October 4, 2010

Getting to know the enemy: Bring on the Yankees (again)

For the second straight season and fourth time in their last five playoff appearances the Twins will face the Yankees in the ALDS. New York finished a game behind Tampa Bay in the AL East, so instead of hosting Texas as the division winner and AL's top seed they'll travel to Minnesota as the Wild Card team for a best-of-five series beginning Wednesday night at Target Field. And based on their play over the past few weeks, that may be exactly what the Yankees wanted.

Given ample opportunity to win the AL East and secure homefield advantage for the ALDS and ALCS, the Yankees frequently rested veterans down the stretch, set up their rotation for the postseason rather than squeezing extra starts out of their top pitchers, and often relied upon bench players, middle relievers, and September call-ups in key spots rather than lean on the usual suspects in clutch situations. And they still won 95 games.

New York's presence in the postseason was essentially never in doubt and I'm not sure if the Yankees actually preferred to make the playoffs via the Wild Card rather than by winning the AL East, but at the very least they didn't seem to care one way or another. And it's tough to blame them, because the Wild Card means a first-round trip to Minnesota and the Yankees are 54-18 against the Twins since Ron Gardenhire took over as manager in 2002.

That lopsided head-to-head record is misleading in that much of the Twins' current roster was not around for last season's ALDS loss to the Yankees, let alone the ALDS losses to New York in 2003 and 2004. For instance, Jim Thome has played in just four of those 72 games against the Yankees managed by Gardenhire and even Joe Mauer was only around for 40 of 72. What happened in 2003 or 2004 or even 2009 may not have much bearing on what happens now.

With that said, several key Yankees have been around for all 72 games versus the Twins and regardless of who was or wasn't around for what if the roles were reversed it'd be tough to blame the Twins for wanting to face a team they've dominated for a decade. My guess is that if asked most of the Yankees' roster would've picked starting the ALDS in Minnesota over having homefield advantage against Texas, and that's certainly how they behaved down the stretch.

From the Twins' point of view I went back and forth on which AL East powerhouse represented the more favorable matchup, ultimately deciding that the Rays were a slightly easier opponent than the Yankees. However, in either case the best-of-five series would have been extremely challenging and in either case the Twins are perfectly capable of winning. There's no doubt the Yankees are a strong team, but so are the Twins, and New York is both flawed and beatable.

All four AL playoff teams have an elite left-handed starter atop their rotation and the Twins get one who's been particularly tough on them over the years. CC Sabathia went 21-7 with a 3.18 ERA in 238 innings this year, ranking 10th among AL starters with a 3.78 xFIP, and has a 3.05 ERA in 28 career starts versus the Twins. Combining his overall excellence, success against the Twins, and left-handedness makes Sabathia one of the toughest possible matchups.

With that said, the same would have been every bit as true facing David Price or Cliff Lee in Game 1 and Game 5, and the rest of New York's rotation has the potential to be plenty shaky. Andy Pettitte is 38 years old and has pitched just three times since missing two months with a groin injury, giving up 11 runs on 22 hits in 13 innings. Phil Hughes was great in the first half, but may be worn down from a career-high workload and has a 4.90 ERA in the second half.

And while Twins fans fret about Nick Blackburn starting Game 4 a month after returning from a Triple-A demotion Yankees fourth starter A.J. Burnett has been so bad while going 1-7 with a 6.61 ERA since August 1 that they may skip him and bring back Sabathia on short rest. If you think the Twins' rotation has been cause for concern recently consider that their starters have a 4.46 ERA over the past month, while Yankees starters have a 5.83 ERA in that same time.

Here are the game-by-game matchups, assuming Burnett isn't skipped:

Game 1: CC Sabathia (238 IP, 3.78 xFIP) vs. Francisco Liriano (192 IP, 3.06 xFIP)

Game 2: Andy Pettitte (129 IP, 4.05 xFIP) vs. Carl Pavano (221 IP, 4.01 xFIP)

Game 3: Phil Hughes (176 IP, 4.33 xFIP) vs. Brian Duensing (131 IP, 4.11 xFIP)

Game 4: A.J. Burnett (187 IP, 4.66 xFIP) vs. Nick Blackburn (161 IP, 4.68 xFIP)

Game 5: CC Sabathia (238 IP, 3.78 xFIP) vs. Francisco Liriano (192 IP, 3.06 xFIP)

And if Burnett is skipped that means Sabathia will go on three days' rest in Game 4 followed by Pettitte on full rest in Game 5. Clearly the Yankees' rotation is filled with bigger names, higher salaries, and more postseason experience, but I'd say those matchups are pretty even and if anything the Twins may have a slight edge if the Francisco Liriano who led the league in xFIP and allowed zero or one run in 11 of his 31 starts shows up to combat Sabathia.

Mariano Rivera's late-season rough patch provides a bit of hope that he'll be something less than his usual unhittable self, but I'm not counting on it. He's both the greatest closer of all time and the greatest postseason pitcher of all time, finished his age-40 season with a 1.80 ERA, .183 opponents' batting average, and 45-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 60 innings, and becomes an even bigger weapon in the playoffs when multi-inning appearances are common.

Rivera looms as the ever present late-game hammer and his setup trio of Joba Chamberlain, Kerry Wood, and David Robertson is better than most people think. Chamberlain has 74/22 K/BB ratio and just five homers allowed in 71 innings, which is good for a 3.41 xFIP that ranks eighth in the AL. Wood struggles with his control, but has been untouchable since the Yankees acquired him from the Indians on July 31, posting a 0.69 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 26 innings.

Robertson is the least-known of the bunch, but has a 3.44 ERA and 3.51 xFIP in 105 innings over the past two years, with his 11.44 strikeouts per nine innings leading the league during that time. In terms of top-to-bottom bullpen depth the Twins perhaps have an advantage, but teams can typically rely on just three or four relievers in the playoffs and New York's foursome of Rivera, Chamberlain, Wood, and Robertson is as good and overpowering as any in baseball.

Offensively the Yankees led the league in scoring for the fourth time in five seasons, but unlike 2006 (930), 2007 (968), and 2009 (915) they failed to score 900 runs. Now, scoring 859 runs is clearly still great--by comparison, the Twins had a very good offense and scored 108 fewer runs--but the Yankees' total is inflated by a hitter-friendly home ballpark. They ranked third in runs scored on the road with 386, which is basically identical to the Twins' road total of 382.

None of which is to suggest that the Yankees' offense is anything but scary, as their lineup for each game figures to have just one hitter with a below-average OPS: Derek Jeter. However, aging has removed some of the panic-inducing thump from Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Jorge Posada, leaving a Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira fueled lineup that's "only" very deep and very good rather than unfathomably dominant.

In addition to the aforementioned season-long road numbers that put the Twins and Yankees on relatively equal footing at the plate, since the All-Star break the Yankees have scored 386 runs overall while the Twins have plated 372. New York has a better offense, but the gap isn't nearly as significant as the bigger names would suggest. Or, put another way, nine hitters in the series have an adjusted OPS+ above 110 and four are Twins, including the top guy:

                     PA     OPS+
Jim Thome           339     175
Robinson Cano       692     141
Joe Mauer           582     134
Nick Swisher        631     127
Mark Teixeira       707     125
Alex Rodriguez      590     123
Delmon Young        611     120
Danny Valencia      319     116
Jorge Posada        447     116

Even with homefield advantage on their side you'd be hard-pressed to make a very compelling argument for the Twins as favorites in this series--sure enough, they've opened as relatively slight underdogs at +145--but thanks in part to their strengths and in part to the Yankees' weaknesses this is closer to a balanced matchup than any of their three previous ALDS bouts. These aren't your older brother's Yankees. New York is very good, but also very beatable.

  • http://www.twitter.com/torbenbraga 72′Yankees

    Wow. Not used to read such a long piece basically praising the Yankees and their 2010 season. At least in the last two months!
    As much as Yankees bloggers try, or have been trying, to put some reason and some sense into the fans minds, they fail miserably at the task. So this is a nice change of pace.
    And I agree with most of the stuff you said. Mariano will be Mariano, Andy will be Andy, Hughes will be great and we can afford to have that nutcase Burnett starting once too!

  • http://www.twitter.com/torbenbraga 72′Yankees

    Twitter-encouraged update to last comment: Yankees bloggers do a GREAT job fighting against what they have decided to call “bridge-jumping fans”.
    But, sadly, most fans choose not to listen to them and still think the Yankees are the worst team in the world, even though they won 95 games in the best division in baseball.
    In no way am I saying NYY bloggers do a bad job. This would be a lie. But they have to fight against this crazy fan base, the worst (in that way) in all pro sports. And that’s a tough fight to be in.
    Just wanted to clear this up.

  • Dose of Thunder

    Twins have been playing very poorly. I don’t think they’re good enough to just suddenly “turn it back on” again. Hopefully they can find a way to win 1 game this time. I’ve grown very weary of the Yankee dominance over them.

    Back in ’87 I didn’t think the Twins had a shot against the mighty Tigers and they proved me wrong. That team had some real gamers on it; Hrbek, Gaetti, Gagne, Gladden, Kirby, Bruno, Bert, Viola and Reardon. I don’t see that many type of players on this years model.

  • Carcillo

    Regarding this series, this might be a break for both teams. Both the Twins and Yankees have played very poorly of late, somehow, both teams ended up meeting each other. As a Yankee fan, I’ll take my chances since this is generally a good team that I hope is simply going through a rough stretch (albeit, a prolonged rough stretch – 30-31 since the beginning of August), but unlike last year for instance, a Twins victory in this series wouldn’t surprise me at all.

    This time, the Twinkies have home field. That could be quite a help.

  • Fran

    The Yankees wanted to play the Twins so badly they took a pass on a division title and home field advantage, to the extent they were nearly swept by Pawtucket and Portland masquerading as the Red Sox? You don’t really believe that do you? Because, if so, cancel the Presposterous Statement tournament, we have a winner.

  • Pat

    Smart money says CC comes back on short rest to pitch game #4 (if there is a game #4)

  • Mike Green

    Excellent analysis, Aaron. On the fussy side, xFIP and OPS+ have to be adjusted for strength of schedule; the AL East was truly a beast in 2010.

  • Andrew

    I agree with Mike Green: excellent analysis, Aaron. Your writing pumps me up!

  • wengler

    In my mind’s eye/ I see a Thome shot sailing through the clear black sky/ Just like the Game 163 2008 win/ Except this time Jimmer’s a Twin/ I know the average Twins fan wearies/ Of all these damn Yankee postseason series/ But this time taters will be mashed/ And this time it will be Yankees pitching thrashed/ The celebration at the end of it will be sweet/ As when Hocking’s hand was trampled by many feet.

  • Greg

    I agree with the analysis that based on the regular season stats it is pretty even, but you have left out two very important factors. First, the Gardenhire factor. I could list all the decisions he’s made in the post-season that made no sense, but his managerial record in the post-season speaks for itself.

    Second, the pressure factor. I don’t care how bad Jeter or ARod or Pettite or Rivera have looked at times; they have proven to take it up a notch in the post-season, and I would take a career-poor-season Jeter over Kubel, Cuddyer, or Young with two outs in the ninth every time in the post-season to get the run home or make a catch to save a run.

    The only good news is this year it won’t be Joe Nathan who is doing the choking, so the Twins have a chance.

  • David

    If the tenth man is important, the Twins lose, regardless of how proudly we waive the hankies. Yankees fans are a murderous lot. I was in New York during the 2009 ALCS and heard Yankee fans bragging about how Nick Adenhart was dead. Yes, the right word was ‘bragging’. I used to always root for the AL team, but I will never again hope for any Yankees win. A victory for the Twins is a victory against evil.

  • whalefeet

    wow, incredible analysis! i couldn’t agree more, that the yankees are very good, but very beatable. also keep in mind this twins team is much more different than last year in the postseason and also in the past. last year, they used all their energy to get to the playoffs, only to be crushed by the yankees in game one and crushed by their own mistakes (and one umpires in game 2) the other 2 games. that was also a team that trotted out nick punto, matt tolbert, jose morales, alexi casilla, and carlos gomez onto the field. this year substitute jim thome, orlando hudson, jj hardy, and danny valencia to the lineup and it seems like a much better case. i’m also much more confident in the twins bullpen this year than last, with much more depth and the crain/fuentes combo that has the ability to dominate any yankees hitter late in the game. then theres the wildcard in all of this…FRANCISCO LIRIANO. the ace, the potential dominator with swing and miss stuff that opposing hitters should fear if he is on his game. the twins didn’t have that last year. i say twins in 5, partly because of my bias love for the team, but partly because i think they are the slightly better team with home field.

  • Carcillo

    I was in New York during the 2009 ALCS and heard Yankee fans bragging about how Nick Adenhart was dead. Yes, the right word was ‘bragging’.

    That’s just a little disconcerting to hear…

  • Gerry

    Great piece of writing, Aaron. Enjoyed it.

    Look forward to your next post.

  • Gerry

    Carcillo -

    that’s a little extreme. I don’t like to hear that, as any fan.

    But be careful to generalize fans like that.

    Some of us NYY fans are good people, and some of us, including me, think it would be great for baseball if Minny advanced.

  • robb

    The problem with this analysis is that it is for the entire season. More important is what has happened in the last month.

    The big three for MN are tired and pitching poorly, and that trend is not going to change. Blackburn is up or down. Even if Liriano does great, he’ll fold at 100 pitches, while CC will go 120 for the 2-1 win, in the best case scenario. If that happens it’s all over for sure. Liriano will be too tired to bounce back for a game 5.

    Twins batting is really down the last month also.

    It is clearly the Yankees series to lose. If they simply perform to the mean, they’ll be fine.

    game 1: 2-1 or 3-2
    game 2: 4-3
    game 3: 4-3

    Yanks win.

    or if a game 4: 4-3
    game 5: 5-3

  • D-Luxxx

    What I find a little disconcerting is all of the Yankee fan comments on a Twins blog…

  • Carcillo

    @ Gerry – I’m a Yankee fan. I will only presume the individual spoken of in regards to Adenhart is just that, an individual, but even then, it’s still disconcerting to hear, regardless of fan affiliation.

    I’ve always held a belief that all Yankee and Red Sock fans in particular have a bad rep, partially due to their fandom, and also because there are so many of them. It only takes a few morons to cast a bad perception across everyone. Post-’04 Sox fans have tarnished all Sox fans reps. Obnoxvious Yankee fans have tarnished all Yankee fans. It is what it is, perhaps a bit irrational by those who hate the fans, but I won’t blame them for it either.

  • Trav

    I’m impressed by the Yankees’ fans that have posted and honestly it has altered a bias that I had regarding NYY fans being pompous and arrogant…I appreciate the NYY posters humility and agree that it should be a good series with the Yankees being slight favorites.

    That being said, fuck the Yankees and “Win Twins!!!”

  • Brooklynegg

    Stupid Question: What does Nick Adenhart have to do with the Yankees? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nick_Adenhart

  • Kurt

    I cannot believe Nick Blackburn will pitch game 4. Did Gardy not see him get shelled by KC a week ago? The guy is far too inconsistent to be handed the ball in the postseason. Baker goes out and throws a pretty decent game aside from not going deep and yet Blackburn gets the game 4 nod.

    Twins win games 1 and 2, lose 3 and 4, win game 5.

  • Son of Shane Mack

    Stupid Question: What does Nick Adenhart have to do with the Yankees? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nick_Adenhart
    The Adenhart’s team – the Angels, played the Yankees in the ALCS in 2009. At the end of the season, the Angels honored him when they won the Western Division.

    Hadn’t heard about the comments in NY. It doesn’t surprise me – not that all Yankee fans are like that.

    The Yankees won the series and the World Series, obviously.

  • Dirk

    It will just be nice to watch the game with the volume turned back up again with NO bremer thingy…

  • robb

    Blyleven’s speech is slow and slurry lately. Makes me feel tired. Or drunk.

  • Corey

    WOW…Does that picture of Kerry Wood not look identical to Morneau in a Yankees uniform….scary.

  • Walter Solbcheck

    Blackburn at four is a joke–watch him surprise everyone with a good game now, only to get left out there a batter too long. Can’t wait for him to bench Valencia one game for Punto, just wait. Wouldn’t be surprised to see Kubel sit for Repko against Sabathia or Pettite – it’s arguable that’s a good idea, sure, but I disagree.

    But we can all agree: Gardy’s gonna cost them, again.

  • Carcillo

    Nick Blackburn has shut the Yankees down in each of his last four starts against them, going back to 2009, three of which were at Yankee Stadium.

    5/16/09, 10/9/09, 5/16/10, 5/27/10. Seriously.

  • Kurt

    Carcillo – All I’ll say is I hope Blackburn gets absolutely destroyed and knocked out in the first inning. 87 MPH sinker up in the zone crackkkkkkk!!!!!

  • duane

    The key to the series will be how well Cuddy, Danny, Delmond and Denard can hit the left handed pitching the first two games. If they are a combined .120 ave., well, that’s all she wrote.

  • Joe

    Wow, where did all the Yankees come from?!

    This is the best Twins team I’ve seen in the last 9 years. From top to bottom they have a great lineup, one that I think can make some noise. Especially compared to past lineups. Our pitching staff is better prepared than past years. Even though they haven’t been doing well lately, at least we could say the same about the Yanks’ starting 4.

    Last year the Twins were beaten and bruised from #163, and I’d say they gave the Yanks a good run in Games 2 and 3. This year I think the Yankees are slightly worse, and the Twins are much better (and more rested).

    Don’t get me wrong, the Yankees are the defending champs and the team to beat. The Twins definitely have their work cut out for them. But I’ve had a feeling about them all year long, from the very start. This team is different, better. I’m looking forward to some fantastic baseball tomorrow and this week. May it be a great contest

  • Gendo

    The playoffs are my favorite 4 games of the year.

  • Suds

    I had to do a double-take… To me, Kerry Wood looks dangerously similar to Justin Morneau.