There's a reason tonight's NL wild-card game is so anticipated: We get not only the Chicago Cubs and all their history but also the 97-win Cubs against the 98-win Pittsburgh Pirates and we get Jake Arrieta (22-6, 1.77 ERA) versus Gerrit Cole (19-8, 2.60) in a terrific pitching matchup.
In MLB history, there have been 10 one-game tiebreakers, and this will be the eighth wild-card game.
As Craig Edwards of FanGraphs details, this is arguably the best matchup of any of those games. Based on the average season WAR of the two pitchers, the only one that rates higher is the 1995 AL West tiebreaker between the Angels and Mariners, when Mark Langston faced Randy Johnson. However, if you take what's called the geometric mean to lessen the influence of one great pitcher, Arrieta-Cole inches past Langston-Johnson. Tuesday's AL wild-card matchup between Dallas Keuchel and Masahiro Tanaka ranked fifth under this format.
Indeed, we don't always see great matchups in these one-game scenarios, in part because the teams were often fighting down to the last day of the season just to get there and may have burned their ace. For example, in the 2008 AL Central tiebreaker, Nick Blackburn started for the Twins against John Danks of the White Sox. That actually turned into a 1-0 pitching duel, the White Sox winning with a run in the seventh inning off Blackburn. Steve Parris started a tiebreaker game for the Reds in 1999, Joe Saunders started the wild-card game for the Orioles in 2012, and so on.
Anyway, Craig's piece also suggests this is one of the best matchups since World War II for any winner-take-all game. His top six:
1. 2001 NLDS: Matt Morris (Cardinals) vs. Curt Schilling (Diamondbacks)
2. 1965 World Series: Sandy Koufax (Dodgers) vs. Jim Kaat (Twins)
3. 2001 World Series: Roger Clemens (Yankees) vs. Curt Schilling (Diamondbacks)
4. 2011 NLDS: Chris Carpenter (Cardinals) vs. Roy Halladay (Phillies)
5. 1985 World Series: John Tudor (Cardinals) vs. Bret Saberhagen (Royals)
6. 2015 NL WC: Jake Arrieta (Cubs) vs. Gerrit Cole (Pirates)
That first one may pop out at you, but Morris was 22-6 with a 3.16 ERA, great numbers in the steroids era. Schilling was also 22-6, with a 2.98 ERA, and finished second in the Cy Young voting.
There have been some other great matchups the system misses. In the 1967 World Series, Bob Gibson started for the Cardinals against Boston's Jim Lonborg, the Cy Young winner that year. But Gibson had been injured and made just 24 starts so he doesn't rank high in WAR for 1967.
Game 7 of the 1991 World Series featured John Smoltz, a Hall of Famer, against Jack Morris, a borderline Hall of Famer. Smoltz was 14-13 with a 3.80 ERA that year while Morris was 18-12, 3.43.
I don't believe there's ever been a post-World War II winner-take-all matchup between two future Hall of Famers, although that comes with an asterisk depending on how you want to view Clemens. He faced Pedro Martinez in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS (a matchup that ranks eighth on Craig's list) plus the Schilling game, and Schilling could get in one day. (And Randy Johnson came on in relief that game along with Mariano Rivera. How many playoff games have featured FOUR Hall of Fame pitchers?)
So savor this one, baseball fans. The stars have aligned for what could be a classic game.