Arrieta-Cole, Objectively One of Best Playoff Matchups Ever by Craig Edwards October 6, 2015 Individual performances tend to be magnified in the postseason, and that is especially true of pitchers. While 16-18 other players appear in the lineups and many others will have profound impacts on the outcomes of games over the next month, the starting pitcher will likely have more influence over the outcome of a single game than any other player. Everything is magnified in the playoffs from managerial decisions to clutch hits, errors, and great plays in the field, but starting pitching is perhaps most deserving of the increased scrutiny. By the end of the second inning, perhaps sometime into the third, the starting pitcher will have taken part in more plays than any position player during the entire game. In a winner-take-all game like the Wild Card, deserving players might be pushed to the background ahead of the game in favor of the pitching, but the matchup between pitchers will likely be the difference between the team that keeps playing and the team whose season is over. For those watching the Cubs take on the Pirates, they will witness one of the very best pitching matchups the playoffs have ever seen. In Jake Arrieta and Gerrit Cole, both teams will feature bona fide aces. Arrieta might have just had the best half-season of all time. Overall, he’s pitched 229 innings with an ERA of 1.77 and a FIP of 2.35, giving Arrieta a 45 ERA- and a 60 FIP- over the full season after league and park are taken into account. He’s in pretty rare company. Consider: since the end of World War II, these are the qualified pitchers with an ERA- below 50 and a FIP- below 65 over a full season. Greatest Combination of FIP and ERA in History Name Season Team IP ERA FIP WAR ERA- FIP- Pedro Martinez 1999 Red Sox 213.1 2.07 1.39 11.6 42 31 Roger Clemens 1997 Blue Jays 264 2.05 2.25 10.7 45 50 Pedro Martinez 2000 Red Sox 217 1.74 2.17 9.4 35 48 Ron Guidry 1978 Yankees 273.2 1.74 2.19 9.1 47 58 Dwight Gooden 1985 Mets 276.2 1.53 2.13 8.9 44 58 Bob Gibson 1968 Cardinals 304.2 1.12 1.75 8.6 38 64 Zack Greinke 2009 Royals 229.1 2.16 2.33 8.6 48 54 Pedro Martinez 1997 Expos 241.1 1.9 2.39 8.5 45 57 Roger Clemens 1990 Red Sox 228.1 1.93 2.18 8.2 47 55 Greg Maddux 1995 Braves 209.2 1.63 2.26 7.9 39 52 Greg Maddux 1994 Braves 202 1.56 2.39 7.4 37 54 Pedro Martinez 2003 Red Sox 186.2 2.22 2.21 7.4 48 51 Jake Arrieta 2015 Cubs 229 1.77 2.35 7.3 45 60 Pedro Martinez 2002 Red Sox 199.1 2.26 2.24 7.3 50 54 Randy Johnson 1997 Mariners 213 2.28 2.82 7 50 62 The only pitcher with better context neutral numbers in both ERA and FIP and more innings was Dwight Gooden in his amazing 1985 season. It is easy to see why so much attention has been given to Jake Arrieta this season and in this matchup, but the Pittsburgh Pirates’s Gerrit Cole has had an excellent season of his own. Cole’s 5.4 WAR is fifth in the National and ninth in Major League Baseball. Pitchers don’t choose their opposition, leaving great matchups more to a question of chance than a complete reflection of their own skill, but the high level of both players heading into this game is something rarely seen in a game of this magnitude. A one-game playoff has been an incredibly rare event in MLB history. The advent of the Wild Card has created generally more playoff teams and more possibilities for ties at the end of the regular season, and the introduction of the Wild Card Playoff Game in 2012 has guaranteed a one-game playoff in each league every year. The games this season will be the 18th and 19th winner-take-all one-game playoffs in baseball history, the first having taken place in 1948 and the second not occurring until the New York Yankees played the Boston Red Sox after the 1978 season. Many remember the 1951 game between the Dodgers and Giants and Bobby Thomson’s home run, but that game was actually the final game of a three-game series, which the National League used for the last time in 1962, again while featuring the Dodgers and Giants. While quantifying which pitching matchup among these games is a very difficult task, the simplest solution is perhaps to look at single-season WAR as a measure of how well the two pitchers were doing during the year. Very good pitchers who were injured for much of the year, like Johnny Cueto in 2013, will not fare well this way, but overall this seems to be a reasonable method. If we take only the average of the two pitchers, we come up with the following the chart. Best Pitching Matchups in One-Game Playoffs Year Event Matchup Player WAR Player WAR Winner AVG WAR 1995 Tie-breaker Angels v Mariners Mark Langston 4.1 Randy Johnson 9.5 Mariners 6.8 2015 NLWC Cubs v Pirates Jake Arrieta 7.3 Gerrit Cole 5.4 6.4 1978 Tie-breaker Yankees v Red Sox Ron Guidry 9.1 Mike Torrez 3.3 Yankees 6.2 2014 ALWC A’s v Royals Jon Lester 5.5 James Shields 3.3 Royals 4.4 2015 ALWC Astros v Yankees Dallas Keuchel 6.1 Masahiro Tanaka 2.2 4.2 While taking the average seems like a good idea, we have several games with great disparities between the two starters. Randy Johnson and Mark Langston carry the top spot due principally to Johnson’s 9.5 WAR in 1995. As a result, like Dan Szymborski did in his piece on the greatest one-two rotation punch in history, I took the geometric mean ((WAR1*WAR2)^.5) to lessen the influence of one truly great pitcher. Switching to the geometric mean pushes Arrieta/Cole over the top. Below is a complete graph of the top one-game playoff matchups. While the Arrieta/Cole matchup is clearly impressive and historic, teams playing in a one-game playoff generally had to fight just to get to the playoff. Otherwise, they would not have ended in a tie to begin with, and this ends up with teams unable to set their best starters in these games. Expanding the field a bit can provide this duo more competition. Adding all winner-take-all games — Game 7s in the World Series, Game 5s in the Division Series, etc. — we can compare this matchup to every game in which both teams were confined to a win-or-go-home scenario. Including the two games about to be played, there are 108 pitching matchups to examine. Using the geometric mean once again, we come up with the following table featuring the top-10 such games. Best Pitching Match-ups in Winner-Take-All Playoffs Year Event Matchup Player WAR Player WAR Winner AVG GEOMEAN 2001 NLDS Cardinals v Dbacks Matt Morris 6.1 Curt Schilling 7.2 Dbacks 6.7 6.6 1965 World Series Dodgers v Twins Sandy Koufax 10 Jim Kaat 4.3 Dodgers 7.2 6.6 2001 World Series Yankees v Dbacks Roger Clemens 5.6 Curt Schilling 7.2 Dbacks 6.4 6.3 2011 NLDS Cardinals v Phillies Chris Carpenter 4.8 Roy Halladay 8.3 Cardinals 6.6 6.3 1985 World Series Cardinals v Royals John Tudor 6.4 Bret Saberhagen 6.2 Royals 6.3 6.3 2015 NLWC Cubs v Pirates Jake Arrieta 7.3 Gerrit Cole 5.4 6.4 6.3 1995 Tie-breaker Angels v Mariners Mark Langston 4.1 Randy Johnson 9.5 Mariners 6.8 6.2 2003 ALCS Red Sox v Yankees Pedro Martinez 7.4 Roger Clemens 4.5 Yankees 6.0 5.8 2003 ALDS Red Sox v A’s Pedro Martinez 7.4 Barry Zito 4.4 Red Sox 5.9 5.7 2001 ALDS A’s v Yankees Mark Mulder 5.7 Roger Clemens 5.6 Yankees 5.7 5.6 And that same thing, in graphic form: Matt Morris facing off against Curt Schilling is a surprising result mainly due to Morris’ presence, but Morris was once one of the better pitchers in the game. After a nearly five-win rookie season in 1997, Morris suffered shoulder and elbow injuries, missing 1999 and much of 2000 due to recovery from Tommy John surgery. Morris came back strong in 2000 and 2001 before diminished velocity turned him into an innings-eater for the remainder of his career. In the Diamondbacks-Cardinals series in 2001, Morris went toe-to-toe with Schilling in Game 1 of the series, losing 1-0. The Cardinals almost ended the Diamondbacks’ dream playoff run before it could get started as Morris and Schilling again dueled, this time in Game 5 for the series win. Morris and Schilling each gave up one run on solo home runs, but the Diamondbacks scored in the bottom of the ninth off the Cardinals bullpen for the walkoff win. The Arrieta-Cole matchup still sits comfortably in the top ten of dueling aces in winner-take-all games. Arrieta does have the edge in the matchup between the two pitchers, but the team with the better pitcher does not always win. In the 75 games in which one pitcher had at least a one-win WAR advantage, the better pitcher’s team posted a 44-31 record. It is probably a little unfair that a 97-win team and a 98-win team have to face off in a one-game playoff just to make the Division Series, but it has produced one of the greatest pitching matchups of all time.