October 2, 2006
ALDS Preview: Twins-A's
TEAM W L WIN% RS RA ExW-L 2HALF
Oakland 93 69 .574 771 727 86-76 48-26
Minnesota 96 66 .593 801 683 94-68 49-27
OFFENSE RS/G AVG OBP SLG 2B HR BB SO
Oakland 4.76 .260 .340 .412 266 175 650 976
Minnesota 4.94 .287 .347 .425 275 143 490 872
DEFENSE RS/G AVG OBP SLG 2B HR BB SO
Oakland 4.49 .272 .338 .422 289 162 529 1003
Minnesota 4.22 .267 .312 .423 280 182 356 1164
On the surface, Minnesota and Oakland are perhaps as different as two teams can possibly be, and that perception stems directly from the men who lead them. A's general manager Billy Beane is forever in the spotlight as the source of constant media debate or the focus of a bestselling book, while Twins general manager Terry Ryan is tight-lipped and rarely in the press. As you might expect, the perceived differences also extend to each organization.
In large part because of Moneyball, the A's are viewed as an organization that's built around statistical performance and prefers the low-risk certainty of college draft picks. Meanwhile, the Twins are seen as a heavily scout-based organization that prefers the raw athletic tools that come with projectable high schoolers. Naturally, the perceived differences in front-office leadership and organizational philosophy also extend to the big-league teams.
Thanks to Michael Lewis' fascinating portrayal of Beane's early days on the job, the A's will always be known as a team built around plate discipline and power at the expense of defense. At the other end of the spectrum, the Twins have long had a reputation for defense and pitching carrying a team that went nearly two decades without a single 30-homer hitter. Add it all up and these two teams--from the men who lead them, the organizations they run, and the teams they build--appear to be complete opposites.
However, while it's true that Beane and Ryan go about their jobs in vastly different ways, the end result looks awfully similar once you get past perceptions and style. The average fan may still think of the A's as a bunch of slow, defensively-challenged sluggers like they were years ago, but in reality that has ceased being true. In fact, of late the A's have been every bit as focused on pitching and defense as the Twins.
Whether it's the original cast of Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Tim Hudson or the current group of Zito, Danny Haren, and Rich Harden, starting pitching has long been Oakland's biggest strength. And while memories of the comically rangeless Ben Grieve-Terrence Long-Matt Stairs outfield still shape the way people view the A's to this day, they've quietly morphed into one of the strongest defensive teams in all of baseball.
As Beane told the New York Times this week:
We changed dramatically over the last few years. People accused us of being a slow-pitch softball team: Get men on base and have someone hit a three-run homer. But we've become more defensive-oriented. There was a time when we could go after players who all they did was get on base. They didn't bring any other skills to the table. They couldn't field, couldn't run.
A player like Matt Stairs wasn't given the opportunity because he was perceived as not being able to do the other things. Now players without skills are being pursued. People who have the highest on-base percentage are the highest-paid players in the league. We can't find it where it's undervalued anymore. There are no bargains any more in that area.
In other words, once you scratch the surface and go beyond long-expired perceptions that people like Joe Morgan cling to, this matchup is a bit like looking in the mirror. Like the Twins under Ryan, the A's under Beane are a small-payroll team built on the foundation of developing homegrown talent through a strong minor-league system. While once very different in terms of the big-league teams' shape, the changing marketplace has made the current version of the A's as close to the Twins as you'll get.
The Twins and A's have both snuck in under the radar as the Yankees claimed their usual top billing for October, posting baseball's two best records since the All-Star break at 49-27 and 48-26. While the Twins are in the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons and have put together six straight winning campaigns, the A's are in their fifth postseason of the past seven years and can boast eight straight winning seasons.
The question now is which version of the Twins is better: Ryan's original or Beane's adaptation?
At first glance, the Twins and A's appear to have very similar offenses. The Twins ranked eighth in the league with 801 runs, while the A's ranked ninth with 771. The Twins had a .347 on-base percentage and .425 slugging percentage, compared to Oakland getting on base at a .340 clip and slugging .412. Remarkably close, but just as the shape of the Twins and A's is similar despite different approaches, the offensive attacks were similarly productive despite not actually being all that alike.
The Twins' offense is based on making more contact and hitting more singles than any other team in baseball, which is how they led the league with a .287 batting average without scoring a boatload of runs. The A's strike out a fair amount and don't hit nearly as many singles, ranking 13th in the league with a lowly .260 batting average, but also managed to get on first base a ton by drawing more walks than any team but the Red Sox.
The A's have slightly more power than the Twins, but neither team has much pop beyond a few home-run threats (Frank Thomas, Eric Chavez, and Nick Swisher for Oakland, Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter, and Michael Cuddyer for Minnesota). For the most part, these are both "long-form" offenses that get on base at good clips and then need multiple hits to put together big rallies. As with Beane and Ryan, the overall product is awfully similar despite a contrast in styles.
What makes the two offenses especially interesting in this matchup is that they play right into the other team's strengths defensively. The A's like to work counts and draw walks, but the Twins' pitching staff handed out the fewest free passes in baseball by a wide margin. The Twins like to put the ball in play and apply pressure to the defense, but Oakland will convert about 70 percent of balls in play into outs because of defenders like Chavez, Mark Kotsay, Mark Ellis, Jay Payton, and Milton Bradley.
It'll be tough for the slap-hitting portion of the Twins' lineup to dink and dunk the A's to death like they've done to so many teams this year, but the flip side is that Twins pitchers will force the A's to put balls in play when trying to coax walks proves pointless. The A's don't have nearly as much team speed as the Twins, so good defense or not they're ill-equipped for a ball-in-play fest against what's been a fantastic defense since Juan Castro and Tony Batista departed Minnesota.
The truth is that the true "key" to this series is Johan Santana, because the Twins win if he dominates. However, if he's less than flawless, suddenly secondary issues like how the ball-in-play battle plays out will become big factors. Given Oakland's rotation and Justin Duchscherer-Huston Street relief duo, plus the Twins' combination of Santana and baseball's best bullpen, this doesn't figure to be a series full of big scores and game-changing home runs.
Instead, it should be a battle of which lineup can sneak enough singles and doubles past the defense to string together an extended rally. If Oakland swallows up grounders and soft liners, it's going to be a long series for the "piranhas." At the same time, the A's could struggle if forced into a hitting style they aren't accustomed to against an equally stingy defense. For all the talk of Morneau and Thomas, Mauer and Chavez, Santana and Zito, Street and Joe Nathan, this may very well come down to the gloves.
It's too bad Beane got rid of those slow-footed sluggers, because the Twins could ball-in-play the old A's to death. It's a shame the Twins can't play the team that exists in the stubborn minds of those who continue to criticize the A's for being "Moneyball" without realizing the changes Beane has orchestrated, because that team was a lot easier to beat than the Twins clone that'll take the field today. Thankfully, Johan doesn't discriminate.
I expect runs to be at a premium throughout the series, with games changing more on balls that don't leave the infield than those that fly over the fence. If Santana keeps his year-plus Metrodome unbeaten streak alive and Ron Gardenhire smartly unloads the bullpen early and often, this is the Twins' series to lose. If Santana is human and Oakland's defense plays well, it could be a week of flailing away at Zito and company, and the Twins may add to the 15 times they were shutout in the regular season.