MLB Playoffs 2015: Explaining Wild Card Format, Divisional Series and More

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistOctober 5, 2015

Chicago Cubs starter Jake Arrieta throws against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the first inning of a baseball game Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

Few things in sports are more physically and mentally grueling than a 162-game Major League Baseball season, but the long journey will come to a screeching halt Tuesday and Wednesday for the losers of the American and National League Wild Card Games. 

The dog days of summer are firmly in the rearview mirror, and the pressure cooker that is the MLB postseason is finally upon us. With teams like the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Mets and Kansas City Royals chasing regulars like the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals, there is bound to be plenty of nail-biting moments.

It all begins with the Wild Card showdowns. With that in mind, here is an explanation of the system.

Format Explanation

MLB added a second wild-card team to each league in 2012, which altered the format of the playoffs and theoretically made the stretch run of the regular season more exciting with additional squads in contention.

Alas, the two non-division winners with the best records in the National League now square off in the Wild Card Game to see which one advances to the Divisional Series. The same happens in the American League. Whichever team wins the Wild Card Game will face the No. 1 seed from its respective league in the Divisional Series.

The Wild Card Game is a pressure-packed, winner-takes-all affair that will pit the New York Yankees against the Houston Astros in the American League Tuesday and the Chicago Cubs against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Wednesday.

This season’s Divisional Series begins Thursday. In each league, the No. 1 seed plays the Wild Card Game winner in one series, and the No. 2 seed faces the No. 3 seed in the other series. Unlike the Wild Card Game, the Divisional Series is a best-of-five showdown, and the better seed hosts Games 1, 2 and 5.

Wild Card Matchup to Watch: Jake Arrieta vs. Gerrit Cole

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

On the surface, it seems inherently unfair that two teams that challenged for one of the best records in the National League throughout the season will be pitted against each other in a winner-takes-all showdown, but such is life for the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates when the dominant St. Louis Cardinals reside in the National League Central.

If the prospect of a one-game elimination after a 162-game marathon isn’t daunting enough, the Cubs and Pirates each have to face a shutdown pitcher Wednesday.

Jake Arrieta will toe the rubber for Chicago in the most important start of his Cy Young-caliber season, while Gerrit Cole will do the same for Pittsburgh. Arrieta finished the campaign with a 22-6 record with a 1.77 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 236 strikeouts in 229 innings, while Cole went 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 202 strikeouts in 208 innings.

Since the Cubs and Pirates are both in the same division, this is far from the first time the respective pitchers squared off with Wednesday’s opponent. Here is a look at how each fared this season against the other team:

Jake Arrieta vs. Pittsburgh Pirates
DateTeam ResultInnings PitchedEarned RunsHitsWalksStrikeoutsPitch Count
Apr. 20W 5-271407100
May 17L 3-071517106
Aug. 4W 5-070235109
Sept. 16W 3-281615117
Sept. 27W 4-07010984
Gerrit Cole vs. Chicago Cubs
DateTeam ResultInnings PitchedEarned RunsHitsWalksStrikeoutsPitch Count
Apr. 29W 8-16031895
May 16L 4-162718107
Sept. 15W 5-46.13608105
Sept. 25W 3-271428109

The numbers don't lie—Arrieta has been a machine against the Pirates. Cole has also been impressive against the Cubs, but the inning totals and the sheer number of runs the Chicago right-hander allowed (rather, didn't allow) against the Pirates is alarming for Pittsburgh fans.

While Cole has been tremendous this season, Arrieta has been in a different league since the All-Star break. In fact, the Chicago ace posted the lowest ERA in major league history after the break at 0.75.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

He is a legitimate Cy Young candidate along with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke and put the Cubs on his back during the season’s stretch run. Arrieta ended brief losing streaks, saved the bullpen in critical moments and was a reassuring constant every fifth day. Perhaps most impressively, he was an astounding 10-1 in 14 starts after his team lost the previous game.

Manager Joe Maddon did not shy away from discussing Arrieta’s case for the Cy Young and even the National League MVP, per Bruce Levine of CBS Chicago:

Where we are at right now, he has to be in that conversation. He has done (so much) to prevent any long losing streak. What he he done in the second half has not been done before. Nobody has ever seen it. Voters are really going to have to consider (all this) when they look at this fella. The other fellows are really good, but we have never seen anything like this. That should equal a pretty good award.

Levine himself backed up Maddon’s assertions: “Again, Arrieta’s 10-1 record after Cubs losses is the mark of a stopper and reflective of an MVP stepping up. What he’s done for the Cubs is unmatched across baseball, and if you factor in the team success, he’s deserving of the NL MVP (as great as Bryce Harper has been for the Nationals).”

As dangerous as the Pirates are, it is nearly impossible to go against the red-hot Arrieta in a one-game showdown. That is especially true given the right-hander's head-to-head success against the Pirates in 2015.

As long as Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber or someone else on the Cubs offense provides even the slightest hint of run support, Arrieta will carry the team into the Divisional Series against the Cardinals. Look for the workhorse to go eight strong innings and then hand the ball to the overlooked Hector Rondon, who was also excellent this season with a 1.67 ERA and 30 saves.

The Cubs will run into issues later in the playoffs when the back end of their rotation is called upon, but Arrieta will prove to be enough in Wednesday’s do-or-die situation.

Prediction: Cubs 3, Pirates 1