The 2020 baseball season, if it finishes, will go down as The Year of the Pandemic. The Year of the Sprint. The Year of the Unseemly Battle Over Finances.
The Year of the Ace? Hard to see it.
Except for one timeless reality: Whichever team’s pitchers throw like aces in October, those guys possess an excellent chance to win the whole thing.
“Just look at what a number one pitcher like Jacob deGrom said: A Cy Young Award wouldn’t mean as much,” said ESPN commentator Rick Sutcliffe, who won the 1984 National League Cy Young Award. “But a World Series ring will.”
The Mets’ deGrom, as you know, will try to win a third straight NL Cy Young Award, joining Hall of Famers Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux in an ultra-exclusive club. Given that the coronavirus-shortened campaign will last 60 games if it proceeds as scheduled, that gives deGrom and his contemporaries — including new Yankee Gerrit Cole over in the American League — a likely maximum of 12 starts to make their cases. And that’s in the wake of a half-as-long-as-usual spring training 2.0, to boot, giving guys less time to ramp up for Opening Day.
Throw in expanded rosters — 30 players for the first two weeks, 28 for the subsequent two weeks and 26 the rest of the way — and the regular season could prioritize quantity of arms and organizational depth as much as quality. The old-school ace, already withering for a good decade now — “Looking at today’s game … there aren’t many aces,” former A’s ace Dave Stewart said — might take one or two steps closer to extinction, at least for the short term.
“When you have a number one like deGrom or a Gerrit Cole, [the Dodgers’ Clayton] Kershaw, whoever, obviously you don’t do too much too soon,” said Dave Eiland, who won World Series rings as a pitching coach for the Yankees and Royals and coached deGrom to his first Cy Young in 2018 with the Mets. “Depending where they’re at when this 60-game season opens for their first start, you’ve got to err on the side of caution. If it’s three innings, it’s three innings. Sixty-five, 70 pitches, whatever it may be.
“I know guys are throwing simulated games and doing all this stuff, but it’s not the same as pitching under stress.”
Given all of the unprecedented components that this year will bring, Sutcliffe said, “I think we’re going to see things this year we’ve never seen before. It’ll be the attitude of trying it, because why not?”
Whether such thinking manifests itself through six-man rotations, more bullpenning, extended usage of the opener or other strategies remains to be determined, yet teams, increasingly mindful of even the best pitchers’ limited shelf lives, probably won’t go too hard on their top guys.
These likelihoods didn’t deter Major League Baseball from selecting Yankees at Nationals — headlined by Cole’s debut with his new team against the certain future Hall of Famer Max Scherzer — as its reboot season opener. Aces sell.
And they pay off in the playoffs, and should do so this year, too, when such caution historically gets thrown to the wind. Consider that the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg, who defers to his older teammate Scherzer when it comes to honors like the Opening Day start, threw an astounding 36 ¹/₃ innings in last year’s playoffs, compiling a magnificent 1.98 ERA over his five starts and one relief appearance. Scherzer delivered a 2.40 ERA in 30 innings over the same five starts and one relief appearance. The success of that power duo enabled Washington to win its first title in franchise history. Cole, meanwhile, put together a 1.72 ERA in five postseason starts totaling 36 ²/₃ innings for the Astros, and what Houston fans might remember most is the controversy over former manager A.J. Hinch not calling upon Cole out of the bullpen in World Series Game 7 as his team fell just short.
While Strasburg captured the Fall Classic Most Valuable Player honors to accompany his ring, both he and Cole, sharing an agent in Scott Boras, declared with authority last winter how the sparsity of the ace species only enhances the earning power of those who still meet the standard. Strasburg agreed to return to the Nationals for seven years and $245 million on Dec. 9, the first full day of the winter meetings in San Diego, and — with Boras purposely securing Strasburg’s deal first — that jacked up the price for Cole, who received serious interest from the Dodgers and Angels as well as the Yankees. Just one day after Strasburg set a record for the largest free-agent deal by a starting pitcher, Cole shattered that, accepting a nine-year, $324 million package from the Yankees.
The Yankees, in going so big, assuaged many of their fans who had grown aggravated with what they perceived to be fiscal skimpiness. They had passed the previous winter on big-name free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado as well as lefty pitcher Patrick Corbin, a near-ace who wound up teaming with Scherzer and Strasburg to help the Nationals win it all. In saving their resources for Cole, they underlined their belief, held throughout the industry, that there’s nothing as valuable as a bona fide ace. Especially in this age of analytics when it’s common to lift your starter after two turns through the lineup, with no regard for, say, whether he’s in line to get a win by completing five innings.
“An ace is a guy that, when a team needs to win a baseball game, he’s their go-to guy,” said Stewart, who now works as a player agent and also is involved in an endeavor to bring a major league team to Nashville. “Your teammates unanimously say, ‘This is the guy if we have to win this game. This is the guy I want on the mound.’ That guy is your ace.
“Now, what does that entail? I can go back to when I pitched. The guy that ate up innings, but his innings weren’t just ‘eating up’ innings. They were quality innings. Go out and have a quality start the majority of the time. You’re pitching in a game and nine games out of 10, when you leave a game, you’ve got a chance to win a game. You may not win it, but you had a chance to win it. The ace does what’s needed at the time that it’s called for. Whatever that need is, somehow the ace figures out a way to get it done.”
“The first thing I think of is something that [Don] Drysdale told me,” said Sutcliffe, who got to know the late Hall of Famer when he rose through the Dodgers’ farm system. “ ‘The best ability in sports is availability.’ ”
The regular-season innings pitched leaders of the prior three years are Cole’s former Astros teammate (and reigning AL Cy Young Award winner) Justin Verlander (643), deGrom (622 ¹/₃), another Astro in Zack Greinke (618 ²/₃), Cole (615 ²/₃) and Scherzer (593 ²/₃).
“Number one, it’s ability, and number two, it’s reliability,” Eiland echoed. “A guy that has been there and done it. A guy that has proven himself. Jake deGrom, Max Scherzer, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling … pick whatever name you want. If you’re a teammate or a fan, you know that if you’ve got that guy on the mound tonight, you’re feeling good about things. There’s a different vibe, a confidence about that team.
“Now, the flip side is that if you don’t win that game, it’s a gut punch. But you move on. And you know when you wake up that morning, when you’ve got your number one going, the whole organization and the fan base has a little extra excitement because that guy’s on the mound.”
The Mets know what that’s like with deGrom, just as they experienced “Harvey Day” when Matt Harvey dominated, how every Dwight Gooden start turned into an event and, for those old enough to remember, Tom Seaver became “The Franchise.” The Yankees sure hope to get that with Cole, just as they once did with aces such as Whitey Ford, Ron Guidry, Mike Mussina and CC Sabathia.
Stewart, who has worked as a general manager and pitching coach as well as player representative, took delight in reading that Cole had pitched five innings (he thought it was six but, upon being corrected, still was impressed with five) in an intrasquad game at the start of spring training 2.0.
“When that season starts, he’s going to be prepared from Day 1 to take the ball deep into the game and give that team what they need to start that first game of what’s going to be an unusual season,” Stewart said. “You look at, to be able to go out your first time out and throw [five] innings, that itself tells you what his work ethic is while they weren’t playing. And that’s another part of it. It’s the responsibility you carry as an individual for the outcome of your team.”
Whether Cole can easily transition into dominating regular-season games, we don’t know. This year feels so very fluid. Even if the ace takes a breather this season, though, it won’t go away altogether. It’s too important, too valuable in helping to win championships and sell tickets. Even if this won’t be the Year of the Ace, even if fewer guys belong to the club, this will continue to be the Sport of the Ace.
The Post’s Ken Davidoff grades each team’s No. 1 starting pitcher on the “ace” scale. Grades are compiled via a subjective mix of track record, with an emphasis on recent results, as well as current health, industry reputation and 2020 upside.
Gerrit Cole, Yankeees
Jacob deGrom, Mets
Max Scherzer, Nationals
Justin Verlander, Astros
Madison Bumgarner, Diamondbacks
Kyle Hendricks, Cubs
Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
Charlie Morton, Rays
Hyun-Jin Ryu, Blue Jays
Jose Berrios, Twins
Johnny Cueto, Giants
Sonny Gray, Reds
Lance Lynn, Rangers
Aaron Nola, Phillies
Shane Bieber, Indians
Jack Flaherty, Cardinals
Lucas Giolito, White Sox
German Marquez, Rockies
Mike Soroka, Braves
Brandon Woodruff, Brewers
Sandy Alcantara, Marlins
Nathan Eovaldi, Red Sox
Marco Gonzalez, Mariners
Brad Keller, Royals
Chris Paddack, Padres
Matthew Boyd, Tigers
Frankie Montas, A’s
Andrew Heaney, Angels
Joe Musgrove, Pirates
Tommy Milone, Orioles
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