September 28, 2003

2003 Playoff Preview:

Twins - Yankees


W L Win% RS RA Pyth% EqA DEF
New York 101 61 .623 877 716 .600 .280 .6977
Minnesota 90 72 .556 801 758 .531 .262 .7106

New York 5.41 .271 .356 .453 230 304 684 1042
Minnesota 4.94 .277 .341 .431 155 318 512 1027

New York 4.41 .266 .313 .408 145 323 375 1119
Minnesota 4.68 .269 .318 .428 187 302 402 997

My Beloved Twinkies vs. The Evil Empire

The Homer Hanky vs. Mystique and Aura

$65 million vs. $160 million

The Land of 10,000 Lakes vs. The Big Apple

Minnesota Nice vs. Bronx Cheers

David vs. Goliath

In the first round of last season's playoffs, another "David" - the Anaheim Angels - faced off against the Goliath that is the New York Yankees. In my preview of that series, I suggested that Anaheim's ability to make contact at the plate would serve them well against a sub par Yankee defense.

Here's exactly what I said at the time (September 30, 2002):

"The Yankees' pitching and defense is their main weakness and I think the Angels are the perfect team to exploit it.

You see, statistically, the Yankees have the worst defense among the eight playoff teams. Basically, they convert less balls in play into outs than the other teams. They can generally "get away" with it because their pitchers strike so many guys out. The Yankees were 2nd in the AL in strikeouts, which means they don't allow as many balls in play for their defense to deal with as most teams.

But if there is one thing the Angels hitters can take advantage of, it is a team that struggles when the ball is put in play. The Angels simply do not strikeout. They whiffed only 805 times this entire season, which was far and away the lowest total in all of baseball. In fact, they were the only team with less than 920 strikeouts.

So, the Yankees rely on their pitching staff's ability to limit the amount of balls put into play, thus limiting the effect their sub par defense has. But one thing the Angels do is put the ball in play. It is really an interesting contrast. A team that racks up big strikeout totals and a team that doesn't strikeout. A team that has trouble converting balls in play into outs and a team that hits the most balls in play in all of baseball.

We should be seeing a lot of bouncing ground balls that get by the outstretched gloves of Derek Jeter and Alfonso Soriano. We should be seeing a lot of balls flying past Bernie Williams and bouncing into the gaps."

And that is, if I may say so myself, exactly what we saw. The Angels didn't strike out, they forced New York's defense into a position where they needed to make lots of plays, and the end result was a whole lot of hits for the Angels. Anaheim struck out just 18 times in four games, they hit .376 as a team in the series, and scored an average of nearly 8 runs per game.

Fast forward now to this season. The Yankees once again come into the post-season with the worst team defense for converting balls in play into outs of the eight playoff teams. In fact, their team "Defensive Efficiency" is even worse than it was last season:

2002      .7079

2003 .6977

While last season the Yankees had the worst Defensive Efficiency of the eight playoff teams, their overall ranking was a somewhat respectable 18th out of the 30 MLB teams. This season, they not only have the worst Defensive Efficiency of the eight playoff teams, there are only a total of three teams in all of baseball worse than them. So, if last year's Yankee defense looked susceptible to an attack by an offense like Anaheim's, this year's team looks even more like it could be killed by an onslaught of balls in play.

And, at first glance, last year's Angels team and this season's Twins team have quite a bit in common. When I think of the 2002 Angels, I think of a group of hitters who went up there hacking and didn't hit tons of homers, but who relied on high batting averages and the ability to smack tons of balls into the gaps.

This current Twins team seems to be very similar offensively. They aren't particularly patient at the plate and they don't really have a whole lot of home run power, but they can lace singles, doubles and triples all over the field with the best of them.

In fact, take a look at how the two teams compare offensively:

                     AVG      OBP      SLG      HR    2B+3B

2002 Angels .282 .341 .433 152 365
2003 Twins .277 .341 .431 155 363

Almost identical, across-the-board. So, if you go by those numbers and each team's offensive reputation, it would seem like the Twins are a good bet to exploit New York's defense in much the same way Anaheim did last season.

Except for one thing - the Twins don't put the ball in play nearly as often as the Angels did. And that is, after all, the real reason why Anaheim's offense was so well suited for dismantling New York's defense. Take a look at how often each team struck out:

                     SO      AB%      PA%     SO/G

2002 Angels 805 14.1 12.7 4.97
2003 Twins 1027 18.2 16.3 6.34

Yes, the Twins don't have much home run power and yes, they hit lots of singles, doubles and triples. But they also strike out quite a bit. While the Angels had over 100 fewer strikeouts than any other team in the American League last season, the Twins had the 6th-most strikeouts in the AL. On a per-game basis, the 2003 Twins struck out 28% more often than the 2002 Angels did.

Basically, it doesn't seem as though the Twins are as well suited for exploiting New York's poor defense as last year's Anaheim team was. Because of that, I wouldn't expect the Twins to be able to simply bash the Yankees into submission like the Angels did. That means the Twins are going to have to outplay the team with the best record in the American League in all facets of the game, which has been a whole lot easier said than done for them lately.

When I first realized the Twins would be playing the Yankees in the opening round of the playoffs, I wrote an entry describing the dominance the Yankees have had over the Twins during the last two seasons.

Here is a little bit from that entry (September 19, 2003):

"The Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees played each other seven times this season. The Yankees won all seven games. In 2002, the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees played each other six times. The Yankees won all six games. In fact, in order to find the last time the Twins beat the Yankees, you'd have to go all the way back to May 10th of 2001.

The last two seasons against the Yankees have been so ugly for the Twins that it is something most Twins fans, myself included, have just sort of tried to forget about. If you pretend hard enough that it never happened, it starts to feel like the truth after a while, you know?

During their last 13 meetings, the Yankees have outscored the Twins by a total of 90 to 36. New York has beaten Minnesota with pitching, holding them to 3 runs or fewer in 10 of the 13 games, and they've beaten them by simply bashing the hell out of them, scoring 10+ runs in 4 of the 13 games."

Of course, all of those 13 losses took place a long time ago. I don't think what happened last season is particularly relevant for either team and even the seven straight losses this season were so long ago that both teams are playing much differently than they were back in early April.

In Minnesota's case, they struggled quite a bit in the first-half of the season. After their last loss to New York, they were 9-10 and they went into the All-Star break at 44-49. The Twins are 46-23 since the All-Star break and, prior to resting all of their starters against the Tigers in the final series of the year, they reeled off 11 straight wins.

Even beyond the wins and losses, the Twins' personnel is much different. Joe Mays and Rick Reed combined to lose 4 of the 7 games against the Yankees this year, and neither of them is likely to see much action in the playoffs (Mays won't see any, since he's injured). In addition to not having to start Mays and Reed against the Yanks, the Twins also have this young left-handed pitcher named Johan Santana who looks like he might be pretty good one day. If you've read this blog, you might have heard of him about...oh, I dunno, 50,000 times?

I remember a time not too long ago when I had a "FREE JOHAN SANTANA" watch on the left side of this page and I spent countless words begging the Twins to put him into the starting rotation. They finally did, he went 11-2 as a starter, and now he's starting Game One of the playoffs, against the New York Yankees.

Because of what can only be described as a "unique" schedule, the Twins and Yankees have an extra off-day between Game One and Game Two. That means each team's #1 starter can start Game One and then also start Game Four on full-rest. It also gives each team the option of going with their #2 starter in Game Two and then again in Game Five, on short-rest.

I've heard some say that this gives an unfair advantage to the Yankees, who can now start Mike Mussina twice on full-rest and have the option of skipping their #4 starter, David Wells, altogether. It is certainly an advantage for New York, but I actually think it is potentially a bigger positive for the Twins.

While the Yankees are starting Mussina twice on full-rest in Game One and Game Four, the Twins can do the same with Santana. And, like New York, they have the option of starting their #2 starter, Brad Radke, on short-rest in Game Five. That would allow them to skip their #4 starter, who likely would have been Kenny Rogers. So really, which team is better off? The one that gets to skip David Wells (15-7, 4.14 ERA) or the one that gets to skip Kenny Rogers (13-8, 4.57 ERA)? I'd certainly rather have Wells on the mound if I had my choice.

If both teams do decide to skip their #4 starters, that means they will be going with 3-man rotations, both consisting of two right-handers and one lefty. The Twins will go with Santana in Game One and Game Four, Radke in Game Two and Game Five (on short-rest) and Kyle Lohse in Game Three. Meanwhile, the Yankees would be going with Mussina in Game One and Game Four, Andy Pettitte in Game Two and Game Five (on short-rest) and Roger Clemens in Game Three.

I love the possibility of Santana and Radke starting four of the five games. They are Minnesota's two best starting pitchers and they have both been excellent since the All-Star break. Santana is 8-1 with a 3.13 ERA and Radke is 9-1 with a 3.24 ERA. I am even fairly confident that Radke will be effective starting on only three days of rest.

I do not, however, think that starting Kyle Lohse in Game Three is a good decision. First of all, Lohse gives up a lot of homers (28 in 201 IP), which is not a quality you want in a pitcher against the Yankees. Second, he has struggled against the Yankees this year, going 0-2 with a 7.15 ERA in two starts against them. And third, he throws the baseball right-handed and struggles against left-handed batters, which is playing right into New York's strength.

2003 Yankees

vs RHP .272 .357 .458
vs LHP .266 .354 .441

When they go up against left-handed pitching, the Yankees, as a team, lose 6 points of batting average, 3 points of OBP and 17 points of slugging. 3 points of AVG and 6 points of OBP is obviously nothing huge, but 17 points of SLG is fairly significant. That said, sometimes team numbers against righties and lefties can be misleading because, for example, New York's totals are impacted by guys who are no longer on the team.

So, instead of looking at their team-totals, I think it would be better to examine the performances of the players who will likely get the bulk of the playing time in the series.

Many people use OPS (on-base % + slugging %) to measure a hitter's offense, but I rarely do so, mostly because OPS is a very flawed stat, in my opinion. For one thing, it simply adds OBP and SLG together, weighing them equally. In reality, OBP is far more important to run scoring than SLG is. Because of that, I believe a more accurate snapshot of a hitter's offense is actually (OBP x 1.7) + SLG.

Here is a breakdown of New York's everyday players against righties and lefties, using (OBP x 1.7) + SLG:

                        vs RHP     vs LHP     +/- vs LHP

C Jorge Posada 1.198 1.188 - 1%
1B Jason Giambi 1.329 .976 - 27%
2B Alfonso Soriano 1.078 1.178 + 9%
SS Derek Jeter 1.078 1.240 + 15%
3B Aaron Boone 1.041 .832 - 20%
LF Hideki Matsui 1.071 .950 - 11%
CF Bernie Williams .996 1.110 + 11%
RF Karim Garcia 1.062
Ruben Sierra .922 - 13%
DH Nick Johnson 1.226 1.248 + 2%

If the Yankees end up going with a right field platoon of Karim Garcia and Ruben Sierra (and they may not, depending on the health of David Dellucci), that will mean, of their 9 spots in the lineup, 5 of them are worse against lefties. But really, Jorge Posada and Nick Johnson are essentially the same against righties and lefties, meaning you've really got four spots that decline against lefties, three that increase, and two that stay the same.

Of course, the declines (27%, 20%, 13% and 11%) are a lot bigger than the increases (15%, 11% and 9%), so I definitely think the Yankees are a better offense when a right-handed pitcher is on the mound. All of which is why I would have gone with Kenny Rogers in Game Three, instead of Lohse. Rogers is left-handed, he doesn't give up as many homers and I think he has been a more consistent pitcher than Lohse this season.

While the Yankees are slightly better against right-handed pitching than they are lefties, the Twins have one of the most extreme "splits" in baseball. Minnesota's everyday lineup features quite a few left-handed hitters (Mientkiewicz, Pierzynski, Koskie, Jones) and they have struggled quite a bit against southpaws this season. Here are their numbers:

2003 Twins

vs RHP .286 .349 .440
vs LHP .255 .323 .406

That is a huge drop-off. They lose 31 points of batting average, 26 points of on-base percentage and 34 points of slugging percentage.

The Twins had the 5th-best team OPS (on-base % + slugging %) against right-handed pitching in the AL this year. Against lefties, they ranked just 10th in the league. They won 61% of the time when a right-handed pitcher started the game for the other team and only 46% of the time facing a left-handed starter.

We might as well do the same thing for the Twins, just to see exactly what we're dealing with here:

                        vs RHP     vs LHP     +/- vs LHP

C A.J. Pierzynski 1.098 1.018 - 7%
1B Doug Mientkiewicz 1.126 1.084 - 4%
2B Luis Rivas .988 .695 - 30%
SS Cristian Guzman .909 .861 - 5%
3B Corey Koskie 1.270 .864 - 32%
LF Shannon Stewart 1.052 1.165 + 11%
CF Torii Hunter .959 1.034 + 8%
RF Jacque Jones 1.073
Dustan Mohr 1.072 N/A
DH Matthew LeCroy 1.033 1.110 + 7%

The majority of the spots in Minnesota's lineup go right in the tank when lefties are on the mound. Koskie's production declines by 32% and Rivas' goes down 30%. Pierzynski, Mientkiewicz and Guzman are all about 4-7% worse against lefties. The right field platoon (Jones/Mohr) remains about the same, while Shannon Stewart, Torii Hunter and Matthew LeCroy are 11%, 8% and 7% better against lefties, respectively.

In all, you've got two huge declines, three small declines, three small increases and one spot with essentially no change. Of course, that assumes Ron Gardenhire will have the sense to bench Jacque Jones when a left-handed starter goes for the Yankees, which is anything but a safe assumption. Jones is about 16% worse against lefties, which would make the Twins lineup even more anemic.

In looking at these two teams, I think the Twins are lucky that this series is five games and not seven. If it were a 7-game series with normal scheduling, they would be looking at facing a left-handed starter in at least 3 of the 7 games. As it stands now, they are likely going to only have to face Andy Pettitte, in what may be two of the five games, and the second of those two starts would be on short-rest. For the Twins, the less they see of David Wells, the better. Not only is Minnesota significantly worse against left-handed pitching, Wells has dominated them this season, going 2-0 with a 0.50 ERA against them in two starts (both complete-games).

It seems obvious to me that the New York Yankees are the better team here. They have a much stronger offense and their starting pitching is significantly better than Minnesota's too. The Twins likely have an edge in the bullpen and in overall depth, but the bullpen usage is tightened up in the post-season anyway, and the Yankees still have that Rivera guy in there the last time I checked.

In looking at the likely pitching matchups for this series (Santana vs. Mussina, Radke vs. Pettitte, Lohse vs. Clemens), I think the Yankees have the edge in each one. As good as Santana is, Mike Mussina is just as good, and he has tons of post-season experience and a long history of dominating the Twins. And as good as Brad Radke has been in the second-half, Andy Pettitte has been just as good (10-2, 3.24 ERA) and he, like Mussina, has a ton of post-season experience. The third pitching matchup is Lohse versus Clemens, which, quite frankly, is a no-brainer. Even a potential 4th-starter matchup of Rogers and Wells favors New York.

That's not to say the Twins can't win this series, because they can. To do so, they are going to have to play their best baseball of the season and their starting pitching must come up big for them.

I think Minnesota's chances of winning this series hinge on two major things:

1) Winning Game One

If the Twins can win the first game, they are guaranteed two games at the Metrodome, and I think that is huge. Of course, winning Game One against Mike Mussina, in Yankee Stadium, in a very tough task. Mussina is 20-2 (yes, 20-2) against the Twins in his career, including 2-0 with a 1.20 ERA against them this season. He was also 10-4 with a 3.04 ERA at Yankee Stadium this year.

Going up against Mussina will be Johan Santana, who has never started a playoff game in his life. Santana was very good against New York this year, pitching a total of 5.1 innings against them without allowing a run, while striking out 10 batters. That said, those numbers came in relief appearances, not starts, and the Yankees would seem to me to be the type of team that could give Johan some serious problems.

They are packed with very patient hitters up and down the lineup and the one area of Johan's game that can be a struggle at times is his control. He has improved dramatically in that area this season and has cut way down on his walks, but he often finds himself behind in the count (2-0, 3-1) and is forced to fight back. Now, he obviously has had a ton of success "fighting back" in counts this season, but doing so against the Yankees and the tremendous power they have in their lineup is an entirely different story. Which leads me to...

2) Keeping the ball in the ballpark

Quite simply, the fewer home runs that are hit in this series, the better it is for the Twins. Not only does New York have a ton of home run power while the Twins do not, the Twins pitching-staff also has trouble giving up home runs. That's a recipe for disaster against Giambi, Posada, Soriano, Johnson and the rest of the Bronx Bombers, who hit the 4th-most homers in all of baseball this year.

As a team, the Twins served up 187 homers this year, 42 more than Yankee pitchers allowed and 7th-most in the AL. 7th-most is not so severe, but the three starting pitchers New York is sure to see in this series were especially homerific...

                         HR        IP    IP/HR

Santana/Radke/Lohse 77 572.2 7.44
Everyone Else 110 889.0 8.01

Radke served up 32 long balls in 212.1 innings pitched and Lohse gave up 28 in 201 innings. Even Santana had trouble keeping the ball in the park, allowing 17 homers in 158.1 innings.

Limiting the amount of homers New York hits is going to be a major factor in this series and a major factor in simply keeping these games close, at which point the Twins might be able to use their depth and their bullpen to their advantage.

You take a few pitchers with a propensity for giving up homers and you put them into the post-season and match them up against the New York Yankees and I am just afraid that equals Home Run Derby, just like it did when these two teams met earlier in the year.

So, as much as it pains me to say this...

Yankees in four.

Twins Websites:

Dickie Thon Twins Forum

Twins Geek

Seth Speaks

The Baseball Boys

The Bad Twin

Yankees Websites:

Bronx Banter

Replacement-Level Yankees Weblog

Futility Infielder

Pinstripe News

Pride of the Yankees

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