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Jake Arrieta isn't magic, and he's in good company

Even the best pitchers have postseason hiccups. Most of them, even.

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

There are winter days, when the baseball is gone and the rain doesn't tap against my window, where I'll do nothing but stare at Bob Gibson's game log from 1968. I recommend it. He had more games with 11 innings pitched or more (three) than games in which he didn't complete eight full innings (two). He had 13 shutouts and was pulled in the middle of an inning just once all season. He had 32 quality starts out of 34 chances. It's as automatic as pitching has ever been.

And in Game 7 of the World Series, he gave up four runs for just the third time all season. With two outs in the seventh, the Tigers hit a single and another single, followed by a triple and a double. That seems like a normal baseball sentence, except Gibson didn't allow that sort of inning all season. He was completely immune to it. He was the perfect pitcher. Until he wasn't at the worst possible time.

Which brings us to Jake Arrieta, who was supposed to be the last pitching deity left in the postseason. He ended the season with a string of starts that forced researchers to come back with "Bob Gibson, 1968" as the only reasonable comparison for what he did over 20 starts, and he was otherworldly in his first postseason start. He was going to swallow the postseason whole and rule us from a throne on the moon.

Then Arrieta stumbled in his second postseason start, but it was fine because the Cubs won anyway. Then he stumbled in his third postseason start, and the Cubs couldn't recover from that one. He wasn't magic, after all. He still might have three or four more outstanding postseason starts left in him this season, mind you, but there will at least be a bump in the road that leads there.

The myth of the magic pitcher is an easy one to buy into. I know, because I do it every year.

Cliff Lee's comin'.


Cliff Lee's a-comin'.


And then Cliff Lee wasn't magic. He made mistakes. Because pitchers aren't magic. Because baseball is hard, and maintaining that level of performance against the best teams is almost impossible. Without at least one hiccup, that is.

Since the Wild Card Era started in 1995, there have been 28 seasons in which a pitcher has racked up at least eight wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference. Eight wins is the cutoff for our purposes because a) it gives us a healthy pile of seasons to sift through, b) the cutoff has to be somewhere, and c) that's what Baseball Reference roughly describes as an MVP-caliber season in the shorthand description on every player's page. These aren't just the All-Stars or Cy Young contenders. These are the pitchers who should have picked up a substantial number of MVP votes.

Those 28 seasons break down like this:

  • 19 seasons where the pitcher's team reached the postseason
  • 9 seasons where the pitcher's team missed the postseason

Of those 19 seasons where the MVP-caliber pitcher reached the postseason, only six of them went through the entire postseason with nothing but quality starts. One of them was Zack Greinke this season, possibly because he didn't get as many chances as the other pitchers did for a hiccup game.

That's the point, though. Given enough chances, there's almost always a hiccup game. The six MVP-caliber pitcher seasons that were filled with nothing but quality starts in the postseason:

Zack Greinke in 2015, which probably doesn't count in your mind, considering he was the losing pitcher in an elimination game. He pitched really well, though. Don't sell him short. And if you're looking to gamble money on the postseason, consider that the Mets beat him and Clayton Kershaw, even though they did at least OK. (Do not gamble money on the postseason.)

Roy Halladay in 2011, throwing for a Phillies team that won 102 games and couldn't make it out of the NLDS, subjecting the rest of the world to weaponized Cardinals. The Phillies had one of the best pitching staffs ever assembled, and Halladay threw eight strong innings in both of the postseason games he pitched that year, with just four earned runs over 16 innings. The Phillies still lost.

Curt Schilling in 2002, who threw seven innings in a single Division Series game, allowing just a run, and lost to the Cardinals. That's it. That's all he got to do in the postseason after a tremendous regular season. He didn't get the chances that others got, like ...

Curt Schilling in 2001, who was absolutely incredible. Six starts, with at least seven innings pitched in each. He allowed two runs in one game, and that was the max. He started the postseason with three complete games, in which he allowed 13 hits and two runs over 27 innings. He really was the mythical magic pitcher of the postseason. Which is grossly unfair, considering that his teammate was ...

Randy Johnson in 2001, who pitched as well as he ever has. Have you looked at the 2001 Diamondbacks team lately? They had two pitching gods, an outfielder who was in the middle of a freakishly potent season, and a good bullpen. They had other assets as well, sure, but their championship parade could have been nothing but Schilling, Johnson, and Luis Gonzalez riding a trophy pulled by Tony Womack.

That team is almost entirely responsible for the myth of the magic pitcher.

Randy Johnson in 1995, who pitched four strong games (one in relief) but couldn't outduel a 70-year-old Dennis Martinez in the ALCS on short rest. Remember that Johnson has the record for consecutive postseason starts ending in a loss, tied with David Price. Hard luck postseasons like that are why.

Seven postseason runs from MVP-caliber pitchers in the postseason in the Wild Card Era that featured nothing but quality starts. Four of those pitchers were bounced in the first round. One of them didn't make it past the second round. The other two were on the same team, and they won the World Series.


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The rest of the pitchers? You'll remember them. There was Justin Verlander in his MVP season in 2011. It was Kevin Brown in '98 and Pedro Martinez in every season. It was Greg Maddux in his transcendent, eventual championship-winning 1995. All of those pitchers had hiccups. Those hiccups either ruined their team's chances, or the team was strong enough to overcome them.

The myth of the magic pitcher is why people will scoff at the idea that Kershaw is the best pitcher of his generation. It's why Madison Bumgarner gets extra ace-points in everyone's mind, even though he lost the only start he had in the 2014 NLDS, and he was a normal Nationals manager away from never building the reputation he enjoys now.

If you still believe in the myth of the magic pitcher in the postseason, consider that the Red Sox, somehow, finally got over the postseason hump as soon as Pedro Martinez stopped being dominant.

Almost every pitcher, no matter how dominant in the regular season, no matter how much steam they have built into their postseason run, will screw up at least one game a little. They'll have an early exit or some ill-timed runs. That's just how it is. So it goes for Jake Arrieta, just as it went for Verlander and Lee in the past, and just as it will go for the next seemingly untouchable ace in the future. It's one of the only constants of the postseason.

Usually it's just one hiccup, though. The question is if the team in question can overcome that brief glimpse at how the other half lives, and come back to win anyway. Some teams can, some teams can't. We'll see what the Cubs can do in Wrigley, and if Arrieta can get another start or three.

The only thing the MVP-quality starters who had uncharacteristic starts had in common was that Daniel Murphy ruined all their starts.

That's Daniel Murphy before he doubled home a run against Johnny Sain in 1948. He took the ridiculous pseudonym of "David Murphy" when he tripled against Verlander in 2011. He is and always has been. He is a trickster through time.

The magic pitcher probably doesn't exist, though. The path through the postseason has to include those predictable bumps in the road. There are only so many '01 Diamondbacks to come around every 25 years.

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