This week marks the start of Major League Baseball’s post-season. Forget the marathon that is the regular season: we now enter a full-on sprint. Baseball’s playoffs are usually characterized by the emergence of unlikely stars and the ultimate success of at least one surprise team. Case in point: Only three times in the past ten years has the club with the best MLB regular season record gone on to win the World Series – and in two of those instance (2013 and 2007 Boston Red Sox), the team merely tied for the most wins.
The upshot is that making predictions at the post-season onset about which clubs will still be playing at the end of October is a difficult proposition. Wait until after teams have a few post-season contests under their belt before you attempt to identify which clubs have the all-important momentum.
That said, even if it’s a bit premature to take a long view, we can ponder at least one early game. With that in mind, our focus for week one of the playoffs is on Wednesday’s National League Wild Card Game, which features the Pittsburgh Pirates hosting the Chicago Cubs:
The concept of the winner-take-all wild card game is a relatively new one. This year will mark just the fourth season in which each league invites the two best non-division winners to compete in a single contest to see who qualifies for a slot in a divisional series. As a result, there isn’t a lot of historical data to sift through in order to get a sense of trends.
Nevertheless, it’s worth noting a few things about the past three years of these nail-biting games. First, there hasn’t been a ton of home-field advantage in these contests. Of the six one-off wild card contests to date, the visiting team has won four times. While this doesn’t suggest that the visitors are at an advantage, it does indicate that where you play doesn’t tip the scales in these pressure cookers.
Second, despite the fact that teams usually line up their aces for this game, pitchers’ duels haven’t been the norm. Four of the six games have seen aggregate scores of eight runs or higher. The lowest aggregate is four runs. Still, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some great individual pitching performances. In four of the games, one team has kept the other to two runs or less. Only one game to date has been decided by two runs or less.
As a result, we must hone in on which hot pitchers who deliver a shutdown result. That line of inquiry leads us to our final mini-trend: the starting pitchers have almost always determined the outcome of these contests. Of the twelve starters in wild card games, ten of them have received a decision (either a win or a loss). In fact, in only one of these games (last year’s AL Wild Card Game between the Oakland A’s and the Kansas City Royals) did relievers get a win or a loss.
Considering those stats, the first question we should answer is who is going to be the starter who has the sterling performance? Both teams are going with pitchers with great track records. The Pirates’ Gerrit Cole went 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA in 2015; the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta was 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA. Both stat lines are sterling, but it’s nearly impossible to bet against Jake Arrieta, considering his form in the second half of the season. The Chicago right-hander has gone 12-1 with a 0.75 ERA since the midseason break. Cole has been good, but not nearly as good, posting a 6-5 record with a 2.98 ERA over the same stretch.
Arrieta has also mystified Pirates hitters throughout his career. In 181 plate appearances, Pittsburgh batters own a woeful .170 batting average (alongside a .215 on base percentage and .216 slugging percentage) versus Arrieta. Cole has been solid against Cubs hitters, but not nearly as good. In 147 plate appearances, Chicago batters own a .258 batting average, .320 on base percentage and .303 slugging percentage. As a result, past performance points to Arrieta being best-placed to lead his Cubs to victory in this game.
Beyond expecting the Cubs to win, I’m leaning on the aforementioned wild card history of one pitcher stumbling. In other words, despite my expectations for an Arrieta gem, I’m looking for a reasonably high overall score with Cole running into some trouble. With all expectations cutting in the Cubs direction, and considering the fact that they are the visiting team and get first crack at bat each inning, I’ll also predict that Chicago will score first in this game.