Cubs vs Pirates: A shot in the dark

Picking the winner of tonight’s wild card game is no easy task

By Nick Schaefer

For several weeks now, it’s been clear that the Cubs would both be making the playoffs and that they would not be doing so as a division winner. Beleaguered Cubs fans have been able to enjoy a much-deserved leisurely victory lap, punctuated by Jake Arrieta hulking out in absurdly powerful fashion along the way.

Despite a triumphant season, the Cubs’ reward is a single-elimination game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Predicting a single game in baseball is a quixotic enterprise. Clayton Kershaw is in the prime of an elite Hall of Fame-caliber career, but that didn’t stop him from losing a game against Wandy “Freaking” Rodriguez this June.

Cubs_Pirates_boxA sport so prone to variance like baseball gets even more bizarre in small sample sizes – whether you’re talking about 3-5 PAs for a single game, or the ~70-something PAs one might get for advancing all the way to the end of the World Series.

For example, Tyler Saladino is almost certainly a glove-first utility man who can’t hit at all, but over 62 PAs he hit a strong .286/.317/.464. Given enough time his OPS dropped back down below .600.  Even the consistently excellent Anthony Rizzo had a 98 PA-stretch this year where he hit an anemic .218/.347/.295.

How reliable are these sorts of hot and cold streaks in baseball for even the best and worst hitters? I had no idea Rizzo had that cold streak. He was the first really good hitter that came to mind as I sat down to write this, and I was 100 percent certain I could find a bad stretch and I did, because that always happens over 162 games.  Pick someone, you’ll find a Playoff-sized set of PAs where for whatever reason they just don’t hit that well.

So what happens over the playoffs? Say, 13-15 games for a World Series run or merely in a Wild Card game?

All one can really do is look at how the two teams match up and then flip a coin anyway.

One of the few things that can change the calculus is having an Ace with a capital A like Jake Arrieta to throw at that single game. Since his arrival in Chicago from Baltimore, Arrieta has gotten better every year, finishing 2015 with a microscopic 1.77 ERA with peripheral stats to match. This is the type of arm that you can throw at pretty much any lineup with confidence that he will not only keep you in the game, but frankly might just win it for you.

Unfortunately, Pittsburgh can counter with a dominant pitcher of their own in Gerrit Cole, who hasn’t quite reached the rarified air that Arrieta has this year, but is still completely capable of shutting a lineup down on a given night.

What other elements might tip the scales?

For all that the Pirates have three center fielders in their outfield, it was the Cubs who finished seventh in MLB in defensive efficiency* compared to the Pirates who weigh in at 23rd.

(*1.000 minus BABIP, or in other words, how many balls put into play were converted into outs. This isn’t a perfect statistic but defensive metrics are famously squishy.)

The Pirates have as many as five or six good-to-great short-inning relievers, while the Cubs can only counter with maybe three or four arms you’d feel good about in the pen. Indeed, the Pirates finished with a major league best bullpen ERA of 2.67, while the Cubs finished “only” with the eighth best. However, that extra bullpen depth is only going to come into play in this game if it goes extra innings, or one of the starters gets knocked out early. That could matter. But if these starters do what they are most likely to do (pitch well), then one imagines that these teams won’t have to turn to their fifth, sixth, and seventh bullpen arms.

The Cubs have hit .246/.322/.406 against RHP as a team this year, as opposed to .262/.326/.402 for Pittsburgh against RHP.  The Pirates have Andrew McCutchen generally being unbelievably awesome, but the Cubs had all those pictures of Anthony Rizzo with a snow leopard.

Woof. Turns out these two 95-plus win teams are really good. It’s a shame one of them will have to go home after just one game, but I’ll be damned if I can pick which one it is.

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