Wells and David Cone and it is hard to argue with their two-ace credentials. However, this was the Yankees at their finest, a team that won 114 games and was dominant in all aspects. They were in no way carried by two starting pitchers. In fact, Andy Pettitte started Game 2 of the ALDS that year, ahead of Cone. This was one of the greatest teams of all time and it's difficult to attribute that success to having multiple aces.

The 1995 Braves are a more interesting case. They won behind stellar pitching from Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. They would be among the first teams that come to mind when supporting the theory that multiple aces equals playoff success. However, this is, in a way, the exception that proves the rule. True, the Braves won in '95, but that was the only time they won despite fourteen straight division titles.

And then there's the most obvious example, the 2001 Diamondbacks, who sported Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, forming one of the best 1-2 punches in history. But this example is also a bit flawed. First of all, Arizona beat the Yankees in the series, who, as previously mentioned, also had two aces (Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina). And second, this is in a way similar to the Braves issue, in that if this was such a successful formula, then why weren't they able to win a single playoff game outside of 2001? Johnson and Schilling teamed up from mid-2000 through 2003 and they only made the playoffs one other time (2002), at which point they got swept in the NLDS.

But why is it that these multiple-ace teams don't seem to dominate the playoffs the way logic suggests they should? That was always the question with the Braves of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz or the A's of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. I can't definitively answer that question, but if I had to guess, I would say it's psychological.

A baseball team functions on routine, on structure. When that is disrupted, teams can collapse. Why is it that teams need to have specific pitchers assigned to the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings? Wouldn't it make more logical sense to use the pitcher who has the most favorable matchups than to use a guy just because he has the label of "closer"? For example, utilizing a left-handed specialist when two of the three batters due up are left-handed, instead of a right-handed pitcher who happens to have more saves. It sounds good, but it doesn't always work that well. Just look at the 2009 Phillies bullpen. Brad Lidge had a terrible season, but it wasn't until he hit the disabled list and Charlie Manuel started leaning on Ryan Madson to close out games did Madson really start to struggle. Does that mean that Madson doesn't have the "closer's mentality" or does it just mean that he was well-adjusted to his 8th inning role?

Just as a bullpen lacking a closer can fall into disarray, so can a rotation without a defined ace, at least in October. During the regular season, the "ace" status isn't as big a deal. Everyone is pitching regularly and, over the course of the season, pitching matchups get mixed to the point where it's little more than coincidence when two ace pitchers face off. It's just as likely that Cole Hamels will face Tim Lincecum as it is that Joe Blanton faces him. And whoever faces him, it's because it's his turn, not because the manager selected him for that matchup. In the regular season, a team can't lean on its ace too heavily. Having one supposed virtual lock for a win every five games is nice, but a team can't think that way over 162 games.

The playoffs, however, are a very different story. When the ace pitches, it becomes a must-win game. The expectation is that whoever has the better ace will take it, regardless of the offenses involved. The offense doesn't feel added pressure because they are confident the ace will keep the opposing offense in check. Obviously this doesn't always happen, but for the great teams it usually does. That's what the Yankees had this year with C.C. Sabathia and what the Phillies had with Hamels last year. Having the best pitcher in a series is a tremendous advantage because, although no pitcher can win a series by himself, the idea that one team has a win practically guaranteed every three or four games presents a tremendous psychological advantage.

One would think this advantage would be built upon for teams with multiple aces, but that doesn't seem to be the case. From a psychological standpoint, it seems to be a classic case of having too much of a good thing. If one kid gets ice cream every day and another gets ice cream once a week, obviously the once-a-week kid is going to be much more excited about ice cream. It's much easier to rally around the idea that your ace is pitching and you have to win for him than it is to do that for two or three guys. Likewise, it waters down the intimidation on the opponent. Instead of having one guy in the rotation that they dread facing, there are now two or three and unless the team is going to throw in the towel and give up, they can't be that greatly intimidated by both pitchers.

Not to mention the effect this can have on the pitchers themselves. As mentioned, baseball players (pitchers especially) thrive on routine and structure. So is it any wonder that Cole Hamels struggled last October after having effectively been demoted to #2 starter? Or that the rest of the Phillies rotation was spotty when they didn't even announce who would start Game 3 of the NLDS until after Game 2 had been played? Another example would be Pedro Martinez in 2004, who was supplanted by Schilling as staff ace and saw his ERA jump for 2.22 in '03 to 3.90 in '04.

So there you have it. Is this indisputable evidence that teams with multiple aces are worse in October? Not really, it's too small a sample size. But it is interesting to look at it in a different light and try to get a handle on the psychological implications that these kinds of roster decisions have on a team.

For the record, I'm still not thrilled about the Roy Halladay trade and would love to have taken a chance on the Halladay-Lee-Hamels tandem, despite my research. But if there's any truth to my theory, than perhaps Ruben Amaro made the correct decision in effectively swapping Lee for Halladay...even if it may not have been for the right reasons.

8 comments:

David Raab said...

So, 36% of the two-ace teams won the series, a 1/3 chance. If eight teams enter the playoffs, that compares to a 1/8 chance over-all. Seems like a pretty good bump in the odds -- although, for sure, nothing like a lock.

Jeff Raab said...

Taking the title of "ace" aside, because if they had Halladay/Lee/Hamels, Halladay would undoubtedly be the "ace", what it really comes down to is that there are five pitchers in the rotation. I would certainly rather have Cliff Lee than a banged-up Jamie Moyer or Kyle Kendrick.

Cliff Lee was fantastic last year and Hamels is still the face of the Phillies rotation for years to come, but Halladay is on a different level. He is on the truly elite tier of pitchers, which includes CC Sabathia, Johan Santana, Tim Lincecum, and perhaps one or two more. Hamels may get there eventually, but Cliff Lee isn't quite there - he's too erratic, and I say that fully aware of what he did last year.

Knowing that we have Moyer and Kendrick, the Phillies may still be wise to go get a low cost, high reward pitcher that could go toward the top of the rotation. Maybe at this point, we give Brett Myers another look, or take a look at Ben Sheets, even someone like Mark Mulder could be interesting. Maybe even a trade for someone like Aaron Harang could work. But now that they've given up their stud prospects, it appears they've made the decision to win now. This is a team that should be putting all of its cards on the table to win this year and unless they know something about Moyer or Kendrick that the rest of us don't, they'd better be looking to sign another pitcher.

Brian Raab said...

Obviously Lee would be better than Kendrick or Moyer but my point is that based on how these types of rotations have fared in the past, I'm not so sure that the trio of Halladay/Lee/Hamels would be that much better than Halladay/Hamels/Happ or whoever in the playoffs. I know it's counter intuitive, but considering how star-studded rotations have fared in past playoffs, it's worth considering that it may not be as advantageous as it seems on paper.

Brian Quinn said...

This is a great article..neat research and well made points.

David Raab said...

Taking your analysis a step further -- what's the impact of one 'ace' on winning? If I understand correctly that you defined them as the top five Cy Young vote-getters, there are five per year, so some of the eight playoff teams must not have any. And, if having one 'ace' raises the odds of winning, to, say, 1/6, then does having two aces do more or less than simply doubling those odds?

Ariel said...

What about the fact that over a long season, you have to factor in injuries and slumps and miscellaneous other unforeseeable problems, so having two aces is kind of like insurance? You suggested that having two aces confuses the lesser ace and has a negative psychological impact on him, so that he performs worse than if he was the only ace. What if it's just that few pitchers can so successfully avoid slumps and injuries over the long term that it's unlikely that more than one pitcher on a team will be able to be so consistent? Or, maybe two aces can work if neither of them are the type (like Pedro) to look over their shoulder, and instead are able to be very focused on every fifth day and getting their own job done.

Also, given the fact that so many things can go wrong within your team during the course of 162 games, statistical predictions often end up getting shot to pieces anyway (as you alluded). Like you said, lots of teams that look good on paper manage to find a way to fall short, and being good during the season isn't the same as being good in the playoffs. There are so many intangibles to what makes a team successful. Your argument is very well thought out and reasoned ... I guess ultimately when it comes to baseball I'm just inclined to feel that the unexpected will always happen, and predictions can only take you so far. My attitude would probably be "you can never be too prepared" (like last year - everyone said the Red Sox had such a surplus of pitching, and then later it turned out they actually didn't have enough good pitching. I don't think you can ever have too many good pitchers), so I think having two aces is a pretty attractive prospect.

Brian Raab said...

I would have to do some more research to figure out the relative impacts of having one ace and multiple aces, but my point really is that the idea that having two or more aces makes you a lock for a title, or at least a pennant, is a myth.

Also, this was only factoring in playoff success. The 162 game thing isn't really the issue. As I mentioned, basically every team with two aces makes the playoffs, or at least wins 90+ games. There is no doubt that having a stellar rotation leads to regular season success, but the matter at hand was whether or not it dramatically improves a team's chances at winning the World Series. I'll have to look into some more (and if I have the time I probably will) but I would argue that other elements, such as having a phenomenal bullpen, increase the odds more than having two Cy Young-caliber pitchers.

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