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Making An Ace, Part 3: The Early Years

What did our group of aces look like before they reached the Majors?

Arizona Diamondbacks Photo Day Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

We’re back with part 3 of the Making An Ace series. Today, we will be looking at the early portion of these aces’ careers: Were they drafted in college or high school or were they free agents? How long were they in the minors? How did they perform in the minors? If we can find some common traits among these aces as we defined in parts 1 and 2, then it might help us with our analysis for today and in the future.

I have created a pretty massive table of all this data. If I was to post it in the article, it would become a massive eyesore, so I am going to embed it here below in sections and then reference it throughout the rest of the article. I wish I had a better way of presenting this, but we’re dealing with 25 pitchers and the tables can get very, very long.

Let’s start from the beginning – how were these pitchers found? There are three primary choices here, either they were drafted out of high school, drafted out of college, or were undrafted free agents.

Let’s start with the exceptions: of these 25 pitchers, 4 of them were signed as amateur free agents: Hiroki Kuroda (Japan), Johnny Cueto (Dominican Republic), Ervin Santana (Dominican Republic), and Felix Hernandez (Venezuela). Cueto, Santana, and Hernandez were all signed before they turned 20, so they can be considered similarly to high schoolers. Do note that the college opportunities might have been non-existent for them, so they made not have had much choice other than to sign an MLB contract. Nowadays, players like these three will be subject to the International Draft but they were all signed well before the International Draft ever existed. Kuroda was signed after his age 32 season out of Japan and would be just like a normal free agent in the MLB today, since he’s older than 25.

Of the remaining 21 pitchers on the list, 10 of them were drafted out of college and the remaining 11 were drafted out of high school. This is a pretty even mix. My initial thought was that this was going to be high school dominant so I am actually a bit surprised here.

There doesn’t seem to be much bias towards performance, either: of the guys that have had “ace-like” seasons 4 times or more (15 total), 8 were drafted out of high school and 7 were drafted out of college. So again, a very even split.

What’s more apparent is the round that the player was drafted from. There is a much more common theme here.

Among the 11 aces drafted out of high school, 9 of them were drafted in the first round. The other two were Jon Lester in the 2nd round and James Shields in the 16th rounds.

College is a similar story: among the 10 aces drafted out of college, 7 were taken in the first round, with Corey Kluber and Cliff Lee coming in the 4th round and Jake Arrieta coming in the 5th round.

The big takeaway here: being drafted early in the draft, specifically the first round, is a huge indicator to future “ace” status. This should be rather intuitive but it is still almost surprising to see how glaring this is. Also, be aware that the new draft rules (with the allocated slots) will likely change this up a bit as some of the really highly-scouted guys demand a lot of money out of high school and sometimes drop as a result (see: Matthew Allen) whereas there would be no reason for this drop prior to these new rules.

Next up: did any of these aces end up on a top 100 prospect list? The answer is overwhelmingly yes. Of the 25 aces we’re evaluating, 21 of them were on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list at some point in their careers, most of them on it for multiple years. Of these 21 prospects, the “lowest” peak that any pitcher go to was Jake Arrieta at #67 – the other 20 all got higher than 67, with 13 of them reaching the top 25 at some point and 6 of them breaking the top 10. Funny enough, Max Scherzer had the second “lowest” peak at #66, but the main reason there is that he made the Majors immediately after getting on the list for the first time and never really went back to the Minors.

Let’s take a look at the four that never made the Top 100 at Baseball America: Hiroki Kuroda, James Shields, Lance Lynn, and Core Kluber. Hiroki Kuroda makes sense as he didn’t move to the MLB until he was 33 and that is definitely well beyond the definition of being a prospect.

There is some commonality among the other three, however. Lance Lynn was taken in the 1st round out of college, but he had a very subpar season in AAA, though that might have been skewed by playing in the PCL. However, he was called up to the majors the next season, primarily as a reliever, and he saw his stuff tick up considerably. His overall minor league track record was pretty good so I’m not sure why he missed the list.

James Shields and Corey Kluber make a lot of sense, however. Shields was drafted in the 16th round out of high school and Kluber wasn’t drafted at all out of high school before being drafted in the 4th round out of college. Remember when I said that being drafted high was very important? Well, these were 2 of the 5 guys that weren’t taken in the first or second rounds, so it makes more sense that they weren’t really heralded prospects. Neither Shields nor Kluber had particularly stellar minor league track records, but they weren’t bad either. They’re both examples of guys that didn’t really develop their “ace” potential until they reached the majors.

But overall, being identified as a prospect is an even bigger sign than being drafted in the first and second rounds, though barely. With the changes to the draft, this might be more important than the round going forward. There is a pretty clear theme though: the scouts do know what to look for when it comes to potential. They’ve identified all but two aces well before they reached the majors during this time frame. I know that some people are quite skeptical of prospect lists because there are plenty of misses but they still have a very strong track record of identifying good talent.

The last thing we’re going to look at today is the look at the peripherals of their minor league stats and see what they can tell us. Below is a table of their minor league stats.

There are some pretty noticeable trends here. The first is that almost every pitcher on the list had above-average strikeout rates in the minors. This is somewhat difficult to quantify because the K/9 has changed considerably (league average was 6.53 K/9 in 2000 compared to 8.79 in 2019). Roy Halladay is the only pitcher that was clearly below league average in the minors (5.9 K/9 from 1995 – 1998). Hiroki Kuroda had a 6.5 K/9 in Japan but that is just a different league altogether and is primarily an outlier, though he was a tad below league average in the majors as well (so maybe it does correlate). Pretty much everyone on the list was MLB league-average or better in the minors when it comes to strikeout rate (just to be clear, I am comparing their minor league strikeout rates to the MLB league averages at the time, not to the minor league averages). However, there is a pretty big difference between the guys that had 3 or 4 “ace-like” seasons versus the guys that did it more. I’m going to break this down into three buckets: 3-4 seasons, 5-6 seasons, and 7+ seasons.

Guys with 3 or 4 ace-like seasons: 8.65 K/9 on average

Guys with 5 or 6 ace-like seasons: 9.6 K/9

Guys with 7 or more ace-like seasons: 11.1 K/9

Please note that these samples are small and they aren’t perfect averages (I would have to weight them all by innings pitched and I don’t think it’s really necessary) but I think it gets the point across. Guys that are showing clear strikeout dominance in the minors will translate that to the majors but in order to be an ace, you need to at least be MLB league-average or better while in the minors. And it goes without saying, the more strikeouts you can get, the higher your ceiling.

Walk rate is another trend that REALLY stands out: these guys, collectively, have really good command. The MLB walk rate has averaged between 2.89 BB/9 and 3.73 BB/9 over the past 25 years. There are a couple of guys that are worse-than-average here but again, it’s still a pretty common trait. The worst among this group is CC Sabathia at 4.3 BB/9, though his time in the minors came when walks were at a higher rate. The only other two on the list over 4.0 BB/9 are Gio Gonzalez and Cliff Lee.

Guys with 3 or 4 ace-like seasons: 3.0 BB/9 on average

Guys with 5 or 6 ace-like seasons: 3.3 BB/9

Guys with 7 or more ace-like seasons: 3.1 BB/9

Not much in the way of a meaningful trend here. Walks don’t seem to be as strong of an indicator as strikeouts when it comes to minor league performance, though you generally need to be pretty good here.

Lastly, we’ve got home run rates. And this is another huge indicator of success: every single one of the guys on this list was well above-average at suppressing home runs. The league average over the past 25 years has usually been above 1.0 HR/9, though it did briefly duck into the 0.9+ range in 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2014. However, almost everyone on this list was in the minors well before those years so it makes the analysis easy. Every single one of the 25 guys was better than the league average at suppressing home runs.

Guys with 3 or 4 ace-like seasons: 0.7 HR/9 on average

Guys with 5 or 6 ace-like seasons: 0.7 HR/9

Guys with 7 or more ace-like seasons: 0.4 HR/9

I’m not sure if it’s a meaningful trend or just small sample size noise, but the three guys with 7 or more ace-like seasons (Scherzer, Kershaw, and Verlander) barely gave up homers in the minors. As a whole, this entire group averaged 0.7 HR/9 in the minors and not a single one of them was at 1.0 or greater. This seems like it’s a pretty necessary skill for future big-league success. A couple of them got a little more homer-prone as they reached the majors, but the “worst” was James Shields and Ervin Santana, both topping out at 1.2 HR/9 for their careers, which isn’t really that bad.

I think we’ve learned some pretty interesting things just by studying the early history of these aces:

- There doesn’t appear to be a noticeable bias between college-drafted and high school-drafted pitchers

- Being drafted early in the draft is a huge indicator for future ace-like success (might need to change this to “scout as a first round talent but dropped to the signability concerns” with the new draft rules)

- Being listed on a Top 100 Prospects list is an important indicator for future big league success

- Having above-average strikeout rates in the minors is very important

- Walk rates are less important in the minors but still need to be near league average

- Home run suppression is extremely important in order to become an ace

These seem fairly straight forward and intuitive but it’s nice to be able to quantify it a bit and show just how strong some of these factors are. It will be important to keep these factors in mind when discussing future players and their “potential” but keep in mind that these “rules” aren’t exclusive – someone is going to buck the trend. To me, the biggest takeaway is that the baseball scouting is really good in that they rarely miss “good” talents, though there are plenty of “good” talents that don’t pan out for a variety of reasons.

I would like to continue on for a fourth part and evaluate these guys in the MLB but it’s going to take some time. I’m not sure what analysis I want to do yet so it may be a few weeks before I get to writing the fourth part. If there is anything more you’d like to see, please let me know in the comments!