October 8, 2002
Anaheim Angels vs. Minnesota Twins
So here we are, in the "underdog" series, in no small part because this series is the one featuring the two American League playoff teams that New Yorkers don't know about. One team wasn't supposed to be able to beat the Yankees, and the other wasn't supposed to beat the team that was supposed to beat the Yankees. Dominant provincialism is so cute, isn't it?
Seriously, this series features two teams who belong here. The Angels won 99 games this year, and if that's supposed to be an underdog, then the standards must have recently been Reaganized (stealing missiles from taxpayers=mistake, not treason; ketchup=veggie, not condiment; 99 wins=underdog, not kickass ballclub). As for their opponents, you can argue about the happy accident of divisional alignments, but the Twins are positioned to win the AL Central now and into the future. They don't have to apologize for John Hart's strip-mining or Kenny Williams' peculiar genius, because they were busy minding their own business, and built a winner with a window of opportunity that starts now and goes forward for the next three years. As the 1987 Twins or the 1997 Marlins or even the 1973 Mets demonstrate, it isn't whether or not you're the best dancer, but whether you match up with your partners to your advantage.
One of the numerous fun things about this postseason is that neither the Angels nor the Twins really jibe offensively with so-called 'sabermetric' offenses, with the Twins ranking ahead of only five AL clubs in walks drawn, and the Angels right behind them. But life is nothing if not entertaining in its capacity to tweak the nose of simple orthodoxy, so let's keep in mind what both ballclubs do well. They're both fielding lineups with players in their offensive primes; for the Angels, only Tim Salmon is over 30, while for the Twins, Corey Koskie is the lineup's graybeard at 29. Both teams put the ball in play a lot, and although this is more true of the Angels than the Twins, few of the hitters on either team are extremely strikeout-prone. The Twins have some guys who get on base, and some guys who hit for power, and some guys who just hit the ball hard, but the Angels have a few better all-around offensive players, like Salmon and Glaus.
But let's not rush to write off the Twins and Angels as anti-stathead offensive teams. Both feature some very successful platoons. The Angels have their DH platoon, with Brad Fullmer and Shawn Wooten giving them a lot more value than Dean Palmer or Juan Gonzalez, among others. Although Adam Kennedy isn't a liability against left-handed pitchers, Mike Scioscia seems inclined to platoon him with Benji Gil in the postseason. That's not a bad thing, but it shouldn't be an automatic decision. Kennedy hit .275/.320/.449 against lefties, versus Gil's .310/.344/.494. But Scioscia's proven to be flexible on this score, so I doubt he'll platoon the two reflexively if there's a soft-tossing lefty who's overly cute. Eric Milton isn't that kind of guy, but it does help de-fang some of the damage the Twins' wealth in left-handed relief might wreak in itself.
If there's a what-the-hell element to the lineup, it's two things. First is that Scott Spiezio plays every day, even against right-handers. Against them, he hit only .248/.336/.389, or what is generally referred to as 'badly' for a first baseman. But then again, Spiezio mauled lefties, and that will again help against a Twins' pen that's strong on situational advantages. Second is Darin Erstad, he of the nifty 2000 and mediocre remainder of his career. This isn't a distinction between Brady Anderson's big year and the rest of his career, which was mostly productive; it's a gap between greatness and dubious offensive adequacy. However, while those are weaknesses, keep in mind that the rest of the non-Molina components of the offense are good offensive players. Before the over-vaunted but handy Garret Anderson, Troy Glaus is already making a steady if overdue impression on the national media. Don't be surprised if he continues to star.
The Twins don't really platoon so much as Ron Gardenhire isn't afraid to mimic Tom Kelly's basic strategy of playing everyone, thus keeping everyone on the roster sharp with frequent use. That doesn't mean he doesn't also use them to advantage. So he'll spot Tom Prince for A.J. Pierzynski against some tough lefties, and do the same with Matt LeCroy for David Ortiz in the DH slot. He'll mix and match his trio of right fielders, not really platooning as much as riding the hot hand. He would even spot-start Denny Hocking for young Luis Rivas, although that isn't an option any longer. As a result, Gardenhire loses a wee bit of flexibility, since he might hold back on pinch-hitting for Rivas earlier in games to keep from having to use David Lamb much.
Let's not paint too pretty a picture of burgeoning offensive juggernauts, however. Both lineups have that '70s lineup weak spot, punting the idea of getting anything offensively from the second slot of their lineups. Cristian Guzman's 2002 was Ivan DeJesus-errific, while Darin Erstad conjures up more memories of Rick Miller than Fred Lynn.
As mentioned before, this is an area where the Twins have an advantage because of Gardenhire's willingness to play everybody, where a multitude of good options means that they won't have to worry about running out of useful offensive parts in-game. However, baseball isn't the BCS, where you declare a winner on the basis of nebulous definitions of all-around strength. Scioscia's bench is weaker, but he also doesn't use it as much. He operates his two platoons, and he has the tactical option of flipping Scott Spiezio around the infield late in the game if he needs to pinch-run for Troy Glaus or something. Alex Ochoa will come in for late inning defense, and if he chooses, he can pinch-hit for a Molina at will with either Palmeiro or Ochoa. It's a bench built around high-leverage tactical gambits as opposed to people you can seriously play. If the Angels lose almost any regular, it'll hurt, but an injury to anybody but a Molina or the middle infielders puts Ochoa or Palmeiro on the field and Salmon at DH.
Neither of these rotations appear in this series to be at their best. However, that's the core question: are the last month or two what you should take your marks from? Will Eric Milton and Brad Radke and Joe Mays pitch like the Big Three of 2001, or like the guys who spent the second half rehabbing? The series against the A's made it appear that Milton and Radke are assets again, but Mays still looks like he has no business pitching in October. The question isn't whether or not Gardenhire should be second-guessed for not bumping up Rick Reed out of too much concern for his experience; it should be why Mays is starting instead of Johan Santana or Kyle Lohse, the guys who have been among the best starters in the Twins' rotation all summer. Worse yet, because the series against the A's went the distance, the Twins have to open with Mays. The best-case scenario for the Twins is that Santana or Lohse turn in yeoman work in middle relief, because that otherwise resembles a great way to spot the Angels a game.
The Angels are featuring the same basic group they've relied upon all season now that Aaron Sele is no longer part of the picture. The drive to get their best, Jarrod Washburn, onto the mound twice against the Yankees handicaps them initially, but they'll still have him available to start twice in the series, and the modest advantage is that by Sele's absence, they're stronger overall. Kevin Appier's success in the Metrodome is something handy in their favor. Ramon Ortiz's struggles against the Yankees seem to have put him out of favor. Although my gut has mostly given me only indigestion this offseason, I could see him having problems in the Humpdome if he starts Game Two. John Lackey has been wonderfully effective against left-handed batters in his half-season, relying especially on heavy, hard heat, all of which suggests that he might give the Twins fits.
Like the bench, this is an area where the Twins have an obvious advantage in terms of depth, but that overstates their comparative strength. The Angels have more reliable starting pitching, and if Ben Weber's healthy, then Scioscia has three right-handed relievers (Weber, Donnelly, and postseason 'secret weapon' Francisco Rodriguez) who can give him more than an inning apiece to get the game to Troy Percival, even if he has to pull a starter by the sixth. He's also got Scot Shields to give him three or four innings in case of a disaster. The question is what Scott Schoeneweis is for, since he hasn't been a success as a situational lefty, and Scioscia doesn't appear to trust him to pitch a complete inning, even with a seven-run lead.
Beyond the depth and talent he's going to have to rely upon to compensate for a combined four starts from Joe Mays and Rick Reed, Gardenhire does have the advantage that he can use his depth in lefty relief help to emasculate Brad Fullmer after the fifth inning if he wants to. The pressure will then be on Scioscia to pull one of his most dangerous bats early, but with Eddie Guardado in the closer's role, he should give in and pull if the situation demands it, because there's no right-handed closer to keep Fullmer in the game for. But as previously stated, he should take a page from Sparky Anderson's book, and hook a struggling starter to go to Santana or Romero or even Lohse at the first sign of trouble.
As we'll never tire of stating, there's no such animal as a definitive defensive metric. The Angels led the major leagues in Defensive Efficiency, which doesn't mean that they're the best defense in the league as much as it suggests that they're really good. Both teams are good up the middle, both control the running game well, and both have good defensive outfields that should limit both teams' offensive reliance on hard-hit balls in play. Both have first basemen who can pick it. Both have third basemen who make more errors than some people like to see, but both are underrated defenders, and Glaus is especially good on starting double plays. If there's a guy who might have a limitation, it's Eckstein as a shortstop, but it isn't like we're talking Tony Womack here.
Some people are rushing to credit Mike Scioscia as a genius for his willingness to bunt in the DH league, but bunting with Bengie Molina is no more a hallmark of tactical genius than a NL manager asking his pitcher to give up an out at the plate. It's all overstated: Scioscia isn't Gene Mauch, and the Angels aren't really a little ball offense. Ron Gardenhire tries to run more than he should, but there are undoubtedly a lot of busted hit-and-runs in there. Since both teams squelch the running game well, this series shouldn't be noted for successful micro-management as far as offensive gambits. Both managers have effective pens they're generally unafraid of using.
The Angels' rotation isn't dominant, but it is competent. The disadvantage of having to lead off with Mays will be too much for the Twins to overcome, both because of the runs he'll spot the Angels and the demands his starts (and to a lesser extent, Reed's) will place on the Twins' pen, which should lead to some late-inning bloodshed in the fourth and fifth games. Angels in six.