PITTSBURGH — The biggest argument against the one-game Wild Card format is that it leaves way too much to chance. This means a great 162 game season can be ended with an off-night by a pitcher, a tough strike zone from an umpire, or a key hard-hit ball that goes right to a fielder. Last night’s Wild Card game was a perfect example of this.
Heading into the game, it was slated as a potential classic. Jake Arrieta had a historic second half, and Gerrit Cole was one of the top pitchers in baseball this year. The matchup was slated as one of the best pitching matchups in playoff history. Unfortunately, those tend not to live up to the hype, and this one was definitely one-sided, as Gerrit Cole didn’t have his best stuff — specifically against two Cubs hitters.
As noted above, Cole was one of the best starters in baseball this year. Only eight starters had a higher fWAR than him. Those pitchers? Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, David Price, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Dallas Keuchel, Zack Greinke, and Corey Kluber. That’s not a bad group to follow.
Coming into the game, the Pirates were talking about how aces still lose 40% of the time, and it shouldn’t be shocking over the idea that an ace would lose. Unfortunately, those comments were about the potential for Arrieta to lose, and they ended up applying to Cole.
I wouldn’t make much of this one outing in regards to Cole’s future. But this does highlight one of the downsides of the Wild Card game. If one of the best pitchers in baseball only gives you a historical 60% chance to win a single game, then why would you have a playoff based on just one game? A three game system still makes it random, although it’s a bit less random. And you can recover if your ace has an off-night. We’ve seen that many times this year, where the Pirates lost the first game of a series, only to take the next two.
Then there’s the umpire situation. Both Wild Card games featured an umpire that had a very specific strike zone tendency that ranged on the borderline of the zone at certain areas. In both cases, the pitcher who won was the pitcher who could hit that part of the zone most often. I wrote about the strike zone in detail last night, pointing out that we’re not quite ready for robot umpires due to the inconsistency of the Pitch f/x presentation across different platforms.
The “human element” aspect is frustrating, and it’s something that needs to be changed. It would be ideal if this process could be automated, but right now that would require a uniform strike zone across those different pitch tracking platforms. For now, it’s part of the game, and it’s incredibly frustrating to see an umpire’s tendencies dictate how a game goes, even if he is calling the game the same way for both sides.
Finally, there’s the luck factor, which Sean touched on in his article last night. The Pirates finally started getting to Arrieta in the sixth inning, with a lot of hard hit balls. In fact, three of the hits were clocked at 107 MPH or harder off the bat. Coming into the playoffs, Arrieta had just 12 pitches hit 107 MPH or harder all year long. This was probably the hardest that any team hit Arrieta in a single inning all season. And it led to zero runs, all due to poor luck.
Gregory Polanco was the first victim. He smoked a 107 MPH line drive right into the glove of a drawn in Kris Bryant. The ball was hit so hard that Bryant couldn’t come up with it initially, but followed through well and made the catch. If that ball is hit a few inches to the right, and not directly into Bryant’s glove, you’ve at least got runners at first and second with no outs.
There’s no guarantee that the next two batters play out in the same way with this scenario, but let’s just say they do. Josh Harrison got hit, and Andrew McCutchen had a hard hit ball to Addison Russell. This was another 107 MPH shot to a fielder, but this time Russell couldn’t come up with it. If Polanco’s shot gets by Bryant, then it’s 4-1.
The next at-bat was the most heart breaking. Starling Marte hit a 109 MPH shot off Arrieta, which was one of the hardest hit balls of the year of the ace. Once again, it went right to Bryant, who turned a 5-4-3 double play. But just like Polanco, a few inches to the left and that might be extra bases to the corner, with the potential to clear the bases and tie the score due to McCutchen on first. And there would still be no outs.
The Pirates did nothing wrong in the sixth inning, and everything right at the plate. They teed off on Arrieta in the one moment he gave them a chance. But that inning was the definition of bad luck on a baseball field, and two of the hardest hit balls off Arrieta all season led to the three outs that kept the Pirates off the board.
This is something that can happen in any game. If the Pirates hit the ball hard like that throughout a three game series, they probably take the series. If they hit the ball hard throughout a 162 game season, it’s probably going to lead to one of the best records in baseball. But in just one game, anything can happen, and we saw the downside of that last night.
The Cubs saw the upside, as their first run came on a well placed hit by Kyle Schwarber that was hit at 88 MPH. Dexter Fowler’s single that led to Schwarber’s two-run homer was hit at 88 MPH, and was another well-placed shot. And then Fowler’s home run was 103 MPH, which was a hard shot, but softer than any of the sixth inning hits.
A one game playoff can be impacted by so many factors other than the skill of a team. A guy can have an off night. An umpire can play an impact in the game. Or you could have one team catching all the breaks on hard hit balls, while seeing all of their own hits dropping in, even if they’re not hard hit. All of these things happened to the Pirates last night, and they’re all reasons why the playoff system needs to be changed. At the least, it needs to be changed to avoid this situation where a 98 win team gets bounced after one game.
After the game, the Pirates were mostly accepting the system for the way it was.
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” Tony Watson said. “It’s fun to play these one game playoffs. The crowd’s into it. The energy is in it. I just wish we had come out on top.”
Josh Harrison had a similar reaction, pointing out how reactions were different when the team won in 2013.
“It’s the post-season,” Harrison said. “After losses you ask, and it’s like ‘oh man, it sucks’. But when you talk to a team that’s won, it’s never ‘it sucks’. I remember 2013, happy as can be. Past two years, ‘man, we lost on the Wild Card game’…They made the rules, whatever the Wild Card is, and you live with it.”
A.J. Burnett definitely didn’t want to see his career end this way, but was also accepting of the system, and was hoping to see the Pirates win the division to avoid this next year.
“That’s the downside to a one game playoff,” Burnett said. “You win the division, you don’t have to worry about that.”
Add Jared Hughes to the list of players who accepted the system, although Hughes was more open about how frustrating this situation can be, especially for a team as good as the Pirates.
“It’s immensely frustrating to win 98 games and to have your playoffs be over in one,” Hughes said. “At the same time, I understand it’s exciting for the fans, and it’s a one game playoff. It’s all on the line, right then and there. The last two years have been tough. We faced a couple of the hottest pitchers in baseball at that time. Right now it’s just super frustrating to be done in one game after winning 98.”
This system is also unfair to the Cardinals, who had the best record in baseball, and now have the most difficult matchup in the division series. And if the Cubs would have lost, it would have been unfair to them as well. Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy fix to this situation, as Hughes pointed out.
“It’s tough, but is there any perfect way to do it? I don’t know,” Hughes said. “You just have to win the division. It didn’t work out for us this year. But I tell you what, we’re going to work our tails off and get back at it next year.”
The easy solution would be for the Pirates to do just that and win the division, avoiding this problem. But the NL Central will be difficult, and there’s no guarantee they win the division, even if they put up a record that would win any other division. We saw that this year. Hopefully MLB can come up with a solution this off-season, because the system as it stands right now leaves way too much to chance and outside factors when determining who advances beyond the one-game playoff.