It’s official: the Chicago Cubs have survived the wild-card gantlet.
With the victory, they’re now the second-best team in baseball according to our Elo ratings (behind the Toronto Blue Jays). That makes them narrowly favored to win their next series against the division-rival St. Louis Cardinals: Elo says they have a 51.6 percent probability of going on to the National League Championship Series.
It also makes them favorites to represent the National League in the World Series. Elo gives Chicago a 28 percent chance of winning the NL pennant, as well as nearly a 15 percent chance of winning it all.
Then again, Elo doesn’t account for curses.
Good news for the Cubs as they watch their ace, Jake Arrieta, finish off a complete game. He has been just as good with four days’ rest throughout his career as he has with five days off between starts — and far better in 2015 after four days off than after five. Bad news for the Cubs: Arrieta would need to sit out until Game 3 of the National League Division Series against the Cardinals to get four days’ rest. Last year’s NL wild-card-winning ace, Madison Bumgarner, also didn’t pitch again until Game 3 of the division series, but his rotation mates stepped up and helped him lift the Giants to the NLCS.
The Pirates believe in the benefits of pitching inside, and not only when they’re trying to teach Jake Arrieta a lesson. According to ESPN’s TruMedia tool, Pirates pitchers have thrown 35.0 percent of their pitches in the inner third of the strike zone (or off the plate inside) this season, which leads the major leagues. They were tops in that area in 2014, too. Not-so-coincidentally, their pitchers have also led MLB in hit batsmen in both years, with 163 confirmed victims. There’s a purpose to these pitches: As a member of their front office told me last year, the Pirates believe that inside pitches affect some hitters’ performance on subsequent offerings, a theory that was proposed by Clint Hurdle’s coaching staff and backed up by the statheads upstairs.
Here’s the really interesting thing: Pirates batters lead the league in being hit by pitches this season, and they ranked second to St. Louis last year, with a total of 167 across the two seasons — almost the same as the Pirates’ pitchers’ tally. It’s tempting to make a connection: Maybe all those beanballs by Pirates pitchers lead to retaliatory beanballs when their batters are up.
So does plunking opponents typically get a team plunked, as it did for Arrieta tonight? In the wild-card era (1995 to 2015), the correlation between pitcher HBP and batter HBP on a team level is a weak .15. So while there is some tendency for teams that plunk to get plunked, it’s tough to decipher the causation. One conclusion we can draw: There’s no perfect plunking relationship, at least for non-Pirates teams.
Chicago and Pittsburgh teams have won more than their share of major pro-sports championships — without much help from the hard-luck Cubs and Pirates. The Donovan Index ranks U.S. cities by their rate of winning titles, taking into account how many opportunities they’ve had. So if a team in a 30-team league wins one World Series in 30 years, it’s average, which is scaled as 1 in the index. Pittsburgh and Chicago both are above 1 in the index, with Pittsburgh ranking eighth of 32 cities with at least three pro-sports teams and Chicago ranking 11th. But the Pirates and Cubs have lagged behind the cities’ other pro teams — especially the Cubs, with their two World Series wins and none since 1908. If they hold on to this lead, they’ll be one step closer to making it three titles — which would still leave them by far the most underperforming of Chicago’s five major pro teams.
Someone in the announcers booth mentioned that the Cubs’ Kris Bryant tries to hit four fly balls every game in the hope that one goes out of the park (by sheer virtue of Bryant’s size and strength). That argument was strangely sabermetric for announcers who have spent much of the night scratching their heads at anything involving analytics. Statheads have long known that a hitter’s rate of home runs per fly ball tends to regress toward the league average, meaning batters can generally expect some baseline number of their flies to leave the yard as long as they’re hitting enough balls deep in the air. The league average rate, though, isn’t 1 in 4 — it’s more like 1 in 10, with Bryant hitting a home run every six fly balls.
The Pirates ended each of the last two innings by grounding into double plays. Turning double plays isn’t the Cubs’ forte — they ranked near the bottom of the majors with just 121 in the regular season, about three every four games. And Arrieta induced just 15 double plays, in part because so few batters reached base against him to create double-play opportunities. But there’s more to infield defense than double plays, and the Cubs were above average defensively at every infield position. Tinkers, Evers and Chance would be proud.
Things look bleak for the Pirates, with a 2.9 percent win probability as of the top of the eighth. But remember last year’s Royals! They fought back to beat the A’s in the wild-card game last year after falling to a 2.9 percent win probability in the seventh.
According to win probability added, the Pirates were one of the clutchest hitting teams in the National League during the regular season.
The Chicago Cubs are on the brink of making the divisional series, carrying a 4-0 lead into the eighth inning. Pretty good for a franchise widely known as exceptionally futile in the postseason. That’s what happens when you don’t win a World Series in more than 100 years.
More advanced statistics back up the idea that the Cubs are especially unsuccessful. There’s a strong correlation between a franchise’s lifetime win-loss percentage and its number of World Series wins. By that correlation, the Cubs register as a significant outlier, having compiled a .512 winning percentage (sixth-best in MLB history) in their 140-plus years of existence, but only a couple of World Series wins. Naively, we would have expected the Cubs to have won something like 20 championships, based on their strong win percentage.
If Pittsburgh can’t get any runs across the plate against the Cubs, they’ll probably look back ruefully at this game in mid-September. That’s when rookie third baseman Jung Ho Kang tore his MCL and was lost for the remainder of the season. According to OPS+, Kang was Pittsburgh’s second-best hitter (behind Andrew McCutchen) during the regular season.
The benches have emptied in the game, adding a frisson of aggression to what was until now a pretty calm affair. Ironically, in hockey — the sport that actually allows fighting — the rate of fights dramatically declines in the playoffs!
Arrieta hit a batter once in six different games during the regular season. The Cubs won all six, giving up a total of just six runs. Going back to the end of last year, the Cubs are 8-0 with eight runs yielded, total, the last eight times Arrieta hit a batter. Baseball is weird — Arrieta is really good when he’s not hitting batters, too.
Also noteworthy: counting tonight, the last 16 times Arrieta has hit a batter have come when the Cubs are ahead or tied. His HBPs don’t appear to be a product of stress.
That double play at the end of the inning was very costly for the Pirates. Their win probability dropped from 18.1 percent with the bases loaded to 4.9 percent after the double play.
Arrieta has HBP history within reach! Only one more to go!
The Pirates have had the bad fortune of running into dominant starters for their wild-card game matchups in recent years: Last season, they were shut out by the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner, and this year they’re having trouble hitting Jake Arrieta.
How tough were those aces to score against? Bill James, the father of sabermetrics, keeps a running ranking of the best starting pitchers in baseball at any given moment (his system is similar in some ways to the Elo ratings we often use), and James’s system had Bumgarner ranked sixth in the league when he tore through Pittsburgh’s lineup. Bumgarner would eventually rise to second after a brilliant playoff run. Arrieta is in between the two Bumgarners: He ranks fourth.
Facing starters of that caliber in a one-and-done situation in back-to-back years makes it pretty tough to advance past the wild-card round. It’s probably no coincidence that in 2013, the one year Pittsburgh did make it past the play-in game, they drew 59th-ranked Johnny Cueto instead.
With a 4-0 lead, the Cubs are well-positioned to pull out the win in this wild-card game. FanGraphs win probability has the Cubs as more than a 90 percent favorite to win at the moment. But even that may be conservative: The Cubs boast one of the best bullpens in the majors (fourth by fWAR), and they will use as many relievers as necessary to get the win in this do-or-die game. It’s likely that the 90 percent win probability we currently assign them is, if anything, conservative. It should be more like 95 percent.
Jake Arrieta showed one small imperfection in his game to start the top of the fifth inning when he hit Francisco Cervelli before retiring the next three batters. During the regular season, Arrieta hit six of the 870 batters he faced, a rate of one every 145 batters. Among pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched in the majors this year, the average was one batter hit of every 119 faced. That makes Arrieta only slightly better than average in at least one pitching stat. This year there was essentially no correlation between HBP rate and the on-base plus slugging plus that a pitcher allows. That’s surprising given that a hit batter leads to a free trip on the bases, which feeds into OPS+. But we may be seeing no effect because hit batsmen are so rare, or because hitting batters is occasionally a byproduct of using the entirety of the strike zone — something Arrieta is doing well tonight.
Jake Arrieta has thrown just 47 pitches in four scoreless innings — including just 10 balls. That’s fast and accurate even by his extraordinary standards: If he maintained this pace, his pitches per inning and percentage of balls thrown would be his lowest of the season. Manager Joe Maddon kept Arrieta to just 84 and 72 pitches in his last two starts to preserve him for this game. It will be interesting to see at what point Maddon considers pulling his ace to preserve him for a likely NLDS appearance, now that the Cubs are up by four runs. The Cubs had the fourth-best bullpen by wins above replacement this year.
Much was made before the game about the Cubs’ tendency to strike out. Chicago’s batters certainly did lead the league in strikeout percentage during the regular season, but the Pittsburgh lineup wasn’t far behind — they tied for 10th in baseball. And in a plate-discipline number that perhaps flew under the radar, the Pirates had the 12th-lowest rate of walks as well. (The Cubs at least ranked third in walk percentage.) That’s another reason it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise that the Pirates’ batters have struggled to control the strike zone against Jake Arrieta so far tonight.
Last week I updated my “Managerial Meddling Index,” a measure of how often managers make in-game moves, compared with their peers in the same league. Tonight’s managers, the Pirates’ Clint Hurdle and the Cubs’ Joe Maddon, are among the majors’ most active managers, ranking fifth and sixth, respectively, in total tactical activity. Both managers are among the most likely to signal for replay reviews: Maddon has initiated 49 challenges, the most in the National League. Maddon is also the most likely to hit and run, the fourth-most-likely to pinch-hit, and the third-most-aggressive when it comes to pulling starters before they face hitters for the third time in a game. (Thus far it hasn’t looked like he’ll need to do it for Arrieta.)
Hurdle is the manager most likely to pinch run and insert substitutes on defense, as well as one of the most aggressive infield shifters. But he has a slower hook with his starters, at least in games that aren’t do-or-die.
Obviously, many of these moves depend on the personnel at a skipper’s disposal, and the ratings are more descriptive than prescriptive: They can tell us what moves a manager makes, but not whether he’s right to make them. As this game goes deeper, though, know that neither manager will hesitate to start flipping switches if he perceives a potential edge.
What was bad for Pirates starter Gerrit Cole in the top of the first inning (single followed by a single and then double play) got worse when he again faced the top third of the Cubs lineup in the top of the third: a single followed by a home run and a walk. Typically, starting pitchers this season were about 3 percent worse the second time through the order. Cole, though, has bucked that trend during his career; on average he has been 16 percent better his second time through the lineup (if you judge by OPS).
Not tonight, though. He might not make it all the way through the Chicago order a second time: Clint Hurdle already had Jared Hughes warming up before Cole got out of his third-inning jam. Hurdle can’t be patient with Cole with Arrieta looking sharp so far. The Cubs haven’t given up more than two runs in any of Arrieta’s last seven starts.
Don’t expect Jake Arrieta to squander this lead. In 58 starts since 2014, the Cubs pitcher has allowed more than three runs only nine times (16 percent) — and zero times since June 16. If the Pirates are going to come back, they’ll probably have to do it against Chicago’s bullpen.
In my NL playoff preview, I mentioned that young hitters are outperforming their projections to an unprecedented degree this year. Kyle Schwarber, who slammed a two-run dinger in the top of the third, embodies that for the Cubs. With a projected on-base plus slugging of .683 and an actual OPS of .842, Schwarber has proven an unexpected (but dependable) source of hits for the Cubs.