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Good starting points for Alfredo Aceves

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  March 20, 2012 01:39 PM

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For all of the words spent on it this spring, the argument for or against Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves as a starting pitcher is basically the same for either player.

[Bard/Aceves] is extremely effective as a reliever, but because a quality starting pitcher is far more valuable than a quality relief pitcher, you simply must find out whether [Bard/Aceves] can do the job in the rotation.

Though they may stand as the two best options to fill out the Nos. 4/5 spots in the rotation based on potential and merit in that both have a history of retiring major league hitters consistently, it is probably an either/or proposition. The bullpen can't afford to lose both of them, and Andrew Miller and Felix Doubront have enough relative promise (not to mention no remaining minor-league options between them) to justify an early shot at the No. 5 role, especially in April when a fifth starter doesn't always get a regular turn.

I've long been keen on the idea of Bard as a starter. Sure, I recognize there are concerns -- an inconsistent arm slot occasionally gets him in trouble, the repertoire isn't particularly deep, and he hasn't exactly quelled the doubts this spring (15 baserunners in 7.2 appearances) concerning whether he can make the transition. But that blazing fastball makes you imagine some grand possibilities, and at the very least the Red Sox need to find out once and for all whether he can do it. For his sake most of all.

Plus, on paper at least, Bard is easier to replace in the bullpen now that Mark Melancon is around. There's no one on the roster as far I can tell who is capable of providing what Aceves did last season -- didn't it feel like he pitched two high-leverage innings every other day last summer? For a guy who wasn't signed until February 2011 and who began the season with two rehab appearances at Pawtucket, he sure became essential in a hurry.

Yet I have to admit, I've come around this spring on the thought of Aceves being the choice for the rotation. This tweet from Peter Gammons ...

Scout: "For me, (Alfredo) Aceves is a number three starter. He's been hitting 94, knows how to pitch, in incredible condition.''

... didn't hurt his case. But it was when I went on a fact-finding mission through his career game logs on baseball-reference.com that I began wondering whether making him a regular part of the rotation really might be the right thing to do.

The argument I have made to keep Aceves in the 'pen is a fundamental one: Over the course of his four-year career, he's been better in relief than he has as a starter. In 192.2 relief innings over 105 games, he has a 2.62 ERA and 1.007 WHIP. In 47.1 innings spanning nine starts, the numbers are 4.18 and 1.394.

(His total numbers, by the way, are pretty much ridiculous: 24 wins, 3 losses, 2.93 ERA, 1.083 WHIP, and 167 strikeouts in 240 innings. Appreciate the gift, Cashman.)

Looking through his nine starts individually, however, it's apparent he was pretty good at it even under less-than-ideal circumstances at times. He made four during his rookie season in '08 with the Yankees, and New York won all four. He made one start in '09, having become a key member of the World Series champs' bullpen, then took the mound just 10 times, all in relief, in 2010 because of back problems.

Last year for the Sox, he had a 5.14 ERA in four starts, with a 2.03 ERA in 51 relief appearances. But neither statistical split tells the whole story. Here's my attempt to do so -- a look at Aceves's nine career starts and the circumstances that surrounded them.

2008
September 9: Yankees 7, Angels 1. Aceves was excellent and efficient in his first career start, allowing just five hits in seven innings while whiffing two and walking none. He threw 63 of 89 pitches for strikes, and the only Angel who managed more than one hit was Mark Teixeira (single, double), who'd become another extremely rich teammate in New York the next season.

September 15: Yankees 4, White Sox 2. Aceves pitched well but got a no-decision in this matchup with Mark Buehrle, allowing five hits, a walk and two earned runs in six innings. His only hiccup came in the top of the fourth, when he allowed a two-run homer to Dewayne Wise following an Orlando Cabrera walk. Not sure what's more improbable: walking Cabrera or getting taken deep by Wise.

September 20: Yankees 1, Orioles 0. The Yankees would finish in third place in the AL East with 89 wins (ah, fond summer memories); maybe they would have had meaningful baseball to play in October had Aceves been used in a prominent role sooner, but there was apparently nothing in Joe Girardi's binder telling him to do so. Aceves got a second straight no-decision here, but pitched masterfully, allowing five hits and three walks in six shutout innings. The Yankees scored the winning run with two outs in the ninth on a Robinson Cano RBI single, making a winner of Mariano Rivera.

September 24: Yankees 19, Red Sox 8. That score might be familiar, but the circumstances were not the same as in October 2004. The Red Sox (94-65 entering the game) had already eliminated the Yankees (87-72) from the wild card race, which probably explains why David Pauley, Chris Smith, and Devern Hansack were among those to take the mound for the Sox. As for Aceves, he ended his season on a sour note, departing after four innings with a 13-4 lead, having allowed nine baserunners and four earned runs, including first inning homers to Jacoby Ellsbury and Kevin Youkilis. He wouldn't make his next start until the following July.

2009
July 9: Yankees 6, Twins 4. Aceves, replacing injured righthander Chien-Ming Wang on short notice, entered his first and only start of his second season with a 2.02 ERA in 21 relief appearances. He would end it with a 2.49 ERA, having allowed four runs (three earned) in 3.1 innings, departing after 65 pitches. His final 21 appearances, just as those first 21, would come in relief for the eventual World Series champs, who had locked Aceves into a relief role with an offseason pitching splurge on CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.

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May 21: Cubs 9, Red Sox 3. Aceves made four starts for the Red Sox last year, three coming in a stretch from May 21-31. This, his first, was probably the best -- he permitted just three hits, walked two, and gave up a single run over 86 pitches and five innings. He was in line for the victory, but the Red Sox tripped all over themselves in the eighth inning, making three errors amid a Matt Albers meltdown as the Cubs overcame a two-run deficit with an eight-run frame. A good start spoiled, it's also the first Aceves start his team actually lost.

May 26: Red Sox 14, Tigers 1. Come to think of it, scratch the line in the last segment about his first start with this Sox being his best -- this is the best, at least judging by Game Score. (If you're not familiar with the metric, it's a Bill James creation that measures a pitcher's performance in a single start.) He finished with a GS of 62, better than the 57 from the previous start and tied for second-best in his career behind only the 65 he posted in his first career start in 2008. Aceves pitched six innings, allowing a single run on five hits and two walks. He whiffed six, and was backed by a Red Sox offense that pounded out 16 hits, including four by Carl Crawford. Yes, that last part really happened, though I don't remember it either.

May 31: White Sox 10, Red Sox 7. And five days later, here we have the start of his career (Game Score: 21). Aceves gave up four runs in the second and four more in the fifth, laboring through five innings in which he allowed eight hits and walked three. It was the second loss of his career -- he had 16 wins to that point -- ending a 12-game winning streak over 48 appearances dating to June 7, 2009. If Aceves's current desire to start at this point comes as a surprise, maybe it shouldn't. After this start, he was asked when he might expect to make his next appearance. "Next?" he asked. "What do you mean?" When asked again when he might pitch again, he said, "Every five days." The marching orders from Terry Francona didn't include that phrase, and instead, he returned to the bullpen, ceding the rotation spot to a starter who had just finished up a rehab stint in Pawtucket. In retrospect, the Sox should have just told John Lackey to enjoy the summer in Rhode Island.

June 21: Padres 5, Red Sox 4.
His final start for the Sox last season came in their 78th game, a no-decision in a 5-4 loss. He pitched five innings and left trailing, 4-3. It was his 19th appearance; he'd make 36 more, all in relief, pitching 65.1 innings, winning seven of eight decisions with a 1.80 ERA in that span. Five of his relief appearances from July 1 forward lasted longer than three innings. Perhaps he was too important to the bullpen move into the rotation, and maybe that remains the still case as the 2012 Red Sox are currently constructed. I still can't make up my mind on what they should do with him -- again, good starters > than good relievers. But he offered that rare combination of multi-inning effectiveness and durability, and I'm really curious to see what Bobby Valentine decides. At this point, I'm convinced of this: Aceves is going to be a tremendous asset no matter how he is utilized.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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