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October 1, 2002
Oakland Athletics vs. Minnesota Twins
This is my favorite playoff series, if only because it's going to finally put the lie to Bud Selig's constant lament that no team in the lower half of payroll has ever advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs. The Twins and the A's were respectively 27th and 28th in ESPN's Opening Day payroll tally. I'm surprised that the right Honorable Commissioner didn't intervene and 'fix' the matchups in what he might see as the best interests of baseball. One of these teams will win three games and advance, only to be immediately heralded as an aberration, no matter what happens when they face the Yankees.
DH-B Ray Durham (.289/.374/.450/.296)*
LF-L Jacque Jones (.300/.341/.511/.287)
Feel free to swap Mientkiewicz into #3 and Koskie to #6. I won't mind.
The A's have a better offense than the Twins do. Sure, if you're making a player-by-player comparison, you can say "oh, but Torii Hunter's better than Long, so that's one for the Twins, and then A.J.....". No. The A's field three guys better than the Twins' best hitter.
Both teams have offensive holes, certainly. The A's would love for this post-season to be played under America's Cup rules, where the winner can take the loser's hull, for instance, and use it in the next race. The A's could take A.J. Pierzynski and Torii Hunter to replace Hernandez and Long (both of whom got overly generous multi-year deals in the off-season), along with most of a bullpen (we'll get to that in a minute). Meanwhile the Yankees would beat the Angels and pick up nobody.
The Twins have a couple of similar holes this season in Guzman and Rivas (when healthy). They're both being played for their gloves along with Mientkiewicz, while the A's are more willing to punt those positions for the bats they so easily turn up, like Scott Hatteberg.
The story, of course, is going to be two low-budget teams defying baseball, one of them slated for destruction so their quadrillionaire owner could make an extra $250m. You've got your choice of young, scrappy heroes: the blue-collar, working-class little-ball offense of the Twins against the swaggering, working-class blue-collar baseball of the A's. Will scrap and grit overcome the three-run homer? Oakland's team line is .261/.339/.431, while the Twins put up a .272/.332/.437. Looks pretty even as long as you ignore the Metrodome being a hitter's park while the Al Davis Reconfigurable Hole plays as a pitcher's park; the respective ballpark effects on run-scoring from 1999-2001 show up with the Metrodome clocking in at 110, and the ADRH at 90.
The real key here is that the Twins are going to see Hudson-Mulder-Zito the first three games, and they suck against lefties. The Twins put up a bad .252/.318/.411 line against southpaws this season. If you're into even smaller sample sizes, they hit a pathetic .234/.279/.383 against the A's this year. The reverse is interesting -- the A's hit .267/.337/.430, almost 60 points of OPS goodness. Yeah, I know, that's not fair because the Twins have been patching their rotation together with seaweed and snot. But there it remains. Even if Hudson fails, Mulder and Zito are going to eat this offense like so much delicious clubhouse nigiri.
1B/OF-L John Mabry (.276/.324/.526/.292)
OF/1B-R Michael Cuddyer (.257/.305/.431/.261)
Here's a bold prediction, the kind you can only get with the kind of in-depth analysis you get on Internet web sites that offer playoff preview coverage: If this series ends up an epic battle of late-inning pinch-hitting dramatics, it will be a surprise.
With three starters, Oakland's probably going to go in with six relievers, which leaves room for six guys on the bench, although they're not much help. As much as I'm a card-carrying member of the Billy Beane fan club, was that really the best bench he could hook us up with? Couldn't he have ripped off the Brewers for Matt Stairs and Israel Alcantara? Sure, Mabry's hit well, but... John Mabry has hit well? I mean seriously, come on now. How long before he turns up on Fox's "Wildest Alien Autopsies Gone Wrong" (coming this fall, narrated by Jonathan Frakes)? What's interesting to me is that Mabry/Saenz offer two almost-identical pinch-hitting options: guys who can get the ball in play and hit for decent power. Potentially Art Howe could burn them in every game with amusing on-deck antics, announcing one and sending the other up if they put in a new reliever, or sending one up in the other's uniform. Seriously, how many people could describe John Mabry or Olmedo Saenz well enough for a police sketch artist, not including Chris Kahrl and other people who are professionally obsessed with bench depth and the 11th man in the bullpen? Four? Five?
Restovich is only wishful thinking on my part. You name Mike Duvall, who's on the 60-day DL, to the playoff roster, and then replace him with Restovich, using the Seattle Mariners Memorial Playoff Roster Loophole. Cuddyer and Restovich could be worth some runs against Mulder/Zito in tight late-inning situations. I'd go farther than that and look to replace one of the lefties with Cuddyer/Restovich in the starting lineup. However, the Twins have already made their decision, sending Restovich away to the AFL.
Denny Hocking may not have a huge impact on the way the series breaks, but he'll certainly make our lives more entertaining with his post-game quote antics. If Denny Hocking came to my town as a stand-up act, I'd be there with bells on. There should be a post-season roster spot available for hilarious bench jockeys who would still get a full share of the winnings.
RHP Kyle Lohse (0.7, 4.23, 180 2/3)
What kind of playoff rotation features Rick Reed as its highlight? Ladies and gentlemen, your 2002 Minnesota Twins playoff rotation. It's subject to change, obviously. Their rotation was decimated and it appears that they've decided to take their chances on these guys being healthy, rather than go with the horses they know. And there you have them, dice rolls.
You can see they've all lost some time to injuries, and there's the huge gamble/wild-ass guess that Joe Mays is getting better, although that's not really the case. Since coming off of the DL in late July, Mays has gone four for 13 in disaster starts (1+R/IP) and has struck out more than four only once. At least he's kept his walks down. He's relying on his defense, and that's the sort of thing that could bite him in the ass pretty quickly if his luck, such as it's been, runs out. Anyone who traded for Eric Milton in their keeper fantasy leagues to get a top-flight left-handed starter and gave up a prospect like Austin Kearns must feel pretty stupid right now. Since coming back from his trip to the DL, Milton's gotten socked around too.
It should seem obvious that the Twins should start Kyle Lohse, at least over Mays. He earned it, while Mays is a huge and dumb gamble. Milton I can accept, because he makes some of those Oakland lefties mortal or forces Saenz-type players into the starting lineup, but Mays? Earl Weaver liked to say that you can screw around with getting guys playing time and seeing what they're up to, but come September, you pick the guys who had played well that year, and you take them into the post-season. Earl Weaver won a lot of games. Fortunately for the Twins, none of these guys have to go too deep into the game, because of their strong bullpen. But a disaster start in a five-game series is almost a ticket home in itself.
Oakland's pitchers? Yeah, these guys can pitch some. I don't buy Art Howe's excuse for the three-man rotation, "that we've been bit by going the other way before" or some such nonsense. If this decision isn't driven from research and careful thought, I'm a scratch golfer.
RHP Billy Koch (12.2, 3.01, 93 2/3)
LHP Eddie Guardado (13.1, 2.93, 67 2/3)
This is where the Twins really shine. That Twins bullpen is shockingly good. Sure, we've all watched their progress, seen them up at the top of Michael Wolverton's Reliever reports, but to line them up like that... it's a beautiful thing. Even better, having a balanced bullpen with three lefties like this--and quality lefties, we're not talking Doug Creek--is that this means the Twins have a huge amount of in-game flexibility to bring in a reliever to face a couple of guys and not run out of guys who pitch from that side.
The Twins nominal closer isn't even the second-best guy in that bullpen. Guardado is the fourth-best guy the Twins bring out late in games. The A's might actually be relieved to see him.
J.C. Romero, I've been informed, is not the second career of failed game designer John Cameron Romero of Daikatana fame, so kindly refrain from taunting him about turning once-cute-and-interesting Killcreek into a generic, vapid, Barbie to satisfy his whim for a commodity girlfriend. This is Juan Carlos Romero, and he has talent.
Mike Jackson's post-season trip with the Twins is just another way station along his storied career, fitting into some pens with great results, getting shelled in others. If you're an Oakland fan, remember that Mike Jackson's had some traumatic post-season outings lately that might come back to him. And try and forget that Billy Koch has had some really Isringhausen-esque save appearances this year.
Lidle moves to long relief after being bumped from the rotation as they go to the three-man. I'm guessing (again) on Ted Lilly as a non-specialist lefty. The A's will want to bring two left-handers against the Twins lefty-heavy lineup, and between Lilly and Mike Venafro, I flipped a coin and came up Lilly.
Chad Bradford looked great early in the year and had a particularly rough September where he gave up a run an inning, but he's still an extreme groundballer and exactly the kind of guy you bring in with a guy on first and one out, trying to start the double-play.
It's taken as a given that the Twins are the far superior defensive team, since the A's as a team tend to play the bat over the glove. It's not that clear cut, though.
Sure, Torii Hunter makes Terrence Long look really bad.... really, really bad (and I'd like to take this opportunity to point out that Mike Cameron, in turn, lords over Torii Hunter this year. Go look up the stats, I'll wait here.). And Jacque Jones makes David Justice look like Glenallen Hill. And Dustan Mohr makes Jermaine Dye look like an injured Paul O'Neill.
But Miguel Tejada's been better than Christian Guzman this year. Eric Chavez whips Corey Koskie. Mark Ellis has looked much better than Luis Rivas, who may still be recovering from that broken bone in his arm. Okay, Mientkiewicz is better than whoever the A's trot out at first.
In fact, if you look at our delicious Defensive Efficiency Report you'll see the two teams are neck and neck. Now, DER is not to be taken too seriously--it's a big simplification and not the kind of fine-tuned sabermetric tool we'd use for player evaluation. What you see in their proximity is that the A's advantage in the infield, where they see a ton of chances, makes up for their poorer outfield defense. It makes sense. A defensive upgrade at shortstop is hugely more important than a defensive upgrade in left field, for instance, or first base.
The A's were poorly coached and it showed last year against the Yankees. They didn't slide when they needed to, they frequently looked confused and unprepared, and New York took them apart for it. If Art Howe had been fired immediately after that series I would have understood. A second baffled team handed a first-round loss will get him his walking papers. Art's a soldier. His tactics are the organization's. His team takes a huge number more walks than the Twins, they hit more home runs, they steal much less frequently. He's been playing this game with his team for years. He should know what's up.
His opponent is Ron Gardenhire, who claims to be big into the Tom Kelly school of managing, but isn't. The Twins ranked 8th in the league in steals, but was second in being caught stealing, which put them dead last in stolen base percentage. He's managed his bullpen well, which doesn't bode well for the A's in the late innings. Gardenhire's going to run against the A's--he's got a contact team that hits doubles and triples and is good on the basepaths, and he'll be trying to maximize that strength by having guys on second to score on a contact hit. A's opponents are only getting caught 41% stealing against them, (68 SB, 46 CS), which is more than enough to encourage a guy who runs with so little success normally. Look for the Twins to run themselves out of some chances.
A's in three. Four max. The Mulder-Zito tandem are going to tear into Minnesota's lineup, and even if the patched-together rotation holds out against the A's superior offense to hand games off to the bullpen, the bullpen's not going to score runs. The A's will go into this post-season better prepared after last year's debacle. The importance of the bench tends to be hugely overrated in post-season analysis, and in a match-up like this. Think about this: even if you bring the Twins bullpen in after four innings, the Twins bullpen won't pitch as many innings as the A's massively superior rotation.
Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.