Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Jake Arrieta and a Preview of the NL Wild Card Game

On Tuesday the Pirates and Cubs split a doubleheader at PNC Park. Gerrit Cole, the Pirates presumed wild card game-starter, started game one and left with a 4-2 lead in the seventh. Some shoddy defense, (what's new), and a couple wild pitches from Joakim Soria allowed the Cubs to tie it up, but the Pirates rallied in the eighth and Mark Melancon locked up the 5-4 victory with his major league-leading 46th save. Jon Lester was masterful in the nightcap besting J.A. Happ, the Bucs best starter the past six weeks, and the Cubs earned the split with a 2-1 win.

The Pirates and the Cubs both have 18 games remaining in the 2015 season. Going into Wednesday's contest the Bucs are three games back of the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals and the Cubs are four back of the Pirates. Tonight's probable starters are Jake Arrieta for the Cubs and A.J. Burnett for the Pirates, their third meeting of the season. If the standings stay as they are, Arrieta will be taking the same mound in exactly three weeks as the Cubs starter in the winner-take-all, one-game playoff against Cole and the Pirates. We can debate forever the fairness of two of the four or five best teams in baseball having to matchup in this format, but it could prove to be one of the most dramatic games in playoff history if it actually plays out this way.

With a nod to this being a playoff preview when the work of 162 games is going to come down to a couple hours, let's take a closer look at Jake Arrieta. As good as Gerrit Cole has been this season, Arrieta has been the better pitcher. Rob Arthur took a great look at how Arrieta has developed into an ace by continually refining his mechanics. This has resulted in something unusual. Arrieta started to show a reverse-split in 2013 and it has become even more dramatic this season. If you look at Arrieta's pitch selection, he throws pretty much the same stuff to lefties and righties. The only notable difference is in his limited use of his change which has arm-side run, he generally only throws it to lefties, while throwing his slider slightly more often to righties.

Here's what hitters have done against Arrieta on the season. The numbers from Fangraphs:


2015vs L
2015vs R

*Total Batters Faced

Arrieta has faced the Pirates three times this year after not facing them at all in 2014. The results have been almost identical. From baseball-reference:


In the first game in April at PNC, the Pirates started well against Arrieta. Before he was able to get the second out of the game the Bucs were up 1-0. They registered three of their four hits in the first inning. And that was it. Arrieta faced 26 batter, 24 non-pitchers. 15 of those ABs took place from the right side with Andrew McCutchen getting the only hits, a single and a double. 9 took place from the left side as Gregory Polanco, Neil Walker (switch) and Pedro Alvarez all started. Polanco singled and scored the run in the first. Walker doubled, also in the first. The Pirates finished 2-for-15 from the right side and 2-for-9 from the left side. Arrieta didn't issue a walk. (Note: Jung Ho Kang, made his third career start, his second at short, and batted eighth.)

In the second game in May at Wrigley, the Pirates started the exact same starting nine with A.J. Burnett again on the hill. This time Josh Harrison was dropped from first in the order to seventh, Polanco batted leadoff and Kang hit fifth. Arrieta faced 23 non-pitchers, 14 from the right side, 9 from the left. Kang and Alvarez singled in the second, Cutch singled in the fourth and the Pirates scored in the fifth on a bloop double by Harrison and a Francisco Cervelli single. The Bucs finished 4-for-14 from the right side, 1-for-8 from the left as Alvarez walked in the seventh.

Arrieta was at this very best in his last appearance against the Pirates which took place in August at PNC. He only allowed two hits and no runs, though he did walk three in seven innings. (This was J.A. Happ's first start as a Pirate. The Cubs are the only team to beat Happ since the trade as he took the loss again last night.) Clint Hurdle again went with the same lineup, the exception being Aramis Ramirez in place of Josh Harrison at third. Just as in the second matchup Arrieta faced 23 non-pitcher ABs, 14 from the right, 9 from the left. Andrew McCutchen walked twice and singled, while Neil Walker also walked and Starling Marte added a single. On the night the Pirates were 2-for-12 from the right side and 0-for-8 from the left.

In all three games against Arrieta Hurdle has started Pedro Alvarez at first, Neil Walker at second and Gregory Polanco in left. Along with a pinch-hit appearance by Travis Ishikawa Pirate lefties have gone 3-for-25 (.120) with two walks. The problem is the I'm-not-Andrew-McCutchen righthanded hitters have gone 4-for-37 (.108) with no walks. For his part, McCutchen is 4-for-7, a double, two walks and two strikeouts. 

All of this comes with the obvious small sample size caveats. But it will be interesting to see if Clint Hurdle and the Pirates, one of the most analytically-based teams in the game, put any significance to Arrieta's not insignificant reverse-split and start a righthanded bat at first, second and/or right today. Alvarez or Ramirez/Morse at first? Walker or Harrison at second? Polanco or Harrison/Rodriguez (say it ain't so) in right?

The Pirates know what they are going to see in Jake Arrieta. Now the question is what will Jake Arrieta see from the Pirates. Tonight we might get a hint of what we will see October 7, in a winner-take-all matchup. 

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