By Robert O’Brien
It’s the most wonderful time of the year yet again. We are in the month of October and it’s time for postseason baseball and all the excitement that it brings. From dazzling game saving plays, to pitcher’s duels that are decided by one run, to big time sluggers coming up in the clutch moments to give their team the lead in the late innings of a cold October ballgame, this is the time of year that all thirty major league teams hope to find themselves still playing baseball in.
Among the many teams hoping to snag a spot in the postseason this year, three of the most powerful came out of the National League Central division. This division consisted of the three best teams in the entire game according to their records. These teams would be the St. Louis Cardinals, who seem to find themselves in the postseason every year, the Cubs of Chicago, who haven’t even sniffed an opportunity to win themselves a World Series Championship since 1945, and the Pittsburg Pirates, an organization who is still relatively new to this whole concept of the postseason.
By this I am referring to the fact that the Pirates have earned a ticket to October in each of the last three seasons, but before 2013, had not even earned themselves a winning record since 1992.
However, many believe that this year could be substantially different than the last two playoff runs for the Bucs. Manager Clint Hurdle and the Pirates undoubtedly have a championship caliber team in every aspect, but will first have to get through their division rival Chicago Cubs, and Jake Arrieta in the Unpredictable Wild Card Game. One advantage that the Pirates are elated to say that they hold before the game even begins, is the fact that they have possession of home field advantage, with one of the most enthusiastic, passionate fan bases in baseball at Pittsburgh’s own PNC Park.
Now before this season many casual baseball fans might ask you “Who is Jake Arrieta?”, or tell you that newly acquired Jon Lester will inevitably be the ace of the Chicago staff. However since the All-Star break, not only has he been CY Young caliber good, not only has he been Ace of the staff good, he has been historically good. Since the All-Star break, Arrieta has undoubtedly been the most dominant pitcher in the game. Arrieta has posted a 0.75 ERA, and has struck out more batters than he has innings pitched. Arrieta was even able to notched one of the most celebrated achievements in the game today, tossing a no-hitter. As if the no-hitter itself wasn’t impressive enough, he threw it against one of the best teams in baseball with an offense well above quality, in the home turf of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
His final stats for the year only consist of a 1.77 ERA, (the lowest for a Cubs pitcher since 1919), a 0.86 WHIP, and nearly 230 IP, being the most successful pitcher not only on the cubs’ staff, but in all of baseball.
In my personal opinion, the Cubs will be putting out for the National League Wild Card Game, the man who should be crowned the 2015 CY Young award winner.
Of course Joe Maddon and the Cubs will be given a great chance to win the ballgame due to Arrieta being on the bump, the Pirates will also be putting out an ace of their own for their biggest game of the year.
Gerrit Cole will be called upon to be the starting pitcher for the Pittsburg Pirates as one of the games top pitchers this season himself, displaying an impressive resume throughout the entire course of the season. Cole notched a 2.56 ERA, along with more than 200 strikeouts and 200 innings pitched. Not quite as impressive as Arrieta, but still extremely respectable, and will be no easy task for the Chicago hitters.
As far as previous trips to the postseason, the Pirates roster and Gerrit Cole posses far more postseason experience than the Cubs roster, which is loaded with rookies and other young players. Even Arrieta, who is now 29 years old, and has been pitching in the big leagues’ for a number of years, has never thrown a pitch during a postseason game.
This creates an advantage for Gerrit Cole as he will be more immune to the pressure that comes with being given an opportunity to perform on such a large, magnified stage, due to his previous 10 innings of success in the postseason.
One question about this game that we will never be able to answer is one that not even the hitters who are facing these two aces will be able to determine for a definite. Does facing a specific pitcher provide an advantage for the hitter, if he has previously faced the same pitcher? For example, if Pedro Alvarez were to have faced Jake Arrieta six times in the past, will he either have a greater chance of success in the Wild Card game against Arrieta, or will his chances of getting on base stay the same? This question applies more so to the lefties than righties due to Arrieta’s particular success against left handed batters.
Some believe that the Pirates are given a greater chance of defeating Arietta, just due to the fact that the lineup has seen him in the past. They believe that despite Arrieta’s success against the Pirates lineup in the past, that the big league hitters of the Pirate’s lineup will be able to make an adjustment against pitches that they have previously witnessed. However, if the Pirates are able to make an adjustment against Arietta and change their approach at the plate, who’s to say that Arrieta is unable to create a different approach to the Pittsburg lineup that he could use to continue his success against this particular lineup.
To give you an idea of how Arrieta has performed against the pirates, consider this; other than Andrew McCutchen, not a single player in their lineup is batting higher than 187. against Arrieta this year, while he has only given up three extra base hits in multiple starts against the same club.
Gerrit Cole has also seen the Chicago lineup previously this season, and has not been as successful as Arrieta in dominating his opposition. Particularly, Kris Bryant, Miguel Montero, and Anthony Rizzo have had success off of Pittsburgh’s 6-4 Right Hander.
The same question applies for Gerrit Cole in his battle against the young, energetic lineup of the Chicago Cubs; will previous at bats against Cole have a positive effect, negative effect, or no effect at all on the Cub’s hitters, particularly lefties, whom Cole has a greater success against?
Although I am a strong believer in the ideology that it is a necessity for an organization to have quality starting pitching in order to be successful and/or make a run deep into the postseason, a championship caliber team in addition needs a solid offense to support any quality pitching that may be a part of the team. In addition, a strong bullpen is needed and can appear to be the deciding factor in many games late in October. Just look at the Royals of 2014. Where could that team have gone without the dominant bullpen men such as Greg Holland, and Wade Davis.
In the case of the Pirates, they are the holders of the best pitching baseball, holding the league’s lowest ERA at 2.67. This impressive statistic is largely impart due to their incredibly consistent bullpen. You tend to feel that even if Gerrit Cole were to be pulled after four or five innings, that their bullpen would be able to hold a lead for the rest of the game, or at least keep the Pirates in the game. I couldn’t see the Cubs fairing very well against this bullpen if Pittsburgh were to have a lead after six innings. Whether it is Joakim Soria, Tony Watson, or #1 closer in baseball Mark Melancon, to even scratch out one run against these arms would be a huge positive for the Cubbies.
In the case of the Cubs, if this team had an Achilles heel, it would be their bullpen. It has been shaky and inconsistent for large parts of the season, and could not be totally trusted with a lead even if Arrieta were to go seven innings.
Of course in order to win a game at any point of the season, you need at least a small portion of offense. Both offenses that will go head to head this Wednesday ranked towards the middle of the pack in most offensive categories. The Pirates seemed to have a slight edge in almost all categories, putting them at 11th in the bigs, as the Cubs finished 16th overall.
When analyzing the two team’s offenses we can generally conclude that Pittsburgh’s lineup posses a more well rounded offense with a more stable balance within their lineup, containing table setters at the front, the team’s top hitter batting third, the power hitters in the middle of the order, and the remaining quality hitters to round out the line up before the pitchers spot.
While when we look at the Cubs line up, we see a more frequent appearance of a “big hit or big miss” style of play. The cubs’ lineup posses lower averages, more strikeouts, but also provides more offense via the home run ball.
From these observations we can conclude that Pittsburgh has an advantage in the offensive aspect of the one game playoff over Chicago.
Two areas that both teams share a plethora of talent in are the defensive and speed categories. Pittsburgh most likely has the best fielding outfield in all of baseball, including possibly the best outfield arm in baseball in Placido Polanco. The majority of the Pirates roster also possesses the speed to steal a base in a big situation or make a game saving defensive play at any position on the field.
The cubs’ posses the same advantage in their speed and on the defensive side of the ball, with most likely the best fielding first baseman in baseball and numerous infielders who have the potential to win a gold glove in the very near future. The cubs were also blessed with a long list of players who can swipe a bag at any moment, and were tops in the league in stolen bases for most of the 2015 season.
And in the postseason, one base runner who swipes a bag or who beats out an infield hit could very well determine the game’s outcome, especially in a one game playoff.
Both clubs field very good teams in plenty of aspects of the professional game of baseball. But it is very possible that many of these aspects or player attributes may not come into affect at all during this game. Perhaps in a seven game series or over the course of an entire season, all player attributes will have the opportunity to be shown or will be forced to be put on display. But for one game, for one day, throw the probabilities and stats out the window, because for one day anything could happen. For one at-bat the stats form the past won’t matter and one at bat during one game could very well decide the fate of a team that has been playing incredible baseball for 162 games. But what they’ve done over the last 162 games no longer matters. You could almost consider the Wild Card game a coin flip as to who will be the loser and who will emerge victorious.
As for my personal prediction, although I do believe that the Pirates do have the better team overall, Jake Arrieta has just been too incredibly dominant in the recent weeks and months, and I Believe that he will lead the Cubs to victory for ,at least, just one more day.