How much are you willing to pay for Tanaka?

Koji Watanabe

What characteristics define an ace? And is Tanaka worth an ace's salary?

The market for Tanaka is still a bit of a mystery and so is his eventual contract, and those twin mysteries are probably the biggest story for the rest of the offseason. Keep or trade Gardner, sign more infield help, who are the prospect favorites for big league jobs- all of it depends on Tanaka. If the Yankees and Dodgers are willing to get into a bidding war to keep their playoff windows open, then the sky's the limit. Might Tanaka leave money on the table to play for the best team in 2014 or in a particular market?

And the most important mystery of all: could he possibly live up to his contract?

One of the things that the continuing Tanaka debate (his value to a team, his potential value to this Yankees team, his earning power, and his potential 2014 performance) has crystalized for me is the variations from observer to observer of "what is an ace?"

The question is conflated in my mind with questions of salary, because salary sets much of a fan's expectations. As a fan, I am (irrationally) happier with high performing players I've watched since they were young (read: inexpensive), while the same performance from my high salary import is unacceptable. As Yankee fans, we've seen this dynamic at play with the debate between Gardner and Ellsbury, the evaluations of Tex and Sabathia, and more.

We use the terminology all the time. Is Tanaka a #1 or a #2? Can Sabathia return to his ace form? Is Ivan Nova a potential #1 or is he really a #2 or #3 who will show you flashes of brilliance? If Kuroda pitches like an ace for 5 months then turns into a BP pitcher in September, is he a tired #1 or an overachieving #2?

If the Yankees need a solid #3 type pitcher to round out their rotation, what does such a pitcher really look like?

So, I'm using 4 assumptions:

1) There should be twice as many of each class of pitcher in each step down. So if there are 10 #1s in all of MLB, there must be 20 #2s, 40 #3s, 80 #4s, and 160 #5s. This logic is transitive, so if I tell you how many pitchers started at least 3 games in 2013 (296), the number of aces is calculable (9). The exact number of pitchers in the lower orders is more fluid, primarily because it interests me less. Why these divisions? Because I believe a #3, a true #3 starter, is not just a serviceable pitcher, but one who has real value to a contending team, though he might never earn an All-Star selection or garner an Cy Young vote (though he could, depending on how his career arcs). I also believe that an "ace" is not enough to win a championship without enough pitching around him (see Verlander, Justin or Kershaw, Clayton).

2) The stratifications are reflections within a slope, and no one measure can encompass the separating factors. xFIP, WHIP and WAR are valuable tools for pitcher evaluation and ranking. This is not meant to be a projection of who will be an ace in 2014, but an evaluation of which pitchers performed like an ace in 2013. Innings Pitched and Games Started are two of the most underrated statistics in baseball, and while we've made unbelievable strides in public access to grades for fastballs and curveballs, the ability to stay on the field (and be trusted with the ball every fifth day) for a 162 game season remains one of sports black boxes.

3) Guts, moxy and will-to-win are overrated at the professional level. Of course, in my beer league, that one guy who really wants to win can bear down and bring us a championship despite my lackadaisical attitude to holding runners on second. But even the lowliest major league baseball player has overcome at least a decade of separation from slops like me. Their will to win, their baseball intelligence, their desire to reach the ultimate pinnacle of their craft must be too similar for me to connect their grit to their performance without a level of intimate knowledge I can't pretend to have gleaned from a tv screen or dataset.

4) The standards of ace-hood shift over time. While a 2012 ace will look much like a 2013 ace, it will be radically different from a 1933 ace or a 1963 ace.

Methodology:

Working from the assumptions above, I started filtering my list, applying standards to drive the numbers towards the first assumption (8 aces, 16 #2s, 32 #3s, 64 #4s, 148 #5s).

My first cull was to remove any pitcher who made fewer than 15 starts, or pitched fewer than 100 innings. This took my pool of starting pitchers from 296 to 139, meaning this identified 157 starts who were obvious #5s. Happy trails, David Phelps, Vidal Nuno, Adam Warren and David Huff. Seems about right.

Having set the line for #4 and above at 100IP, I think it's worth saying now that my line for #1 is 200 IP. I like round numbers, and while not as many players throw 200 innings as twenty years ago, it's a mark that was still reached by 36 different pitchers in 2013- a mark of distinction, but that alone won't help us identify the top pitchers in the league.

So how to intersect IP and quality? I went through several iterations of this step, and my solution is as simple as it is inelegant: I divided IP by xFIP. This gave me a score for the remaining pitchers from 86 (Adam Wainwright) to 21 (Dylan Axelrod). I used this to separate the #4s from the #3s from the #2s. And then I marked the top 9 pitchers to clear 200 IP as #1s.

That group? (in order)

Wainwright, Kershaw, Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez, Yu Darvish, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Cole Hamels.

The #2s (also in order): Matt Harvey, AJ Burnett, Homer Bailey, Anibal Sanchez, Jeff Samardzija, James Shields, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Madison Bumgarner, Patrick Corbin, Justin Verlander, Mat Latos, Stephen Strasburg, Derek Holland, Ervin Santana, David Price, CC Sabathia, Justin Masterson, Mike Minor.

*For the record, Kuroda was the second player below the cutoff for #3, Pettitte was in the middle of the #3s, Hughes and Nova were nearly side by side among the #4s.

Think about the disappointing (by their standards) years that Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia just posted. Would you pay Tanaka $25M for a year like that? Would you pay him $20M?

Personally, I think, given where the Yankees sit on the win curve, Tanaka might mean more to them than any other team. Without Tanaka, the Yanks have a playoff shot, but shouldn't be considered favorites for a Wild Card berth. If Tanaka is a #2 or even a high end #3, with him on board the Yanks should challenge for the division.

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