Monday, October 5, 2015

Your On the Field of Play Postseason Guide - Wild Card Round

We'll do this one playoff round at a time. As Gregg Easterbrook would say (before he signed with the NY Times and became much more boring), All Predictions Wrong or Your Money Back.

American League Wild Card Game: Astros at Yankees. It's pretty ridiculous to try to predict the result of a short series. Say there are two teams, A, and B. They play 100 games against each other. A wins 60, B wins 40. In terms of won-lost percentage, that's roughly the Pirates playing the Braves. If you do the math, you'll see that the inferior team take a seven-game series 29% of the time. It'll win a best-of-five series 32% of the time. And, of course, it'll win one game 40% of the time. For closely-matched teams, the difference is negligible. And that's over five or seven games. The fewer games, the greater the variance. A one-game play-in? That's why Joe Sheehan calls the wild card the "coin flip game."

Anyway, the American League Wild Card game will have the Yankees hosting the Astros. Neither have exactly covered themselves in glory of late, as the Yankees lost six of their last seven games, going 10-16 since September 7. The Astros are 13-17 since the end of August. Both teams were in first place, the Astros as recently as September 14 and the Yankees on August 24, before losing their leads. But, as Rob Neyer recently pointed out, there is little evidence that performance at the end of the year has a bearing on postseason performance, and I found the same last year. So let's look at Tuesday's game without the baggage of recent play.

When you consider a postseason series, you evaluate each team's pitching, hitting, and defense as a whole. In a one-game play-in, though, one player--the starting pitcher--plays an outsized role. Last year, the Giants eliminated the Pirates because Giants starter Madison Bumgarner had a very good game (four hit, ten strikeout complete game shutout) and Pirates starter Edinson Volquez didn't (five runs allowed in five innings). That's not always the case--last year's crazy Royals-Athletics wild card game came down to bullpens and baserunning--but in one game, one starting pitcher can dictate the outcome.

The Yankees will go with Masahiro Tanaka. He got lit up (six runs in five innings) in his one career start against the Astros, on June 27 against in Houston, but you can't draw any conclusions from one start. He has the lowest ERA in the team's rotation (3.51; rookie Luis Severino's is 2.89 only 62 innings). He had a 3.22 ERA in April, was shut down in May, 4.35 in June, 3.67 in July, 3.18 in August, and 3.06 in September, during which he sandwiched three very strong starts (21 strikeouts, one walk, 15 hits in 21 innings, 1.29 ERA) around two bad ones (eight strikeouts, two walks, 11 hits in 11.1 innings, 6.35 ERA). One worrisome trait: He allowed 1.46 home runs per nine innings, the fourth highest rate in the league for pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched, which isn't ideal against an Astros team that hit 230 home runs this year, second only to the Blue Jays' 232.

The Astros are going to start Dallas Keuchel. Keuchel had a fantastic season. He led the American League in wins (20), WHIP (1.017), innings (232), and ERA adjusted for home park (62% better than average). He was second in ERA (2.48), home runs per nine innings (0.7), and hits allowed per nine innings (7.2). He was fifth in strikeout/walk ratio, tied for fifth in strikeout (216), and tenth in strikeouts per nine innings (8.4). He'll probably win the Cy Young Award, and if he doesn't, he'll almost certainly finish second. On paper, Tanaka can't compare to him. But there are two problems with Keuchel against the Yankees:

  • He had a crazy home/road split: 15-0, 1.46 ERA, .474 OPS allowed at home; 5-8, 3.77 ERA, .698 OPS allowed on the road. He'll be pitching on the road. (In fairness, his one start this year at Yankee Stadium was fantastic: seven innings, three hits, no walks, no runs, nine strikeouts.)
  • He pitched six innings, throwing 99 pitches in Friday's 21-5 Houston victory over Arizona. That means he'll start Tuesday's game on three days rest. He's never done that as a starter. This article, by FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan, explains that the history of starters pitching on short rest in the postseason is not good.

If Keuchel falters, Houston's game will be in the hands of its relievers. The Astros have a better bullpen ERA, but that's misleading. New York has two of the best relievers in baseball, Dellin Betances (1.50 ERA, struck out 39% of the batters he faced) and Andrew Miller (1.90 ERA, struck out 41% of the batters he faced). In a close game, those two, and perhaps former Pirate Justin Wilson (3.10 ERA) are all that opponents will face. The rest of the bullpen's 4.72 ERA shouldn't be a factor in a close game. The Astros, whose 3.27 bullpen ERA was better than the Yankees' 3.70, have more evenly distributed quality arms but don't have anyone to match the Yankees' top two, arguably top three.

On offense, the teams have similarities. The Yankees were eighth in the league in batting average, the Astros were eleventh. The Yankees were sixth in on base percentage, the Astros were eighth. The Yankees were third in slugging percentage, the Astros were second. The Astros, as noted, were second in the league in home runs, and the Yankees were fourth. They can each draw walks; New York was second in walk rate, Houston fifth. They both like to hit the ball in the air; the Astros and Yankees were 1-2 in fly ball rate and 15-14 in ground ball rate. They had some differences: The Astros led the league in stolen bases with 121 while the Yankees were third to last with 63, and the Astros led the league in strikeout rate while the Yankees were ninth. But overall, the offenses are similar. 

It's worth mentioning that the Astros have the youngest team in the league at the plate (average age, per Baseball Reference, 26.6 years) while the Yankees have the oldest (31.1). But the Yankees have the third-youngest pitching staff (27.4) and the Astros the second-oldest (29.4). I can't see how that's relevant in a one-game play-in, though, unless the game lasts, I don't know, four or five years.

The Yankees finished the year with a 45-36 record at home, the seventh best in the league, and were 42-39 on the road, one of only four American League teams with a winning record on the road. The Astros somewhat famously tied Toronto for the best home record in the league, 53-28, but their road record of 33-48 was second worst in the league and enough, in my view, to make them the underdogs Tuesday night. Keuchel on short rest and the Yankee bullpen are additional reasons to favor the home team.

National League Wild Card Game: Cubs at Pirates. Listen, and understand! Jake Arietta is out there! He can't be bargained with. He can't be reasoned with. He doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And he absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Two Lousy Clubs That Messed Up the Pirates' Season

The Pirates finished the year with a 98-64 record, the second best in all of baseball. That ties them with the 1979 and 1908 clubs for the third most wins in franchise history. (The 1909 Pirates won 110 and the 1902 club won 103.) The Pirates' record, however, included a losing record against two of the worst teams in the game, the Cincinnati Reds (8-11) and the Milwaukee Brewers (9-10).

Let's break that down. In games in which the Reds didn't play the Pirates, they were 53-90. In games in which the Brewers didn't play the Pirates, they were 58-85. So in their non-Pirates games, the two clubs combined for a 111-175 record, a .388 winning percentage. Had they played at that pace in their 38 games against the Pirates, they would have won .388 x 38 games = 15 games, losing 23. Turned around, the Pirates would have gone 23-15 against the Reds and Brewers.

The Pirates were 81-43 in their games that weren't against Cincinnati or Milwaukee. Had they gone 23-15 against the two clubs--that, is had they been as successful as the rest of the teams in the majors were--their record would have been 104-58. That would have given the Pirates the best record in baseball. They would be enjoying four off days, looking forward to Wednesday's wild card game between the Cardinals and Cubs to see whom they'd face at home to kick off the Division Series on Friday.

Trailing 30 - And That's a Wrap

Here is an explanation of this weekly feature, listing the best and worst of past 30 days, made possible by FanGraphs' Leaders application. Comment for the week: Predictions for September Players of the Month: David Ortiz in the American League, Bryce Harper in the National League. Pitchers of the Month: David Price in the American League and (of course) Jake Arrieta in the National League.

   American League              National League
   Team W-L                     Team W-L      
1. Los Angeles     18-10     1. Chicago         21- 8
2. Boston          17-11     2. Pittsburgh      18-11    
   Toronto         17-11     3. Miami           16-11         
4. Texas           17-12     4. Los Angeles     16-12   
5. Bal, Cle        16-12     5. San Francisco   15-12        

   Worst Team W-L               Worst Team W-L
1. Oakland         10-17     1. Cincinnati       9-20      
2. Kansas City     12-16     2. Philadelphia     9-18 
3. Detroit         12-15        San Diego        9-18      
   Seattle         12-15     4. Milwaukee       10-18
5. New York        13-16     5. Atlanta         11-15

   Batting Average              Batting Average     
1. Choo, Tex        .385     1. Prado, Mia       .350  
2. Betts, Bos       .375     2. Yelich, Mia      .349      
3. Eaton, Chi       .363     3. Gordon, Mia      .342           
4. Pillar, Tor      .358     4. Harper, Was      .330          
5. Beltre, Tex      .339        Inciarte, Ari    .330       

   Lowest Batting Average       Lowest Batting Average  
1. McCann, NY       .179     1. Ramos, Was       .145         
2. Headley, NY      .186     2. Owings, Ari      .150       
3. Bradley, Bos     .187     3. Utley, LA        .182
4. Castillo, Bos    .198     4. Taylor, Was      .193           
5. Dozier, Min      .200     5. LeMahieu, Col    .202      

   On Base Percentage           On Base Percentage  
1. Choo, Tex        .489     1. Votto, Cin       .466           
2. Betts, Bos       .444     2. Harper, Was      .451         
3. Davis, Bal       .443     3. Prado, Mia       .419         
4. Encarnacion, Tor .435     4. Granderson, NY   .417         
5. Eaton, Chi       .429     5. Goldschmidt, Ari .413      
   Slugging Percentage          Slugging Percentage   
1. Ortiz, Bos       .716     1. Harper, Was      .758        
2. Rasmus, Hou      .658     2. Carpenter, SL    .706   
3. Trout, LA        .653     3. Arenado, Col     .607       
4. Encarnacion, Tor .652     4. Davis, Mil       .606       
5. Bautista, Tor    .632     5. Cespedes, NY     .602        
   Home Runs                    Home Runs
1. Bautista, Tor       9     1. Harper, Was        11
   Encarnacion, Tor    9     2. Davis, Mil         10        
   Machado, Bal        9     3. Arenado, Col        8
4. 4 with              8        Bour, Mia           8
                                Carpenter, SL       8

   Runs                         Runs    
1. Choo, Tex          26     1. Harper, Was        22        
2. Betts, Bos         25     2. Carpenter, SL      21     
3. Bogaerts, Bos      23        Yelich, Mia        21
4. Davis, Bal         21     4. 3 with             20
   Machado, Bal       21                             

   RBI                          RBI      
1. Beltre, Tex        33     1. Arenado, Col       28        
2. Ortiz, Bos         26     2. Bour, Mia          24      
3. Bautista, Tor      25     3. Castro, Chi        21       
4. 3 with             23     4. Harper, Was        20
                                Rizzo, Chi         20
   Stolen Bases                 Stolen Bases             
1. Andrus, Tex         9     1. Gordon, Mia        11
2. Pillar, Tor         8     2. Blackmon, Col       6     
3. Lindor, Cle         6        Inciarte, Ari       6   
   Marisnick, Hou      6        Pagan, SF           6
5. 4 with              5     5. 2 with              5
   Saves                        Saves
1. Street, LA          9     1. Ramos, Mia          9
2. Boxberger, TB       8     2. Jansen, LA          8
3. Miller, NY          7        Melancon, Pit       8
   Tolleson, Tex       7     4. Axford, Col         7
5. 4 with              6        Casilla, SF         7

   ERA                          ERA
1. Anderson, Cle    1.09     1. Arrieta, Chi     0.39
2. Quintana, Chi    1.50     2. Strasburg, Was   1.24
3. Hill, Bos        1.55     3. Teheran, Atl     1.62
4. Santana, Min     1.88     4. Lackey, SL       1.78
5. Duffey, Min      1.95     5. Peavy, SF        1.96

   Worst ERA                    Worst ERA
1. Doubront, Oak    8.04     1. Heston, SF       6.04
2. Brooks, Oak      7.76     2. Nicolino, Mia    5.40
3. Holland, Tex     6.19     3. Cashner, SD      5.34
4. Cueto, KC        6.14        Zimmermann, Was  5.34
5. Archer, TB       5.81     5. Leake, SF        4.85

   WHIP                         WHIP
1. Hill, Bos        0.66     1. Arrieta, Chi     0.57
2. Dickey, Tor      0.85     2. Strasburg, Was   0.72
3. Tomlin, Cle      0.89     3. Scherzer, Was    0.76
4. Estrada, Tor     0.91     4. Lester, Chi      0.786
5. Quintana, Chi    0.97     5. Peavy, SF        0.791

   Strikeouts                   Strikeouts
1. Carrasco, Cle      43     1. Scherzer, Was      57     
   Keuchel, Hou       43        Strasburg, Was     57
3. Richards, LA       40     3. Arrieta, Chi       46
4. Ventura, KC        38     4. Kershaw, LA        43
   Verlander, Det     38     5. Gonzalez, Was      42

Friday, October 2, 2015

Next Up: The Suddenly Competitive Cincinnati Reds

Not for anything good, mind you. Here are the teams with the eight worst records in the majors as of the All-Star break: 
Team          W  L Pct.  GB
Philadelphia 29 62 .319  --
Milwaukee    38 52 .422  9.5
Miami        38 51 .427 10
Colorado     39 49 .443 11.5
Oakland      41 50 .451 12
Cincinnati   39 47 .453 12.5
San Diego    41 49 .456 12.5
Seattle      41 48 .461 13

Here's where it was at the start of September:
Team          W  L Pct.  GB
Philadelphia 52 80 .394  --
Miami        53 79 .402  1
Colorado     53 76 .411  2.5
Atlanta      54 77 .412  2.5
Cincinnati   54 76 .415  3
Milwaukee    55 75 .423  4
Oakland      58 74 .439  6
Seattle      61 71 .462  9

And today:
Team          W  L Pct.  GB
Philadelphia 62 97 .390  --
Cincinnati   63 96 .396  1
Atlanta      64 95 .403  2
Colorado     66 93 .415  4
Oakland      66 93 .415  4
Milwaukee    68 91 .428  6
Miami        69 90 .434  7
Detroit      73 85 .462 11.5

Why's this relevant? Well, the worst record earns you the No. 1 pick in next summer's amateur draft. That's valuable. First picks, historically, do considerably better than other picks, even No. 2. So the difference between being the worst and the second-worst is significant. Cincinnati's been making an impressive drive for the that top draft choice! (And what in the world have the Marlins been thinking?)

How Are They Doing Lately? When a team moves up in the ranks of the worst teams in baseball, it's not because they're doing well. The Reds have lost 12 in a row going into the season-ending weekend series at PNC Park. The 1993 Reds also lost 12 straight, and the team could tie the 1930 and 1945 Reds with 13 straight losses tonight. (The all-time franchise record of 19 straight losses, set in 1914, is out of reach.) Unsurprisingly, Cincinnati has the worst record in the league over the last 30 days, 9-19. They've scored 4.0 runs per game, .001 runs per game more than the fourth-worst Cardinals, while giving up 5.6 runs per game, easily the most in the league, over a half a run more than the next-worst Braves.

What's Going Right? I've mentioned this a number of times, but two pitching figures that can reflect luck are batting average on balls in play and percentage of baserunners stranded. Most players and teams tend toward the league averages (.299 batting average on balls in play and 73% strand rate in the National League over the past 30 days). The Reds have allowed the highest batting average on balls in play and the stranded the lowest percentage of baserunners over the past 30 days, indicating they've probably been a little unlucky. 

What's Going Wrong? Over the past 30 days, the Reds are eleventh in the league in batting (.248), 13th in on base percentage (.308), and 13th in slugging (.388). They've struck out the fourth most frequently and walked the fourth most infrequently. They've had the second lowest rate of hard contact in the league. And the pitching has completely melted down; the bullpen ERA of 4.70 is the third worst in the league over the past 30 days, and the starters' 5.82 ERA is the second worst. 

Who's Hot? Joey Votto is closing out a sensational season, batting .329 with a .487 on base percentage and .482 slugging percentage over the past 30 days. He's got a .547 on base percentage in the second half of the season. The only players who've bested that over half a season are Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Barry Bonds. Second baseman Brandon Phillips (.317/.336/.433 slash line) is also winding up a strong second half; his .759 OPS trails only the Mets' Daniel Murphy (.824) and the Pirates' Neil Walker (.762) among regular second basemen in the National League since the All-Star break. Closer Aroldis Chapman, in limited save opportunities, has a 0.93 ERA and 16 strikeouts and just four hits allowed in 9.2 innings, covering the last 30 days.

Who's Not? No Reds starter has an ERA lower than 4.73 over the past 30 days, including the weekend's starters, Keyvius Sampson (6.52), Brandon Finnegan (6.00), and Josh Smith (7.07). The weakest bats over the past 30 days have been those of left/center fielder Jason Bourgeois (.237/.297/.335), utility man Ivan DeJesus (.222/.246/.370) and catcher Tucker Barnhart (.179/.238/.196).

What's the Outlook? The Pirates can't completely coast. Their magic number over the Cubs for home field in Wednesday's wild card play-in game is two, meaning they need a combination of two victories over the Reds and/or Brewers victories over the Cubs over the weekend to put the game in PNC Park. But we should expect to see some position players get time off. As for the Reds, they have to hope the Phillies can extend their four-game winning streak at home against the Marlins, opening the door for Cincinnati to nab the top draft pick next summer.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Wow, Tough Loss. Now, Please Don't Bounce Back. Give Up.

The Pirates lost to the Cardinals, 3-0, yesterday. It was a tough, tough, loss, as the Pirates had multiple scoring opportunities--they loaded the bases in four different innings--but were unable to push a run across the plate. In all, they left 16 runners on base. That's the most in a nine-inning game in the majors this season, and the most in the majors since the Pirates stranded 16 in a 10-3 win against the Padres in June last year. For Pirates fans, it was reminiscent of the team's early struggles, when it got runners on base but failed to score. 

The National League Central standings are now:

Team        W  L Pct.  GB
St. Louis  99 58 .631  --
Pittsburgh 95 62 .605   4
Chicago    91 65 .583 7.5

The Cardinals and Pirates have five more games to play. The Cubs have six.

  • If the Cardinals win two of their last five games--they finish their season this weekend in Atlanta, playing the team with the second-worst record in the majors--they'll clinch the division, regardless of what the Pirates do. 
  • If the Cards win just one of their next five, the Pirates will have to win every game remaining this year (two against St. Louis, three against Cincinnati) in order to play a one-game playoff on Monday to determine the division champion. The loser of that game will host the Cubs next Wednesday for the wild card play-in.
  • If the Cards go 0-5 for the rest of the season and Pirates win every remaining game, the Pirates will win the Central and skip the Wild Card game. If the Cardinals go 0-5 and the Pirates go 4-1, the teams will tie and play on Monday.
Put another way: For the Pirates to win the division outright, they'll have to go 5-0 and the Cardinals 0-5 the rest of the season. That means the Pirates will have to win the next two days against St. Louis and sweep the season-ending series at home against the Reds, who are 10-6 against Pittsburgh this year. It means the Cardinals will have to drop both games against the Pirates and lose three straight on the road against an Atlanta team that hasn't won three straight against a team with a winning record since June and has easily the worst record in the majors since the All-Star Break. For the Pirates to host the Cardinals Monday to determine the championship, they still have to win both of the remaining St. Louis games, and they can lose one game to the Reds or the Cardinals can win one game against the Braves. They go 5-0 and the Cardinals 1-4, or they go 4-1 and the Cardinals 0-5.

Anything is possible. But the scenarios I described are highly, highly unlikely. They're sufficiently unlikely that we can safely say they're not going to happen.

How about the Cubs, though? Are the Pirates at risk of losing home field advantage in the wild card game next Wednesday? The Cubs will be the home field team if they finish with a better overall record than the Pirates or if the teams are tied, as the first tiebreaker for determining home field advantage is head-to-head record. The Cubs won the season series against Pittsburgh, 11-8. So in order for the Pirates to play the wild card game at home, they need to finish ahead of the Cubs. The Cubs start a three-game series against the Reds tonight and have a three-game set against the Brewers this weekend, all on the road.
  • If the Cubs sweep both series, the Pirates will still finish ahead of them in the standings if they go 3-2.
  • If the Cubs go 5-1, the Pirates will need to go 2-3.
  • If the Cubs go 4-2, the Pirates will need to win just one game.
  • If the Cubs don't win four of their remaining six, the Pirates will host the wild card game regardless of what they do in their remaining games. 
Both the Brewers and Reds have been playing pretty bad ball of late. Over the past couple weeks, the Reds have the worst record in baseball, 3-10, and the Brewers are tied for the third worst, 4-9. The Cubs have beaten up on both teams this year, going 11-5 against Milwaukee and 10-6 against Cincinnati. Still, winning all six games is going to be hard, particularly since only one will be started by the unstoppable Jake Arrieta. So let's say the Cubs go 5-1. If the Pirates lose tonight, the Cardinals will clinch the division. It's not hard to see the Pirates winning Wednesday's Gerrit Cole-Tyler Lyons mismatch against a hung over Cardinals team. Then they have to take just one of three over the weekend, against a Reds team that's playing out the string, in order to stay ahead of the Cubs. 

So my hope for the Pirates is that, since winning the division is now effectively out of reach, they lose tonight and start giving players days off. They've played 29 games in the last 30 days. Neil Walker's had one day off. Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte have had two. Jordy Mercer and Gregory Polanco have missed only four. Francisco Cervelli has caught all but six games. Five relievers have appeared in twelve or more games. Give them some time off. Let the bruises heal and sore muscles recover. Let them sleep in and sharpen their mental edge. Accept the inevitability of losing the division title and accept the likelihood of hosting the wild card game. The Cubs will start Arrieta. The Pirates will need all the advantage they can get.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Get It In Gear, McCutchen

Andrew McCutchen's batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage, 2012-2015:

2012  157 593 107 194 29 6 31 96 20 12 70 132 .327 .400 .553
2013  157 583 97 185 38 5 21 84 27 10 78 101 .317 .404 .508
2014  146 548 89 172 38 6 25 83 18 3 84 115 .314 .410 .542
2015  151 544 88 159 36 3 22 95 10 5 95 126 .292 .403 .491
Generated 9/28/2015.

He's batted .300 or better, with an on base percentage of .400 or better, and a slugging percentage of .500 or better, for three straight seasons. That puts him in pretty select company. Here are the members of the .300/.400/.500 club in each of the past four seasons:

McCutchen is the only player to have finished more than one season above .300/.400./.500, though Goldschmidt is a lock to do it this year. If McCutchen can do it again this year, he'll join very select company:

Four or More Straight Years: .300/.400/.500 BA/OBP/SLG
Every player with an asterisk after his name is in the Hall of Fame. .300/.400/.500, four years in a row, that's really something!

If McCutchen plays each of the the Pirates' remaining six games, he'll probably get something like 26 plate appearances. He'll probably walk at least three times. That leaves 23 at bats, which will give him 567 for the season. To bat .300, he needs 170 hits. To slug .500, he needs 284 total bases. That means that in his final 23 at bats, he needs 11 hits and 17 total bases. Nine singles and a couple homers would do it. Going 11-for-23, that's not easy. But he needs to start now!


Next Up: Last Chance to Win the National League Central

Top of the National League Central, morning of September 28, one week left in the season:

Team        W  L Pct.  GB
St. Louis  98 58 .628  --
Pittsburgh 95 61 .609   3
Chicago    90 65 .581 7.5

I think we can be fairly confident in saying two things:
  1. By taking two of three against the Cubs over the weekend, the Pirates have probably wrapped up home field for the wild card play-in.
  2. If the Pirates are going to catch the Cardinals--who finish their season against the execrable Atlanta Braves, while the Pirates play the almost-as-execrable Cincinnati Reds who nonethless have a 10-6 record against Pittsburgh--they need to sweep the next three games at home against St. Louis.
I'd forgotten about this, but do you know how the baseball tiebreaker rules could hose the Cardinals and Pirates? In the NFL, there are all sorts of convoluted measures (won-lost within the division and conference, point differential, net touchdowns, among others) that determine the seeding if two teams finish with identical records. In baseball, they just play another game. Let's say the Pirates sweep St. Louis and then each team wins two of three this weekend. They'd be tied for first with identical 100-62 records. They would then be required to play a game in Pittsburgh next Monday to determine the division champion, with the loser hosting the Cubs on Wednesday for the wild card game. That would put the losing team, which would be the team that currently has the best or second-best record in baseball, at a significant disadvantage, as they would be playing full-bore baseball, not resting regular hitters or pitchers, for seven straight games. The Cubs could rest regulars and would have a day off on Monday.

(One thing a tie wouldn't do is mess up the teams' rotations as it did last year, when the Pirates burned Gerrit Cole in the last game of the season in a vain attempt to catch the Cardinals, leaving Edinson Volquez to get lit up in the wild card game (five runs allowed in five innings) against 2014 postseason force of nature Madison Bumgarner. This year, if the teams are tied and they have to play a game Monday, it looks to me as if the Pirates would go with Cole (18-8, 2.60 ERA) on Monday and Francisco Liriano (12-7, 3.27 ERA), if necessary, against the Cubs Wednesday. The Cardinals would go with Michael Wacha (17-6, 3.15 ERA) on Monday and Jaime Garcia (10-5, 2.36 ERA), if necessary, against the Cubs. All four are better options than Volquez was, in my opinion.) 

Speaking of the Cubs, last night's game emphasized the risk of facing Chicago for a one-game play-in. Here are a couple tables.

Jake Arrieta 2015 14 0.80 11 1 14 2 2 101.1 53 12 9 2 23 106 0.750 .422 16
Kris Medlen 2012 19 0.94 9 0 12 2 1 95.1 64 12 10 5 14 95 0.818 .484 34
Roger Clemens 1990 12 0.97 9 2 12 5 4 92.2 79 12 10 0 19 89 1.058 .562 61
Tom Seaver 1971 16 1.10 10 4 16 12 2 139.1 83 20 17 6 30 143 0.811 .478 42
Spud Chandler 1943 14 1.12 10 2 14 11 2 121.0 90 23 15 1 20 65 0.909 .476 46
Bob Gibson 1968 16 1.19 11 4 16 14 7 144.0 97 25 19 6 27 150 0.861 .480 50
Johan Santana 2004 15 1.21 13 0 15 0 0 104.1 55 16 14 6 23 129 0.748 .443 18
Larry Gura 1981 11 1.25 7 3 11 7 1 86.2 59 17 12 3 17 27 0.877 .507 48
Dean Chance 1964 23 1.29 15 4 20 12 8 167.0 112 28 24 4 50 123 0.970 .490 44
Gary Peters 1966 12 1.29 7 3 12 7 2 97.2 67 16 14 4 13 58 0.819 .500 46
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/28/2015.
(OPS+ is OPS adjusted for park and season, with an average value of 100. Arrieta's OPS+ of 16 means that hitters have fared 84% worse than average against him.)

Jake Arrieta 2015 14 .422 11 1 0.80 14 2 2 101.1 53 12 9 2 23 106 0.750 16
Hoyt Wilhelm 1965 35 .442 6 2 1.33 0 0 0 81.0 41 15 12 5 17 62 0.716 31
Johan Santana 2004 15 .443 13 0 1.21 15 0 0 104.1 55 16 14 6 23 129 0.748 18
Nolan Ryan 1986 13 .444 6 2 2.27 13 0 0 83.1 40 23 21 4 34 100 0.888 26
Clayton Kershaw 2015 13 .453 9 1 1.48 13 2 1 97.0 61 17 16 4 14 121 0.773 24
Joe Horlen 1964 18 .456 7 4 1.56 17 6 1 126.2 71 28 22 5 40 89 0.876 34
Pedro Martinez 2000 15 .458 9 3 2.03 15 4 2 111.0 66 25 25 8 12 144 0.703 19
Sandy Koufax 1965 22 .459 11 5 1.94 20 13 6 166.2 92 39 36 12 37 187 0.774 36
Don Wilson 1971 15 .466 10 4 1.43 15 11 1 126.0 72 27 20 7 35 88 0.849 39
Nolan Ryan 1972 17 .468 8 8 1.41 17 10 4 140.2 74 29 22 2 75 173 1.059 43
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/28/2015.

The Cubs' Jake Arrieta, who will undoubtedly pitch in the wild card game, is basically having the best second half in baseball history, at least since the All-Star game began in 1933.

How Are They Doing Lately? The Cardinals are 16-12 over the past 30 days, tying them with the Dodgers for the fifth best record in the league, a half game behind the 17-12 Pirates and a game behind the 17-11 Cubs. They've scored 4.3 runs per game during the period, the fifth fewest in the league (the Pirates, at 4.7, are seventh in scoring) and they've given up 4.4 per game, the seventh fewest (the Pirates are second at 4.0). Yes, that means the Cardinals have managed to maintain the fifth-best record in the National League over the past 30 days despite being outscored, 122-120. Lucky? Yeah, a little, though the Dodgers, with an identical 16-12 record, have scored only one more run than they've allowed.

When the Pirates last played the Cardinals, at the beginning of the month, I wrote:
Their 2.67 ERA to date is the lowest in a non-strike-shortened year since the Year of the Pitcher in 1968, and they're on pace to win 105 games, which would be the most in the majors since the same franchise won 105 in 2004.
They've slowed down some. The team ERA is now 2.91, now "only" second in a non-strike post-1968 season, trailing the 1969 Orioles (2.83) and barely ahead of the 1988 Mets (2.908; the Cards are at 2.907). And they're on pace to win 102, not 105. They're a little banged up, with starting catcher Yadier Molina out with a thumb injury and starting pitcher Carlos Martinez done for the season with shoulder stiffness, but they've gotten other injured players (left fielder Matt Holliday, first baseman Matt Adams, center fielder Randal Grichuk) back from the disabled list this month.

What's Going Right? Cardinals starters have an ERA of 3.86 over the past 30 days, fifth lowest in the league. Only by the standards of the team's full-year performance can that be considered a disappointment, and they've led the league in inducing ground balls. The Cardinals hitters have been middle-of-the-pack over the past 30 days in terms of batting average (.264, eighth in the league) and slugging percentage .425, sixth), but they're third in on base percentage (.339), with the fifth highest walk rate in the league. They have 32 infield hits over the past month, easily the most in the league.

What's Going Wrong? The Cardinals batters strike out a lot (fourth highest rate in the league over the past 30 days) and they've been pretty inept basestealers (seven stolen, six caught stealing). They've hit 26 homers, tied with the Pirates for the sixth fewest. The bullpen's had a 4.63 ERA over the past 30 days, fifth highest in the league, though it's 3.97 without yesterday's ninth inning, when Trevor Rosenthal and Seth Maness allowed seven runs to the Brewers, coughing up a 3-1 lead and ending the team's home season on a sour note. The relievers have struck out 28% of the batters they've faced over the past 30 days, the most in the league, but they've allowed homers on 16% of fly balls, second highest in the league and given up the lowest rate of soft contact in the league. 

Who's Hot? The loss of Martinez stings, as he'd pitched better than his 3.60 ERA over the past 30 days would indicate, with the second-highest strikeout rate on the team. With him out, the Cardinals' top two starters of late have been Jaime Garcia  and John Lackey, both of whom the Pirates will miss. The offense has been carried by three players. Third baseman Matt Carpenter is leading the club over the past 30 days with a .304 batting average, .643 slugging percentage (fifth in the league) and eight home runs (tied for sixth); he's also compiled an excellent .376 on base percentage, resulting in a 1.019 OPS (fifth). Right fielder Jason Heyward's .405 on base percentage is twelfth in the league over the past 30 days and he's batting .303 with a .424 slugging percentage. Rookie Stephen Piscotty has played first, left, and right while generating a .302/.378/.462 slash line. In more limited play, another rookie, Tommy Pham, has hit .317/.364/.650, primarily in center but also in left.

Who's Not? None of the three starters the Pirates will face have fared very well over the past 30 days. Tonight's starter, Lance Lynn, has a 4.38 ERA and has walked as many batters as he's struck out, and Tuesday's starter, Michael Wacha, has a 6.75 ERA with 14 walks and five homers allowed over his last 20 innings. Wednesday's start goes to lefty Tyler Lyons, making his first start since September 2. He was a spot starter in three stints with the club prior to the All-Star break, compiling a 5.02 ERA. Since returning to St. Louis for a couple weeks August and when rosters expanded in September, he's got a 2.53 ERA in 21.1 innings, with a good 18:3 strikeout:walk ratio and a not-so-good five home runs allowed. On offense, the team's gotten little production over the past 30 days from shortstop Jhonny Peralta (.244 batting average, .313 on base percentage, .302 slugging percentage--by contrast, Jordy Mercer, having a tough year with the bat, is hitting .262/.323/.369 over the past 30 days) and none from catcher, where Molina and Tony Cruz have combined for a .206/.268/.265 slash line. 

What's the Outlook? In a way, if the Pirates don't sweep the Cardinals, I hope they drop two of three. As long as the Cubs don't play out of their minds, that would cement the home field wild card game for Pittsburgh--no chance of catching the Cards, no chance of getting caught by the Cubs--and allow them to give a lot of players some rest. But sweeping the Cardinals, yeah, that'd be fun. Series sweeps are pretty unlikely, and I don't think we'll see one here, but this is not the invulnerable Cardinals team we saw earlier in the season. There are chinks in their armor.