Williams/Giles: How the Pirates Could Beat Arrieta, How Cole Could Beat the Cubs

PITTSBURGH — The National League Wild Card game is tonight at 8:08 PM EST. Bob Walk will throw out the first pitch. Petrina McCutchen — Andrew’s mother — will sing the National Anthem, which she also did prior to the 2013 Wild Card game. Jung-ho Kang will be introduced with the team.

Then, when all of the pre-game activity is over, the real fun begins as the Pirates and Gerrit Cole take on the Cubs and Jake Arrieta, in one of the best playoff pitching match-ups in history. Here is a breakdown of both sides of that matchup, with a preview of how the Pirates could win on both sides of the matchup.

How Can the Pirates Finally Solve Jake Arrieta?

By Tim Williams

The Pirates have faced Jake Arrieta five times coming into tonight’s game. They beat him once and kept it close, but none of those outings saw the team do well against the Cubs’ ace. Arrieta has an 0.75 ERA against Pittsburgh this year, which combined with his strong second half, leads to all of the hype surrounding him heading into tonight’s game.

Arrieta sounded confident in yesterday’s media session, and didn’t seem concerned about the upcoming atmosphere at PNC Park tonight. Clint Hurdle acknowledged in his session that they need to find a way to adjust to Arrieta, as the previous encounters haven’t worked out well. That echoed what Hurdle said on Sunday afternoon.

“We’ve got room for improvement,” Hurdle said about executing the game plan against Arrieta. “You look at our team OPS, I mean, it’s minimal. It might be the lowest of any guy that we [faced]. That being said, every game’s been in play. So we have an opportunity to do better, no doubt. It’s not a pull mentality against this guy, he’s a little bit of a reverse split guy. You gotta look out over the plate. You know, he might change up some things. If he does, you tip your hat and you move on, but you gotta look for pitches out over the plate, and you gotta hit the ball hard where it’s pitched, and not try and create things.”

Last week in Chicago, I asked a lot of Pirates hitters what made Arrieta so difficult. The summary is that he has a lot of plus pitches that he commands well. He hits his spots, and when you add in his velocity, and he is a very difficult pitcher to go up against. But Arrieta also has a difficult delivery, which Clint Hurdle describes as some “cross-fire”, but which Francisco Cervelli recently described in a different way.

“What makes him tough is he throws the ball from shortstop. He’s supposed to throw straight. It should be illegal,” Cervelli joked.

Dan Cahill at The Chicago Sun-Times broke down Arrieta’s delivery, pointing out how he steps to the right of the rubber, hiding the ball behind his head, and ends up to the right of the mound. Here is that delivery in GIF format, with Gerrit Cole’s delivery as a comparison.



Here is a view of how it looks from behind the plate:


One idea here is that you might be able to drop a bunt down the first base line. Arrieta’s delivery moves him to the third base side of the bag, and while he does finish strong and steady, he’s still about a foot or two away from where most pitchers land, which could give an advantage for a speedy guy who bunts down the first base line. The Pirates have plenty of speed on their roster tonight.

That said, the Pirates aren’t totally changing their approach, as their MVP pointed out.

“You’ve got to keep the same approach, maintain the same approach,” Andrew McCutchen said yesterday. “Do what you need to do as a hitter. Take what they give you, and that’s basically all you can do. You can’t over-think this game. You can’t over-think pitch sequence, what he’s throwing, what he’s going to throw. All of that stuff gets in your head and you forget that you’ve got to swing the bat. You just go up there and take what they give you.”

Clint Hurdle and Neal Huntington have also spoken recently about how Arrieta can be beat, and how a top pitcher might give you a 60% chance to win a game, which still leaves a 40% chance he will lose.

“Like every good pitcher, he can be beat,” Huntington said. “We like our guy. We consider our guy one of those pitchers that you line up and you feel you get a 60% chance to win a game. So now you start factoring in the other variables and the game plan approach and the execution. We like our chances.”

Hurdle made similar comments on Sunday, referencing Jeff Sullivan’s recent article about how pitchers similar to Arrieta in history have gone on to win 63% of playoff games after having a great season. Hurdle took it a step further by comparing Arrieta’s chances with Andrew McCutchen’s chances of getting on base, which is right around 40%.

“I got forwarded a great article, it was based on the correlation along the lines of perspective, and lens, and how externally people say “ah, it’s an ace, it’s the best, historic, this and that.” You know, your chances of winning may be about 40% to 45%, but well, what’s McCutchen’s on base percentage? Are you surprised when he gets on base? Are you? So there you go. I mean, that’s the mentality we’re gonna take into it. We expect to beat him.”

Pointing out the trends may help ease some concerns, or add confidence that Arrieta isn’t truly unstoppable. But the truth is that the Pirates will need to figure out a way to beat their opponent, which is something that not many teams have managed to do this year. Fortunately, the Pirates were one of them.

“We beat him one time in Chicago,” Cervelli reminded. “We can do it again. Nobody says this game is easy.”

Gerrit Cole Can Handle the Cubs’ Lineup

By Ed Giles

You already know that tonight’s National League Wild Card game will feature a match-up of Major League Baseball’s second and third best teams, the 97-65 Chicago Cubs visiting the 98-64 Pittsburgh Pirates.

Tonight’s game also includes a particularly strong match-up of starting pitchers, with Jake Arrieta (2.35 FIP, 7.3 fWAR) opposing Gerrit Cole (2.66 FIP, 5.4 fWAR). Jake Arrieta has received plenty of attention on this site and elsewhere, so my task is to consider how Cole will attack the Cubs’ offense.

A look at his 2015 numbers shows that this was Cole’s best year against Chicago in his relatively brief tenure as a Pirate. He allowed a .225/.268/.236 line in four starts, and just one extra-base hit (a double). He issued only four walks, while striking out 32.

It’s critical to note that when talking about how Cole did this year against the Cubs, or even his career numbers against them, that we’re dealing with a sample of only nine total career starts. In a sample that small, variance and luck can play a huge role, and there aren’t really any specific conclusions about his effectiveness against the Cubs that I’d feel very comfortable drawing on such a paucity of information.

It’s also important to remember that the current Cubs roster is very different than the teams he faced in 2013, when he also pitched well, and in 2014, when he struggled. For example: among current Cubs, only Anthony Rizzo (20), Starlin Castro (19), Chris Coghlan (17), Dexter Fowler (15), and Kris Bryant (11) have had at least 10 career plate appearances against Cole.

That leaves a lot of room for inference and narrative-building, but not much information with which to discern whether Cole takes a different approach when facing Chicago.

Not giving much away, Cole had this to say about the Cubs’ lineup when the teams met last weekend in Chicago: “They’re really good hitters, first and foremost. Good swings. Good approaches. They don’t expand outside the zone very much. They have a consistent game plan.”

For his part, Cole’s game plan against Chicago hasn’t shown any significant difference from his approach against other National League teams.

In each start, Cole likes to establish the fastball on both sides of the plate, focusing on getting it inside to lefties and away against righties. He’ll use his two breaking balls — primarily his slider — as chase pitches.

He utilizes his changeup much more often to left-handed hitters than right-handed ones in order to keep them off the fastball and slider. It’s a relatively simple approach, but the quality of Cole’s pitches makes it very, very effective.

That approach has worked for Cole all season, both at home (.283 wOBA allowed) and on the road (.267). It’s worked against right-handed batters (.283), and left-handed batters (.266).

Cole mentioned yesterday that this would not be the time to make adjustments to his game plan, and that they would not afford him the luxury of figuring things out once the game starts.

“You’ve got to go right from the beginning,” Cole said. “You’ve got to have all your different sequences and have four pitches working in the first as best you can.”

As simple and cliché as that sounds, it makes sense. Playing to his strengths and executing his approach is what matters at this point. Cole reinforced this yesterday when he said “the team that’s going to win this game is the team that’s going to win the most pitches. ”

On any given night, Gerrit Cole is eminently capable of winning those pitches and shutting down an opposing lineup, and tonight’s game is no exception to that rule. Regardless of the opposing starter, and regardless of the lineup he faces, Cole gives the Pirates a good chance to win the game when he takes the mound.

So what about those hitters he’ll be facing when the Cubs take the field PNC Park?

We know that Rizzo and Bryant are the primary threats, but Castro may have recently rediscovered something offensively, and Coghlan, Fowler, Kyle Schwarber, and Miguel Montero have been at times dangerous as well.

These strong performances from different contributors weren’t missed by Cole last weekend.

“They’re just a really good team,” Cole said. “I feel like you could say that for a number of different teams that are in their position, but they’re young, they’ve got good swings, and they’re aggressive.”

Thanks to that aggressiveness, getting swings and misses from this Chicago lineup shouldn’t be too much of a problem for Cole. Their 24.5% strikeout rate led the National League by two and a half percentage points, and their whiff rate (11.8%) led by a good margin as well.

Considering the Cubs’ contact numbers paints a similar picture. They had by far the league’s worst overall contact rate (74.7%), and the worst when looking at both contact outside the zone (58.8%) and within (83.6%).

Put simply, there is a lot of swing and miss to the Cubs’ lineup, and a quality pitcher like Gerrit Cole should be able to capitalize on those tendencies to go “pretty deep [in the game] and pretty low [in terms of runs allowed],” as Cole put it yesterday. Given his arsenal and track record, both against Chicago and the rest of the NL, I expect that he will continue to utilize his tried-and-true approach in this high stakes environment.

Regardless of what Cole’s mound opponent may do, I think there is legitimate cause for optimism that the Pirates will be able to keep Chicago from doing serious offensive damage tonight. Pitching at PNC Park with a frenzied, capacity crowd on his side can only help, and it should be exciting to see what he will do.

  • Who would’ve thought we would need offense tonight?….Not Clint Hurdle

  • Bryant in LF? Hmmm….

    • May be a bit underrated of a story line here…LF at PNC is certainly no joke and he certainly doesn’t have much experience at the position.

      • Yea, I thought he was shaky in right when I’ve watched. Similar to Polanco, breaking the wrong way at first, with his reach able to compensate for initial mistake.

  • What, was Florimon not available? smh.

    GO BUCS.

  • For what it’s worth, Arrieta does have reverse splits, with higher BAA for right-handed batters.

  • OK, so I like the move. I don’t have to watch Alvarez strike out with that dumb look on his face and I don’t have to watch him throw the ball into left field. The runs are going to come from the top 5 or 6 getting on base and making things happen. Gonna be a W tonight.

  • What in the???

    Hurdle just put a 5-man lineup on the field. Why in the world would Neil Walker get a strike with Jordy, Rodriguez, and the pitcher behind him?

    I’m baffled.

    • Makes no sense.

    • Clint Hurdle cannot write a lineup card if his life depended on it. He continues to fill-out the most idiotic lineups both down the stretch and here. This makes NO sense. Say you want to use a pinch hitter (for a non-pitcher) how do you do that without losing Rodriguez glove late in a close game?

      IF the Pirates lose this game, Clint Hurdle should lose his job. He did this WAY too many times in August and September, especially when we lost the division by 2 games, to keep his job when putting out a lineup like this. AT LEAST he should lose his privilege of writing the lineups! IDIOTIC.

      • Yup, not overstating a fair point at all by acting like the 98 win manager should be fired. Im sure few managers make calls their fans hate, STL fans love Matheny. Wait…

        • I probably can point to more than 2 losses that can be placed right at Hurdle’s feet…and now in a one-and-done game (much like last year when he made terribly baffling moves in the do-or-die WC game), Hurdle completely forgets the fact and puts, arguably, his worst lineup on the field.

          • My point is, its idiotic to act like we should fire him because the team didnt win 102 games. Its basically assuming this team has 102 win talent and Hurdle is a net negative.

            And to me, thats stupid. Hurdle doesnt always put lineups out that i love, but there is reason behind almost every move the team makes even when we disagree. I dont assume Hurdle sucks at his job or that he’s a negative. He makes poor in game moves at times, but the lineup card is rarely him just making stuff up.

            People love to hate Hurdle, there was about 2 weeks straight where fans had a huge complaint every night about the lineup. I complain about it at times, but i never am so full of it that i want the guy who wins consistently fired.

            • I’m on the record as basically feeling the same, but this is not a move I agree with at all. Doesn’t mean I think I’m smarter or that I know more about baseball or that I want him fired. But I do think it’s a terrible idea.

              • Totally fair, i just disagree that its terrible. Risky and potentially dumb (depending on the number of at bats they actually give S Rod) but not terrible overall.

            • I think Sean Rodriguez at SS was, basically, him just making it up…

              And during those 2 straight weeks of complaints the complaints existed because the lineup cards were (at minimum) quite odd and not yielding results.

              It is the players who in and lose the games, I am completely on board with that…however, you need to put your best players on the field to give them the chance! Too many times Clint Hurdle, in big games/situations, has failed to do just that…give them a chance!

              Last WC game he did not manage like it was a do-or-die game…and this decision, here, appears the exact same!

              • You should coach them then, im sure you’d win 100 because you can so clearly see so much.

                Thats snark, but lord man. Half of thats just not true. Its not true we didnt see results during the prime “HURDLE SOOKS” tirades and its not really even provable that its on Hurdle for the team losing (which they really dont always do) in big situations.

                Everyone has a different opinion of the best lineup, its a sign of great depth. Many will hate this choice, and for valid reasons. But firing him is stupid and its hyperbole to keep arguing it and freaking out before the game even starts. Go Pirates

          • You sir, are being completely ridiculous.

    • I honestly thought Jim Colony was pranking when he said SRod was in at 1b.

      Which can only mean one thing – this move is going to be pure unadulterated genius on Hurdle’s part.

      • Already ordered my SRod jersey for the World Series run.

        • I actually just got off the phone……….commissioning his statue for outside PNC.

          • I mean we all joke but how much would you have bet against Ishi hitting the HR off of Wacha that won the NLCS last yr? I would’ve put a few family members lives on it if not my own. Baseball is dumb sometimes. Lets hope it falls our way this time.

            • That’s what we have to do…hope.

              I am ready to buy tickets to the SRod Bobblehead game.

              • Well if things were just guaranteed it wouldn’t be very much fun to follow would it?

                Cubs have their own type of hoping to do too.

  • Beat Arrieta? With Sean Rodriguez as your 1B? What does THAT move say to the players?

    Not only that but that move really, really, restricts what moves you can make IN game because you wont want to lose his defense in the field by taking him out. How idiotic.

    • Restricts you so much you could PH Pedro for him in his first at bat, then bring in Morse to play 1B and still have A Ram as a late inning PH option.

      Poor Hurdle barely has any options. You still have Morse as an average defensive option on the bench, meaning you have 2-3 PHers you could use at any time and still not have to use a below average option on defense.

      • Luke, what you just said was completely idiotic. If you want defense late in a game you certainly aren’t going to move Rodriguez out of the lineup later in a game. You want to move Rodriguez out of the lineup and lessen the defense later in the game?! IF Pedro/Morse/Ramirez aren’t good enough to start at 1B…you certainly aren’t going to sub them in when the defense matters exponentially more later in a game.

        • I dont love the move, but the outrage is predictably dumb. Defense is likely to matter early and late. Hurdle appears to have went with defense early in the game. Idk why defense late suddenly matters more than when the game is 0-0 early.

          I dont like putting S Rod’s bat in the game, but if S Rod only bats once (or not at all) its 2 innings of good defense early with the real chance we still get average defense the rest of the game. If S Rod bats 3-4 times, i dislike it. But i dont assume anything since the bench is deep with options that allow Morse to play defense after S Rod but S Rod not get many at bats.

          • That’s interesting because I am fairly certain that high-leverage situations are defined/mostly late-inning situations. So, let me rephrase my position…you want the best defense in the highest leverage situations. You aren’t taking Rodriguez out of the game unless you desperately need a run late in a game and can no longer stand his bat in the lineup giving you ZERO production…so tell me, would you rather have 2 innings of a sub-par bat and 7 innings of not being able to score, or would you rather have 7 innings of improved offensive production/likelihood for success and 2 innings of high-leverage defense late in a game? This decision is not defensible.

            • I see no clear reason why they wont take S Rod out. Thats a major assumption on your part.

              Late innings do not equate to high leverage always. Its also high leverage early in a tie game, particularly if a runner gets on.

              You acting like you know how its going to play out doesnt make this not defensible. You are assuming things that arent clear and using that as reasons why its clearly anything. You dont like it because of the offense, and thats fine. But it does provide a benefit in some part of the game and potentially still allow Pedro to hit later in the game.

              But yes, im sure the coaches didnt discuss it at length and involve some analytics guys but just went YOLO.

          • Maddon made the same kind of lineup change putting LaStella at third base, with Bryant and Schwarber in the outfield. He knows that Arrieta need infield defense more than great outfielders. Being realistic, S Rod has as good a chance of hitting anything as Pedro does, because Arrietta can hit every hole in Pedro’s swing all night long. And if you blow this one because of a botched play by the worst first baseman in MLB, good luck to that manager ! The Yinzer Pittsburgh band wagon media will crucify him.

            • You mean like the hole Arrieta hit when Pedro homered off of him last year? That hole?

              Pretending like a pitcher of Arrieta’s caliber won’t make mistakes is silly. He will. What you need to do is put together a lineup that can capitalize when the mistake is made. There’s nothing close to a logical argument to be made that Sean Rodriguez is better at that than Alvarez.

              With Walker neutered by literally three pitcher-grade hitters behind him, the Pirates are stuck generating offense from five hitters. Against the best pitcher in baseball.

              What Gerrit Cole objectively needs more than defense is a run. Really, really tough to win without one of those.

            • Actually, i see Maddon’s move as going offense first. He’s getting La Stella into it after a hot September even though it means a bit of a downgrade in LF with Bryant over a possible Austin Jackson.

              I think Maddon is trusting his ace to dominate and loading up with hitters to try to score early and take away PNC park advantage and the Pirates momentum. They easily could have sat Schwarber is they were going defense first (particularly after Schwarber’s last month and lack of anything but HRs or bust).

            • Regardless, I’m headed home to pour my first bourbon and enjoy. Great season with you gents one way or another. Go Bucs!

  • Rodriguez on first…not a fan.