October 7, 2002

Playoff Preview and Prediction (Round 2: Angels vs. Twins)

Is anyone else still giddy from yesterday's Twins win?

I actually had sort of calmed down somewhat and was focusing on what I wanted to say about the upcoming series with Anaheim.

But then, on the way to class this morning, I bumped into one of my friends and we started talking about the game.

And guess what? Now I am all excited again.

The Twins won!

(Note to self: Calm Down!)

Before we get to my preview of the series and my inevitably incorrect prediction, I have some bad news (at least for Twins fans) to report.

If you haven't already heard (and I suspect this didn't exactly lead the 10 o'clock news in most places), Twins utility infielder Denny Hocking suffered a severe cut on his hand during the celebration that followed yesterday's win.

Denny is apparently out for the ALCS for sure and possibly done for the season.

Now, losing Hocking isn't exactly the most horrible thing that could ever happen to a ballclub, but it is still important.

Firstly, Luis Rivas is having some minor injury problems, which is why Hocking started in his place in yesterday's ballgame.

So we now have a slightly banged up second baseman and we are without his #1 replacement.

Secondly, as Hocking exhibited versus Mark Mulder yesterday, he can hit left handed pitching pretty well.

For the year Denny hit .342/.404/.434 against southpaws, which is pretty darn good, especially when the alternative is a steady dose of Luis Rivas and all the outs that come along with that.

A .400 OBP would certainly be a nice thing to have playing second base against Jarrod Washburn.

Thirdly, Hocking is a fair-to-good defensive player at pretty much every position, so he has value in the late innings because he can basically be the defensive substitute that goes along with any pinch hit appearance by Matthew Lecroy or Bobby Kielty or David Ortiz or whomever.

If it is the late innings and there is a runner on 2nd with two outs and Luis Rivas at the plate, Ron Gardenhire might consider a pinch hitter in that spot, in which case Hocking would be used to replace Rivas at 2B.

Same goes for Cristian Guzman at SS.

But more intriguing than those three paragraphs I just wrote about Denny Hocking (be honest, you didn't think it was possible for someone to write that much about Denny Hocking, did you?) is the story that is coming out about how he sustained the cut on his hand.

According to what I have read so far, Denny's hand was spiked by someone's cleat.

When Denny was initially asked about who the teammate was that stepped on his hand, he declined an answer, saying:

"[It] is someone I'm feuding with, that's why I won't name him."

Hey now!

The journalism school major in me says that there is a little more to this story, and there is.

Some new info came out today that suggests it was Jacque Jones that stepped on Hocking's hand

When asked about it, Jacque had this to say:

"If Denny says I stepped on his hand, I stepped on his hand," Jones said.

(insert mysterious music)

Last night, before the news that it was Jacque Jones that did the damage came out, I had a discussion with James Newburg (from The Newburg Baseball Page, which is listed on the left) about the whole Hocking situation.

I suggested that maybe it was David Lamb (the utility infielder that has been added to roster in place of Hocking) that injured Hocking, to which James had this response:

(Playing the part of wrestling announcer Jim Ross): "Good God, th-that's David Lamb's music! I thought he was in Triple-A! What the hell is he doing here?"

For those of you who are saying, what the heck is he talking about?

Imagine Denny Hocking in a wrestling ring, perhaps talking to the crowd.

Then imagine a sudden blast of sound as David Lamb's theme music came blaring over the loud speakers, followed by an angry David Lamb, perhaps wielding a metal chair (or in this case a baseball cleat) running to the ring.

Okay, you get the point.

Fellow readers of ESPN Page 2's Bill Simmons will recognize that joke and it cracked me up big time.

Anyway, assuming Gardenhire is willing to trust David Lamb out in the field, he should be able to replace Hocking acceptably.

Lamb hit .309/.377/.448 in AAA this year.

Hocking probably would have gotten, at most, 7 or 8 at bats during the series and I suspect Gardenhire will likely give Lamb even less.

Okay, enough Denny Hocking talk (because knowing Denny, the whole thing is probably a joke anyway).

On to the preview and prediction...

Anaheim Angels (99-63) vs. Minnesota Twins (94-67)

Pitching matchups (subject to change):

Game 1: Kevin Appier (14-12, 3.92 ERA, .558 SNPct) vs. Joe Mays (4-8, 5.38 ERA, .461 SNPct)

Game 2: Ramon Ortiz (15-9, 3.77 ERA, .584 SNPct) vs. Rick Reed (15-7, 3.78 ERA, .551 SNPct)

Game 3: Jarrod Washburn (18-6, 3.15 ERA, .658 SNPct) vs. Eric Milton (13-9, 4.84 ERA, .499 SNPct)

Game 4: John Lackey (9-4, 3.66 ERA, .520 SNPct) vs. Brad Radke (9-5, 4.72 ERA, .489 SNPct)

Game 5: Appier vs. Mays

Game 6: Ortiz vs. Reed

Game 7: Washburn vs. Reed

Team stats (AL Ranking):

Runs scored: Anaheim 851 (4) / Minnesota 768 (9)

Runs allowed: Anaheim 644 (1) / Minnesota 712 (6)

Defensive efficiency: Anaheim .7314 (1) / Minnesota .7143 (6)

Team EqA: Anaheim .265 (5) / Minnesota .258 (8)

Relievers adjusted runs prevented: Anaheim 68.0 (1) / Minnesota 51.8 (2)

My thoughts:

Before I say anything, I have to point out that you should take those "pitching matchups" that I have listed with an incredibly large grain of salt.

I don't have any inside information and all I know for sure is that it will be Appier and Mays in game 1.

After that I just filled in the blanks with what I thought each team would likely do.

If that is in fact the correct setup, you have to give the starting pitching edge to Anaheim.

I am sure that if Mike Scioscia had his way, Washburn would be starting games 1, 4 and 7.

However, since Washburn started game 4 against the Yankees, he isn't available to start the first game of this series.

Even without their preferred setup, the Angels should be able to get 2 starts out of Washburn, Appier and Ortiz and 1 start out of Lackey, which is a pretty good situation for them.

The Twins on the other hand, having had one fewer day of rest, are in a less ideal situation.

Their "ace" Brad Radke started game 5 against Oakland, so at the very earliest he would be available to go in game 3.

And unless someone goes on short rest (which I don't think will happen) the Twins are going to be looking at 2 starts each by Reed and Mays and then either 2 starts by Radke and 1 by Milton, or 2 starts by Milton and 1 by Radke.

I am inclined to believe they will go with Milton twice and Radke once, but who knows.

While looking at the two teams last night in preparation for this preview, it struck me just how similar they are to each other.

Right off the bat, they are both managed by young, "players managers."

Beyond that, their team skills are very close to one another.

Anaheim led the AL in batting average at .282, Minnesota was fifth at .272.

Minnesota ranked 10th in the AL in walks, Anaheim ranked 11th.

Minnesota was tied for 1st in doubles, Anaheim ranked 3rd.

Minnesota ranked 1st in fielding %, Anaheim ranked 2nd.

Minnesota's pitching staff ranked 6th in strikeouts, Anaheim's ranked 8th.

Minnesota's staff had the highest ratio of flyballs-to-groundballs in the AL, Anaheim had the 4th highest.

The strength of both pitching staffs are they bullpens.

Anaheim had the best bullpen in the AL this season, while Minnesota ranked 2nd.

To sum up, both of these teams have hitters that go up to the plate hacking and they get a lot of hits and a lot of doubles.

Both pitching staffs get the opposition to hit the ball in the air and then rely on their good outfield defense to run down everything.

So, the question for this series is, which team can be the best at what they do well?

In my preview of the Yankees/Angels series I discussed how I felt the Yankees were especially vulnerable to the Angels because the Anaheim hitters rarely walked and rarely struck out and thus they put a ton of balls in play, against what was during the regular season (and even more so in the post-season) a not-so-good Yankee defense.

In this series, the Angels are going to be putting even more balls in play, because the Minnesota pitching staff doesn't strike out nearly as many batters as New York does.

And the Twins hitters are going to be putting a lot more balls in play against Anaheim than the Yankees did.

Which is a long way of saying that both defenses are going to be huge factors in this series.

So, which defense is better?

Well, you will probably get a different answer depending on who you ask.

Look at the statistics and you will see that Anaheim's defense converted the highest % of balls in play into outs of any team in the whole league.

Listen to scouts or announcers or Baseball Tonight and they will likely tell you that Minnesota is the best defensive team in the league.

Since this is my preview, I will tell you what I think.

I believe that both defenses are very good, but that Anaheim's is significantly better.

Both teams are extreme flyball staffs, which means the centerfielders get a lot of action.

The Twins have the reigning AL Gold Glove winner, Torii Hunter, roaming centerfield.

Hunter was extremely deserving of the award last season, as he had one of the greatest defensive seasons by a CF in recent memory.

However, this season his performance is noticeably (in my opinion anyway) worse than last year.

He appears to be a little bigger and a little slower and he perhaps has been suffering from a minor injury or two that may be affecting him in the field.

Even with all of that, he is still a very good centerfielder.

Anaheim's centerfielder is Darin Erstad.

Erstad doesn't get the attention for his defense that Torii gets, but he does get some (mostly for crashing into walls and stuff like that) and he deserves even more.

I think Erstad is the best defensive centerfielder in the AL right now.

He led the league in Range Factor, Zone Rating and Fielding % and was 2nd among CFs in outfield assists.

So, as much as it pains me to say so, Darin Erstad is a superior centerfielder (at least this season) than Torii Hunter is.

Both teams have very good defenders in the outfield corners.

Jacque Jones and Garret Anderson could both probably handle playing CF are both among the best defensive LFs in baseball.

In right field, Tim Salmon has always been an above average defender with a good arm.

The Twins right field defense is a little less stable.

Michael Cuddyer appears to be the full-time RF in the playoffs, which means Bobby Kielty and Dustan Mohr, each very good defensive RFs, will not be in RF like they were most of the regular season.

Cuddyer appears to be a good athlete, but he is relatively new to RF (he was originally a SS, believe it or not, and has recently been at 3B and 1B).

The infield defense, while not as crucial to these teams as it is to teams with groundball pitching staffs (like Boston for example) shows some similarities between the two teams and also shows some big differences.

Both teams have a great defensive first basemen, in Doug Mientkiewicz and Scott Spiezio.

I think Mientkiewicz is slightly better, but I would certainly consider Spiezio to be in the same class.

At third base, the Twins have Corey Koskie, who has improved his defense over the years to the point that he is now a very serious Gold Glove candidate (although Eric Chavez, last year's winner, is probably slightly better).

The Angels have Troy Glaus at the hot corner and he is also pretty good.

The biggest difference between these two teams defensively is up the middle.

The Angels double-play combo of David Eckstein and Adam Kennedy is one of the best in the league.

Both Eckstein and Kennedy have outstanding range and get to a ton of balls.

On the other hand, the Twins DP combo of Luis Rivas and Cristian Guzman is likely the second worst in the AL, behind only the Yankees (and we saw what Anaheim did to them in round 1).

I constantly read that Rivas and, to a lesser extent, Guzman are great defensive players.

But the actual results simply do not back up those claims.

Rivas has subpar range and it shows in his Zone Rating, which is among the worst in baseball among second basemen.

Guzman often looks lackadaisical in the field and, while he cut down on his errors this season, his Zone Rating is consistently near the bottom of the league.

In fact, if it weren't for Derek Jeter's defensive struggles, Guzman would have ranked dead last in Zone Rating among everyday shortstops both this season and last.

Both teams have solid defensive catchers in A.J. Pierzynski and Bengie Molina.

Molina is the better of the two and is especially good at shutting down the opponents' running game, he threw out a league high 45% of all steal attempts.

So, my personal observations and a look at each individual's numbers add up to exactly what the team defensive performance would indicate.

The Twins have a lot of very good defenders (Koskie, Mientkiewicz, Jones, Hunter) but have a couple areas that are lacking, which results in a defensive efficiency rating in the upper half of the AL (6th to be exact).

The Angels have an above average defender at every single position on the field and several guys who are near the top of the league, which results in them having the best defensive efficiency rating in the entire American League.

Okay, so that covers the defense.

What about the pitching?

The closest thing that either team has a to an "ace" is Jarrod Washburn.

Washburn is very good and a lefty, which makes him especially tough for the Twins to handle.

Beyond him, each team has a lot of what I would consider solid, middle of the rotation pitchers.

And by that I mean guys that are good #2 and #3 starters.

Brad Radke showed in the Oakland series that he is probably the Twins best starter.

Eric Milton also looked very good in his start.

However, neither Rick Reed or Joe Mays did anything that would inspire any confidence in their ability to shut down the Angels in this series.

Washburn is good and a lefty, so he should do pretty well against the Twins.

Anaheim 2, 3 and 4 starters are all pretty good and are all right handed.

The strengths of each team, the bullpens, will play a big role in this series.

Anaheim has more good options to go to in the middle innings, with Ben Weber, Brandon Donnelly, Scott Schoeneweis and now Francisco Rodriguez, whom I wrote about a couple of days ago.

Minnesota is pretty much limited to J.C. Romero, Johan Santana and possibly Latroy Hawkins (if you read yesterday's entry, you know how I feel about Latroy) to bridge the gap between the starters and Eddie Guardado in a close game.

And once each bullpen gets a lead to the closer, Anaheim has an enormous advantage over Minnesota.

Eddie Guardado had a very good season and led the AL in saves with 45.

But, as we saw yesterday and as we have seen several times this season, he is not the kind of guy that can come in and slam the door on a consistent basis (at least not without making things exciting first).

Anaheim has Troy Percival, who has been one of the top closers in baseball for a long time and who absolutely owns the Minnesota Twins.

Check out Percival's career stats against Minnesota:

35 Innings

9 Hits

45 Strikeouts

0.00 ERA

And no, that is not a misprint.

He actually has a 0.00 ERA against them.

So the Twins would probably be best served to do their hitting in innings 1-8.

Which brings me to the hitting...

While both teams are filled with "doubles hitting hackers" (to steal a quote from my self), their splits against lefties and righties are almost completely opposite.

Anaheim crushes left handed pitching to the tune of .292/.351/.451.

Minnesota beats up on right handed pitching to the tune of .282/.339/.449.

Anaheim's hitting drops way off against righties, against whom they hit .278/.336/.425.

Minnesota struggles big time against lefties, hitting only .252/.318/.413.

(check out TwinsGeek.com for a more in-depth look at what each player on both teams does against righties and lefties)

Obviously a big factor will be how many lefties Anaheim sees and how many righties Minnesota sees.

Minnesota is likely to only have two games started by a left handed pitcher in the series (at most).

However, their best three relief pitchers are all left handed, which may be a big problem in the late innings.

Anaheim is likely to have 5 games out of 7 started by right handed pitchers.

And beyond Scott Schoeneweis, their entire bullpen is right handed.

So, instead of seeing Zito and Mulder and Rincon and Lilly (although I wouldn't mind seeing Lilly again) in the Oakland series, the Twins only have to worry about two lefties, Washburn and Schoeneweis.

Okay, let's sum everything up in a neat little package.

The skill sets of both teams likely mean that a ton of balls are going to be put in play during this series, which puts added emphasis on the defense of each team.

And Anaheim has the superior defense, although Minnesota is pretty good too.

Anaheim's pitching rotation is set up more ideally, so that they get 2 starts each from their top 3 pitchers, while Minnesota will likely end up with only 1 start from either Radke or Milton.

Both teams have good bullpens, but Anaheim has a lot more "trustworthy" options to go to in the middle innings and a much more dominant closer to go to to finish a game.

Anaheim hits lefties really well and Minnesota hits righties really well.

Anaheim is only going to see 2 games started by left handed starting pitchers, but will likely face a ton of left handed relief pitching.

Minnesota will face almost entirely right handed pitching, beyond Washburn and Schoeneweis.

So what does it all add up to?

I think the Angels are the better team, on offense, on defense and on the mound.

For the Twins to win this series they are going to have to do 3 main things:

1) dominate Anaheim's right handed pitching.

2) hope to somehow steal a game from Jarrod Washburn.

3) play the best defense of their collective lives.

And avoiding Troy Percival probably wouldn't hurt either.

The Angels just have too many quality hitters and too many good relievers for the Twins.

However, maybe I am just trying to jinx them the same way I jinxed Oakland?

Nah, that would be crazy right?

Yeah, crazy like a Hocking...

Prediction: Angels in 6.

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