First Pitch: Does Jake Arrieta Make the Rest of the Season Meaningless?

The Pirates enter their weekend series against the Cubs with a magic number of 7 to clinch home field in the Wild Card game. If they win the series 2-1 this weekend, then any combination of three Pirates wins or Cubs losses in the final week would put the Wild Card game at PNC Park. If the Pirates sweep this weekend, then they’d need just one win in their final six games to bring the Wild Card game back home for the third year in a row.

In short, the Pirates now control their own destiny. They can’t even leave the weekend series behind the Cubs in the standings, since they have a 3.5 game lead after their win against the Rockies today.

Of course, it seems lately that none of this will matter, because regardless of where the Wild Card game is played, the Pirates will have to go up against Jake Arrieta. The right-hander has been putting up historical numbers lately, with an 0.86 ERA in 94.1 innings in the second half, spanning 13 starts. Against the Pirates this year, he has an 0.93 ERA in 29 innings.

The Pirates have beat Arrieta once this year, although they didn’t exactly beat him. He gave up one run in seven innings, but A.J. Burnett threw seven shutout innings, and the Pirates won 3-0. Likewise, they lost their last outing against Arrieta, although he didn’t beat them. They tagged him for two runs, one earned, in eight innings. Unfortunately, they lost the game in the 12th inning.

It is possible to beat Arrieta. More accurately, it’s possible to beat the Cubs when Arrieta is pitching, simply by outlasting him. But that’s still a rare feat. The Cubs have lost just one game that Arrieta started since the beginning of July. That’s a 15-1 team record over that stretch when he’s on the mound, which is insane.

There are other hopes involved here. There’s the hope that Arrieta will tire now that he’s up to 216 innings, which is well beyond his 176.2 innings between Triple-A and the Majors last year. But that doesn’t seem to be happening yet. There’s the “Johnny Cueto/Anything Can Happen in the Playoffs” hope. Cueto gave up just one run in 12.1 innings against the Pirates in 2013, but they managed to figure him out in the Wild Card game, with a big assist to the fans at PNC Park.

There’s also the fact that Gerrit Cole has done well against the Cubs, giving the Pirates a chance at staying in this game and trying to outlast Arrieta. Granted, Cole hasn’t been close to being as dominant as Arrieta has lately. No pitcher in baseball can claim that accomplishment. But there’s no reason to think the Cubs will have it easy on the hitting side of things.

This weekend will be a big series, and it could have an impact on where the Wild Card game is played. The Pirates will need every advantage they can get against Arrieta, and that includes winning home field advantage. But even if that happens, they’re still up against a tough challenge by having to face Arrieta in a one-game playoff. And that tough challenge distorts everything that is going on right now — from the importance of this series to the success the Pirates have had all season — and makes it feel at times like the season is already lost. Maybe that feeling would change if the Pirates beat Arrieta on Sunday. But for now, they need to worry about taking at least two games this weekend, so that they can gain that extra advantage in the Wild Card game by having the game in their own home park.

**I’ll be covering all three games this weekend in Chicago, including that dreaded matchup Sunday against Arrieta.

**How Did Chris Stewart Start Hitting For Average After Joining the Pirates? My look at what has led to Chris Stewart’s success at the plate since being traded to the Pirates prior to the 2014 season.

**Ke’Bryan Hayes Named Among Top Prospects in the GCL. Hayes had a great season in the GCL, so it’s no surprise that he was named as one of the top prospects in the league. We had him as our top prospect for the GCL Pirates in our season-ending top 10.

  • From a rotational standpoint – it would appear that Jon Lester v. Gerrit Cole is a more likely Wild Card Match-up.

  • I disagree strongly. Over the last two months the Pirates have faced the best pitchers the National League has to offer, and they’ve won their share. As Andrew wrote, this will be their third go-round with Arietta in the last few weeks. IF they face him, they may not tattoo him, but it won’t be MadBum like last year.

    And I say IF because there is still a decent chance that Arietta will be the Cardinals’ problem. Take 2 outta 3 from the Cubs, sweep the Cards. This ain’t your 2008 Buccos.

    • We are going to see him Sunday, unless the Cubs pull him from the start. When the Bucs force a high pitch count they seem to be able to beat anybody. Swing and make outs on the first pitch(Marte and Harrison chief offenders) and we have a hard time. Polanco and Ramirez are among are best at working the count and I hope they are not seriously injured. Cutch is not seeing strikes now, and we will see if the Cubs pitch to him this weekend. What a great series this should be. My money is on Morse and Snider to lead the charge from the bench. Cole should be locked in the clubhouse, because I think it is inevitable.

      • As discussed upthread, multiple ways to work up a pitch count. Taking pitches is only effective if its leading to productive at bats that produce. Guys like Arrieta (and Cole) dont walk many, so while you dont want to chase early in counts you really cant take many strikes.

        Hitters averages overall in baseball go way down once you get behind and/or get to 2 strikes. So while you wanna work that pitcher, you mostly want to avoid allowing him to get to 2 strikes over and over.

  • You have to beat the best to be the best. If the Bucs can not beat Arrieta then they do not deserve to move on.

  • To quote Pedro Martinez lecturing Greg Amsinger regarding Arrieta vs, the Pirates : ” he still has to get 27 outs. ” He also said that ” …..Cole can beat anyone any time anywhere.”

  • If nothing else with Arrieta pitching Sunday the Pirate’s hitters will be seeing him a 3rd time in month in the wildcard game.

    • I’d guess that if the Pirates win the first two, we won’t see Arrieta on Sunday as they won’t want us getting extra AB’s against him. It wouldn’t surprise me if that happens even with a split of the first two.

      Ironically, if we don’t catch the Cards it might be in our best interest to barely cling to the top WC so that the Cubs have to use Arrieta next weekend adding more innings to his already heavy load.

      • I have no definitive backing for this, but Maddon screams the type of manager that gets his guys personal awards. If they wanted to worry about the innings for Arrieta, its well beyond time for that. I think Maddon absolutely wants his guy to win a Cy Young. Which isnt bad, but the innings Arrieta is throwing scream “he’s gonna hit a wall and be average in the playoffs”.

  • Once you’re in the playoffs, it is the best against the best. If you’re not up to the task, then you go home.

  • Some things to consider:
    1) the Cubs are not just Arrieta. We will have to hold down a prolific offense to have any shot at all.

    2) McCutchen MUST be more like his regular season self than his historic playoff self if we are going to win. Our best player will have to be the best player.

    3) Maddon historically has no problem letting a pitcher pitch until the wheels fall off…Arrieta will throw 120 pitches in the WC game.

    4) Arrieta is scheduled to pitch the WC game on 4 days rest not normal rest. If we are up several games going into the last series of the year watch and see if they skip Arrieta and have him come into the WC game on 9 days rest.

    5) Watch for the lineup we put out on the field. I love Marte in an RBI spot. I also really want to see a big OBP guy at #2…someone to get Arrieta’s pitch count up early. My lineup: Polanco, Cervelli, McCutchen, Ramirez, Marte, Walker, Pedro, Mercer.

    • Cubs offense isnt really “prolific”. Lotta HRs, lotta Ks, worse on the road. Good offense, but not a ton better than ours the last two months and worse overall this season.

      Dangerous and good, but not really one that instills fear top to bottom.

    • That prolific offense that has scored 17 runs fewer than the Pirates. 😉

      Of course they took out our second best hitter, so maybe they do have the better offense now.

      As for Arrieta, he should be fine for the WC game but it’s hard to see him making it through the WS. OTOH, he now has the look of a bodybuilder (much different than earlier in his career) so maybe he’ll have the stamina.

    • I don’t mind that lineup, but would be shocked if Cervelli was in the 2 hole.
      Speaking of racking up pitches and high OBP, is it just me or does it seem like Decker has a long, quality AB like every time he’s up?

  • I’m still holding out hope that we win the division. Call me a dreamer but we need an Al Davis ending.

    • An Al Davis ending? That would be: Nutting looses his mind and destroys the franchise! Children see him, point while hiding behind a parent’s leg. He begins to resemble a cartoonish caricature.

  • Arrieta has never come close at any point in his career to racking up these kinds of innings and pitches. The 176 last year was his career high. He could wind up 25% over his previous high before the wild card game. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the wheels fall off. How often do we see dominant aces fall off in the playoffs e.g. Kershaw.

  • Ariettas never pitched in this big of a game though, so there is always a chance he doesn’t handle the pressure well. Gerrit Cole has. I think if it’s at pnc it’s a coin flip at worst regardless of how otherworldly arietta has been.

  • As the SABR dudes would say, Jake is due for some regression. Nobody is that good.

    Best chance for Pirates to win is to make him work by trying to build up his pitch count as much as possible. The sooner they have to go to the bullpen, the better chances for a Pirates win.

    It’s just a crying shame one of these two teams will be going home after one lousy playoff game, when one of the stinky Mets and Dodgers are guaranteed a spot in NLCS. Hope MLB addresses their love of geography more than wins this off-season.

    • Arrieta is probably due for a regression, but he had a helluva year in 2014 also, so he is no “flash” in 2015.

      I hate that one team has to go home as you say, but I grew up on the system of only one team from the AL and one from the NL went to the WS. Things have gotten much better for the game and now 10 teams make the playoffs which means you are one of the Ten Best Teams in MLB.

      “Experts” say that just making the playoffs is worth $20 – $25 mil, and then there are residual benefits to Revenue for the next 4 or 5 years following a Playoff Appearance. For instance, the Value of the Pirates was stated by Forbes in 2012 at $336 mil. In March 2015 that had increased to $900 Mil. There were other major factors like the MLB TV Deal, but making the Playoffs in 2013 and 2014 was huge. From a franchise that was a perennial under-achiever to one of the best franchises in MLB has been a fantastic journey. The Cardinals just got a $1.5 Bil 15 year TV contract, plus a 30% share of the company – think anybody is looking at the Pirates?

    • Arrieta isn’t going to walk many or even get into deep counts. Thus, the best way to build up his pitch count is to connect with everything that’s hittable in the zone and make Arrieta pitch from the stretch as much as possible. Simply make more of his pitches pressure pitches.

      I was a young pup of a Mets fan back in CT when rookie Tug McGraw (who was a starter back then) beat Sandy Koufax at his peak, 1-0 at Shea.

      Being a bit of a baseball romantic, I have hopes that AJ goes all Billy Chapel on the Cubs this Sunday, a game which goes down as yet another entry in the Cubs book of futility, now into chapter 107.

      • Always appreciate the Billy Chapel references myself.

        Also agree on the idea that being more patient is always a good option against pitchers. With a high quality arm that isnt walking many in general, taking pitches may just end up getting you in 2 strike counts a ton while he goes 7 shutout rather than 8.

        • This. Arrieta fills the strike zone. He gets plenty of K’s (9th in K%), but he manages contact better than just about anyone in the league. 2nd lowest exit velocity in baseball, 6th highest “soft contact” %. He’s just tough to square up.

          That said, he’s on pace to throw 1000 more pitches than he did last year, which had been his career high. Impossible to tell what effect that will have on his post-season – if any. But the Bucs don’t need his arm to fall off, they just need him to either come out a little flat or tire early.

      • I just want to see Chris Corcoran Pinata night, hopefully delivered by Caminero in the 8th inning of a game in which the Bucs are up 9-1 or so!

  • Of course Jake Arrieta does not make the rest of the season meaningless. The Pirates still have a shot at the division after all! Arrieta is 20 – 6 so he has lost 6 games, obviously he can be beaten in the WC game! Was Cue-to unbeatable in the Black Out game? No!!! Are the Pirates “guaranteed” to lose if the WC games is v Arrieta and is played at Wrigley? Ask anyone on the club. The answer is No! Life is about hope! As they say, that’s why they play the games!