3-31-23 – By Michael Castrignano – @412DoublePlay on Twitter
Some teams have multiple Aces. Some have one. Some have none. It can be a rarity but also a hard thing to define. If a guy is a team’s quote-unquote “Number One,” that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re an Ace. On the other hand, there’s been times where a 3 or even arguably 4 has been an Ace (looking at you, 2011 Phillies rotation).
In recent memory, the Pirates have had some fine pitchers, even some very good ones, but it’s hard to say they’ve had an “Ace” or even received Ace-level production consistently. Gerrit Cole had some very good years in Pittsburgh and is certainly an Ace now. Was he then?
Maybe going back a bit farther. Doug Drabek? He won a Cy Young in 1990 and had a number of other very good seasons.
John Candelaria? He had an amazing stretch with the Pirates where he only posted an ERA above 3.54 once in his first ten seasons – all with Pittsburgh – which included a 1977 season with a mind-boggling 169 ERA+ to go along with a 2.34 ERA and a 20-5 record. I think you could definitely argue that he was an Ace of the staff at that time.
But the purpose of this isn’t looking back to the days of old. The Pirates have a number of young pitchers – both currently on the team and also rising through the prospect ranks – who could potentially rise to that “Ace” title. The question is: Will any of them do it? And, if so, who?
There’s no hard and fast line defining who is or isn’t an Ace. The Oakland Athletics sent Kyle Muller out to pitch Opening Day against Los Angeles Angels starter Shohei Ohtani. One of those guys is definitely in the Ace conversation, and it’s likely not the one you’ve never heard of before.
Do the Pirates have an Ace now? It’s hard to say.
Our top pitcher on the team currently is Mitch Keller, who has a career 5.00 ERA and a WHIP of 1.57 over his first 70 games in MLB. Not very Ace-like, right?
The thing people tend to forget about Ace-types like Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom and (going back a bit farther) Roy Halladay, is that many of them struggle the same as anyone when they first come up. They are facing the best competition baseball has to offer and it’s a much more challenging adjustment than they’ve ever faced before.
But if you’re looking at a guy who potentially puts it all together to reach that top-tier, Keller seems most likely.
The big news coming into last season was the video of him working out with Driveline, hitting 100 on the radar gun, putting hope in the hearts of weary Pirates fans that he might put it all together. He stumbled out of the gates with a 6.61 ERA in his first 7 starts but he looked much better the rest of the way as, from May 25th, he posted a 3.20 ERA through the rest of the season.
He also has an INSANE array of pitches.
He still needs to put up those results consistently. We saw a glimpse of it yesterday, as he managed 8 strikeouts in 4.2 innings of work. He did give up 4 runs and walked 4 though did not allow a lot of hard contact. Not a sure thing but it’s far more believable now than it was even a year ago.
Digging Deep with Burrows
What makes an “Ace?”
Some combination of these options?
You could have a guy like Nolan Ryan back in the 70’s and 80’s throwing heat with no clue where it was going and with nothing else to lean on, but these days, most pitchers have at least 2 of those 3. Maybe a reliever can get by with just a strong fastball but even solid relievers are diversifying to have 2-3 pitches at their disposal.
An Ace needs to be ELITE with multiple pitches and the next name on my list has the potential to be in that conversation.
Mike Burrows is one of the Pirates top pitching prospects – per MLB Pipeline – and for good reason. As I mentioned in my previous article, Burrows has added a slider this past off-season after adding a change up last year. This is paired with both a high-90s fastball and a devastating curve ball that has serious spin and drop, but the key point is his command and ability to tunnel those pitches effectively.
Another key aspect – in addition to the aforementioned attributes – is demonstrating prolonged success. Burrows has that in spades (pun slightly intended) as he is currently sporting a 3.36 ERA across 201 minor league innings where opponents are batting just .213 against him. His control, arsenal and velocity have catapulted him up the prospect ranks for the Bucs and on the brink of debuting in Pittsburgh.
Changing Things Up
Perhaps the marker of an “Ace” is not so much the fastball as it is the off-speed aspect. Think Adam Wainwright and Clayton Kershaw with the curve balls or Tom Glavine and his filthy change up. Well, there’s a pitcher in the Pirates organization whose change up has become a lethal weapon for him.
With the pitch drawing comps to Devin Williams, his change up is his best pitch with monster deception and ride. He also has a fastball that reaches 97 and an advanced curve with a strong break. Carlos Jimenez was signed as an international free agent in July 2018, so he has been in the organization a long time but, at only 20, he’s still very young despite his advanced repertoire with room to continue growing as he rises through the prospect ranks.
It is also possible that having overall versatility with pitches, as opposed to specializing in certain pitches, is what makes an Ace. For example: Pedro Martinez had a tailing fastball, diving change up and a hard curve ball. He could come out throwing any of them in any count. Having multiple options in your arsenal to use at your disposal is invaluable. Enter: Jun-Seok Shim.
One of the newest members of the organization, Shim was signed just a few months ago as an international free agent from out of Korea, and it could end up being an absolute steal for the Bucs .
Shim boasts a four pitch mix (fastball, slider, curve, change up) which all rank average or above average, with the added benefit of also having plus command. His fastball sits mid-90s but can touch 100. He has a hard breaking slider, a true 12-6 curve and a change up with late life down in the zone.
He’ll be facing a different level of competition here in the States but seems more than ready for the challenge ahead. With his advanced mix of pitches, ability to control them and already mind-boggling velocity, he should be a name for fans to watch in the coming seasons.
What Does It All Mean?
So if there is a clear definition of what makes an “Ace,” do all of these names qualify? Or any? Or maybe none? Does it even matter? Perhaps the title of Ace will have gone by the wayside soon enough as starting pitchers go fewer and fewer innings each start. In that case, will we be looking for starting pitchers to be glorified openers, simply pushing 3-4 clean innings before relievers enter to pass the baton? Who knows. But if there is a future Ace in this organization, don’t be surprised if one of these names pushes to take that title.
2 thoughts on “Aces Wild”
Nice write up. I would like to mention Nolan Ryan also had a great curveball. It wasn’t just his fastball that got him all those no-hitters and shutouts.
I think the current Pirates pitcher with the best chance of becoming a star starting pitcher is Roansy Contreras
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That’s a good point about Ryan. His curve was also high velocity and he had difficulty locating (especially early on) but that was an omission on my end.
I strongly considered including Roansy (excellent fastball/slider mix) but it’s going to depend on how his changeup develops and ability to get swinging strikes on the heater. Strength of one will help bolster the other but with his WBC stretch, didn’t get to see him much this year. Hoping he has a breakout. He’s somehow getting overshadowed by other prospects when he’s still very young and very good himself.