On Wednesday, the Chicago Cubs tangle with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Wild Card game. Had either team been in another NL division, they’d have won it. That and their familiarity with the Cardinals, deciding which team is a more favorable NLDS opponent for St. Louis isn’t easy. But we’ll start with an MLB playoff preview on the Pirates.
Standout Stat: .680. That’s the Pirates’ won-loss percentage in one-run games this season, best
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in the Major Leagues. Like every other big league manager ever, Pittsburgh skipper Clint Hurdle has been knocked in the past for mishandling bullpens. Not this year. His relief corps has won 30 games, second only to the the Cubs pen (37). It’s no fluke, either. Since the start of 2013, Pirate relievers have won a Major League-leading 93 games.
Biggest Strength: Pitching, without a doubt. Gerrit Cole is a legit ace. His 19 wins are the most by a Pittsburgh pitcher since John Smiley went 20-8 in 1991. And with 202 strikeouts on the year, Cole is just the second Pirates right-hander in history to surpass 200 Ks. A.J. Burnett in 2013 was the first.
No MLB playoff preview of the Pirates would be complete without Mark Melancon, meanwhile, is the rare closer who doesn’t get himself into trouble (0.95 WHIP), thanks mostly to a wicked low-90s cutter hitters just can’t get good wood on. The right-hander is now one of 12 closers in MLB history with 50 or more saves in a season and has converted 98 of 108 chances since taking over the closer’s role in late July 2013.
Biggest Weakness: Defense. You’d think a Hurdle-managed team that got a lot of ink last year for its shift-influenced D would be better, but the Pirates have one of the worst team fielding percentages in baseball. According to MLB.com, its Defensive Efficiency Ratio isn’t great, either. Heading into the final weekend of play, the Pirates led the National League with 119 errors. The trouble spots are at the infield corners. First baseman Pedro Alvarez has a team-leading 22 miscues, while Josh Harrison and Jung Ho Kim combined to make 28 errors at third base. The takeaway? Anyone who lays down a good bunt has a better than average chance of reaching — and dashing to second on the error.
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X-Factor: No MLB Playoff preview of the Pirates would be complete without mention of Francisco Cervelli, either. According to Baseball Prospectus, the 29-year-old catcher has the highest WAR of any Pirate position player not named Andrew McCutcheon. He’s established career highs in every offensive category this year, and he’s been clutch with the bat. Cervelli leads all Major Leaguers with a .364 batting average in the seventh inning or later.
Most of his value, however, is on defense. Cervelli is a particularly good pitch framer, earning his pitchers 96 extra strikes this year according to BP. That’s third best in the Majors. He’s a big reason why the Pittsburgh pitching staff is ranked near the top of the league in team ERA and why Cardinal hitters shouldn’t rely on getting the call on close pitches.