Can the Pirates beat Cubs ace Jake Arrieta?
We've heard that question a lot lately. It's not a particularly serious question, is it? Of course the Pirates can beat Arrieta. I mean, Fernando Tatis hit two grand slams in an inning. Truman defeated Dewey. The Crash Test Dummies had a hit record. Anything can happen. The Pirates defeating Arrieta isn't even all that unlikely, in fact. It's one game, and individual baseball games are subject to all kinds of surprising outcomes. I mean, remember this? Or this? Or this? Any team can beat any pitcher in a single game.
The Pirates aren't the huge dogs some fans seem to think they are. Arrieta is great. But he isn't unbeatable. In the second half, Arrieta has posted a ridiculous 0.80 ERA. That's amazing. But as you probably know (and as thecheeseisblue has repeatedly pointed out in the comments), ERA isn't the best stat to predict how Arrieta will do going forward. Arrieta's xFIP since the break is 2.45 -- still great, but three times as high as his ERA.
Arrieta's batted-ball distributions have improved since the first half in a way that xFIP doesn't capture -- he's increased his ground ball rate and his infield fly rate in the second half. He's probably been better than his strikeouts and walks suggest, in other words. But his second half has still been buoyed by a BABIP (.209) and LOB percentage (87.9 percent) that just aren't sustainable. No one in the past five years has posted a full-season BABIP below .218, and some guys who've had among the best single-season BABIPs in that time frame include non-superstars like Marco Estrada, Jason Vargas, Jeremy Hellickson, and so on. In other words, you have to be crazy lucky to post a BABIP anywhere near that low. The same goes for LOB percentage -- no one in the past five years has had one as low as the one Arrieta has posted in the second half. And even this way of looking at things grants that Arrieta's performance in the first half is irrelevant to how he'll do going forward, which might not be true, or at least not entirely true.
Don't misunderstand -- Arrieta is a beast. He has great stuff, strikes out a ton of batters, gets a ton of ground balls, and induces a ton of weak contract. It's terrible that the Pirates have to face him for their playoff life, and not just for the obvious reasons why the current playoff setup is terrible. A one-game playoff isn't even a matchup between the Pirates and the Cubs, exactly. It's a matchup between two teams' aces, starting lineups and best couple of relievers. Since it's only one game, it's basically a 12-against-12 showdown, or maybe a 15-against-15 showdown, and over time, individual starting pitchers will have a disproportionate impact on who advances, as Francisco Liriano and Madison Bumgarner have shown in the past two years. Because of the one-game playoff and because of Arrieta, the Pirates are going to have a worse playoff draw than any of the other nine playoff teams, even though they're likely to wind up with baseball's second-best record. That doesn't seem right, and if you want to bemoan the Pirates' draw, I can't blame you.
That doesn't mean they can't overcome it, though. Beyond the fact that Arrieta isn't really the demigod he's appeared to be over these past couple months, here are a few reasons the Pirates can win.
-P- Gerrit Cole is really good, too. Cole is closer to being Arrieta than he is to being, say, 2014 Wild Card starter Edinson Volquez. Let's say Arrieta's great, and he holds the Pirates to one run. Well, Cole has pitched six-plus innings and allowed zero or one runs in 10 starts this year, including starts against the Cardinals, Mets and Cubs. In fact, he's done it twice against the Cubs. So even if Arrieta dominates, Cole could easily provide the Pirates with the chance to win in the late innings.
-P- The Pirates will likely have home-field advantage. Home field advantage is huge, as Johnny Cueto's performance in the 2013 Wild Card game showed. The Pirates are 51-27 at home and 45-36 on the road this season. Last year, they were 51-30 at home and 37-44 on the road. In 2013, it was 50-31 and 44-37. Next week, it will likely be Cole, not Arrieta, getting the borderline strike calls. And maybe this doesn't matter as much as our friend CUEEEEE-TOOOOO led us to believe, but it will be Arrieta, not Cole, who has 40,000 people screaming at him.
Of course, all this assumes that the game will be at PNC Park. That's not a given at this point, and the Pirates need to take care of business over the next couple days to make sure the Wild Card game is at home.
-P- Weird stuff happens in single games. Arrieta has been brilliant this year, but in one game, who knows? Playoff baseball has a way of creating unlikely heroes, and unlikely goats. I did a radio spot this week in which the host pointed out that Clayton Kershaw has a 5.12 career playoff ERA, and that's in a comparatively large sample of 51 innings. I'm sure there have been plenty of fan bases over the years sweating the fact that their team had to face Clayton Kershaw, only to find later that beating him one time wasn't impossible after all.
So yes, Arrieta's great. Yes, the Pirates' position heading into the Wild Card game is worse than they deserve. But a Pirates loss isn't preordained. Cole gives them a shot at winning even if Arrieta is great ... and maybe Arrieta won't be great. It's a tough matchup, but the Pirates still have a legitimate shot at advancing to the NLDS.