National League Wild Card Game Preview: Solving Arrieta

The Pirates will have to solve the unhittable Jake Arrieta if they want to play more baseball. Can they?

Pity the poor Pittsburgh Pirates.

Here they are, once again, wild card winners (with a 98-65 record) and fighting for their lives in a one-game playoff. Two years ago, they managed to win their wild card matchup against the Cincinnati Reds, only to lose their five-game Divisional Series against the St. Louis Cardinals 3-2. Last year, they ran into the buzzsaw of Madison Bumgarner in their wild card game against the San Francisco Giants, losing 8-0.

Now, here they are, facing yet another one-game, do-or-die, forget-that-162-game-season-nonsense matchup against their division rival Chicago Cubs and the hottest pitcher on the planet, Jake Arrieta.

Of course, the Cubs (97-65) won't be shedding any tears. While Pittsburgh hasn't won the World Series since 1979 (36 years), that doesn't hold a candle to Chicago's drought dating back to 1908 (107 years). Along the way, the Cubs were swept in the Divisional Round in 2007 and 2008 and haven't won a playoff game since the 2003 National League Championship Series.

You know, the Bartman series. The series in which the Cubs went up 3 games to 1 and melted down in Game 6 to the Miami Marlins after Moises Alou freaked out when Bartman tried to protect himself by catching a fly ball that was headed directly for him, scarring him, and a city, for life.

So you'll have to excuse the Cubs if they're not breaking out the tiny violins for Pirates fans.

That being said, both these teams are capable of winning the World Series, and it's a shame one of them is going to go home after just one game. 

But that's also what will make tonight's matchup such delicious drama.

Pitching Matchup

So, it's been in the news and all, but Jake Arrieta has been some kind of ridiculous over the last few months.

He'll be opposed by Gerrit Cole, who is being totally overlooked in this matchup. While Arrieta has been unreal, both pitchers are capable of shutting down the other lineup at any time.

Pitcher W L ERA FIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 Opp Avg
Jake Arrieta 22 6 1.77 2.35 9.28 1.89 0.39 .184
Gerrit Cole 19 8 2.60 2.66 8.74 1.90 0.48 .235

One of the main reasons so many people are picking Arrieta and the Cubs is based on recent history. On September 27, Arrieta pitched seven shutout innings against the Pirates and gave up just one hit, walked none and struck out nine. Two starts before that, on September 16, he went eight innings and gave up two runs (one earned) with one walk and five strikeouts. And on August 4, Arrieta pitched seven innings, gave up no runs on two hits with three walks and five strikeouts.

In five starts this year against Pittsburgh, he is 3-1 with a 0.75 ERA. In 36 innings he's allowed just 18 hits with 33 strikeouts and five walks. Pirates hitters have batted just .151/.192/.176 against him. That's an OPS of .368. Yikes.

However, it's not like the Cubs have smacked Cole around. He is 2-1 against Chicago with a 2.13 ERA in four starts this season. In 25 1/3 innings he's given up 20 hits with 32 strikeouts and just 4 walks, and Cubs hitters are batting .225/.268/.236 for a paltry .504 OPS.

It's easy to see why this is one of the most salivatingly-good pitching matchups of the season. Cole has been awesome, especially against the Cubs. But Arrieta has been awesomer, especially against the Pirates.

Hitting Matchup

As stated above, don't expect a lot of offense in this game, so perhaps a detailed breakdown of the bats isn't necessary. But since we're here anyway, check out the chart below.

Cubs .244 .321 .398 .719 .313 171 24.5 9.1
Pirates .260 .323 .396 .719 .313 140 21.0 7.3

Offensively, these are two evenly-matched teams as well. They have the same OPS and weighted on-base average, with similar on-base percentages and slugging percentages as well. Chicago possesses more power, and in the playoffs, it may just take a home run on one mistake pitch to decide this game. 

Of course, Arrieta will have to watch out for perennial MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, and Pittsburgh will certainly miss their rookie sensation Jung Ho Kang. The man who may have to do some damage in this game is Pedro Alvarez, who hit just .243 with a .318 on-base percentage this year but did lead the team in homers with 27. He's also one of the few left-handed hitters on Pittsburgh who can hit the ball out of the park.

For Chicago, they'll be led by their MVP candidate, Anthony Rizzo, the lefty masher who could prove a problem for the right-handed Cole. And of course, Rookie of the Year front-runner Kris Bryant will be making his introduction to the national stage, so he's another one to watch as well. But don't expect either team to launch many balls out of PNC Park tonight.

The Bullpens

When doing any analysis of the playoffs, you have to include the bullpens. And here is where the Pirates have a slight edge.

Pittsburgh had the lowest bullpen ERA in the National League this year, at 2.67, compared to 3.38 for the Cubs, which was fourth-best. However, opponents hit just .230 against the Cubs' relievers, and against the Pirates it was .231. 

Pittsburgh closer Mark Melancon is one of the best in the game, 3-2 with 51 saves this year. In 76 2/3 innings he struck out 7.28 per nine and walked just 1.64. Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, Antonio Bastardo and Arquimedes Caminero round out a terrific relief corps for the Pirates.

The Cubs, meanwhile, have found stability in the closer's role with Hector Rondon. He saved 30 games in the regular season with a 1.67 ERA, striking out 8.87 batters per nine and walking 1.93. Pedro Strop, Travis Wood, Justin Grimm and Jason Motte complete an improved Chicago bullpen.


This game is going to come down to one thing; can Gerrit Cole match zeroes with Jake Arrieta?

Or put another way, can the Pirates wait out Arrieta long enough to get him out of the game and into the Chicago bullpen? Or will the Cubs be able to scratch out a run here and there against Cole and ride the hottest pitcher since Orel Hershiser in 1988 to their first playoff victory since President George W. Bush's first term in office?

Whichever starting pitcher cracks first will decide this one.