Did the Pittsburgh Pirates Start the Wrong Pitcher in the 2015 Wild Card Game?


The 2015 regular season was one of the best in Pittsburgh Pirates history, but ended in a disappointing manner. Could it have ended differently if the Pirates started someone else in the 2015 Wild Card game?

One of the most successful regular seasons in Pittsburgh Pirates history was 2015. That season, the Pirates finished with a 98-64 record which was the second best record in the MLB. Unfortunately, somehow, the St. Louis Cardinals pulled some of their voodoo dark magic and managed to win 100 games and the National League Central.

Those 98 wins included some of the most memorable walk offs in Pittsburgh Pirates history. But due to those no good dirty, rotten Cardinals, the Pirates found themselves in the National League Wild Card Game for the third consecutive season. Sadly, it ended in an underwhelming way when the Pirates were shutout 4-0 by this historically red hot Jake Arrieta and the Chicago Cubs.

But the question I want to ask is – was Gerrit Cole the right guy to start this do or die playoff game?

On paper, it looked like he was the best option. In 2015, Cole had an outstanding season. In fact, it was one of the best in Pittsburgh Pirates history. He posted a 2.60 ERA, 2.66 FIP, and 1.09 WHIP in 208 innings of work. That also includes strong control numbers with a 1.9 BB/9 and 5.1% walk rate. Although his strikeout rate was more average than it was anything else, sitting at 8.7 K/9 and 24.3% strikeout rate, Cole allowed just 11 home runs on a strong 48% ground ball rate. He also had a SIERA of 3.23 and DRA of 2.96 on his way to finishing 3rd in NL Cy Young voting.

He also pitched really well against the Cubs in 2015. In 25.1 innings, Cole allowed just 20 hits, no home runs, and just six earned runs. That seems like the guy you want taking the mound in a one game, winner take all scenario vs the Cubs, right? Well Cole, at the time, was still a very youthful 24 years old, and fairly inexperienced in the postseason. Sure, he had pitched two games before, one being an elimination game against the Cardinals in the 2013 NLDS, but this was still fairly uncharted territory for the youngster.

So, were there better options? Well, yes.

On that night, Francisco Liriano should have taken the mound. In 2015, Liriano had the best year of his Pittsburgh Pirates tenure. In 186.2 innings, the veteran posted an ERA of 3.38, a FIP of 3.19, and WHIP of 1.21. He also struck out 205 batters, and walked just 70.

Liriano kept the ball on the ground more often than not with an outstanding 51.2% ground ball rate and he allowed just 15 home runs. Liriano posted the second best SIERA (3.38) and best DRA (2.93) of his career. Plus, he was just as effective against the Cubs as Cole was. In 12.2 innings of work, the Cubs managed just seven hits, and three earned runs on the veteran, and struck out 18 times. In both times Lirinao started against the Cubs, Francisco Cervelli caught, which is something we will dive into more shortly.

The Pittsburgh Pirates also could have taken advantage of the platoon splits. The 2015 Cubs were very effective against right-handed pitchers. They batted an overall .246/.322/.406 line and posted a 98 wRC+ against RHPs, which while it wasn’t great, it was still solid.

However, when they faced a southpaw, their offensive force fell to a .691 OPS and 89 wRC+. When they faced a southpaw as the guest team, that fell even further to a lowly .686 OPS and 87 wRC+. But when they faced a right-handed pitcher as the guest, they were one of the best teams in the MLB with a .732 OPS and tied for the 4th highest wRC+ in this situation.

This all makes sense too. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Chris Coghlan, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, and Starlin Castro were all more effective vs a right-handed pitcher than a lefty. There’s also strong case to be made that the Pittsburgh Pirates should have played the hot hand, and started J.A. Happ over Cole. Happ was outstanding after coming over from the Seattle Mariners to the Pirates in a deadline trade. Through 63.1 innings, the lefty gave up just 13 earned runs on 52 hits, three home runs and 13 walks. He also struck out 69 of the 211 batters he faced, accumulating a strong 5.31 K/BB ratio.

Another split the Pirates did not take advantage of was starting Chris Stewart behind the plate if they were adamant about starting Cole. Throughout most of the year Stewart was the catcher when Cole was the starter. The Cole and Stewart tandem produced outstanding work.

In the 138.2 innings Stewart caught, Cole had a 2.21 ERA, 2.54 FIP, struck out 137 batters, and walked only 27. Opponents could barely touch Cole/Stewart, as they had a .592 OPS with a .232 batting average. Plus, in three of the four games Cole went against the Cubs in the regular season, Stewart was the catcher, and we know how good Cole was against Chicago.

While he still was effective with Cervelli behind the plate, the results weren’t nearly as good. He allowed an ERA of 3.36, and FIP of 2.95. He also surrendered five home runs with Cervelli across 69.2 innings, while he allowed just six with Stewart in nearly double the innings pitched. His strikeout and walk rates also dipped with a 3.82 K/BB ratio (5.02 with Stew). Opponents were able to bat for a .682 OPS with the Cole/Cervelli combo. The Cubs did something similar by starting a usual bench bat in order to get a split advantage by starting infielder Tommy La Stella at third base and putting Bryant in left field.

Now, you can’t do anything about being shut out. The Pittsburgh Pirates weren’t able to muster anything against Arrieta, as they did fall behind early, already being down 3 runs before the 5th inning. But maybe with pitching on their side and Liriano being able to keep the Cubs’ bats quiet, the Pirates would have had more momentum on their side.

After all, it was Cole who gave up all 4 runs the Cubs scored. While Arrieta was excellent against the Pirates throughout 2015, the bullpen was not nearly as effective. Cubs relief pitchers against the Pirates had a 4.24 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP. Pirates bats also made hard contact against Cubs relievers 33.5% of the time. League average hard hit rate in 2015 was 29%.

Next. Through the Eyes of a Coach: Eric Minshall. dark

Should the Pittsburgh Pirates have started someone else than Gerrit Cole in the 2015 Wild Card game? I think so. Francisco Liriano could have produced the best results as the Cubs were far less effective vs a left-handed pitcher than right-handed pitcher. Plus, with his excellent work against the Cubs throughout the season, Liriano had more of an edge against the Cubs than Cole did. But if they were dead set on starting Cole, then they should have also started Stewart behind the plate, at least to start the game. When Cole pitched to Cervelli, he was good. When he pitched to Stewart, he was Cy Young caliber, and that’s the kind of pitching you need when you are in a do-or-die playoff game.