When I Say Wife, It's 'Cause I Can't Find Another Word: Are Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero Aces?

Over the past few days, there has been some discussion in the threads regarding what constitutes being an ace pitcher and whether or not any Jays could currently be considered as such.  Although (because?) "ace" is one of those extremely subjective (and, as such, essentially impossible to define) terms, this is one of those things that's always sort of irked me so I thought it merited a brief discussion.  At this point, there are really only two pitchers who could even conceivably considered aces on the Jays staff, Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero.

I don't know anyone who doubts that Brandon Morrow has the potential to be an ace (from June onwards last year, he struck out 112 and walked 32 over 89 1/3 innings and 15 starts).  In my opinion, though, even if Brandon keeps pitching as he has since last June, he isn't quite there yet for two main reasons.  First, he has some trouble with the occasional bad start (which, to be fair, everyone does to an extent), and second, he goes so deep in counts that he has trouble pitching seven or more innings (just four times over those last 15 starts).  What's really holding him back is his inability to generate groundballs.  If Brandon were able to develop a pitch that induced grounders a bit more effectively, even if it caused his strikeout-rate to drop a little bit, I think it would solve both of those problems because he might not have to be quite so precise in his location if he was trying to induce grounders and he might generate more double plays and groundouts early on in the count.  Combined with keeping the ball in the strike zone at an above league-average rate, Morrow's whiff-rate of 11+% assuredly places him amongst the League's elite but his career GB-rate of just 37% does show that there is some room for improvement.

And this is what brings me to Ricky Romero, who has a whiff-rate the same as Morrow's so far in 2011 (11.4%) but has been consistently one of the best groundball-pitchers in the majors (career GB-rate of 54.7%).  Romero does not strike out as many batters as Morrow but he doesn't have to.  Between 2009 and 2010, Ricky cut his walk-rate by 0.5 BB/9 while increasing his strikeout-rate and maintaining his excellent groundball-rate.  This season, Ricky has further cut his walk-rate (3.2 BB/9), further increased his strikeout-rate (9.0 K/9) and continued to maintain his excellent groundball-rate (55.4%).  We know that Romero is a workhorse, he pitched 210 innings last season and has pitched at least seven innings in four of his eight starts thus far (twice pitching at least eight innings).

I submit to you 2010 xFIPs for Ricky Romero and CC Sabathia, two lefthanded starters in the AL East:

Romero: 3.64
Sabathia: 3.63

2011 xFIPs thus far?  Romero's at 3.07, Sabathia's at 3.46.

No one doubts Sabathia, so why can't Ricky pass people's "smell test" for being an ace?  Personally, I'm convinced that he'll always be a bit underrated because it's impossible to fully shake off the "bust draft pick" label.  What makes a pitcher an ace is, of course, up to subjective criteria but Ricky Romero makes batters swing and miss like Shaun Marcum and gets grounders like Derek Lowe.  I'd say he qualifies as one in my book.

Thanks to Jonathan Richman's brilliant "When I Say Wife" for today's post title.

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