PITTSBURGH — We are at PNC Park, getting ready for the Wild Card game between the Pirates and Cubs and, before the thing even starts, Jake Arrieta has already changed things. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has decided not to start Pedro Alvarez, who led the team in home runs this year. His reasoning is plain: He figures his team’s best chance is to put the best possible defensive team on the field and match zeroes with the Cubs and Arrieta.
This obviously is a bold move and one that could get second guessed in Pittsburgh all winter if the Pirates are shut out. But these are the sorts of moves you make when facing someone who is quite possibly pitching better than anyone in baseball history.
Yeah, that’s how crazy it has been for Arrieta lately.
Let’s look at this way: Arrieta has thrown 20 consecutive quality starts (at least six innings, three or fewer runs allowed). As you will see, this is just about the least impressive way you can describe how well Arrieta has been pitching lately, but let’s start with that.
Since 1914 — which is how far back the data goes on Baseball Reference — only six pitchers have had a streak of 20 or more consecutive quality starts in a single season. They are:
— Bob Gibson in 1968 (22 straight)
— Chris Carpenter in 2005 (22 straight)
— Johan Santana in 2004 (21 straight)
— Luis Tiant in 1968 (20 straight)
— Mike Scott in 1986 (20 straight)
— Jake Arrietta in 2015 (20 straight)
So these were some of the greatest streaks in baseball history. There have been some pitchers who have had 19 straight quality starts in a season:
— Jon Lester last year
— Josh Johnson in 2010
— Greg Maddux in 1998
— Jack Morris in 1983
— Tom Seaver in 1973
— Robin Roberts in 1952
So let’s focus on those 12 pitchers and just how good they were during those streaks. Here are the lowest ERAs among the group:
1. Jake Arrieta, 0.86
2. Bob Gibson, 0.96
3. Luis Tiant, 1.13
4. Greg Maddux 1.27
5. Johan Santana, 1.34
The league is hitting .150 against Arrieta over these 20 games and it’s slugging .210. They’ve hit two home runs against him in more than 500 plate appearances. He has struck out 147 against 27 walks. He has allowed zero runs in more than half of his starts over this stretch. Arrieta has not allowed three earned runs in a game since July.
I mean, we don’t have Walter Johnson’s game logs for 1913 or Old Hoss Radbourn’s numbers when he won 59 games in 1884, but these are more or less unprecedented numbers over this long a stretch of time.
And the Pirates manager is taking drastic measures. He’s hoping that maybe he can put an athletic team on the field and maybe do something on the bases against Arrieta (who has given up 16 stolen bases during the magical stretch — teams have stolen 27 of 33 bases against him all year). And he is starting Sean Rodriguez at first base because he’s a better defender than Alvarez. Hurdle does have a terrific pitcher in Gerrit Cole, and he wants to give Cole the best possible chance to throw shutout innings until Arrieta is finally taken out of the game.
It could be the Pirates’ best strategy, but think about it: Two years ago, Jake Arrieta was a complete bust, he had a 7-plus ERA, the Orioles decided it was time to give up on him. Cubs GM Theo Epstein will be the first to tell you, they had no idea what they were getting when they traded a couple of spare parts to get him — they liked his stuff and hoped that a change of scenery might help him.
And now, Arrieta is so good that the Pirates, in his honor, are sitting their biggest power threat before the game even begins.