Tom Verducci on why the wild-card game should be here to stay, Jake Arrieta's domination of the Pirates, and Astros catcher Jason Castro's slight-of-hand magic.

By Tom Verducci
October 08, 2015

Pity the Pirates. They win 98 games, and they have to put their entire season on the line in one game. It’s not fair, right?

Hogwash. It seems as if this is going to be an annual whine—how “unfair” the wild-card game is because a team’s fate is reduced to one game, how they should be playing at least a best two-of-three. So I guess I’ll have to explain again why this format is great for the game and it is not going to change.

Don’t give me “small sample.” The Pirates had the ultimate large sample to stay out of the game: the 162-game schedule. They had a losing record against every other team in their division, from fellow playoff clubs St. Louis (9–10) and Chicago (8–11) to bottom-feeders Milwaukee (9–10) and Cincinnati (8–11).

The last thing baseball needs are more non-decisive postseason games. An “event-oriented” audience wants games with the most on the line, regardless of the sport. Even the casual fan gets behind the “win-or-go-home” rules of engagement. The ratings for the AL wild-card game this year were through the roof.

Lastly, adding games that don’t decide anything means adding days to the postseason calendar, which means more off days for the team that won its division. That in turn means by giving a week off to the better team over the full season, thus penalizing, not rewarding, the division winner.

Jake and the never-had-a-chance Pirates

The Pirates have been owned by Jake Arrieta of the Cubs this season like no other pitcher in the franchise’s history. They lost 12 of 20 games against Chicago this year. So while Arrieta and the Cubs were vanquishing Pittsburgh once again, and as their 98-win season was going down the drain, the Pirates decided to do something about it: they lost their cool.

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Relief pitcher Tony Watson, with his team down 4-0, intentionally hit Arrieta with a pitch in the seventh inning, provoking a bench-clearing skirmish. Why? The lame macho answer is it was payback for Arrieta hitting two Pittsburgh batters. Neither one was intentional; one was on a breaking ball, for goodness sake.

But the Pirates had simply had enough of Arrieta—enough of his cross-fire, swooping breaking ball and his darting fastballs, enough of his chiseled mound presence, enough of his laconic iciness behind that 19th-century shipbuilders’ beard, enough of the mystic control he seems to hold over the baseball.

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Arrieta pitched six times against Pittsburgh this year. He permitted them three runs in 45 innings, an ERA of 0.60 to go along with 44 strikeouts and five walks. Sometime in December the Pirates will probably wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, swatting at the air at in a vain attempt to hit Arrieta's elusive pitches. He will mock them like ancient Sirens.

Enough was enough, so Watson volunteered to be the bully on behalf of a beaten team. So he took dead aim at Arrieta’s left hip and hit his target. Watch catcher Francisco Cervelli after Arrieta is hit with the pitch; his focus is entirely on Arrieta as he gets up and immediately walks forward, a tipoff that the catcher knew what was coming and what might happen next. The umpires blundered by not throwing Watson from the game; it didn’t matter if it was a postseason game or a spring training game.

No punches were thrown, unless you count the speed-bag work Pirates first baseman Sean Rodriguez showed off against the water cooler. He made for a comic, almost pathetic scene, such was the absurdity of his tantrum. Sadly, it will make for the lasting picture of the 2015 Pirates, an otherwise classy team that deserved a better watermark.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

After a semblance of calm was restored, Arrieta simply rubbed the Pirates’ nose in the dirt once again: He stole second base standing up. Somehow he kept himself from laughing, but he made sure to stare into the Pirates’ dugout. Arrieta actually went all Williamsport on Pittsburgh; he became the first pitcher ever to steal a base and throw a shutout in a postseason game.

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As if Arrieta need be exalted more, the Pirates provided it by losing their minds over the pitcher. This October already was set up to be the Postseason of the Ace. The eight pitchers in major league baseball this year with the lowest ERA all are lined up to pitch in this postseason. Houston's Dallas Keuchel kicked things off in the tournament of aces by pitching six scoreless innings at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday to help the Astros to a 3-0 win.

But in a postseason that also features Cy Young Award winners Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and David Price and young guns like Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey, Arrieta casts the longest shadow over October. He looms over this month the way Orel Hershiser did in 1988 and Mike Scott did in 1986. Every one of his starts has become a battle just to score a run, nevermind to beat him.

Now you can circle Oct. 12 on your calendar. That is the date of Game 3 of the NLDS, when the Cubs square off with the Cardinals at Wrigley Field, where Chicago has lost five straight postseason games and been outscored 39–12 since Steve Bartman touched a foul ball. That is when Arrieta climbs back on the mound with a look in his eye as if he means harm, and now with a reputation that just got bigger and badder, thanks to the Pirates.

The hidden value of Jason Castro

>Astros catcher Jason Castro isn’t much of a hitter. He batted .211 this year. He hit a tragic .141 average with runners in scoring position, managing only 10 hits in those spots. If you check the box score of the American League wild-card game Tuesday night, you would think it was just another worthless game for a hitless Castro.

Think again. One of the biggest stories behind Houston's win was the job Castro the Astro did behind the plate. It was an absolute clinic on the art of pitch framing.

A Yankees postseason never ended so meekly. Never before had they been eliminated by getting shut out on so few hits—New York managed just three, all singles. (Their previous low was so long ago it was a four-hit shutout by the Giants in World Series Game 8—yes, Game 8—at the Polo Grounds in 1921.) Houston’s pitching—and catching—were that good.

Think of pitches on the borders of the strike zone as the equivalent of 50-50 balls in basketball—which way they go help determine the outcome of at-bats/possessions, which can ultimately influence games. Castro's sleight of hand seemed to give his team an inordinate amount of called strikes on those 50-50 pitches.

By Pitch F/X calculations, Castro somehow made 10 balls out of the zone look like strikes to umpire Eric Cooper, including seven with Keuchel on the mound. Not all of those will be regarded as “missed calls” by MLB because the grading system used for umpires allows a margin of error on balls on the inside and outside corners up to the width of a baseball—about three inches on either side of the plate. “Eric Cooper is a good umpire who doesn’t give you much based on framing,” one manager told me. “He’s tough to convince. That tells you what kind of job Castro did.”

Castro’s artistry with the mitt is not a surprise. He was the third best catcher in the league at framing pitches, according to such measurements, behind only two other offensively challenged catchers, the White Sox' Tyler Flowers and the Angels' Chris Iannetta.

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A catcher can get too much credit when he has dart-throwers like Keuchel, who live on the edges of the plate. But Castro kept stealing strikes when a jumpy Tony Sipp came into the game. Castro is so good at presenting balls as strikes that a few times he pulled off the catcher’s hardest trick: making an outside ball to the righthander appear to be a strike. The difficulty of such handiwork is that the catcher has to reach across his body to frame the pitch. The outside pitch to a lefthanded hitter is much easier to present because the catcher can curl his hand around the ball with no arm movement.

There was a day this summer when I had a conversation with Cardinals manager Mike Matheny about pitch framing and the possibility that someday technology, not umpires, will be used to call balls and strikes. Why should pitchers and catchers get strikes on pitches that are not strikes?

“Framing and receiving pitches kept me in the big leagues,” Matheny said. “That’s a skill. And if you get rid of umpires calling balls and strikes you are taking away a skill of a ballplayer. If I have the ability to frame pitches and the other guy has bricks for hands, why would you take away the advantage that someone has because of skill? It absolutely kept me in the big leagues.”

Matheny was a career .239 hitter and lasted 13 seasons. Castro is a .237 career hitter, a present day version of Matheny.

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