NL Wild Card Game 2015: Cubs vs. Pirates Breakdown and Predictions
The National League side of the 2015 MLB postseason kicks off on Wednesday night when the Pittsburgh Pirates will host the Chicago Cubs in the NL Wild Card Game.
Despite having the second- and third-best records in all of baseball, the two teams are forced to meet in the do-or-die game after the St. Louis Cardinals claimed the NL Central title with a 100-win season.
For the Pirates, it's the third time in as many years they will play host to the NL Wild Card Game. They advanced to a division series matchup with the Cardinals in 2013, but were shut out last year by the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants.
On the other side, the Cubs are in the playoffs for the first time since 2008, as they've made a drastic turnaround in the past year after a 73-89 finish in 2014.
The Cubs took the season series 11-8, and they'll send their ace Jake Arrieta to the mound to face of another budding star in Gerrit Cole.
So who will come out on top?
What follows is an in-depth look at all facets of the NL Wild Card Game matchup to get you ready for what promises to be a nail-biting Wednesday night.
Gerrit Cole vs. Cubs Lineup
2015 Head-to-Head Matchups
- April 29: W, 6.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 8 K
- May 16: L, 6.0 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 8 K
- Sept. 15: ND, 6.1 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 0 BB, 8 K
- Sept. 25: W, 7.0 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 8 K
Vs. Projected CHC Starting Lineup
|Player||Stats vs. SP|
|CF Dexter Fowler||3-for-14, 4 K|
|LF Kyle Schwarber||1-for-5, 1 K|
|3B Kris Bryant||3-for-9, 6 K|
|1B Anthony Rizzo||6-for-17, 1 2B, 3 K|
|2B Starlin Castro||6-for-17, 4 K|
|C Miguel Montero||3-for-5, 1 K|
|RF Jorge Soler||2-for-7, 2 K|
|SP Jake Arrieta||0 PA|
|SS Addison Russell||2-for-7, 2 K|
Gerrit Cole has seen plenty of the Chicago Cubs in his three big league seasons, and more times than not he's gotten the best of them.
In nine career starts against the North Siders, he's gone 7-1 with a 2.88 ERA and 1.101 WHIP over 56.1 innings of work. That includes 2-1 with a 2.13 ERA in four quality starts against them this season.
The Cubs big decision will be whether they want to get Jorge Soler or Javier Baez in the starting lineup, with Kris Bryant moving to right field if Baez plays or staying at third base if Soler is the choice.
A month or so ago it looked like Starlin Castro could be on the outside looking in come October, but a .426/.452/.750 line in September has changed that.
That strong finish, combined with the fact that he hit .329/.368/.443 in 70 at-bats against the Pirates this year, has him looking like a potential X-factor in the game.
Jake Arrieta vs. Pirates Lineup
2015 Head-to-Head Matchups
- April 20: W, 7.0 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 7 K
- May 17: L, 7.0 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 7 K
- Aug. 4: W, 7.0 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 5 K
- Sept. 16: ND, 8.0 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 5 K
- Sept. 27: W, 7.0 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 9 K
Vs. Projected PIT Starting Lineup
|Player||Stats vs. SP|
|RF Gregory Polanco||3-for-16, 5 K|
|LF Starling Marte||4-for-17, 4 K|
|CF Andrew McCutchen||8-for-23, 2 2B, 7 K|
|3B Aramis Ramirez||2-for-19, 2 K|
|2B Neil Walker||4-for-25, 1 2B, 6 K|
|1B Pedro Alvarez||2-for-17, 1 HR, 4 K|
|C Francisco Cervelli||2-for-13, 5 K|
|SS Jordy Mercer||0-for-4, 1 K|
|SP Gerrit Cole||0 PA|
The Pittsburgh Pirates managed to avoid facing Jake Arrieta for the entire 2014 season, but they have not been as lucky this year as he's been nothing short of dominant in five starts against them.
All told, he went 3-1 with a 0.75 ERA, 0.639 WHIP and 33 strikeouts in 36 innings of work, and the Pirates were by no means the only team he dominated.
The 29-year-old finished the season 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA, and that included a brilliant second half where he was 12-1 with an MLB-record 0.75 ERA in 15 starts.
He also showed no real preference to where he pitched, going 13-1 with a 1.60 ERA in 18 road starts, including 2-0 with a 0.82 ERA in three starts at PNC Park in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates could go a few different routes with their lineup, but expect to see Pedro Alvarez get the start at first base and Neil Walker get the nod over Josh Harrison at second.
Starling Marte was the Pirates hottest hitter down the stretch, putting up a .314/.359/.466 line from Sept. 1 on, and he even saw some time in the No. 5 spot in the order at the end of the season as a result.
Not only will there be two great starters on the mound in the NL Wild Card Game, but they will be backed by two of the best bullpens in the league.
Here's how they stack up from a team standpoint:
Cubs Projected Bullpen
- LHP Jon Lester
- RHP Trevor Cahill
- LHP Clayton Richard
- RHP Neil Ramirez
- RHP Justin Grimm
- RHP Fernando Rodney
- LHP Travis Wood
- RHP Pedro Strop
- RHP Hector Rondon
Both teams will likely only carry one other starting pitcher on the active roster for the Wild Card Game, so that will free up three extra spots for either extra relievers or bench players.
Setup man Pedro Strop (76 G, 28 HLD, 2.91 ERA) and closer Hector Rondon (72 G, 30/34 SV, 1.67 ERA) have been a solid one-two punch at the back of the bullpen, and with Arrieta on the mound the hope is that those two would be as deep as they would need to go into their relief corps.
Veteran Fernando Rodney (14 G, 0.75 ERA) has been a nice buy-low addition, while Travis Wood (45 G, 2.96 ERA as reliever) has adjusted well to the move from starting rotation to bullpen.
Justin Grimm and Clayton Richard also look like locks for a roster spot, leaving Trevor Cahill, Neil Ramirez and rookie Carl Edwards Jr. as the bubble guys depending on how many position players the team decides to keep.
Pirates Projected Bullpen
- LHP Francisco Liriano
- RHP Joe Blanton
- LHP Bobby LaFromboise
- RHP Arquimedes Caminero
- RHP Jared Hughes
- LHP Antonio Bastardo
- RHP Joakim Soria
- LHP Tony Watson
- RHP Mark Melancon
For as good as Strop and Rondon have been for the Cubs this year, the Pirates' late-inning tandem of Tony Watson (77 G, 41 HLD, 1.91 ERA) and Mark Melancon (78 G, 51/53 SV, 2.23 ERA) has been the best in the National League.
Watson led the majors with his 41 holds, while Melancon set a franchise record in leading the big leagues with 51 saves and only blew two chances along the way.
Bridging the gap to those two, the team has a former All-Star closer in Joakim Soria (29 G, 2.03 ERA) and a second terrific lefty in Antonio Bastardo (66 G, 2.98 ERA), two players who would be the eighth and ninth inning guys on a lot of other teams.
Hard-throwing rookie Arquimedes Caminero and veterans Jared Hughes and Joe Blanton should all have a spot, while the final roster decision could come down to left-hander Bobby LaFromboise or another bench player.
Cubs Projected Bench
- C David Ross
- IF Javier Baez
- IF Tommy La Stella
- OF Chris Coghlan
- OF Chris Denorfia
- OF Austin Jackson
- OF Matt Szczur
- PR Quintin Berry
Javier Baez (76 AB, .289 BA, .733 OPS) has hit well since joining the team as a September call-up and played terrific defense wherever he's lined up on the infield. It wouldn't be surprising to see him in the starting lineup, but if not he figures to be one of the first bats off the bench.
Chris Coghlan was an everyday player for much of the year, hitting .250/.341/.443 with 16 home runs and 41 RBI, but he's seen his playing time diminish down the stretch and he's now the team's top left-handed bench bat.
Veteran Chris Denorfia has been the team's best pinch hitter, going 11-for-34 (.324) with four doubles, one triple and one home run in the role. The home run was of the walk-off variety, coming on Sept. 28 against the Kansas City Royals in the 11th inning of the team's final home game of the regular season.
Speedy Quintin Berry will likely earn a spot as a pinch runner, as he stole a pair of bases as a September call-up and has been a part of two postseason rosters in the past in that role.
Pirates Projected Bench
- C Chris Stewart
- 1B/OF Michael Morse
- IF Pedro Florimon
- IF Josh Harrison
- IF/OF Sean Rodriguez
- OF Travis Snider
- PR Keon Broxton
The deadline additions of Michael Morse and Aramis Ramirez gave the Pirates some added infield depth, and that became key when Jung Ho Kang was lost for the season.
Morse has performed particularly well in pinch-hit duties since joining the team, going 8-for-22 (.364) with one triple, one home run and five RBI.
It's been a trying season for 2014 breakout star Josh Harrison, as a thumb injury limited him to just 114 games and he's seen his OPS drop from .837 last year to .717 this season. He still provides valuable versatility, though, and could find his way into the Wild Card Game.
Keon Broxton serves in the pinch-runner role for the Pirates, as he had 39 steals in the minors this year. He has a steal and three runs scored this season without recording a hit.
Clint Hurdle vs. Joe Maddon
After spending nine seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays and helping turn the franchise from a laughingstock into a perennial contender, Joe Maddon joined the Chicago Cubs this past offseason.
While it was not until his third season at the helm in Tampa that he first reached the playoffs, Maddon helped lead the way on a 24-win improvement for the Cubs this year and their first postseason trip since 2008.
Maddon has been to the playoffs four times before, compiling a 13-17 postseason record and helping lead the Rays to the AL pennant and the only World Series appearance in franchise history in 2008 when the team posted the same 97-65 record the Cubs did this year.
On the other side is 2013 NL Manager of the Year Clint Hurdle, who has the Pirates in the playoffs for the third year in a row after the team snapped a 20-year drought back in '13.
He spent eight seasons as the Colorado Rockies manager prior to taking the Pittsburgh job in 2011, making just one postseason appearance there but winning the NL pennant in the process in 2007.
Hurdle is now 431-379 in his five seasons in Pittsburgh, and that .532 winning percentage is made even more impressive when you consider they were a 90-loss team in his first year at the helm.
PNC Park Outfield Dimensions
|Left Field||325 ft.|
|Left-Center Field||383 ft.|
|Center Field||399 ft.|
|Right-Center Field||375 ft.|
|Right Field||320 ft.|
PNC Park 2015 Stadium Factors
|Category||Park Factor||MLB Rank|
With a 53-28 record at PNC Park this year, the Pirates were tied for third in the majors in home wins, so holding off the Cubs for the right to host the Wild Card Game was significant.
That said, the Cubs were baseball's best road team at 48-33 and that included 6-4 in 10 games in Pittsburgh, so it's hard to say one team has a clear advantage based on where the game is being played.
The above Park Factor numbers come courtesy of ESPN, with a 1.000 representing league-average frequency. Anything above a 1.000 indicates a hitter-friendly environment, with anything below favoring pitchers.
So while PNC Park has played as a pitchers' park from an overall run-scoring standpoint, it has seen its fair share of balls leave the yard, and both teams have a handful of players capable of going deep.
Then again, with two great pitchers on the mound that low-scoring trend may very well continue.
Game Prediction: Cubs 5, Pirates 0
With a historically good second half under his belt that includes a 22-inning scoreless streak heading into the postseason, it's awfully hard to bet against Jake Arrieta at this point.
"It’s almost mind-blowing how dominant he’s been," teammate Jason Hammel told Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago.
"You expect to get one pitch to hit. With Jake, you go up there, you’re not going to get one pitch to hit. You’re almost helpless. There’s almost nothing you can do about it."
The Pirates fell victim to a four-hit shutout at the hands of Madison Bumgarner in the Wild Card Game last year, and they run into another buzz saw here.
Arrieta scatters three hits over eight scoreless innings and Hector Rondon slams the door in the ninth to preserve the shutout.
Offensively, Starlin Castro continues his late-season surge with a three-run double to chase Gerrit Cole in the seventh inning after the two starters traded zeroes through the first six.
The Cubs tack on a pair of insurance runs from there on a two-run homer by Addison Russell in the eighth inning, helping make the decision to pull Arrieta after eight an easier one, and it's on to a division series matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals.
All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted.