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Ranking the MLB Ace Pitchers, Part 1

Who are the “Aces” in baseball this year? It’s the baseball equivalent of whether a quarterback is E-L-I-T-E, but we thought we’d give it a go. But rather than one person deciding, we (Jason Lisk and Mike Cardillo) have teamed up to do a fantasy draft-style ranking of the pitchers that we would take. Better two half-brains than one whole one, the saying might go.

Here were the rules, as it were. We aren’t trying to project five years out, but we are also not trying to just rank past accomplishment. This isn’t fantasy baseball, so we’re not looking just for strikeouts to get extra points, or for pitchers on good offensive teams that help their win totals. Ideally, we are drafting as if the pitcher played for any random team. The idea? Who would you want to have for the next 12 months, starting from this point, to most help your fictional team win.

Since there are 30 real MLB teams (and hence, by definition, 30 No. 1 starters), we are selecting 30 pitchers, 15 each. The number of actual pitchers taking from each team, though, is unlimited. These selections were made over the course of multiple days, through various states of somberness and soberness. Cardillo gets the first pick, Lisk the next two, then it alternates after that. Here’s Part I.

Have at it.

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Pick No. 1 (MC) — Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

Call this the chalk pick or or no-brainer, even if his ERA is over 4.00 in mid-May. Kershaw, regardless his postseason struggles, is on track to be mentioned among the all-time pitching greats so I’ll dismiss 5-6 weeks. On the Baseball-Reference ELO-Rater he’s up to No. 128, passing Sad Sam Jones in the process. I wonder what it would be like to go through an entire career called “Sad Sam.”

Suppose we don’t need to worry about that in this space. Kershaw is the pick.

Let’s not overthink it.

Pick No. 2 (JL) — Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

If Kershaw is a no-brainer, then King Felix also requires limited brain cells. Still in his prime, still dealing, and while he may be toiling in relative anonymity in Seattle, there are no doubts about his game.

Pick No. 3 (JL) — Matt Harvey, New York Mets

Risky pick coming off the Tommy John? Yeah, maybe, and the internal debate really picked up here at number 3 for me, as I considered about 10 names. But, I want to lead this competition in not only on-field results, but also #pageviews.

Here’s a bonus stat for you. Harvey has allowed one or fewer earned runs in 23 of his 44 career starts. So even though he still has fewer wins than the Knicks, I’ll hope my fictional team provides better run support, and clothing.

Pick No. 4 (MC) — Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals

I considered Chris Sale, David Price and Johnny Cueto here (or maybe I didn’t and am tying to screw with Lisk) but the pick is Scherzer. As a Tigers fan I watched Mad Max develop into a Cy Young winner, but the only little nitpick is he never worked all that deep into games. In the National League? Sure it’s only 56 innings, but Scherzer is down to 3.52 pitches per batter from 4.02 last year. He’s also shaved his average pitches per inning from 16.5 to 13.9. The softer No. 8 batter and pitcher combo has helped him produce a 1.75 ERA and 66 strikeouts. If I can take Scherzer’s stuff — and not worry about his enormous long-term contract come 2021 — into the eighth inning, sign me up. Scherzer is the rare strikeout master with pinpoint control.

Pick No. 5 (JL) — Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians

Oh yeah, well, I’ll just take the running AL Cy Young winner who appears to be “back” with two great performances after a slow start to 2015. Kluber is 2nd in “wins above replacement” since the start of last season, has one of the best curveballs in baseball to go with a mid-90’s two-seam fastball, and is going to continue to roll. I’ll put a defense behind him that doesn’t have to cancel it’s SI subscription.

Pick No. 6 (MC) — Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants

This isn’t a fantasy draft, so I’m not worried 100 percent about stats and peripherals, lightning bolt strike me down. I’ll take the 2014 postseason hero — and no this isn’t rubbing it in Lisk’s face since he’s a Royals fan. Baseball is still about winning and it’s hard to think of one guy you’d want on the rubber in a decisive game than the Giants southpaw. Ace can be a nebulous term, often, but Bumgarner fits the bill as a true No. 1 starter and a dude who can drink 18 beers at one time.

Pick No. 7 (JL) — Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox

Cardillo is taking lefties and former Mizzou players. It’s like he’s intentionally rubbing it in my face alright, whatever he might try to claim. I’m coming up and in with this pick. Since I missed out on the guy who retired a billion batters in a row in the postseason, I’ll take the guy who tried to fight my team in the clubhouse. Sale and Kluber were also just involved in a great pitchers’ duel this week, so I’ll grab both.

Pick No. 8 (MC) — David Price, Detroit Tigers

This is what I love about David Price, whenever he steps on the mound you feel good about the team having a chance to win. Also? He pitches like a man with dinner reservations or whatever cliché you want to use. Price works quickly and throws strikes, no bullshit. Since we’re only worrying about this season I feel good taking Price this high and him giving me 7+ effective innings each night. Going forward, perhaps not so much. As fond as I am of Price, he relies almost entirely on the fastball, change-up mix. If he fastball velocity decreases in the future his effectiveness might wane since he relies on so many fly ball outs.

Pick No. 9 (JL) — Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies

Gonna go with a lefty, and among those available, going to go with Mr. Consistent. Hamels has pretty much year-in, year-out been a top 15 starter, and we tend to forget about him as Philadelphia has moved from World Series contender to 90-loss contender over the last five years. It seems like eons ago that he was part of the “greatest rotation of all-time” discussion. He’s still only 31 . . . and may find himself on a contender in a few months.

Pick No. 10 (MC) — Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays

Maybe this is too high for the 26-year-old, but I’d rather reach than let Lisk nab him. Archer nearly went 200 innings last year, and is even better this year with more than a strikeout per inning, while holding opposing batters under .200. The Trop is among the crummiest places to ever host Major League Baseball, but it’s one silver lining is its a haven for pitchers. Archer is even better on the road with a 0.45 ERA so far in 2015.

Pick No. 11 (JL) — Zack Greinke, Los Angeles Dodgers

I have long been a Greinke fan. He is definitely a different guy, but is a creative artist as a pitcher. Oh, and he loves Chipotle. His fastball velocity may be down, but he is a good enough pitcher still with his slider, change up and the slow curve to continue to be a top level starter.

Pick No 12 (MC) — Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds

From afar it must be an interesting time to actually be Johnny Cueto. His name is going to appear, daily, in trade rumors (cough, cough Dodgers). Then he’s about to be a free agent, likely demanding at least $25 million a year. I suppose if you’re a professional athlete you have to tune out all that noise. Landing him at 12 feels like a steal, even in a two-person draft.

Pick No. 13 (JL) — Dallas Keuchel, Houston Astros

Pretty sure that Keuchel is Mark Buehrle’s love child, and that the beard is, well, a beard to keep us from discovering that. The soft-tossing lefty just knows how to pitch, induces ground balls at an extreme rate, and keeps hitters frustrated. There’s more than one way to pitch successfully and to make this list. He’s also built on last year’s very good season and been a rock for an Astros team that has been the biggest surprise of the season. I love me some crafty lefties.

Pick No. 14 (MC) — Sonny Gray, Oakland Athletics

Gray is eighth in ERA (1.92) and 10th in strikeouts (57). Since he plays on the West Coast he is mostly anonymous. The point of this practice was to determine “ace” pitchers. Name recognition or not, the 25-year-old Gray fits the ace billing.

Pick No. 15 (JL) — Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

On recent form, Stephen Strasburg doesn’t deserve to be on here. This is the anti-Keuchel pick, to diversify my selection portfolio. Whereas Keuchel is maximizing things, Strasburg is the former No. 1 overall pick who seems to struggle once things go badly in a start, and is still not completely back from his Tommy John surgery. Strasburg is near the bottom in the National League in ERA at the moment (here’s a FanGraphs breakdown). But I think it’s worth a shot, that he’ll recover from this slow start and put it together over the next 12 months. I’m sure Scott Boras has a fancy chart that agrees with this decision.

Part II coming next week.