August 27, 2006

Two Out of Three Ain't Bad

A second straight in-Chicago sweep of the White Sox would have put the Twins 2.5 games up in the Wild Card race and in outstanding position to make the playoffs with 33 games left on the schedule, but sloppy defense, too much Carlos Silva, and not enough offense against Mark Buehrle ruined those chances yesterday afternoon.

Instead, the Twins will have to "settle" for going into Chicago and taking two out of three games and the Wild Card lead from the White Sox:

WILD CARD       W      L     WIN%      GB
Minnesota 76 53 .589 ---
Chicago 76 54 .585 0.5
Boston 71 59 .546 5.5
Toronto 69 61 .531 7.0
Los Angeles 69 62 .527 8.0

The Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Angels are included in the above Wild Card standings simply to show how far out of the race they've fallen. While there's certainly enough time for any of those three teams to climb back into the race if the Twins and White Sox falter, the fact is that the Twins are closer to the Tigers in the AL Central than any of those three teams are to the Twins in the Wild Card.

While it may have been difficult to believe just a few weeks ago and nearly impossible to believe just a few months ago, the Twins' only legitimate competition for a playoff spot at this stage of the season is Chicago. Here's how the remaining schedules compare:

 TWINS            W SOX
3 v KAN 3 v TAM
3 @ NYY 3 @ KAN
3 @ TAM 3 @ BOS
4 v DET 4 v CLE
3 v OAK 3 @ LAA
4 @ CLE 3 @ OAK
3 @ BOS 3 v DET
3 @ BAL 4 v SEA
4 v KAN 3 @ CLE
3 v CHW 3 @ MIN

It's tough to make sense of the schedules when laid out like that, so let's look at things in a different way. There are plenty of common opponents left, which clouds the picture a bit. For instance, both teams play a three-game series against Boston and a three-game series against Oakland. Here's what the remaining schedules look like once you cancel those games out:

TWINS          W SOX
4 KAN 4 SEA
3 NYY 3 LAA
3 BAL 3 CLE
3 CHW 3 MIN
1 DET

For the sake of simplicity, I've ignored whether the games are at home or on the road, although I'll touch on that point in a moment. While certainly not identical, you can see that what's left of the two teams' remaining schedules after the in-common opponents are canceled out is pretty similar in terms of overall difficulty.

The Twins have four games against the 47-85 Royals, while the White Sox have four games against the 61-69 Mariners. The Twins have three games against the 59-71 Orioles, while the White Sox have three games against the 60-69 Indians. The Twins have three games against the 77-52 Yankees, while the White Sox have three games against the 69-62 Angels.

The Twins have an "extra" game left on the schedule, which comes against the MLB-leading Tigers. Of course, using overall records to determine the strength of an opponent is perhaps misleading this late in the season. After all, the Tigers certainly haven't looked like baseball's best team of late and there isn't a 14-game difference between the Royals and Mariners in terms of difficulty right now.

Last but not least, the Twins and White Sox finish the season with a three-game series against each other at the Metrodome. The weekend series that begins on September 29 and stretches into October didn't strike me as particularly important when the Twins were 25-33, but with the teams separated by a half-game in the standings in the final week of August it looks like a bit of scheduling genius.

It sounds cliche to say that the season will come down to that final series, but it's unlikely that either team will pull more than three games ahead of the other in the next 30 games. While it may not truly "come down" to the final series in that the final game of the season probably won't determine who makes the playoffs, it may very well come down to one team needing to sweep.

Who has the scheduling edge? Well, it depends. If you go by overall record, the Twins' remaining opponents have a combined .497 winning percentage, while the White Sox's remaining opponents have a combined .509 winning percentage. If you instead choose to look solely at second-half performances, the Twins' opponents are at .467 and the White Sox's opponents are at .542.

In other words, depending on how you view things the Twins either have a relatively small edge or a relatively big one. The main differences between the full-season and second-half numbers are that the White Sox and Tigers aren't playing nearly as well as they did early on, while the Angels and Twins have been fantastic since the All-Star break.

Also worth noting is that the Twins have 17 of their 33 remaining games at home, while the White Sox have just 14 of their 32 remaining games at home. Both teams have played much worse on the road, which gives the Twins one final edge. All it all up and the Twins are the clear favorites to win the Wild Card, which is something I never thought I'd be saying on August 28, 2006.

A few other notes on this weekend's series ...

  • Torii Hunter's sub par Win Probability Added total created quite a stir last week, with many people finding it difficult to believe that Hunter had been among the team's worst offensive players. Here's how I tried to explain his -155 WPA, which ranked third-worst on the team through 123 games:
    Hunter's overall line of .270/.343/.448 is solidly above average even without adjusting for position, but he's hit into rally-killing double plays, done poorly on the bases, and generally failed to come through in key situations.

    Hunter has hit .242/.338/.355 in "close and late" situations, .252/.329/.394 with runners in scoring position, and .274/.345/.428 with runners on base. Hunter's -155 WPA ranks ahead of only White and Silva as the third-worst on the team, because the timing of his contributions have rarely actually led to the Twins having a significantly better chance to win games.

    Interestingly, Hunter has come up with several hits in key spots since then, including a three-run, go-ahead homer against David Riske Friday. In case you thought WPA had some sort of anti-Hunter bias, consider that he received 42.6 WPA for Friday's game, essentially wiping out nearly one-third of the "damage" he'd done for the entire season.

    His homer off Riske was without question one of the most important moments of the year, ranking right up there with Justin Morneau's walk-off hits against Mariano Rivera and Joel Zumaya in terms of its impact on the Twins' chances of winning. Hunter has still been significantly less valuable to the Twins than most fans would think, but he's looking much better both offensively and defensively lately.

  • Nick Punto had an odd series defensively, making several outstanding plays at third base while also making a costly mistake. That's been the story with Punto since he took over for Tony Batista at third base, as he's looked rough around the edges at an unfamiliar position while making up for it by using his athleticism to get outs most third basemen couldn't.

    As I've said before, keeping Punto at third base past this season would be a mistake. Not only would his offense be more of an asset at second base, Punto's range defensively is clearly superior to his reaction time. Third base is more about reacting quickly to balls hit right at you than any other position, which means his weakness is being heightened while his strength is underutilized.

  • While Punto's play defensively was uneven, Jason Bartlett's was simply sloppy. Much like he did last week with Matt Garza on the mound, Bartlett booted a would-be double play yesterday, putting Silva in a major bind. Garza was able to wriggle out of the tight spot, but Silva wasn't as fortunate and the White Sox scored two runs in the third inning to take a 2-1 lead.

    Bartlett has been fantastic defensively overall, showing anyone with an open mind that he's a massive upgrade over Juan Castro in the field. With that said, he's made a lot more mistakes recently than he did after first taking over for Castro. When combined with Punto's erratic play at third base, the left side of the infield is both extremely effective and at times maddeningly inconsistent.

  • I've taken issue with Ron Gardenhire's handling of Joe Mauer and Mike Redmond, and how the eighth inning played out yesterday adds to my disagreement. With the Twins down by five runs, Luis Castillo and Punto got on base to bring Redmond to the plate with one out. Ozzie Guillen pulled lefty Mark Buehrle in favor of righty Mike MacDougal, nullifying the platoon advantage Redmond had by starting against Buehrle.

    In this spot, simply getting on base (and avoiding an out) is hugely important, and Redmond's odds of doing that against a good right-handed pitcher were slim. Because of that, pinch-hitting Mauer would have been a no-brainer for me. Yes, Mauer could use a full day off, but winning a game against the White Sox is incredibly important and it's likely he would have only caught one inning after replacing Redmond anyway.

    By pinch-hitting Mauer, Gardenhire would have increased the Twins' chances of eventually bringing the tying run to the plate by about 40 percent. Instead, Gardenhire let Redmond hit for himself in an unfavorable situation and watched as he hit into an inning-ending double play. It's unlikely that the Twins would have won the game regardless of what Gardenhire did there, but it's another example of his rigid thinking clouding his ability to maximize the team's chances.

  • If Joe Nathan were going to blow a save during the series, I would have expected it to come Friday. Nathan's fastball was off by about 4-5 miles per hour according to the radar gun on FSN, yet he struck out both Rob Mackowiak and Alex Cintron in a scoreless inning to get the save. His velocity was back around 94-96 MPH Saturday, yet Nathan served up a game-tying homer to Jermaine Dye following Tadahito Iguchi's single.

    Nathan deserves a lot of credit for how he bounced back from Dye's homer. The White Sox stormed back to tie a game that the Twins once led by four runs and it was just the second time this season that Nathan blew a lead, yet he still had two outs left to get with Paul Konerko stepping to the plate. Nathan kept his cool and the Twins eventually won, which was the case in his previous blown save against the Astros.

    Incidentally, when it's nearly September and you can write "his previous blown save" about a closer, you know he's having a great year.

  • The Twins signed Dennys Reyes to a two-year contract extension worth $1 million per season with a few incentives thrown in. Reyes has been fabulous this year and bringing him back at a reasonable price is a good move, but he looked dangerously close to turning back into a pumpkin while struggling to throw strikes Saturday and I worry about how he's changing Gardenhire's bullpen management.

    One of Gardenhire's biggest strengths is handling relievers, but Reyes' emergence appears to have turned him into just another micro-manager in the late innings. Rather than trusting Juan Rincon to do the job he's done so well and so consistently for the past three seasons, Gardenhire is suddenly trying to mix-and-match Rincon and Reyes against righties and lefties in front of Nathan.

    That's obviously not the worst thing in the world and it's perhaps understandable given the many quality relief options Gardenhire has to work with, but it's also unnecessary. Of course, as long as Pat Neshek is around to bail Gardenhire and Reyes out--as he did Saturday, replacing Reyes in the middle of a bases-loaded at-bat and getting two outs--it's a relative non-issue.

  • Hell of a way for Willie Eyre to pick up his first big-league win, huh? As if two scoreless innings against the White Sox in a walk-off situation with the rest of the bullpen options exhausted weren't enough, Eyre has tossed a total of 15.1 innings with a 1.76 ERA this month.
  • My immediate reaction to Rondell White's Mackowiak-aided triple Friday was that it's the first hard-hit ball White has had all season that wasn't yanked down the left-field line. I'm guessing that's not the case and my memory is just faulty, but I honestly can't think of another time when he truly drove a pitch to center or right field.

    Even after going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts yesterday, White is still hitting .288/.318/.455 since returning from Triple-A. He hit a combined .289/.341/.487 from 2003-2005, so that's essentially the type of production the Twins should have been expecting when he signed. It just took three months of godawful hitting to get there.

  • Since starting the season 25-33 (.431), the Twins are now 51-20 (.718) dating back to June 8.

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