National League Wild-Card Game Preview: Pirates and Reds Poised to Deliver an Instant Classic

It’s been 22 years since Pittsburgh hosted a winner-take-all baseball game. The most striking thing about that 1991 Game 7 against Atlanta wasn’t the result; it was the audience, or lack thereof, there to witness it. Paid attendance was 11,000 fans shy of a sellout at old Three Rivers Stadium, and the camera views of entire swaths of empty seats for a game that would decide the NL pennant were striking. There were extenuating circumstances, certainly. It’s tough to sell out expensive tickets to back-to-back weeknight games on short notice, especially since Three Rivers Stadium could hold nearly 58,000 fans, a larger seating capacity than any MLB stadium in use today. Maybe Pirates fans were even jaded (!) from hosting their seventh playoff game in 13 months.

Whatever the reasons, they no longer apply. Tonight the Pirates, fresh off their first winning season since the first George Bush was president, will host their first playoff game at cozy PNC Park, one of the most beautiful places to witness a baseball game. And it will be a sellout.

The Pirates host the Cincinnati Reds, to whom they lost the NLCS in 1990, and these are two teams that arrived at this point from very different directions. The Reds are supposed to be here; if anything, this season is a disappointment in that they failed to win the NL Central and had to settle for the wild-card game. This is their third playoff spot (and third 90-win season) in the last four years. They rank third in the NL in runs scored and fourth in runs allowed. They are a good team having a good season.

The Pirates, by contrast, have been trying to build toward this season ever since Sid Bream crossed home plate. With their third general manager, seventh manager, and umpteenth rebuilding plan since then, they finally got it right, even though watching the Pirates try to break through the .500 barrier the last few years was a little bit like watching X-1 test pilots try to break through the sound barrier before Chuck Yeager came along.

Two years ago, the Pirates were 53-47 and tied for first place on July 25. They went 19-43 the rest of the way. Last year, they were 70-60 and just one game behind the second wild card on August 30. They finished 9-23. This year, they clinched a .500 season on September 3, but it took five tries before they guaranteed a winning season with their 82nd win.

Of course, after waiting 21 years for another postseason, it could all be over in three hours. It will all be over tonight, for one of these two teams. So here’s a customary disclaimer before breaking down this game: Predicting the outcome of a single playoff game is essentially a prop bet. You might as well predict the outcome of the opening coin flip at the Super Bowl, which is why Joe Sheehan has dubbed this The Coin Flip Game. These are two teams of essentially equal quality playing 0.6 percent as many games as they did during the regular season. Tonight’s outcome decides nothing about which team is actually better; it decides everything about which team moves one step closer to a championship. It’s not fair, but it is just.

Remember as you read this head-to-head breakdown: Anything can happen.

Starting Pitchers

Francisco-Liriano

The Reds have one of the deepest starting rotations in baseball: Four of their pitchers made at least 31 starts while posting an ERA below 3.80. The Reds are the only team in baseball that can make that claim; no other team even had four guys make 30 starts while maintaining an ERA below 4.

Unfortunately for the Reds, depth doesn’t matter in a winner-take-all game, and in fact none of those four pitchers will start tonight. With Mat Latos unavailable because of a bone chip in his elbow, the Reds are turning to Johnny Cueto, who, when healthy, is their best starter. Cueto led Reds starters with a 2.82 ERA this year, but only made 11 starts and was on the DL three times, first with a strained oblique (six weeks), then with a sore shoulder (two weeks), and finally with a pulled lat muscle that shelved him from the end of June until mid-September.

He’s only made two starts since coming back, and has tried to alter his delivery slightly to avoid a recurrence of these injuries. While he’s allowed just two runs in 12 innings so far, there’s certainly risk that he won’t be at 100 percent tonight. But if Cueto’s not himself, all hands are on deck, and if he is himself, there are few better pitchers in the game today. Among pitchers with at least 50 starts over the last three years, only Clayton Kershaw (2.21) has a better ERA than Cueto’s 2.61.

The Pirates will counter with Francisco Liriano, who is the biggest wild card in this wild-card game. Liriano was the best free-agent signing of last winter, throwing 161 innings with a 3.02 ERA and allowing opponents to hit just .222/.297/.314 with nine homers all year. But what makes Liriano such a wild card is this:

• vs. RHB: .248/.329/.360
• vs. LHB: .130/.175/.146

As a group, NL pitchers hit .134/.166/.174 this season. Against Liriano, left-handed batters hit worse than that mark for NL arms. Going back as far as our data allows — it goes back before World War II — Liriano was tougher on left-handed batters than any pitcher (minimum 150 innings):

When you’ve broken the Randy Johnson Standard for Left-Handed Hitter Humiliation, you’re good. This graphic from our friend Kirk Goldsberry tells you why:

Liriano-Chart

Liriano’s slider was 21 runs better than average this season, because he threw it away, and down and away, and away some more. Left-handed hitters were helpless against it.

This makes Liriano the perfect weapon to use against the Reds, because their three best hitters — sorry, Brandon Phillips! Please don’t call us a naughty word! — all bat left-handed. Against all pitchers, Shin-Soo Choo leads off, Joey Votto bats third, and Jay Bruce bats fifth. This will allow the Pirates to maximize Liriano’s utility by pulling him from the game after Bruce bats, maximizing the number of left-handed hitters he faces.

Dave Cameron at FanGraphs has suggested that the Pirates pull Liriano after just 14 batters, allowing him to face Choo, Votto, and Bruce twice, but limiting him to a few innings. It’s an inspired strategy, and given the unique roster rules for this game (which we’ll get to later), and the days off before and after, there’s no reason why either team can’t turn the game over to its bullpen by the fourth inning. If that’s too extreme, or if Liriano is cruising, the Pirates can let him work through the lineup one more time, but there’s really no reason Liriano should face another batter after Bruce bats for the third time. That’s 23 batters, which would allow Liriano to work into the sixth inning.

Cueto is the better starting pitcher in the abstract, but between concerns about his health and Liriano’s ability to neutralize the Reds’ three best hitters, this matchup tilts slightly in favor of the Pirates. Don’t expect a lot of scoring from either side in the early innings.

Bullpens

Aroldis-Chapman

The Pirates had the second-best bullpen ERA (2.89) in the NL without a single sexy name in the bunch. Their closer is Jason Grilli, who was a top-five overall pick in 1997 and finally figured out how to miss bats in his early 30s. Their setup man, Mark Melancon, had a 6.20 ERA last year and was dumped by the Red Sox last winter as partial payment for the Pirates’ former closer, Joel Hanrahan. Justin Wilson is a rookie who was a starting pitcher with command issues until this season. Tony Watson didn’t reach the majors until he was 26 and was a lefty specialist before this year. Vinny Mazzaro was given away by the Royals last winter and once allowed 14 runs in a relief appearance.

All five of those guys have ERAs below 3 this season. This is a deep bunch of relievers, but like the Reds’ starters, the Pirates lack the one clear go-to guy in the late innings who can make a huge difference in a winner-take-all game. Grilli was unhittable early in the year, with a 0.85 ERA and 54 strikeouts in his first 32 innings, but wore down in June and July and eventually spent six weeks on the DL with a strained forearm. Since returning in early September, he’s thrown 7⅔ innings and allowed 11 hits and three walks.

Grilli got the closer’s job back from Melancon anyway, because Melancon blew three consecutive save opportunities in mid-September, including a three-run lead in the ninth to the Reds. After holding a 0.85 ERA as late as September 9, he’s allowed eight runs and 14 hits in his last 7⅔ innings. It might be bad luck — Melancon hasn’t walked a batter since mid-August — but the Pirates have to be a little concerned that their two best relievers, who were such a huge part of their success all season, are entering the playoffs with question marks.

The Reds’ bullpen didn’t have quite the same level of success, but it trumps the Pirates in Q rating thanks to Aroldis Chapman, who has thrown the hardest pitch (105.1 mph) in documented history. With 112 strikeouts and just 37 hits allowed in 63⅔ innings, he’s a very good pitcher in addition to a freak show, although occasional command issues make him beatable on the right day. Alfredo Simon, J.J. Hoover, and Sam LeCure give the Reds three no-name relievers of their own with ERAs in the 2s. While Chapman, as the closer, isn’t going to be used as a situational left-hander, the Reds may be able to turn to Sean Marshall, who missed most of the season with a shoulder injury but returned two weeks ago looking as good as new, and before the injury was one of the best left-handed setup men in the game.

Thanks to the weird roster loophole that baseball seems intent to ignore — both teams can designate a 25-man roster for a “series” of a single game, even though only one starting pitcher is going to be used — each team can carry an essentially bottomless bucket of relievers. But in the case of an early emergency or an extra-inning game, each team’s best relief option will be starting pitchers anyway. The Reds have Mike Leake or Homer Bailey on short rest; the Pirates have Gerrit Cole or A.J. Burnett. Neither team has any reason to turn to a below-average pitcher at any point in tonight’s contest.

Lineups

Aroldis-Chapman

The Pirates’ lineup will probably look like this:

  1. LF Starling Marte (R)
  2. 2B Neil Walker (S)
  3. CF Andrew McCutchen (R)
  4. 1B Justin Morneau (L)
  5. RF Marlon Byrd (R)
  6. 3B Pedro Alvarez (L)
  7. C Russell Martin (R)
  8. SS Clint Barmes (R)

It’s not a great offense — the Pirates finished ninth in the NL in runs scored — but everyone in the lineup does something. McCutchen does everything, which is why he might win the NL MVP award: He finished in the top 10 in the league in average, extra-base hits, walks, and steals. Marte only walked 25 times, which is not a point of pride for a leadoff hitter, but he got hit by pitches 24 times, which counts the same. Alvarez can’t get on base, finishing the year with a .296 OBP, but he tied for the NL lead with 36 homers. Morneau and Byrd came over in August and give the Pirates at least average production at first base and right field. Barmes is borderline useless at the plate, but plays outstanding defense, and the Pirates have decided to go with his glove over Jordy Mercer’s bat at shortstop.

It’s a safe, boring lineup when the primary intrigue surrounds whether the Reds might intentionally walk McCutchen to pitch to Morneau in a key situation. Morneau isn’t the player he used to be: He hit .259/.323/.411 for the season, and has hit .256/.319/.406 since returning from a severe concussion in 2010. And if the Pirates are down early, they’d be wise to pull Barmes for Mercer quickly, because a flashy glove isn’t going to help make up a 5-2 deficit.

While the Pirates’ offense is pretty vanilla, the Reds’ lineup is fascinating:

  1. CF Shin-Soo Choo (L)
  2. LF Ryan Ludwick (R)
  3. 1B Joey Votto (L)
  4. 2B Brandon Phillips (R)
  5. RF Jay Bruce (L)
  6. 3B Todd Frazier (R)
  7. SS Zack Cozart (R)
  8. C Ryan Hanigan (R)

If nothing else, this team can get on base. The Reds led the NL in walks, and finished second in OBP despite ranking just eighth in batting average and 10th in slugging percentage.

I’m sorry, did we say “this team”? We meant “Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto.” Choo had a .423 OBP this year, and Votto finished at .435. They both reached base safely 300 times this season, making the Reds just the third team in the last 70 years — after the 1997 Astros and 1999 Yankees — to meet that threshold. No one else in the starting lineup has an OBP of even .330.

While Votto and Bruce have fairly typical platoon splits for left-handed batters, Choo is virtually helpless against southpaws. For his career, Choo has hit .309/.411/.521 against right-handed pitchers, but just .243/.340/.341 against lefties. With the Reds going up against Liriano’s Slider of Doom, the smart move would be to bat Choo eighth, or even ninth with the pitcher in the no. 8 spot. This would force the Pirates to let Liriano face an extra three right-handed hitters in a row before he’d get the chance to toy with Choo. However, this kind of creative lineup management is not Dusty Baker’s modus operandi, which means Choo, the weakest hitter in the lineup against Liriano, will bat before and more than anyone else.

But if the Reds trail in the late innings, the tables may turn. One of the most frustrating aspects of modern baseball management is that while managers will play matchups in the middle innings to get the platoon advantage with their relievers, in a ninth-inning save situation they mindlessly turn to their closer without regard for which batters he will face. If it turns out that the top of the Reds’ lineup is due up in the ninth, the percentage play for the Pirates would be to turn to Wilson or Watson, their lefties, at the very least to face Choo. Instead they’ll turn to Grilli, because save situations are considered sacred and can only be handled by men with the magic “C” on their cape.

With Liriano starting for the Pirates, they have the ability to make sure Choo never bats against a right-handed pitcher. If they forgo that option at any point, they do so at their peril.

Bench

Billy-Hamilton

The Pirates have some decent guys to pinch-hit for the pitcher, like Garrett Jones and Jose Tabata. The Reds have some decent guys to pinch-hit for the pitcher, like Chris Heisey and Xavier Paul … blah, blah, blah. This section is really just here so we have the excuse to talk about Billy Hamilton.

It might be hyperbole to say that Hamilton is the fastest runner in major league history. Except here’s the thing: It might not be. His first-to-second times clock in at nearly a tenth of a second better than Rickey Henderson’s, who happens to hold the all-time stolen base record. In less than a month in the majors, Hamilton has 13 steals (only Choo has more on the Reds) in 14 attempts. He has only reached base, by his own power or someone else’s, 17 times. He has pinch-run seven times … and stolen second base all seven times.

The unusual distribution of the Reds’ offensive talent means Hamilton’s value as a baserunner depends on when they deploy him. With Votto and Choo at the plate, all a steal does is open up a base for them to draw a walk and potentially set up a double play with someone like Phillips at the plate. If Hamilton pinch-runs with the bottom of the lineup coming up, he can create the kind of havoc that might allow the Reds to steal a run without even getting a hit.

If this game is at all close in the late innings, Hamilton will be the specter on everyone’s mind; if any Reds hitter reaches base, all eyes will be on the dugout to see if Sliding Billy steps out. Martin has had an excellent year behind the plate for Pittsburgh, throwing out 40 percent of attempted baserunners. He will need to be at the top of his game to have a chance against Hamilton.

Managers

Hurdle-Baker

Clint Hurdle isn’t one of the game’s best managers, and this is only the second winning season of his 11-year managerial career. But he deserves credit for embracing new ideas, most notably the suggestions from the Pirates’ analytical brain trust, headed by Dan Fox, that the Pirates should aggressively use defensive shifts to turn more balls in play into outs. Tactically speaking, Hurdle is conventional, which is a problem if it means he won’t think outside the box if the Reds come to bat with their left-handed studs in the ninth.

This is Baker’s 20th season as a manager, and his teams have won 90 games or more eight times. But Baker’s strengths lie in his ability to get the most out of his players, and not so much in his ability to deploy them tactically. Two of his weaknesses stand out. For one, this is a road game, and Baker has a tendency to hold Chapman back if the game is tied in the late innings, waiting for the Reds to get a lead for Chapman to save, a lead which may never arrive.

The other is that Baker loves his bunts. The Reds led the NL in sacrifice bunts, and sometimes Baker goes a little crazy with them, as in a crucial game against the Cardinals on September 4, when the Reds tried to bunt twice in the 15th inning, the last one being a botched suicide squeeze bunt WITH TWO OUTS that led to Choo being thrown out trying to steal home to end the inning.

There is no reason for Baker to offer to trade an out for a base in the late innings so long as he can call on Hamilton to simply claim the base for the greater glory of the Cincinnati Reds. We’ll see if Baker remembers that.

Verdict

Pirates-Celebrate

Between the evenly matched nature of the two contestants; the rock-paper-scissors matchup of the Reds’ left-handed bats against Liriano and Grilli; and the ROUS (Runner of Unusual Speed) lurking in the Reds’ dugout, on paper, this is the best matchup in the (extremely short) history of the wild-card game.

That makes handicapping this game even more of a fool’s errand than it would normally be. The Pirates probably have the edge in the early innings; the Reds probably have the edge in the late innings. If the game is tied after eight innings, the Reds have the game-changing bench player, but they also have the game-changing manager, and I don’t mean that as a compliment.

It’s a coin flip, except that the Pirates have home field, which means they get last licks at the plate, and are backed by a rabid crowd ready to channel 21 years of frustration into one night of lusty cheering. After a generation of irrelevance, how appropriate that Pirates fans may be the difference tonight.

Pittsburgh squeaks by Cincinnati in an instant, if minor, classic.

Filed Under: Cincinnati Reds, MLB, MLB Playoffs, Pittsburgh Pirates

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Rany Jazayerli runs the Rany on the Royals website. He is one of the founders of Baseball Prospectus, and works as a dermatologist in suburban Chicago.

Archive @ jazayerli