MLB Handicapping: Struggling Aces
by Trevor Whenham - 05/07/2008
When it comes to handicapping baseball, nothing can be as helpful, or as costly, as an ace. Even if you haven't been paying a lot of attention to a team you know who their ace is. That means that you know, or at least should know, what kind of effort can be expected from the pitcher. An ace is supposed to come out every game and give a decent effort. If an ace is matched up against a fourth or fifth starter than the team is in good shape. Or at least it should be. As is the case every year, some teams have an ace that isn't looking very ace-like. The season is only a month old, but some guys already aren't doing what is expected from them. That can be costly for bettors who assume that the ace is still the pitcher we expect them to be. Here's a look at five aces that have been particularly frustrating so far this year.
Barry Zito, San Francisco - This guy is way too easy to pick on, but I can't seem to help myself. It's hard to argue that Zito should not have been viewed as the ace based on the year he had last year - 11-13 with a career-high 4.53 ERA. The fact remains, though, that he should be the ace. He's being paid like one - his $126 million, seven-year contract was the highest ever for a pitcher when he signed it last year. He also has the career record of one - he has a Cy Young award in his trophy case, and he was 16-10 in his last season in Oakland. His first year in San Francisco is practically Cy Young-like compared to what he has pulled off this year. Saying he has been bad is an insult to bad pitchers. In six starts he has six losses and an ERA of 7.53. A guy who has always had a decent strikeout-to-walk ratio has walked 15 and only struck out 11. He had a decent start against St. Louis, but he didn't make it out of the fourth inning in his last two. He was so bad that he actually got yanked from the rotation and put in the bullpen. He never appeared in relief, and he has been returned to the rotation now, but the fact remains that a $126 million player should not be waiting to get the call to mop up in the fifth. Ugly.
Roy Oswalt, Houston - Houston's opening day starter is just 3-3 with a 5.57 ERA. His story isn't nearly as bleak as Zito's, though. First, his three wins are tied for a team high on a pretty average Houston team. More significantly, he's starting to find his form in recent starts. His first three starts were terrible, capped by eight earned runs in four innings against the Marlins. Since then, though, he has three wins in four starts and he looks much better. He still is walking more batters than we are used to, his ERA remains higher than in the past, and he seems to not quite be the same dominating pitcher we have known, but at least he isn't as lousy as he was in the first couple of weeks.
Jeff Francis, Colorado - It seemed like the Canadian lefty found his stride last year. He had improved in each of his first three full years, and topped out with an impressive 17-9 mark last year. Based on what they did at the end of last year the Rockies came into this season with some reasonably high expectations. They haven't come close to meeting them, and Francis has struggled along with his teammates. He's 0-3 in six starts, and his ERA is a full run higher than last year. He's had one outstanding start that was turned into a no-decision when he didn't get any run support, and another start that was decent. Take those out, though, and he is walking too many batters and giving up way too many runs. You can't blame the park, either - his worst start was on the road.
Gil Meche, Kansas City - Here's another guy that you wouldn't necessarily call an ace if he wasn't being treated like one. His five-year, $55 million contract signed last year was tied for the highest in franchise history, and he has been the opening day starter both seasons he has played for the Royals. He's not doing what he has been paid for this year, though. He has the highest ERA and the most losses of any starter on the team. Despite the criticism Meche and the Royals took over his contract, the guy is a decent pitcher. He's no Johan Santana, but he gets the job done. This year, though, he is on a team that is struggling badly after a quick start, and he isn't providing the leadership the young team needs. On the other hand, neither is anyone else on the team except for Zack Greinke.
C.C. Sabathia, Cleveland - Cleveland's giant has been a disaster this year. After going 19-7 last year, he has gone 1-5 out of the gate, and his 7.51 ERA is well over double last year's. It has been so bad that he allowed nine earned runs in each of back-to-back games against Oakland and Detroit. After hitting that low it looked like he may be turning things around - He pitched a six-inning shutout against the Royals, and followed that up with just one run in eight innings against the Yankees. In his most recent outing, though, he got chased in the seventh after allowing four earned runs. That's five sub-par starts in seven tries, and that is far from what we have come to expect.