What makes an ace?
It seems like a straightforward question, usually the best pitcher on a team gets the mantle of “ace”. The Indians have done a great job of muddling that question the last few years though, what with the incredible rotation of anywhere between three to five demigods they’ve rolled out the last few years. Thinking back further, that rotation of Cy Young winners the Tigers rolled out with Verlander, Scherzer, and Porcello, plus Anibal Sanchez, that one did a great job of confusing people over the moniker of ace, maybe the best ever. How can Verlander be the man, the bell cow, if Scherzer or Porcello wins the award that means best pitcehr? How can Kluber be the guy if he’s out-stripped by Bauer in 2018? It’s a great problem to have.
The Indians have done it again this year, as Shane Bieber and Mike Clevinger were All-Star caliber — in Clevinger’s case, when he was healthy - and could have been The Man on basically any team in baseball. Whether by power, control, or brutally vicious stuff, they sliced their way through the American League. Both are on the Indians for a long time to come. Both hold qualities of the Ace. Do we even have to name one? The answer, because I’m writing this, is “yeah, probably”. So let’s see how they stack up in the ever-important box score:
Bieber vs. Clevinger
Nothing here that wouldn’t surprise anyone who watched literally any of these guys’ season — the rate stats tend to favor Clevinger (it helps when you can throw 98) while the counting stats go Bieber’s way, by virtue of throwing nearly 100 more innings. Bieber has almost half the walk rate, which really helps his case and brings that K-BB% much closer, but aaside from that Clevinger was simply one of the most dominant pitchers when he took the mound. I wrote about it last week — prorated to a 200 inning season Clevinger would be the best pitcher in the game by fWAR.
That said, there’s something to be said for simply taking the mound. It’s not Clevinger’s fault that he got hurt this year, any more than it’s Bauer’s fault last year or even Kluber’s fault back in May. Heck, I might not even be writing this if that liner hadn’t fractured Kluber’s arm. For all we know he’d have had his typical slow start followed by utter annihilation of all batters facing him from July on. Instead it was Bieber who was the rock in the rotation, the guy to stop losing streaks, who gave the Indians a consistent chance to win. While I kind of hate the “Quality Start” moniker, Bieber did log one 73% of the time this year compared to Clevinger’s 62%, also tossing a pair of shutouts.
Giving the “chance to win” is important obviously, but so is knocking down hitters, which Clevinger demonstrated elite talent for. He had more double-digit K games. Even so, he never matched the 15 Bieber knocked down on May 19th, the best mark for an Indians pitcher this year. Between that and all the non-walks, he kind of did the best job in that instance, along with the more consistent quality of start.
There’s also something about Bieber, something that activates the Old-Tyme Baseball Fan in me. He’s got a Ken Burns vibe to him, you know? Standing out there exuding a stoicism on the mound, that look and vibe that made so many draw comparisons to Corey Kluber when he debuted last year. He looks like he teleported from like 1962, and grew some stubble to blend in. Makeup, attitude, however you want to look at it, he’s got that feel of a man who never smiles, who Does Work, who Grinds, who Isn’t Phased By The Pressure, a man with a Haircut. On the other side is Clevinger, Mister California surfer dude who needs to get a damn trim, the hippy. How can that guy be a leader of anything?
That something, of course, means absolutely nothing in any construct, but if the Ace moniker is intangible and ultimately meaningless, then we have to consider it. For some reason. I guess.
Ultimately it’s all moot, just something to wonder about as the postseason winds on and the Indians continue to not play. With their bringing Kluber back, it’s hard to name anyone but him the leader until further notice anyway, right? He looked incredibly shaky before he got hurt, but like Justin Verlander and that filthy Tigers rotation, but he’s still the one with the awards, with the postseason pedigree and with the stature around the league. He’s sure to be subsumed in 2020, I expect by Clevinger if his own career arc continues unabated. That’s not now though. whatever the case, the wonderful problem continues, and the Indians will merely have a bunch of great pitchers. It made sense to give Kluber the title a year or whatever ago because he was absurdly good. Those days are behind us most likely, and we’re at a point where whoever the best is, isn’t much separated from the second best, leaving us with some kind of double dragon situation, maybe even triple dragon if Carrasco is good again. Which is probably cooler anyway.