NL Wild Card preview: role reversal

by Paul West

Just a few years ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates were described in terms similar to those being used to describe this year’s Chicago Cubs.

Cutch and the Pirates have gone from underdogs to perennial contenders.
Cutch and the Pirates have gone from underdogs to perennial contenders.

In 2013, Andrew McCutchen and the Pirates broke a two-decade playoff drought with a run many described as magical. The city of Pittsburgh buzzed with excitement, fueled by years of pent-up frustration. Long forgotten were the outstanding teams of the early 1990s, with Doug Drabek, Andy Van Slyke and Barry Bonds (yes, he really was a Pirate–for almost a decade, in fact), who came within a few outs of the World Series before being ousted by the Atlanta Braves. For the rest of the 1990s and the ensuing decade, it seemed like the Pirates were the farm team for the rest of the major leagues–players would routinely pass through their ranks, only to shine somewhere else. But in 2013, things changed. McCutchen won the National League MVP Award, and the Pirates were one of baseball’s most exciting stories as they charged into the spotlight and won the Wild Card game before losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in the divisional round. Many wondered if they were a flash in the pan, but they’re since remained a perennial threat. McCutchen is one of baseball’s most established and respected superstars. Not only don’t the Pirates sneak up on anyone anymore; they’re now widely regarded as ‘the team nobody wants to play’ if they get hot in the postseason.

In 2015, the Cubs have gone on a magical run of their own. Not many fan bases embody the ‘long-suffering fan’ cliche like those of the Cubs, who have the longest championship drought among the four major North American Sports. For all the catchy headlines, LOL-ing and talk of suffering fans, it hasn’t been that long since the other National League Cinderella–the New York Mets–were really good. The Mets have the epic collapses of 2007 and 2008, but they also have a World Series berth in this century and epic memories to go along with their epic disappointments. Last time the Cubs were really good, it was short lived–and the prevailing memory turned out to be the ‘Bartman’ incident, in which one poor fan was subjected to lone-gunman mob vitriol when he wasn’t even the only spectator involved in the incident. But times have changed. The Cubs have 97 wins and the third-best record in baseball, only stuck in the Wild Card game because they and the Pirartes–who have the second-best record in baseball, by the way–are stuck behind the 100-win Cardinals. Wrigley Field is abuzz, the Cubs’ anticipated youth movement has gelled a year earlier than expected, and Cubs now believe they can beat anyone.

Jake Arrieta is a Cy Young favorite, and is peaking at the right time.
Jake Arrieta is a Cy Young favorite, and is peaking at the right time.

The Pirates and Cubs will both have top-level aces on the mound on Tuesday night. The Pirates’ Gerritt Cole sports a 2.60 ERA, a 1.09 WHIP and 202 strikeouts in 208 innings. He’s a ground-ball pitcher with a fastball that averages almost 95 miles per hour, he doesn’t give up many home runs and he’ll be pitching in his home park. He slumped briefly in the middle third of the season, but he’s re-centered lately and only given up nine earned runs in his part five starts. Meanwhile, the Cubs’ ace Jake Arrieta has been ridiculous of late. He finished the season with a 1.77 ERA, .86 WHIP and 236 strikeouts in 229 innings, and he no-hit the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 30th. He’s emerging from a historically good leaderboard as perhaps the strongest candidate for this year’s Cy Young Award, and he seems to be peaking at the right time. Like Cole, Arrieta is a ground-ball pitcher with a good fastball, who avoids the home run. But with all due respect to Mr. Cole, the Cubs appear to have the advantage in this department.

On offense, the Cubs would appear at first glance to have the advantage. But the Pirates actually scored more runs this season, finishing fourth in the National league with 697. The Cubs weren’t far behind, finishing sixth in the league with 689, but they had a clear lead in home runs, hitting 171 to the Pirates’ 140. The two teams were neck-and-neck at fourth and fifth in the league in on-base percentage, with the Pirates at .323 and the Cubs at .321. Overall, these teams are fairly even on offense, with the Cubs more dependent on the longball. They’re also more youth-dependent, with rookies Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber among their biggest sluggers. McCutchen has loads of big-game and postseason experience, and is one of the game’s best leaders.

WHO WINS?

Arrieta has been locked in, but Cole is capable of as dominant an outing as nearly anyone in the league. This has the potential for a postseason pitcher’s duel for the ages. Home-field advantage and playoff experience favor the Pirates, while big-fly power and the aura of a magical season favor the Cubs. The Pirates have the decidedly better bullpen, so this one might come down to whose ace blinks first.

Prediction: Arrieta stays hot, and one of the Cubs’ sluggers runs into one. Should be a close one. Cubs win 3-2.

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