This is the sixth time in my 25+ years of being a Cubs fan that the Cubs have made the postseason. And every time right before they start I forget what a miserable experience it can be. I know this is a new era of Cubs baseball, but this doesn’t have much to do with the Cubs themselves. It’s just playoff baseball and its nature. Every fan is probably going through this, at least with teams with a passionate fanbase who don’t do this that often. I know my Mets fan friend is about to throw himself off a roof (but aren’t Mets fans always like that?).
At least when other sports have their big games you kind of lose yourself in the action while it’s going on. There’s too much going on or the possibility of something happening at any moment that you have to focus on. Baseball, you can work yourself into a lather between every pitch. It’s only heightened because it’s coming against the Cardinals, where that dread is always lurking. I wonder if I’ll even make it through this series.
Feels different this time. Arrieta missed his spots but was still bulletproof. Schwarber went FULL Paul Bunyon. Dexter Fowler was a GIF machine. Bryant with the glove. Russell unfazed by a ball that ate him up, and David Ross’ trash talk gave us Sean Rodriguez’ Tae Bo. The Cubs had a home crowd stunned silent and leaving after the bottom of the sixth. Feels different because it is fun and loose.
So: calm down. I do not underestimate the difficulty of that advice because I’m having a hell of a time following it myself. But this is peak meltdown season. Teams and managers lose their minds in these best of five series and fanbases are not immune. We all have to keep a level head here and remember to breathe, because this will be the most difficult series of these playoffs.
Most times, I arrive here on Sunday morning and no matter how bleary eyed I am (usually quite) I have some idea of what I want to write here. Sometimes I don’t, and I just start and see where it goes. This is one of those times. Because there really isn’t anything I can add at this point. There is nothing I can say that I haven’t thought before, such as it were.
There is some confusion on this last day of the season. Sure, the Cubs have something to play for, but I don’t get the impression Cubs fans, at least those not guaranteed to attend Wednesday, really care where that game is played. We’ll throw out Jake Arrieta anywhere and feel pretty confident. It’s just the inherent looniness that 162 games is going to come down to just one more.
I began writing this post before Jake Arrieta threw seven innings of one-hit, nine-K baseball against the Pirates tonight on national TV, so this may now read more more like an affirmation of emerging consensus than the contrarian counterpoint it would have felt like a week ago.
But it sure looks like the NL CY Young Award belongs to Jake Arrieta this year.
A week ago I might’ve told you it was a toss-up between Arrieta, Zack Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw, with no right or wrong answer. I still would’ve argued for Jake of course, but mostly because I’m a an obnoxious Cubs homer. But now that argument has the added benefit of being correct.
Now, there’s still going be some subjectivity involved in the decision because everyone puts different weight on different stats, and it would be far from a travesty if this year’s BBWAA reps decide to recognize one of the Dodgers instead, but the events of the past week have made it hard to see Arrieta as anything other than the frontrunner.
So what’s happened over the last seven days to change the calculus? Let’s see:
- Arrieta: 16 IP, 0 R, 4 H, 1 BB, 20 K
- Kershaw: 5 IP, 3 R, 6 H, 1 BB, 9 K
- Greinke, meanwhile, hasn’t pitched since Sept. 18th
If these horses were neck-and-neck coming into the home stretch, it’s pretty clear which one has pulled ahead, at least for the moment. “At least for the moment,” I say, because Greinke and Kershaw are lined up for the next two games against a desperate Giants team. But of course, even if each of them throws a complete-game shutout, they still won’t have matched Arrieta’s seven-day performance.
Of course, while complete-game shutouts are rare events, surely all three of these pitchers are fully capable of doing just that on any given day. Or are they? This brings me to something that I had not previously realized, but learned from this Dave Cameron’s deep-dive at Fangraphs into the statistical differences between the three candidates:
Zack Greinke has not thrown a nine-inning complete game all season.
Greinke is credited with one complete game this year, but it was of the eight-inning type in a 2-1 loss in San Diego on June 13th. Of course it’s not like he can’t go the distance; after all, he did so six times in his 2009 AL Cy Young season and he’ll have two more shots at it this year. But this still makes it feel like his (indeed very dominating) season hasn’t been quite as dominating as his 1.65 ERA makes it seem, especially considering Arrieta has thrown four nine-inning complete games (three shutouts) this year, and Kershaw has thrown three (two shutouts).
Furthermore, as Cameron shows, Greinke’s inability to finish games doesn’t look like a coincidence: Greinke has run into trouble the fourth time through batting orders. He’s only faced 14 hitters the fourth time through, and they’ve torched him to a slash line of .308/.357/.538. Arrieta, meanwhile, has held 26 fourth-look hitters to an almost impossibly low .115/.115/.154. Kershaw, too, has been dominant (.184/.225/.316) – slightly higher than Arrieta’s numbers, but just as impressive, given the higher sample size (40).
This is enough evidence that Arrieta and Kershaw have been dominant in a way that Greinke has not. This is not to say Greinke hasn’t been pretty damn dominant and awesome this year: he has been! And as Cameron makes clear, he’s been the most consistent of the three, meaning that while he hasn’t had as many 4+ ER starts or any (!) sub-6 IP starts, he also hasn’t achieved the same heights as the other two.
All along, Zack Greinke’s Cy Young case has rested on his superlative ERA. This was the case Jayson Stark made explicitly at ESPN earlier this month. A big part of Stark’s case, however (and not a completely ridiculous one), was that no one who finished with an ERA under 1.60 had ever not won the award. Of course, Greinke’s ERA is now above that magic line. But more importantly, we can see that Greinke’s league-leading ERA is so low because he hasn’t been able to do a thing that both Kershaw and Arrieta have been able to do (continue to dominate a lineup late into a game), and so has not been asked to do so by his manager. In most other years, Greinke’s numbers would be good enough to win the Cy Young, but this year, even that minor shortcoming is enough to knock him back to third place.
So how do we choose Arrieta over Kershaw? Cameron notes that Kershaw has had much less help from his bullpen, which has allowed far more of his inherited (bequeathed?) runners to score (6 of 9) than have the relievers following Arrieta (2 of 8) or Greinke (1 of 7). Now, all inherited runners are not created equal, so it’s not pure luck we’re dealing with, but even if we knock Kershaw’s ratio down to Arrieta’s level, it only lowers his ERA to about 2.08, still a quarter-run higher than Arrieta’s.
Another argument for Kershaw is his 281 strikeouts. He has an outside shot at being the first 300-strikeout pitcher since 2002. That’s awesome! But take a look again at his last start. Five innings, three runs, six hits against the Diamondbacks. I listened to that particular game on the radio and… Vin didn’t make it sound like he looked all that good. But he did strike out nine guys. Which translates to more than 16 K/9. Which is very, very good. But what this also says to me is that sometimes strikeouts aren’t as good an indicator of pitcher value as we act like they are (although they are very valuable, Kershaw sure would’ve given up a lot more than three runs if he weren’t also striking guys out). Just looking at one game is just anecdotal evidence, I know, but since the gaudy strikeout numbers are the driving force behind Kershaw’s superior FIP (you didn’t really think I was going to forget FIP, did you?!), that’s enough for me to brush aside the difference between his 2.11 and Arrieta’s 2.45 (before Sunday’s action, by the way).
So this is where the subjectivity comes into play. WAR doesn’t really settle things much (Fangraphs has them ordered Kershaw, Arrieta, Greinke; Baseball Reference has them ordered Greinke, Arrieta, Kershaw). Now, if Greinke wins his final two starts, he almost certainly joins Arrieta in the 20-win, sub-2.00 club, but I’m pretty thoroughly convinced by Cameron’s analysis that Greinke isn’t the guy. So we’re essentially choosing between Kershaw’s sexy strikeout totals and Jake’s sexy ERA and Win totals.
Now, yes, ERA and (especially) pitcher-wins are flawed, but this isn’t a case where those numbers are masking flaws and pumping up an inferior candidate. This is a case where those results-based metrics are serving as a tiebreaker between two equal candidates. Maybe this is why I have sympathy for Stark’s Greinke argument, but I just don’t see how you deny the Cy Young to the guy with the 21-6 record and the 1.82 ERA.
Forget it Chinatown, it’s Jake.
I have to say I had a healthy chuckle that there was any snickering or snide comments, either from within greater Cubdom or without, about the Cubs celebrating their playoff berth yesterday. A chuckle was better than shock. So if I have this straight, and I’m sure that I don’t, the other nine teams that make the playoffs get to celebrate their spots in the postseason this way but the Cubs don’t because… well I’m not sure. Because they didn’t hang around their clubhouse for eight hours until the Giants-A’s game finished on Friday night? Because they lost Friday and Saturday, which somehow negates the 154 games of work before it that got them there which is what they’re actually celebrating? Or were people miffed because the Cubs are just better at celebrating stuff than others? Because we know the Cubs party better than pretty much any other team. And what’s wrong with that?
Yet another landmark night in this season for the Cubs, as Jake Arrieta won his 20th game last night. The first to do it since Jon Lieber, and I really just like thinking about Jon Lieber who was basically Kyle Hendricks realized. It still feels like Lieber only got people out because hitters couldn’t believe he was going right after them with his next-to-nothing stuff. But that’s another discussion for another day.
It felt a little strange to me. These days, a lot of us already know that pitcher wins are vastly overrated, if they mean anything at all. And yet, anytime a pitcher piles up enough of them, like say…20, then we all take notice. There’s some sort of metaphor about piling up enough meaningless things to have meaning, I guess.
Did I just forget to do this last week? I think I did. I was at a wedding last Saturday night. You can probably put it together from there. Sorry everyone.
Anyway, as I was enjoying the Cubs kicking the Cardinals’ skull in for a fourth time in five games (whatever a ridiculous 9th inning based on a silly ejection might say), I couldn’t help but think what all “the experts” had to say early in the season. The consensus, and I think most of us felt this way, was that it was about a season early for the Cubs. At the time we didn’t know everyone else would fall away in the wild card race, but even if they hadn’t, the Cubs would probably still be comfortably holding on to the second spot given what they’ve done.