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.