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Is Carlos Martinez an ace?

Well, is he?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Nearly six months ago, I wrote a post asking if the St. Louis Cardinals can survive the 2016 season without “a true ace”. In it, I made a call with which many Cardinals fans disagreed—that none of Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Jaime Garcia, or Mike Leake counted as an “ace”.

It should be noted, before advancing any further, that “ace” is a meaningless designation. It has parameters which are completely flimsy and subjective—what level of quality makes one an ace? How quickly does one who has earned ace designation lose said designation? How many pitchers count as an “ace”—does every staff have one? Like arguments of eliteness, the conversation of acehood is a shallow one. And whether or not you consider a pitcher at that level is largely a matter of taste.

Throughout 2016, the best starting pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals has been Carlos Martinez. Aside from Alex Reyes, who has made two starts on the season, Martinez leads the team’s starters in ERA, he has a full Baseball Reference Win Above Replacement lead among any other Cardinals player (and a 3.1 WAR lead over Wainwright for the team’s lead among starting pitchers), and according to Mike Matheny, on MLB Network Radio, Martinez would likely be the team’s starter if the club were to make the NL Wild Card game.

This is not the first season during which Carlos Martinez has been an excellent starting pitcher—in 2015, after all, Martinez was an All-Star who trailed only John Lackey among Cardinals starters by both Baseball Reference and FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement. But after a decade or so of either Chris Carpenter or Adam Wainwright being the consensus choice for the top pitcher on the Cardinals—an ace if ever there were one—Carlos Martinez has, if not completely taken control of the title from Wainwright, at the very least positioned himself as a reasonable candidate for Cardinals rotation supremacy.

When evaluating Martinez’s ace case on a league-wide scale, however, the first step is to list pitchers who definitely have a better argument. The following is a list of MLB pitchers who, through September 13, have equal or better figures by bWAR and fWAR in both 2015 and 2016 (Martinez’s primarily bullpen role in 2013 and his spot starts in 2014 have very little weight in the case that he is a front-line starter).

  • Martinez: 3.4 fWAR in 2015, 2.8 fWAR in 2016, 4.0 bWAR in 2015, 4.5 bWAR in 2016
  • Clayton Kershaw: 8.5 fWAR in 2015, 5.5 fWAR in 2016, 7.5 bWAR in 2015, 4.6 bWAR in 2016
  • Corey Kluber: 5.6 fWAR in 2015, 5.0 fWAR in 2016, 4.2 bWAR in 2015, 6.3 bWAR in 2016
  • Jose Quintana: 4.8 fWAR in 2015, 4.6 fWAR in 2016, 4.0 bWAR in 2015, 4.7 bWAR in 2016
  • Max Scherzer: 6.4 fWAR in 2015, 5.3 fWAR in 2016, 7.1 bWAR in 2015, 5.9 bWAR in 2016

I feel safe including Kershaw, Kluber, Quintana (though he’s clearly the Ringo of this foursome), and Scherzer among pitchers superior to Martinez. This isn’t a knock on Martinez, by any means—these four pitchers are excellent and it is wonderful company for any pitcher to find himself within.

By Baseball Reference WAR, since the start of the 2015 season, only 11 pitchers have been more productive than Martinez: the aforementioned four, Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, David Price, Madison Bumgarner, Chris Sale, and Johnny Cueto. By a very basic word association test, this seemingly puts Martinez in rarefied air. The other two pitchers with over 8.0 bWAR in that time, Jacob deGrom and Masahiro Tanaka, are not exactly bad company, either.

Of course, this is just one measure. By FanGraphs WAR, Martinez is tied for 24th among pitchers since 2015. This is hardly bad, but when a pitcher is tied in WAR with the likes of J.A. Happ and trails the likes of Michael Pineda, it is a bit harder to argue “ace” status.

Whether or not one believes Carlos Martinez can reasonably be considered an ace is largely a matter of philosophy. If one is a strict adherent to fielding-independent statistics, which are represented in fWAR, he is a good pitcher, but not an elite one. Among the 26 pitchers with 350 or more innings in this time period (a group, granted, which includes 25 average-or-better pitchers and also James Shields), Martinez ranks 17th in fWAR and 15th in SIERA. However, those who focus strictly on run suppression may look at where he stands by bWAR and see greatness.

I have a fairly strict definition of what constitutes an ace, and as an extension of this conservatism, I fall a bit short of calling Martinez one. His true talent may fall somewhere between what his ERA and FIP suggest, and this is perfectly fine, but it’s not especially close to the Kershaw class.

One key, however, to Martinez’s case, not necessarily today but in the long term, is that he is 24 years old. Carlos Martinez leads all pitchers born on September 21, 1991 or later in bWAR, and trails only Noah Syndergaard and Jose Fernandez in fWAR.

As great as pitchers like Max Scherzer are (and admittedly, he is presently better than Carlos Martinez), he probably does not have a lot of room to grow. And he does have a chance to improve and reach into the upper echelon of pitchers. Although he may not yet be an ace on a national level, Carlos Martinez has a very good chance of soon becoming one.