Wednesday, October 6
5 pm PT on TBS
Chicago Cubs (97-65) versus Pittsburgh Pirates (98-64)
In the preseason, I compiled standings projections from eight sources: Clay Davenport, Sports Illustrated, Fangraphs, PECOTA, Bleacher Report, Rant Sports, The Sporting News, and Eastside Sports. When combining these sources, the prediction for the Pirates was a record of 85-77 and for the Cubs a record of 83-79. Both teams far exceeded expectations. In fact, the Pirates and Cubs finished with the second and third-most wins in all of baseball. They just had the misfortunate of playing in the same division as the team with the most wins in baseball, the St. Louis Cardinals. Both teams were projected to be in the mix for the NL wild card spots with a number of other teams, but by season’s end there was no competition. The Cubs finished 13 games ahead of the next-closest team in the wild card race.
One way to judge the caliber of a team is by looking at their run differential. The Pittsburgh Pirates were second to the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League in run differential, at +101. The Cubs were third, at +81.
Based on their runs scored and runs allowed, the Pirates expected record was 93-69 and the Cubs expected record was 90-72. Both teams were very good in games decided by one run. The Pirates went 36-17 in one-run games and the Cubs were 34-21 in such contests. They also did well in extra innings, with the Pirates going 12-9 and the Cubs 13-5.
The Pirates achieved their impressive run differential with a terrific pitching staff that allowed the third-fewest runs in baseball. The Cubs were also good at keeping opposing teams from scoring runs, as they finished fourth in baseball in fewest runs allowed.
How They Got Here
This is the third year in a row the Pirates are one of the NL wild card teams. Prior to this stretch, the Pirates famously had 20 consecutive years with a losing record. Those were dark times in Pittsburgh. A new front office turned things around and the team’s 98 wins this year are their most since 1991 and tied for the third-most wins in a season in the history of the franchise.
This season started slowly for Pittsburgh. They were under .500 as late as May 24th and in third place at the end of May with a record of 26-24. From June 1 on, the Pirates went 72-40. Despite their torrid pace in the last few months of the season, they couldn’t catch the Cardinals, spending most of September four or five games back before finishing just two back by the end of the season.
The Chicago Cubs haven’t made the playoffs since 2008. From 2010 to 2014, the Cubs averaged 69 wins per year. They bottomed out with a 61-101 season in 2012. Over the last few years, they developed a very good farm system and most baseball analysts expected the Cubs to be a good team in the near future, but not this near. Much like the Astros, the Cubs had success very much ahead of schedule.
The Cubs were over .500 for most of the first few months of the season, but they really took off in July. On June 28th, the Cubs were 39-35. From that point forward, they went 58-30 and easily ran away with the second wild card spot. Their best stretch was a nine game winning streak in August.
Hitting, Pitching, Fielding Rankings
Rankings are based on Fangraphs statistical data. For offense, I used the metric wRC+, which means “weighted Runs Created Plus.” This looks at how a team’s offense compares to league average and takes ballpark effects into account. I used Fangraphs pitcher WAR (Wins Above Replacement) for starting pitchers and relief pitchers. The defensive rankings are based on Fangraphs’ metric for defense.
Both teams have their aces on the mound. The Pirates’ Gerrit Cole was the #1 overall pick in the June 2011 Amateur Draft. He was a top-ranked prospect who quickly moved through the minors and came up to the big leagues for the Pirates in 2013 when he was 22 years old. He was good in each of his first two years but took it up a notch this year. After winning 10 and 11 games in 2013 and 2014, Cole won 19 games and pitched 208 innings this year, posting a 2.60 ERA (2.66 FIP) while striking out 8.7 batters per nine innings and walking just 1.9. He finished fifth in the National League in WAR.
The Cubs’ Jake Arrieta doesn’t have the pedigree that Cole has. Arrieta was a 5th round pick of the Baltimore Orioles in 2007. He was a below-average pitcher in 3 ½ seasons with the Orioles from 2010 to 2013. With the O’s, Arrieta had a 5.46 ERA and 1.47 WHIP. He was traded to the Cubs during the 2013 season and improved immediately, finishing that year with a 3.66 ERA in 51 2/3 innings for the Cubs. That was just the start of things to come. Last year, Arrieta increased his strikeout rate to a elite level, 9.6 K/9, and dropped his walk rate significantly from his career mark. He had a 2.53 ERA and his peripherals were right in line with that mark (2.26 FIP, 2.73 xFIP, 2.83 SIERA). The Cubs would have been more than happy with a similar performance this year. Instead, Arrieta once again improved and had by far the best season of his career. He won more games than any pitcher in baseball (22) and had the second-lowest ERA (1.77) and WHIP (0.86) of any starting pitcher. There’s a very good chance that he will be named the NL Cy Young winner when the awards are announced.
Based on wRC+, the Pirates had a slightly below-average offense. They didn’t hit many home runs but finished seventh in baseball in stolen bases. The team’s best position player is one of the best players in baseball, Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen was terrible in April, hitting .194/.302/.333, but returned to his normal, excellent self in May and never looked back. He finished the year with a .292/.401/.488 batting line, with 91 runs scored, 23 homers, and 96 RBI. He did have a career-low in stolen bases with just 11, but it was another all-around great year for Cutch.
One of the best off-season free agent signings was the Pirates signing Jung-ho Kang out of Korea. He was a dominant offensive force in his final season in the Korean Baseball Organization when he hit 40 homers and had 117 RBI in 117 games. Most Major League teams were skeptical that his hitting ability would translate to the U.S. The Pirates took a chance and signed him to a 4-year, $10.75 million contract, with an option for a fifth year at $5.5 million. It was the steal of the off-season. Kang played a solid shortstop and hit .287/.355/.461 with 15 homers in 126 games. Unfortunately, he was injured on a gruesome play near second base and missed the last portion of the season and won’t be available in the post-season.
Along with McCutchen, the Pirates have Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco in the outfield. Marte had a good year with the bat, hitting 19 homers and stealing 30 bases, while Polanco is still coming along as a hitter but did steal 27 bases. The top power threat on the team is Pedro Alvarez, but he’s helpless against left-handed pitching.
The Cubs had more home run power than the Pirates but didn’t steal as many bases. Despite having some very good hitters, they had a slightly below-average offense based on wRC+. Anthony Rizzo was the team’s best hitter. He led the team in home runs and RBI while hitting .278/.387/.512. As good as he was with the stick, Rizzo wasn’t the team’s best overall position player. That honor goes to Kris Bryant, the much-hyped 23-year-old rookie who was kept in the minor leagues for the first two weeks of the season to delay his arbitration clock. That move by the Cubs will keep Bryant in Chicago for one more year before he can hit free agency. As soon as Bryant got to the bigs, he became a fixture in the lineup. He played in 151 games and had 650 plate appearances while hitting .275/.369/.488 with 26 homers and 99 RBI. He mostly played third base but also filled in at the three outfield spots and had one game at first base. Another young player who came up and raked right from the start was 22-year-old Kyle Schwarber (.246/.355/.487, 16 HR in 69 games). Young shortstop Addison Russell (21 years old), didn’t excel with the bat, hitting just .242/.307/.389, but he was very good on defense at shortstop and enabled the Cubs to move Starlin Castro to second base.
Outlook For Today’s Game
In the interest of full discloser, I am a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Therefore, I cannot be objective in predicting who will win this game; I have to pick my Pirates. That being said, they are a very good team and have their best pitcher on the mound. They are also playing at home, where they went 53-28 (.654) this year.
The biggest obstacle in the way of the Pirates is Cubs’ starter Jake Arrieta. Not only was he one of the best pitchers in all of baseball this season, he was particularly good in the second half. After the All-Star break, Arrieta pitched 107 1/3 innings with an ERA of 0.75 and a 0.73 WHIP. During this stretch, he allowed opposing hitters to hit .148/.204/.205. He was as dominant as a pitcher can be.
For the Pirates to win, Cole will have to match Arrieta and the Bucs will need to scratch out some runs. If it comes down to the bullpens, the Pirates’ closer, Mark Melancon, led all of baseball in saves, with 51. I think it will be a low scoring game and the Pirates will pull out a narrow victory.
My Prediction: Pirates 2, Cubs 1