October 5, 2010
ALDS Preview: Twins vs. Yankees
As they did last year as well as 2003 and 2004, the Twins run squarely into the Yankee juggernaut in the first round. Unlike those other three meetings, they have home field advantage this time around, as they won the AL Central going away thanks to a league-best 48-26 second-half record. The defending world champion Yankees, who held the majors' best record for most of the season, were forced to settle for the wild card due to a sluggish 13-17 showing against a very tough schedule in September and October. Despite the relative temperatures of the two clubs, it's important to remember that late-season records aren't predictive of October success—or failure.
Speaking of temperatures, the Twins are bringing postseason baseball to the great outdoors of Minnesota for the first time since 1970 via their new Target Field, with temperatures expected to drop into the mid-40s on the nights of Games One and Two. The spacious, pitcher-friendly park features distant fences (339 feet down the left field line, 328 down the right field line, 411 feet to center field) which made it the fourth-toughest park in which to homer this year (0.71 per team per game). That's a marked contrast to hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium III (314 down the left field line, 311 down the right field line, 399 to left-center, 408 to center, and 385 to right-center), where 1.38 homers per team per game were hit in 2010, the second-highest clip in the majors. The two parks have created two very contrasting teams, with the Twins much more reliant on putting the ball in play on both sides, and the Yankees playing the power game both on the mound and at the plate.
For the fourth time in five years, the Yankees can boast the majors' most potent offense, one that produced 5.3 runs per game (and a .271 True Average) thanks to a combination of a major league-high .350 on-base percentage and a powerful lineup playing in a ballpark where more homers were hit than anywhere this side of Toronto. The Yankees put the ball in play less often than any AL team except for the Rays (68.7 percent of the time) and scored 38.1 percent of their runs via the longball, ranking third in the AL in the Guillen Number standings for the second year in a row.
There are very few places for opposing pitchers to hide against the Bronx Bombers, but the irony with this year's lineup is that one of them is leadoff hitter Derek Jeter, who put up career lows in all three triple-slash categories while producing the majors' highest groundball rate; that said, work with Yankees hitting instructor Kevin Long keyed a slaptacular 14-game hitting streak last month. Nick Swisher, whose swing was reworked by Long last fall, traded in his usual deep-count-inducing patience for a somewhat more contact-friendly style; he was helped by a 63-point jump in BABIP (to .335). He's been nursing a bruised knee for almost six weeks and still appears somewhat hampered; he hit just .232/.300/.366 in September, and Joe Girardi may drop him down to sixth, with Curtis Granderson moving up to the two slot.
Mark Teixera overcame a gawdawful April (.136/.300/.259) to post Teixeira-like numbers the rest of the way (.275/.376/.515), getting on base often enough to lead the league in runs scored (113) while ranking third in walks (93) and fourth homers (33). Alex Rodriguez came back from a lengthy summer slump and a late-August calf strain to put up his best month of the season by far, hitting .295/.375/ .600 with nine homers in September/October to reach the 30 plateau for a record-tying 13th straight time. Robinson Cano enjoyed an MVP-caliber season brought down only by a tepid September/October showing (.294/.346/.412); he still set career standards for both power and patience while reaching the 200-hit plateau. Marcus Thames is generally a lefty-masher extraordinaire (.300/.352/.454 this year); he held his own when injuries pressed him into service against righties to the point of showing a reverse platoon split (.268/.347/.549), but that may not be enough to prevent him from sitting against righties in favor of Lance Berkman.
Jorge Posada is still a force to be reckoned with from both sides of the plate, and the spaced-out schedule should keep him in the lineup for the entirety of the series; that said, he's hit just .149/.286/.234 since a September 7 concussion scare. Granderson has been en fuego since working with Long back in mid-August, hitting .261/.356/.564 with 14 homers, more than anyone in the major leagues except Jose Bautista over the timeframe. Granderson's quieter swing seems to have particularly shored up his own weak performance against southpaws (.286/.375/.500 in 64 PA, compared to .206/.243/.275 in 107 PA prior) Brett Gardner merely set a record for the highest rate of pitches per plate appearance since such data began being kept in 1988 (4.61); in a meritocracy, he'd be leading off and Jeter would be batting ninth. That said, some of that patience stems from a bruised wrist sustained in late June which marked a turning point for his season; he hit .321/.403/.418 prior to the injury, .232/.363/.340 afterwards, with both his strikeouts and walk rates rising around 50 percent.
The Twins finished the regular season ranked fifth in the AL in scoring (4.82 runs per game) and third in True Average (.271), but they get the job done in quite a different fashion than the Yankees. They put the ball in play at a clip higher than all but four other AL teams (73.3 percent), via which their offense posted the league's third-highest batting average (.273), and they used the longball to score just 28.2 percent of their runs via homers, the second-lowest rate in the league.
The Twins are without first baseman Justin Morneau, who was officially shut down for the season on Monday due to lingering post-concussion syndrome. Off to an MVP-caliber start—his .360 True Average led the league at the time—he hasn't played since July 7. His injury caused a chain reaction which broke up an outfield logjam, sending Michael Cuddyer to first base and keeping Delmon Young and Jason Kubel in the outfield corners on a full-time basis, with Jim Thome getting most of the reps at DH. Thome's almost impossibly hot bat during that span (.303/.438/.669 with 15 homers in just 178 plate appearances) helped the team edge up to 5.0 runs per game since Morneau's injury while reeling off an AL-best 49-29 record.
Denard Span (26 of 30 in steals) and Orlando Hudson (10 of 13) top a lineup constructed along old-school lines; they're there for speed, not OBP. Joe Mauer battled heel, hip, shoulder and knee injuries at various points during the year, missing nine games due to the latter late last month, a much-needed rest triggered in part by the team's early clinch date. Amid all that, he still hit an insane .373/.447/.527 in the second half, a bit light in the power department but with just 21 strikeouts in 255 plate appearances. Expect the Yankees to exploit what's been a huge platoon split for him this year (.272/.342/.369 vs. lefties, compared to .365/.442/.536 vs. righties). Young got off to a hot start (.335/.366/.550 through July) but pitchers seemed to catch up to him late in the year (.240/.280/.403 from August into October). He did set career highs in slugging percentage and homers (21), but remains a relatively undisciplined hitter, walking unintentionally in just 3.8 percent of his plate appearances. Thome, for all of his heroics, remains vulnerable to lefties, who held him to a .241/.298/.471 line in 94 PA; even so, Ron Gardenhire appears bent on starting him against southpaws CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte, something he's done with increasing frequency over the final two months of the season.
Cuddyer suffered through a down year after a banner 2009, with a home run total that plummeted from 32 to 14. The drop didn't owe entirely to park; he was a better hitter at home, but he really petered out down the stretch (.259/.322/.382 from August 1 onward), perhaps because he made 67 straight starts at first base after Morneau went down. Kubel's numbers fell off the table as well, both at home and on the road; still passable against righties (.260/.328/.464 with 19 homers in 399 PA this year), he remains a pushover against lefties (.225/.311/.344 with two homers in 183 PA). The unheralded Danny Valencia is one of the keys to the team's strong second half; he seized the third base job in mid-June, consigning Nick Punto to a more appropriate (f)utility infielder role and showing more offense than expected. J.J. Hardy missed four weeks due to a wrist injury but enjoyed a modest rebound after a thoroughly disappointing 2009. That said, his performance against lefties has plummeted, from .299/.374/.564 from 2005-08 to .191/.300/.282 in 2009 and 2010. Not that Gardenhire showed much inclination to do anything about it; Hardy sat just three times against lefties since the All-Star break.
The spaced-out schedule will leave the Yankees less reliant on their bench than they were during the regular season. With Posada not needing to catch more than two days in a row— something he did just once in a starting capacity after May 3—Francisco Cervelli likely won't receive any starts, and praise Jeebus, neither will Ramiro Pena spotting for Rodriguez at third base. Berkman, who hit a slappy but useful .299/.405/.388 in September/October after returning from an ankle sprain, is a hazard against lefties (.171/.261/.256) but still enough of a threat against righties (.267/.393/.453) to be the team's likely DH against Carl Pavano and Nick Blackburn, with Thames available off the bench for late-inning thunder should the need arise. Granderson's resurgence—particularly against lefties—likely relegates Austin Kearns to a role as cheerleader and defensive caddy. Edwin Nunez and Greg Golson appear to be battling for the final roster spot; whoever gets the call will be the primary pinch-running option; the latter could also draw duty as Swisher's defensive replacement thanks to memories of his game-ending peg to nail the Rays' Carl Crawford a few weeks back.
The Twins have opted to carry just two catchers on the roster, meaning that they expect Mauer to start every game despite his knee woes; as such, Drew Butera is here as insurance. Gardenhire chose to prioritize speed and defense over pinch-hitting prowess, costing third catcher Jose Morales his spot. Matt Tolbert is the backup first baseman and can play second and third as well; a SHINO (switch hitter in name only), he went just 1-for-18 against lefties. Punto is the all-purpose glove man who's likely to be deployed on the left side if Gardenhire feels a defensive upgrade is necessary; he's a candidate to pinch-run for Thome or Kubel, as is Alexi Casilla. The latter hit just .252/.315/.387 against righties but fared better against lefties (in a small sample size: 12-for-33), which could come into play if Gardenhire tires of Hardy's flailing against southpaws. Jason Repko is the defensive replacement for the outfield, most likely deployed in place of Kubel (who he may also pinch-run for)—not that Young couldn't use one as well.
The Yankees rotation is in precarious shape as the postseason begins, a far cry from last fall when Sabathia, Pettitte and A.J. Burnett were able to make every postseason start for the team en route to its World Series win. Aside from Sabathia, the unit put up a 5.91 ERA in the second half while averaging just 5 2/3 innings per start, as Pettitte hit the DL due to a groin strain and Burnett, Javier Vazquez and Phil Hughes fizzled. That makes the big man, who put up a season that will draw Cy Young consideration (first in wins at 21, sixth in strikeouts at 197, seventh in ERA), a reasonable bet to return for Game Four on three days' rest no matter what the series tally is. Uncharacteristically, Sabathia showed a slight reverse platoon split this year (.232/.295/.354 vs righties, .261/.318/.360 vs. lefties), but the rest of the cast has far bigger problems.
At this writing, Girardi hasn't announced the remainder of his rotation. With Pettitte having just three very mixed September starts (13 1/3 innings, 22 hits, 10 earned runs) to work his way back into shape, and having not even reached the 90-pitch plateau since July 8, the odds favor Hughes getting the call for Game Two at Target, and then being able to come back on four days' rest in Game Five. It's certainly a logical move given the poor fit of Hughes' fly ball tendency with Yankee Stadium; he yielded 20 of his 25 homers at home, 1.7 per nine in the Bronx compared to 0.6 per nine on the road. After jumping out to a 3.17 ERA with eight quality starts out of 13 through June 19, he's put up a 5.07 ERA with seven quality starts out of 16 since, and the Yanks skipped his turn or limited him to relief duty in order to keep him on target for his innings cap. Lately he's begun reintegrating his changeup in early counts against lefties, which has helped subdue them. As for Burnett, while he was an integral part of last year's October run, his 2010 season has been an outright disasterpiece, though this past weekend's start against J.D. Drew and the PawSox Revue was passable, at least in Girardi's eyes. Still, there's almost no way the Yanks put the season in his hands facing an elimination game.
By virtue of their clinching the AL Central flag on September 21, the Twins have had plenty of time to set their rotation. It's a marked contrast to that of the Yanks, in that while the pinstripes offer power pitching (7.3 K/9, 3.1 BB/9 for the front four), the Twins' chosen quartet—with Brian Duensing and Blackburn getting the calls over Kevin Slowey and the more power-oriented Scott Baker, both hampered by elbow woes in September—are much more finesse-oriented (5.9 K/9, 2.2 B/9). The contrast is even starker once you exclude power lefty Francisco Liriano, in that both Pavano and Blackburn whiffed less than five hitters per nine, while Duensing was at 5.4.
That might play to the Twins' advantage given that the Yankees punished power pitchers but struggled versus finesse-sters, but then again it might not. Liriano enjoyed by far his strongest campaign since his 2006 rookie showing, whiffing 201 hitters and yielding a league-best 0.4 homers per nine; he's absolutely hell on lefties (.218/.250/.267), which is no small concern against a Yankees squad that went just 31-27 in games started by southpaws despite an OPS six points higher than against righties. Pavano was hit hard over the final two months of the season (4.85 ERA and a .318/.351/.490 line). He's the kind of finesse pitcher against whom the Yankees struggled in 2010, though they didn't face him; he did throw a strong start against them in last year's ALDS. Duensing pitched well out of the bullpen in the first half, then held his own in 13 second-half starts. He murderized lefties (.162/.217/.239) but scuffled against righties (.282/.335/.416); a bigger concern is that he experienced tightness in his shoulder prior to a start last week, though apparently not enough for him to be scratched from this series. Blackburn put up horrendous numbers through July (6.66 ERA, 1.6 HR/9) due in part to a .337 BABIP; after spending three weeks at Triple-A Rochester, he rode a .235 BABIP to a 3.16 ERA and seven quality starts out of eight. Still, it has to rate as a concern that the pitch-to-contact groundballer facing a high-pressure start in Yankee Stadium put up a 7.57 ERA away from Target Field, compared to 3.71 at home. It's virtually unthinkable that the Twins would bring back the fragile Liriano on three days' rest for a Game Four start, but if they get to a Game Five, they certainly hold the cards in a Liriano-Hughes battle.
After a shaky first half in which they ranked ninth in the league with 2.7 WXRL and seventh with a 4.30 FRA, the Yankees' bullpen had the second-best second half of any AL bullpen with 5.5 WXRL and a 3.28 FRA. The key was the July 31 deadline arrival of Kerry Wood, who took over the eighth-inning duties from the spotty Joba Chamberlain; despite an inflated walk rate, he yielded just two runs and allowed only one of 10 inherited runners to score in 26 innings for the Yankees. David Robertson (2.31 FRA and a team-high 1.5 WXRL after the break) surpassed Chamberlain in the righty setup pecking order somewhere along the way, though his ability to warm up more quickly than any other Yankees reliever leaves him vulnerable to being deployed early if a starter is flailing. Boone Logan enjoyed a strong second half (25/8 K/BB ratio in 21.2 innings, 7/23 IR/IS. He held lefties to a .190/.286/.215 line this year, while righties hit a robust .279/.372/.471. Royce Ring, who spent most of the past two years in the minors, may make the cut as a second lefty; the former first-round pick's command woes have led to a .237/.355/.324 vs. lefties in his migratory career, and it's difficult to see Girardi calling him in for a key fifth- or sixth-inning turn against Mauer or Thome as opposed to Logan or an on-the bubble righty such as Sergio Mitre (.226/.261/.368 in 111 PA, reversing previous trends).
At the end of the chain, of course, is Mariano Rivera, the last man standing at the end of last year's World Series, and not only the greatest closer ever (roll over Dennis Eckersley, and tell Trevor Hoffman the news) but the greatest postseason performer ever, with a 0.74 ERA across 133 1/3 innings, a 107/21 strikeout-to-walk ratio and just two home runs allowed. The 40-year-old enjoyed another strong campaign in 2010, ranking seventh in the league in WXRL, but he blew three saves in a 14-game span in September, and his 6.8 K/9 was his lowest rate since 2006. It's worth noting that his September/October ERAs have been higher than any other month over the course of his career (2.53, a quarter-run higher than April); he'll be ready to go as early as the eighth inning should Girardi need him to, as he did in six of his 13 postseason appearances last year.
As for the Twins, they finished the season third in WXRL (9.2) and fourth in FRA (3.79) despite a bullpen that's been in a constant state of evolution since Joe Nathan discovered he needed Tommy John surgery back in March. Jon Rauch spent the first half of the season as the team's closer and didn't do a bad job, converting 20 out of 24 save opportunities before the All-Star break with a 2.38 ERA and a tidy 25/5 K/BB ratio in 34 innings. He got knocked around a bit in mid-July, and by the end of the month the team traded for the Nationals’ Matt Capps, who assumed closer duty and bumped Rauch into a setup role, where he remained quite effective. The 6-foot-11 behemoth had fluid drained from his knee and received a cortisone shot last Thursday, so there's some question about his availability.
Capps restored some lost velocity to his fastball en route to a banner year; outside of a two-week stretch in early summer, he converted 40 of 42 save opportunities. While he doesn't post dominant strikeout rates, he's stingy with the walks and homers. He's never been anywhere near a postseason before, so expect his performance to be under some scrutiny. Brian Fuentes, acquired from the Angels in late August, has plenty of closer experience, including two of the last three postseasons. He garnered just one save since coming to the Twins because he missed two weeks with a back strain. He can work situationally—lefties went just 6-for-47 against him—but he can also handle righties (.202/.293/403) well enough to pitch in a more general setup role.
Ahead of that trio are Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain, with the latter having surpassed the former in the pecking order thanks to a strong second half (2.14 ERA, 8.8 K/9) and a general ability to miss more bats; both had relatively small platoon splits in 2010. Slowey, the latest in a long line of homegrown control freaks (1.7 BB/9) is around as the long man. Baker's status hinges on the verdict on Rauch; he's made just two relief appearances in his big league career, and there's some concern about his ability to get loose quickly in the wake of his bout of elbow tendonitis. Jose Mijares lost about eight weeks of the season due to an elbow strain and a meniscus tear; as a result, his performance against lefties eroded (or regressed) from a .155/.228/.252 showing in 114 PA last year to .268/.311/.464 in 62 PA this year—slightly worse than he fared against righties. If the Twins have doubts about his health, they can call upon Glen Perkins, who spent most of the season getting knocked around at Triple-A Rochester before getting knocked around Minnesota.
The Yankees ranked a strong second in the league in both raw Defensive Efficiency (.713) and Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (1.70). The FRAA numbers credit Teixeira and Rodriguez with the strongest seasons in the infield, with both Cano and Jeter slightly below average—a showing largely at odds with what UZR and Plus/Minus say. Those two systems both see Cano as slightly above-average, Tex and A-Rod average-ish, and Jeter well below average, findings that while they don't clash with commonly held wisdom still fail to give the entire unit some credit for the strong overall showing. The outfield is a stronger proposition thanks to the rangy Gardner and Granderson playing side by side; that duo and Swisher all fared well across the big three systems. Gardner had nine assists thanks to the occasional successes when runners challenged his arm, which is generally considered fairly weak; Swisher (10 assists) is the stronger-armed of the two. Behind the plate, Posada's defense rates as a concern; he threw out just 13 of 85 stolen base attempts (15 percent) and had eight passed balls in just 83 games.
The Twins ranked just ninth in raw Defensive Efficiency (.693) and eighth in PADE (-0.58), which has to be a concern given what a contact-oriented staff they have. On the right side of the infield, Cuddyer rates as a subpar defensive first baseman across all three systems, while Hudson was well above average; on the left, Hardy was about average in terms of FRAA, and a bit better by the other two metrics, while Valencia rated a bit above average across all three. The outfield is a bit more of a concern, particularly in spacious Target, with Young (who threw out a team-high 12 runners) and Kubel both well below average, though Span comes in as a solid plus. Behind the plate, Mauer cut down 19 of 72 would-be thieves (26 percent) and allowed just four passed balls, a slightly above-average showing in the balance.
After guiding the Yankees to their 27th world championship, Girardi again managed to keep a loose atmosphere around the Yankees, staying calm in the face of major slumps from Teixeira, Rodriguez, Jeter and Granderson, and playing key injuries to A-Rod and Posada very conservatively. He used his bench frequently during the year to get through the long season (the Yankees were fifth in the number of pinch-hitters used with 114) all with the aim of keeping his best unit available for October, even at the possible expense of the AL East flag. He didn't call upon small-ball tactics very often; the Yankees ranked just 11th in the league in sacrifice bunts (33) and eighth in stolen base attempts (133). Still, they were fifth in stolen base percentage (77.4 percent), and fourth in Equivalent Baserunning Runs (2.5). Over the course of a full season, he once again did a strong job of assembling a working bullpen out of chaos, but last postseason, Coffee Joe showed a tendency to overmanage his bullpen, occasionally pulling effective pitchers a bit early, a tic he'd do well to avoid. He did deserve high marks for taking advantage of the schedule to distribute as many innings as possible among his top pitchers, stripping his rotation down to a three-man core and maximizing his use of Rivera. With this year's rotation in disarray, he'd be advised to do so again.
Gardenhire guided the Twins to their sixth division championship in his nine years at the helm, surmounting the challenges of losing two of the team's stars (Morneau and Nathan) by mixing and matching among the remaining hands until he found combinations that worked. He's not blessed with a strong bench and doesn't pinch-hit often; the Twins were tied for seventh with 85 pinch-hitters, but aside from Thome they went just 5-for-49. He's not as enamored of small-ball tactics as his reputation may suggest; the Twins ranked ninth in sac bunts (38) and 12th in stolen base attempts (96). That didn't help much; they were ninth in stolen base percentage (70.8) and ninth in EqBRR (-7.8). He's gone out on a limb with his choice of Game Three and Four starters here, but he's shown strength in running his pitching staffs over the years, particularly upon getting into his bullpens and getting the high-leverage innings to his best hurlers.
It appears that the Yankees won't announce their rotation or roster until Tuesday evening. Without an official announcement regarding Pettitte and Hughes (and maybe Burnett), it's very tough to gaze into the crystal ball. I do think Girardi and his staff are smart enough to see the merits of Hughes' fly ball tendency playing better at Target, and of using Sabathia on three days' rest regardless of where the series stands. In that case, the Yankees would be extremely likely to get their best starter on the mound for more innings than the Twins will, and facing a much inferior pitcher in Blackburn for the second go-round; my call would be Yankees in four. I'm tempted to revise that pick if Girardi goes the Pettitte route or even the Burnett one, but the fact is that with the potential of at least three starts from top-notch lefties against the Twins, the Yankees have a clear leg up on shutting down Mauer and Thome. So I'll stick with that call.