Do teams need to draft an ace?

Is Mark Appel the ace Houston so desperately needs? - Melina Vastola-US PRESSWIRE

With the Houston Astros in full rebuilding mode, some have said that they need an "ace" to contend for a championship. Does that mean they need to select one in next week's draft?

With the Rule 4 draft rapidly approaching, the number of draft related posts on SB Nation's team sites are dramatically increasing. Considering the Astros' .288 winning percentage and the fact that they hold the first overall selection this year, it's no surprise that the talk on Crawfish Boxes is almost exclusively draft-related.

While Houston certainly may do something else come next week, right now it looks as if their choice will come down to two college righties, Stanford senior Mark Appel or Oklahoma Junior Jonathan Gray. Although some Astros' fans are wary of selecting a pitcher given the attrition rate of the position, yesterday kyuss94 made an interesting argument in favor of the pitchers:

There is nothing more valuable in baseball, in my opinion, next to the very most prolific of hitters, than a true ace pitcher. WAR favors hitters, and during the regular season bats likely are more important, but that's not where rings are earned. Rather, championships are decided by the playoffs, a tournament that takes place in such a small sample that even the best hitters in baseball can fall cold for the entirety of the postseason. Hitting comes and goes throughout a regular season and the best players end up with fine final figures, but even Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout can go cold for ten games at a time, and in the playoffs, that can spell the end for a team.

The playoffs are a fickle thing, and, as we've seen over the last few years where the pitching-heavy San Francisco Giants have taken home two titles in three seasons, great hitting is often trumped when befallen by bad luck or untimely cold streaks. The 2012 World Series serves as a microcosm of this idea- while the Tigers do have the aforementioned Verlander on their roster, their lack of starting pitching behind him was their downfall against the Matt Cain/Madison Bumgarner/Ryan Vogelsong trio that the Giants brought to the fight, as well as the bullpen heroics of Tim Lincecum. Not even Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder could fill that hole.

In essence, he argues that while hitting is often viewed as more valuable because of how stable and productive quality hitters can be over large samples, the small sample nature of the playoffs actually favors teams with strong pitching. Just to play devil's advocate for a second though, doesn't a team first need to concern itself with making the playoffs? With the (noted) amount of random variation that will take place in any short series, it seems that teams should concentrate their efforts on simply making the playoffs and letting the chips fall as they may. He continues pushing for pitching by making an analogy to one of the other major sports:

Aces in baseball are like quarterbacks in the NFL. Teams with great ones win assuming the right supporting cast is in place, and teams without them can only go so far.

Admittedly I'm not a huge football fan, but it does seem to hold true that quarterbacks can carry football teams to championships, but baseball is much more of a team sport than football. It's nearly impossible for a single player to take over a game in the same way that a football, basketball, or hockey player can. That being said, starting pitchers probably provide the one exemption to that general rule because a pitcher that really throwing well can sway a game or series. So, do teams need an ace to win a championship? Let's look at all the World Series Champions since 2000:

Year

WS Champ

Top Pitcher

ERA

FIP

fWAR

2012

Giants

Matt Cain

2.79

3.40

3.8

2011

Cardinals

Chris Carpenter

3.45

3.06

4.6

2010

Giants

Tim Lincecum

3.43

3.15

4.2

2009

Yankees

C.C. Sabathia

3.37

3.39

6.1

2008

Phillies

Cole Hamels

3.09

3.72

4.3

2007

Red Sox

Josh Beckett

3.27

3.08

6.5

2006

Cardinals

Chris Carpenter

3.09

3.44

4.7

2005

White Sox

Javier Vazquez

4.84

3.86

4.9

2004

Red Sox

Curt Schilling

3.26

3.11

7.3

2003

Marlins

Josh Beckett

3.04

2.94

3.9

2002

Angels

Jarrod Washburn

3.15

3.71

4.6

2001

Diamondbacks

Randy Johnson

2.49

2.13

10.4

2000

Yankees

Andy Petitte

4.35

4.22

3.8

As you can see, only 4 of the past 13 World Series winners have had a 6 WAR pitcher (with the 2001 D'Backs actually having 2), so I think the truer statement is that teams need a pitcher to pitch like an ace in the playoffs to win a championship, another case of random variation. It's also interesting to note that each of the teams had a home-grown position player that was worth at least 4 wins (with names like Posey, Pujols, Posada, Jeter, and Utley all putting up 6+ win seasons) except for the 2001 Diamondbacks, a recent expansion team that didn't have enough time to truly develop a ton of talent. In essence, teams need quality players on both sides of the ball to win.

The author's final point lists 14 "aces" from the past two decades and their draft position to illustrate that top pitching talents are selected early in drafts. What he fails to mention, however, is that only 4 of those 14, and 5 of the above 13 pitchers actually won a World Series with the team that drafted them.

This time of year often breeds a healthy amount of arguments regarding what position a team should look to fill near the top of the draft. Many will argue position players because of the safer return on investment, while others like kyuss94 will push for pitching because of the scarcity. In reality though, I think the Astros should ignore position when making their pick next week, and take the player they deem the best available.

For more on the draft, make sure to check out the great coverage at Minor League Ball.

Andrew Ball is a writer for Beyond the Box Score, Fake Teams, and Fantasy Ninjas.

You can follow him on twitter @Andrew_Ball.

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