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September 30, 2003
Minnesota Twins vs. New York Yankees
The line you can't stop reading in advance of this series is that the Yankees have dominated the Twins over the past couple of seasons, winning all 13 games between the two teams. Never mind that the Twins were winning back-to-back division titles, never mind that the Yankees didn't get as deep into last October as the boys from the Twin Cities did: that 13-0 is the statistic on everyone's mind right now.
Here's the problem: it's meaningless information. In fact, it's actively deceptive, and using that data to form an opinion on the Division Series matchup is wrongheaded.
First of all, forget about 2002. While baseball teams have more year-to-year continuity than teams in other sports--and these two rosters have been particularly stable--the idea that games played nearly 18 months ago will somehow provide insight into ones played this week is silly.
Moreover, the last time the Yankees and Twins faced each other was on April 21, 2003. How long ago was that? Shannon Stewart was a Blue Jay. Johan Santana was imprisoned in middle relief. Matt LeCroy was a benchwarmer. Four of the seven games were started by Joe Mays and Rick Reed, neither of whom will be anywhere near the mound in this series.
The Twins who take the field tomorrow will bear little resemblance to the ones who went 0-7 against the Yankees nearly a season ago. They're better at the plate and on the mound, and judging them as if they were that hapless bunch isn't analysis, it's laziness.
New York Yankees
2B-R Alfonso Soriano (.291/.338/.522/.296)
RF-R Shannon Stewart (.307/.364/.459/.283)
The Yankees' offense looks well-rounded, but has a missing piece. They hit for average, they walk, they hit home runs, and they steal bases at a good clip. What they don't do--and this is weird--is hit a lot of doubles and triples; they were 10th in the AL in the combined category this season, ahead of four poor offensive teams. Park effects--Yankee Stadium's short corners cut off some doubles--explain some of that, but not all of it. If the Twins take away the walks--and they had the second-best pitchers' walk rate in the league behind the Yankees--the Yanks could find themselves struggling for runs.
The Yankees will use the same top eight in every game, with Rivera and Karim Garcia platooning in right field and batting ninth. The Yankees' offense is one of their two core strengths, and has benefited from Joe Torre's decision to move Johnson's .400 OBP into the #2 slot, partially negating the problems created by leading off Soriano. The two good switch-hitters in the middle of the lineup make it hard to get platoon advantages against the Bombers, although it's certainly worth using a lefty in the Giambi-through-Matsui section, as only Posada is hitting for power against southpaws this year.
Predicting what Ron Gardenhire will due is a bit more vexing. He's given Mike Ryan some playing time down the stretch, in part because Ryan hit .379 with power when he played. Playing Ryan, however, means sitting LeCroy, and while that's not necessarily a bad thing--LeCroy wasn't that great against right-handers (.280/.325/.481)--he does break up a string of lefties in the middle of the Twins' lineup. With the Yankees carrying at least two and maybe three left-handed relievers, expect Jones and Koskie to get very few late-inning at-bats against pitchers they can hit. Jones, of course, is famously brutal against lefties, with this year's .269/.310/.393 line a career best; Koskie wasn't any better this year.
Gardenhire may have to choose which part of the game to emphasize. He can start Ryan against right-handers, stuff the lefties together and hope to have a lead in the seventh, or he can play LeCroy and force Torre to choose between multiple pitching changes or conceding the platoon advantage to at least one hitter. In either case, he's at a disadvantage.
Unlike the 2002 Angels, the Twins don't put the ball in play at a particularly high rate. They strike out at around the league average, which, combined with the Yankees' pitchers skill at missing bats, makes them less likely than the Monkey Boys to take advantage of a defense that is a year older and a year worse. That's the key element that separates last year's Division Series from this one: this isn't the nightmare matchup for the Yankees. In fact, there are no teams in the playoffs positioned to take advantage of this Yankee weakness.
New York Yankees
C-R John Flaherty (.275/.306/.471/.260)
IF-R Chris Gomez (.244/.272/.331/.218)
This is actually one of the better benches Joe Torre has taken into the postseason, mostly because the lack of a regular right fielder leaves him with a four-headed monster at the position. Other than in right field, where all four guys could play in any game, the eight players who start games for the Yankees will be the eight who finish them. Torre has indicated he will go with 10 pitchers, opening a spot for Almonte as a pinch-runner.
The Twins have a very good bench, especially with Gardenhire indicating that he will eschew a third catcher and roll the dice with LeCroy and Pierzynski, which is what he did for most of August. Gomez doesn't do much, but there's not a team in the playoffs that has three hitters the caliber of Ryan, Ford and Cuddyer on the bench. Gardenhire has the weapons to overcome having to bat Rivas and Guzman in key situations, or having to let Jones and Koskie face left-handers. His willingness to use his flexibility will be an important element in this series.
Rotations (SNVA, IP, ERA)
New York Yankees
Neither team has announced a Game Four starter yet, and with four days between Game One and Game Four, it's likely that both would eschew using a fourth starter in this series, with the team down 2-1 more likely to return to its #1. This favors the Twins more than the Yankees; as there is a significant falloff after the their top two, while the Yankees still have the effective Wells.
The difference in the quality of starters is the biggest reason to dismiss the 0-7 trivia. Santana hasn't started against the Yankees this year, and Radke made one start against them this year back when he was struggling. Santana and Mussina were almost dead even in performance this season, and while Pettitte was better than Radke overall, Radke has pitched at near his peak level over the past two months. I expect Santana to become a star over the next week, exploding on the national consciousness the way Bret Saberhagen did in 1985.
The Yankees have a huge edge in Game Three, of course; I'm not convinced that the Twins are better off using Lohse, a right-hander who has some command issues, than Kenny Rogers, a lefty with better control. As risky as it is, I think the Twins would even be better off pulling Eric Milton, who made just three starts all year after knee surgery, out of their hats. Look for Lohse, who has struggled in the early innings at times, to be on a very short leash in that game, with Milton ready for a rescue mission.
Bullpens (ARP, IP, ERA)
New York Yankees
RHP Mariano Rivera (18.1, 69.2, 1.68)
LHP Eddie Guardado (11.8, 65.1, 2.89)
The Yankees' bullpen isn't the fortress of impenetrability it's famous for being, but it's a much better collection than it was back in May. White and Nelson are the righty/lefty eighth-inning combination that allows Torre to keep Rivera getting four outs, maximum. That helps push the lesser lights like Hammond into lower-leverage situations, like beating up on Jacque Jones in the sixth inning. Credit Brian Cashman for getting Joe Torre what he needed on the fly, even if he missed out on the bigger names that now populate the roster to the north.
The Twins won't play matchup games in the late innings, preferring to let Hawkins pitch complete frames as early as the seventh. Romero, who has had command problems all year long, is occasionally asked to get left-handers out, but his inability to throw strikes has diminished his role in the Twins' pen this year. The Twins don't have a deep pen, but Hawkins and Guardado mean that they don't lose very many games they lead in the seventh.
One other thing: the decision to keep Reed on the roster instead of Grant Balfour, who is a better pitcher and a completely healthy one, is inexcusable. It likely will not make a difference in the series, although Gardenhire should hope that's the case.
The Twins ranked in the middle of the pack in Defensive Efficiency and second in the AL in fielding percentage. They have an odd combination of strengths and weaknesses; with a left fielder good enough to play center, the best defensive first baseman in the game, and a fast right fielder who takes awful routes to the ball and the worst arm in baseball. Torii Hunter isn't as good as he was two seasons ago, but is still an above-average center fielder, which is a big benefit for this flyball staff.
The Yankees mostly catch what they get to, and have, if nothing else, become a pretty good team on the corners: Nick Johnson, Aaron Boone, Hideki Matsui and, when he plays, David Dellucci are a good exterior defense. They're still awful up the middle, though, and are always prone to giving up four singles in any inning in which they don't get multiple strikeouts.
I think we all have a pretty good idea of what Joe Torre will do in the postseason. He rides his top 16 or 17 players, manages his bullpen well, and gets a little too happy about one-run strategies, particularly bunting. He doesn't make the Big Mistake.
We don't have the dossier on Ron Gardenhire that we do on Torre, but we know from last year that he'll manage much as he did in the regular season. Gardenhire seems to value the flexibility his roster gives him, and as he showed by using LeCroy behind the plate, is willing to sacrifice some defense to score an extra run. Because of the weaknesses of his lineup, the strength of his bench, and the depth of Torre's bullpen, Gardenhire is going to have to make a lot of in-game decisions. Fairly or not, the series could turn on Gardenhire's ability to get the right matchup at the right time.
This isn't last season, when an overrated Yankee team was matched against an Angels squad that was not only underrated, but completely set up to take advantage of the Yankees. These Twins don't have the offensive approach or the deep, dominant bullpen to win a lot of 9-6 games. Their chance to win the series depends on not walking people, keeping home runs down and scoring 4-5 runs in each game. While the first is within their grasp--it's a big part of how they blew past the White Sox to get here--the latter two are not going to be easy against these Yankees, who hit home runs and shut the opposition down with front-line pitching.
It will be a more interesting series than 0-7 makes it look like it will be, mostly because Johan Santana is going to have two great starts. In the end, though, the Twins won't score enough. Yankees in five.