Starting Pitchers: Cubs' Jake Arrieta (22-6, 1.77 ERA) vs. Pirates' Gerrit Cole (19-8, 2.60 ERA)
Jake Arrieta has followed up his 2014 break-out season with a year that has flat-out stunned everyone. After four seasons with the Orioles and a combined 5.46 ERA, Arrieta was traded to the Cubs during the 2013 season and immediately began to improve. The Cubs were able to get Arrieta to throw his slider more frequently, and coupled with a hard fastball, Arrieta's results improved drastically. With a focus on the new repetoire and a greater feel for pitching, the Cubs' ace has become arguably the best pitcher in baseball at age 29.
Gerrit Cole, 2011's first overall pick has emerged as the Pirates bona fide ace, throwing 208 innings with a 1.09 WHIP and 202 strikeouts. Cole has similar home and road splits, with a better home winning percentage and WHIP, bit worse ERA. He is also a pitcher that relies heavily on a fastball-slider combination and does so to great effect. Cole has been great in four starts against the Cubs this year, with a 2.13 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 32 strikeouts in 25.1 innings.
While Gerrit Cole has been great against the Cubs, Jake Arrieta has been even better against the Pirates. In five starts against the Pirates, Arrieta has pitched to a 0.75 ERA, 0.64 WHIP and 33 strikeouts in 36 innings. The Pirates have not had any success against Arrieta this year and it is difficult to imagine them having much success against him tonight, but yet again it was tough to see the Pirates hitting well against Johnny Cueto in 2013.
The pitching staffs are set for the wild-card game and they are designed to help win this crucial one game playoff. The Cubs and Pirates have nearly identical bullpens, with 2 lefties in each, solid middle relief and dominant back-end pitchers. Justin Grimm and Pedro Strop have been quite successful as the seventh and eight inning guys for the Cubs, with ERA's in the low 3's and strikeout rates over 10 per nine innings. Hector Rondon has been one of the best closers in baseball this year, with a 3.17 ERA, low walk and home run rates, and a high strikeout rate. The Pirates, meanwhile, have Joakim Soria and Tony Watson as the set-up men for Mark Melancon. Soria and Watson are both capable of closing out games, have dominant stuff and have been incredibly successful in their careers. Melancon has emerged as one of the best if not the best closer in baseball, leading the league in saves this year. While not having overwhelming stuff, he hits his spots well and has a great feel for pitching. Although these bullpens on paper are nearly even, having home field advantage should give the Pirates a slight advantage in this game.