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.

May 17, 2010

Finally! Twins 6, Yankees 3

With the Yankees leading 3-1 and the bases loaded yesterday afternoon Joe Girardi called on Mariano Rivera to get the final out of the eighth inning. An unusually difficult spot for a closer to be sure, but not an unusually difficult spot for the best closer of all time. Rivera had gotten more than three outs for a save 144 times between the regular season and postseason in his career. By comparison, the Twins' leader is Rick Aguilera with 57 and Joe Nathan has 11.

It wasn't quite just another day at the office for Rivera, because he strolled in from the bullpen tied for the all-time record with 51 consecutive saves converted at home dating back to 2007. Oh, and the Yankees had also beaten the Twins in 12 straight games. So, naturally he handed out his first bases-loaded walk since 2005 and then served up his first grand slam since 2002, as Jim Thome's patience and Jason Kubel's power turned a 3-1 deficit into a 6-3 lead.

All of that is apparently what it takes for the Twins to win a game against the Yankees. Finally.

Including the regular season and playoffs, Ron Gardenhire has 738 wins and 620 losses since replacing Tom Kelly as Twins manager in 2002. That works out to a .543 winning percentage, which is the equivalent of going 88-74 in a 162-game season. During that nine-year span the Twins have a winning record against 10 of the 13 other teams in the AL and are 92-52 against NL teams in interleague play. And they're now 17-52 against the Yankees.

To understand just how unfathomably horrendous their record is against the Yankees, take a look at the Twins' record under Gardenhire broken down by opponent:

OPPONENT        W      L     WIN%     1YR
Rays           36     18     .667     108
Interleague    92     52     .639     104
Royals         96     59     .619     100
Tigers         93     62     .600      97
Rangers        41     31     .569      92
Orioles        33     26     .559      91
Mariners       40     33     .548      89
White Sox      82     72     .532      86
Red Sox        28     25     .528      85
Indians        81     74     .523      85
Athletics      40     40     .500      81
Blue Jays      26     30     .464      75
Angels         33     46     .418      68
Yankees        17     52     .246      40

Total         738    620     .543      88

Along with wins, losses, and winning percentage the above table has a "1YR" column showing the Twins' record against each opponent prorated to one 162-game season. For instance, the 36-18 record versus the Rays is equivalent to going 108-54 in one full season, while the 92-52 record in interleague play is equivalent to 104-58. Not surprisingly they've also dominated the Royals, with a .619 winning percentage that's akin to 100-62.

In fact, if you remove the Yankees from the equation the Twins are 721-568 under Gardenhire for a .559 winning percentage, which is like a 91-71 record over a 162-game season. They're below .500 against just two non-Yankee teams, going the equivalent of 75-87 versus the Blue Jays and 68-94 versus the Angels. And versus the Yankees? They'd be 40-122, which happens to match the fewest wins ever for an actual team (the Mets in 1962) in a 162-game season.

All of which is a very long way of saying that, even after yesterday's much-needed victory, the Twins' ineptitude against New York is startling. I'm not sure how to explain it because I'm not sure there is an explanation, although certainly many factors have played a part. Chief among them is that the Yankees have simply been better than the Twins (and just about every other team in baseball) during Gardenhire's tenure, winning an average of 98 games per season.

Of course, based strictly on the Yankees' superior teams you might expect the Twins to have a similar record against them as their 33-46 mark against the Angels, but 17-52 is clearly a long way from 33-46. One factor that makes the matchup more lopsided than the strength of the overall teams would suggest is that the Twins' pitching staffs have been filled with fly-balling control artists who're particularly susceptible to power-laden lineups like New York's.

Another factor is that Gardenhire seems to over-manage against the Yankees, making tactical decisions he'd otherwise not bother with in a "normal" setting. Making more matchup-based, mid-inning pitching changes rather than trusting his typical bullpen usage and calling for more bunts and steals despite playing for one run being an especially poor strategy against a lineup that powerful are two examples. And last but not least, simple bad luck has also been a factor.

Whether yesterday's dramatic victory can help reverse the Twins' nearly decade-long struggles against the Yankees obviously remains to be seen, but for now at least 17-52 feels a whole lot better than 16-52 and they'll get another crack at New York when Rivera and company come to Target Field for the first time next week. In the meantime, Yankees-related teeth gnashing aside the Twins have MLB's fourth-best record at 23-14 and lead the AL Central by 1.5 games.

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