As things stand right now, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs are nearly locked in to face each other in the National League Wild Card Game. So, let us assume that this is the matchup we’ll see come Wednesday, October 7th. The Pirates will have home field advantage, so I’d like to discuss what advantage Joe Maddon can construct for his squad in regards to who he assigns as his starting pitcher. Presumably, the Buccos will have Gerrit Cole on the mound, which logically dictates that offensive production will be at a premium for the Cubbies. How can the Cubs best set themselves up to minimize the strength of the Pirates slightly superior offense (Pirates average 4.23 runs/game to the Cubs 4.11)?
Of course, there are rarely any easy answers, but I’m going to say that Maddon should hand the ball to Jake Arrieta to start the Wild Card Game. I’m pretty sure that this is a two-man battle between Arrieta and Jon Lester. Let’s take a look at why Arrieta should get the nod over his much pricier teammate, shall we?
First of all, the Cubs will have to limit the Pirates’ running game. Before Wednesday’s games, the Pirates had 81 steals as a team, only one more than the Cubs. Not really a huge statistical advantage. However, it should be taken into consideration the top third of the Pirates’ lineup can really run. Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte, and Andrew McCutchen, one-through-three, can wreak havoc on the base paths and to the psyche of opposing pitcher-catcher batteries. Those three have 55 of the Pirates’ 81 steals, so they’ll certainly look to run early in the game, if and when they get on base, to increase their run-scoring potential. Granted, that triumvirate only steals at a 70.5% success rate, so the starting pitcher will have to be Maddon’s best option to hopefully lower that success rate even further.
On the year, Jake Arrieta has been run on to the tune of 21 steals, with six caught stealing, which looks quite a bit better than Jon Lester’s 39 and eight. A couple of things to consider here for contextualization. Lester has thrown 20 fewer innings than Arrieta. This works out to .114 successful steals per inning for Arrieta, as opposed to .239 for Lester. Furthermore, opposing baserunners swipe a bag at a clip of 77.7% off of Arrieta and 82.9% off Lester. This is compounded by the fact that, as a left-handed pitcher, Lester should have an advantage to holding runners at first. We all know about his so-called pick-off move and his willful ignorance in regards to runners on first (and second).
It should also be noted that Arrieta has the superior strand rate on the year. He hangs men on base out to dry 77.9% of the time, while Lester gives a polite curtsy to 6.5% more base runners (that’s a 71.4% strand rate, by the way). This all adds up to a clear advantage in going with Arrieta.
So, we’ve already seen the video of a disastrous pick-off attempt by Lester, which means maybe we don’t have to discuss it at great length. However, if history teaches us anything about the present and the future, his disinterest in even throwing to first could further create problems. Certainly it would add pressure on the big lefty. In the track meet of a game that was the Wild Card matchup in the American League last year, the Kansas City Royals swiped seven bags, three of which came off of Lester. It clearly led to his sub-par outing of six earned runs in seven and a third innings pitched. Effectively, or at least as a major contributing factor, the Oakland Athletics lost that game, because they couldn’t contain the Royals’ running game. And in a win-or-go-home situation, you have to find every possible strategic advantage, if you want to go to St. Louis and play David to their Goliath.
Next, I wondered which of the two Cubs starters is more likely to manhandle the Pirates. So far this season, Arrieta is 2-1 against the Pirates. In 21.0 IP (going seven innings in each of his three starts versus the Bucs), he owns Pirate hitters. His numbers against Pittsburgh are magnificent: a 0.86 ERA, 0.714 WHIP, zero home runs allowed, 19:4 K:BB. In those three games, he’s faced 75 batters, only one of which stole a base (Polanco did score on the play). On the other hand, Lester is 1-0 with a 1.29 ERA in 7.0 IP against the Pirates this season, but a WHIP of 1.429. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s a small sample size, but SO IS THE WILD CARD GAME!!!
What about pitching at PNC Park? Well, Lester has never pitched there, so by an absence of statistical evidence to support the decision Maddon will be faced with, Arrieta wins. Lifetime, Arrieta is 3-0 at PNC Park, with an ERA of 2.63 and 0.875 WHIP. The pattern here seems, hmmmmm, that Arrieta will likely allow less Pirates to get on base. That’s the biggest part of a pitcher’s job, right?
It certainly is. In a do-or-die game, a National League manager is very likely to have a short leash on his starter. There are many reasons for this, but particularly to maximize his team’s chances to score. This led me to inspect how well Arrieta and Lester do at keeping the bases clear by inning situations.[table "” not found /]
Again, Arrieta – who needs a good nickname, by the way (Jake the Snake never really stuck in Baltimore) – comes out ahead. That gap between him and Lester in innings 1-3 is significant for the fact of the probable short leash, but he outperforms Lester in all three situations here. This dictates that Arrieta should allow fewer runs. Couple that with the fact that Chicago’s offense has supported Arrieta better than Lester (4.31 runs/game of support to 3.20, respectively) and the choice is becoming clearer with every sentence I type.
One more thing to consider is that the Pirates usual lineup is heavily weighted with right-handed hitters. Only Pedro Alvarez and Polanco hit lefty and Neil Walker is their only switch-hitter. So, how do Lester and Arrieta perform against righties? I’m concerning myself mostly with pull results, since hitting to the pull side often results in bigger power numbers for the majority of hitters. Wouldn’t you know? The Pirates RHB’s slash .398/.397/.600 to the pull side. Here we might see a bit more of a wash between the two hurlers. Lester, for his career, allows a 1.112 pull OPS to RHB’s and 1.102 for Arrieta. A tiny advantage, but an advantage nonetheless.
Digging even further, I took a stroll over to Brooks Baseball to look at some zone charts. Against righties, Arrieta and Lester have comparably predictable hotter zones in the center of the plate for ISO, but Arrieta’s overall chart is cooled with many more blue zones. Resultantly, Lester has less room to nibble and the advantage goes to Arrieta yet again.
Here’s Arrieta’s zone chart:
And here’s Lester’s:
Right-handed hitters’ hot zones against Lester could be especially problematic with his cutter and curveball, which all move towards righties and into those zones where their power can cause the most damage. The other problematic difference is that righties also have decent ISO numbers on the outer third of the plate, which could result in hits going to opposite fields as well.
Now, I’d like to clarify that this is not some anti-Lester fist-shaking. Rather, a look at one strategy that Maddon could employ to maximize the Cubs’ chances of playing more than just one playoff game since being swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers back in 2008.