Both the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates enter Wednesday’s Wild Card showdown at PNC Park on the heels of historic seasons: Pittsburgh’s 98 wins are its most since 1991, while the Cubs won 97 games for just the second time in the past 70 years.
Come Thursday, one of them is going to be making weekend tee times.
Such is life in the 2015 NL Central, which featured a trio of powerhouses in the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals, and the aforementioned Cubbies and Bucs. In fact, it's the first time since 1969, the year divisional play began, that the top three records in the Majors came from the same division. It’s also only the second time that three teams from the same division have won 95 or more games, with the 1977 Yankees (100), Red Sox (97) and Orioles (97) being the first to reach the milestone.
Although the Pirates won the second-most games in MLB this year, they now find themselves in the win-or-go-home Wild Card game, tasked with topping the league’s hottest pitcher in order to advance to the Division Series round. And in truth, saying Jake Arrieta is on a “hot streak” would be a criminal understatement.
The 29-year-old Texan just completed what may go down as the best second-half pitching performance in baseball history. Arrieta’s 0.75 ERA in 107 1/3 innings after the All-Star break —punctuated by an insanely dominant last two months of the season — now stands as a record.
Arrieta went 11–0 with a ridiculous 0.41 ERA over his last dozen starts, becoming the only pitcher to go 11–0 or better with an ERA that low over a 12-start span since earned runs became an official stat in 1913. Arrieta gave up earned runs in just three of those 12 starts, and allowed the same number of home runs (one) that he hit during that stretch. He faced the Pirates three times after Aug. 1, and in those 22 innings, he surrendered just two runs on nine hits. Going back further, Arrieta finished the season with a staggering 20 consecutive quality starts (QS). The last time he didn’t register a QS? June 16, the same day that the Golden State Warriors won the NBA title over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Seems like a little bit ago.
So what chance, if any, do the Pirates have of cracking the immutable pitching code of Chicago’s ace? While it might appear that Arrieta is without a weakness, the Bucs have some reason for optimism.
Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh’s incendiary center fielder, is coming off yet another fantastic statistical season. As it turns out, he’s also had a pretty good track record of hitting Arrieta, registering 8 for 23 (.348) with two doubles and three over in his career (including a .333/.444/.435 line in 12 at-bats this season).
Of course, the Pirates will need more than just McCutchen’s hot bat to upend their Central division rivals. While they haven’t had much success against Arrieta this season (a .368 OPS in five games), the Pirates have been one of the better hitting teams against right-handed pitchers: They went 78–48 in games started by righties, the second-best mark in baseball, and their .262 batting average was eighth-best in MLB.
Through Arrieta’s post-July heat map resembles an arctic weather report, there are a few hot zones the Pirates can look to exploit. As you can see below, Chicago’s ace has been less effective on pitches off the plate to his glove side — inside to righties and away from lefties — and up in the zone.
And let’s not forget, Pittsburgh has an ace of its own in Gerrit Cole, who will take the mound opposite Arrieta Wednesday night. Indeed, Cole is coming off a very strong season in his own right (19–8 with a 2.60 ERA). He also pitched exceedingly well against the Cubs, posting a 2.13 ERA over four starts. In his most recent start against them, on Sept. 25, Cole limited Chicago to just one run on four hits over seven innings.
A fastball-slider guy who frequently dials his four-seamer into the mid-to-upper 90s, Cole also boasts the kind of pitching arsenal capable of keeping the Cubs’ lineup in check. Chicago has struggled against high heat all season, batting .228 against pitches 95 mph or faster (23rd in MLB) with a strikeout rate of 29% (fourth-highest in MLB). The Cubs fared even worse against sliders, ranking 29th in batting average (.193) and 25th in slugging (.315).
Despite the caveats, the odds are not in Pittsburgh’s favor — even at home. Arrieta has been too dominant, his pitches too dialed in, for the Pirates to have much more than a hacker’s chance.
Then again, it’s only one game. You know the Pirates faithful will be loud and lathered up, and if the Cubs can somehow get to Arrieta early, that home-field advantage could loom large indeed.