MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

When it's one-and-done, Arrieta is the one

With Cubs apparently headed for Wild Card, they must start right-hander, not Lester

When it's one-and-done, Arrieta is the one

Jon Lester is the one guy on the Cubs who has been to the mountaintop, having pitched his club to victory three times on the World Series stage, en route to two rings. Lester has appeared in 14 postseason games in all, and the playoff-tested presence he brings to a rotation is why the Cubs invested $155 million in him last winter.

But Jon Lester has no business pitching the one-and-done opening round of the playoffs this year.

No, when the Cubs reach the National League Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser, as it appears they will, Jake Arrieta needs to get the ball. That's been increasingly apparent throughout the second half, and now, in the glow of Arrieta's brilliant no-hit outing against the Dodgers last Sunday night, it's cold, hard fact.

Lester will have his prominent turn in the rotation, should the Cubs advance. And when Arrieta, who takes his next turn in the rotation Saturday against the D-backs, is spotting that nasty, sweeping slider as well as he was at Dodger Stadium, he gives them their best possible chance to advance.

Understand, I'm not writing this just because Arrieta threw a no-hitter. Heck, we've already had six no-hitters this year and four lost in the ninth. Incredibly, 12 percent of all modern-era no-hitters have been tossed just since the start of 2010. And apparently, throwing a no-hitter against the Dodgers is something of a fad at the moment.

The no-hitter, though, only served to illustrate to a wider audience just how far Arrieta has come.

This is not meant to disrespect Lester, because Lester's poise, presence and experience have undoubtedly been assets on a predominantly young Cubs team.

But as far as pure performance is concerned, the late-blooming, 29-year-old Arrieta has clearly established himself as the biggest weapon at Joe Maddon's disposal.

And it's not particularly close.

Arrieta: 27 starts, 17-6, 2.11 ERA, 184 ERA+, 183 innings, 0.94 WHIP, 2.50 FIP, 4.32 K/BB
Lester: 26 starts (entering Friday), 8-10, 3.59 ERA, 109 ERA+, 163 IP, 1.21 WHIP, 3.06 FIP, 4.15 K/BB

How good does this trade look right about now? July 2, 2013: Arrieta and reliever Pedro Strop to the Orioles for free-agent-to-be Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger.

It just goes to show you can shell out nine-figure commitments to an established ace to front your rotation, but there's nothing more satisfying than a buy-low bid on a guy who just needs some time and attention.

Arrieta was a classic change-of-scenery guy. Dealt at 27, he was carrying a career ERA of 5.46, giving up more than one homer per nine innings and walking four batters per nine. Shoulder tenderness was an added worry.

But he had a 95-mph fastball and the makings of an effective slider and curve. And when you've got all that, you've got hope.

With the Cubs, Arrieta has turned that hope into happiness. This club has won 11 of his last 12 starts, with the lone loss coming when Cole Hamels threw a no-hitter of his own.

Arrieta has been nothing short of one of baseball's most brilliant pitchers this season and especially in this second half. Going back to June 21, batters are hitting just .155 off him.

This is a finished product, a guy who learned to trust his natural motion and let his arsenal ambush batters.

So as if the Pirates, who have been subjected to the whims of the Wild Card round each of the last two years, needed extra motivation to catch the Cardinals in the NL Central (the two are meeting this weekend in St. Louis), all they needed to do was watch the highlights from Arrieta's L.A. onslaught. That is why you don't want a season's worth of work to come down to a single game.

The right-handed Arrieta is simply a better matchup against the Pirates, a team loaded with right-handed batters and a team with speed atop the order in the form of Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen.

Lester's struggles at controlling the running game will be even more prominent on the postseason stage. And with so much on the line in this single game, the Cubs can ill-afford to take any chances in that department. In 20 fewer innings pitched than Arrieta, Lester has allowed 5.2 percent more baserunners to swipe a bag. The Royals ran at will against him in the AL Wild Card Game last year.

That start, in fact, was proof positive that the value of October experience (and, to be clear, Arrieta has none) only gets you so far. It's the matchup and the moment that matters.

Arrieta has faced these 2015 Pirates three times and held them to a .155/.200/.197 slash in 21 innings. Lester faced them once and, though he did pitch his way out of trouble, allowed a .321/.345/.464 slash in seven innings.

When your entire season comes down to a single game, the early tone of that game is extremely consequential. Arrieta is holding opponents to a .516 OPS in innings one through three and a .488 OPS the first time through the order. Lester's numbers in those situations are .679 and .686, respectively.

So as the Cubs inch up on the point of pondering which of their aces -- the established or the newly arrived -- ought to get the ball in that seismic setting, Arrieta has made his case quite convincingly.

Does he have the postseason pedigree of a Jon Lester? No.

But is he the right man for the job? Well, just ask the Dodgers.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.