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October 7, 2009

Playoff Prospectus

Yankees versus Twins LDS

by Joe Sheehan

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The Yankees have been pretty sure they'd be playing in the postseason since not long after the All-Star break. The Twins didn't have much chance of doing so until about two weeks ago, and only found out for sure about 18 hours before the first pitch of the Division Series. That's just one reason of many why this AL Division Series matchup is one of the most lopsided in the 15-year history of the three-tiered playoffs.

You don't have to look far to find others. The Twins lost their starting third baseman, Joe Crede, during the summer, their best starting pitcher, Kevin Slowey, not long before, and their second-best player, first baseman Justin Morneau, in September. The version of the Twins that takes the field tonight is as weak a version as had been available to them all season. Moreover, having used their top two starting pitchers just to qualify for the tournament, the Twins will open with a pitcher whose turn they skipped over the weekend so that they could use Carl Pavano on short rest. Finally, they hit New York on no sleep with a bullpen that had to get 17 outs last night.

In a perfect world, of course, the Twins would have been an underdog. This Yankee team had the best record in baseball this season with just shy of the best run differential in the majors. They committed hundreds of millions of dollars last winter to making the 2009 Yankees better, and the plan worked, as CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and, surprisingly, A.J. Burnett provided excellent return on investment. The Yankees got bounce-back seasons from Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui, and Robinson Cano, one of Derek Jeter's best years, and tapped into a deep well of live arms to support Mariano Rivera at the back of the bullpen. The talent base was one of the best in the game, but the Yankees also had a year in which very little went wrong, and what did-such as Joba Chamberlain's second half-was in part their own doing.

The 17 games that separated the two teams in the regular season, the way in which each entered the postseason, and even the talent gap that separates the Twins from their best selves are all reasons to expect the Yankees to make quick work of the AL Central champions. Other than the standard "anything can happen in a short series" caveat, though, is there any reason to think the pundits won't be right about this one?

Lineups


Yankees                   AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA   VORP
SS-R Derek Jeter         .334/.406/.465  .309   68.1
LF-L Johnny Damon        .282/.365/.489  .297   35.5
1B-S Mark Teixeira       .292/.383/.565  .317   50.2
3B-R Alex Rodriguez      .286/.402/.532  .319   48.8
DH-L Hideki Matsui       .274/.367/.509  .298   29.8
C-S Jorge Posada         .285/.363/.522  .301   33.0
2B-L Robinson Cano       .320/.352/.520  .292   45.9
RF-S Nick Swisher        .249/.371/.498  .299   27.5
CF-L Brett Gardner       .270/.345/.379  .271   10.1
 
Twins                    AVG/ OBP/ SLG    EqA   VORP 
CF-L Denard Span        .311/.392/.415   .290   38.1
SS-R Orlando Cabrera    .284/.316/.389   .253   18.8
C-L Joe Mauer           .365/.444/.587   .346   89.4
RF-L Jason Kubel        .300/.369/.539   .304   44.4
1B-R Michael Cuddyer    .276/.342/.520   .291   38.1
LF-R Delmon Young       .284/.308/.425   .252    3.8
DH-S Jose Morales       .311/.381/.361   .275    5.8
3B-S Matt Tolbert       .232/.303/.308   .227   -5.7
SS-S Nick Punto         .228/.337/.284   .243   -3.1

The Yankees led the majors in Equivalent Average with a .282 mark that was nine points better than the next team. For all the hype about home-run rates at Yankee Stadium early in the year, the park played neutral for run scoring, largely because homers stopped flying out at record rates by summertime, and the park didn't give up other forms of offense so easily. These Yankees can score anywhere, with above-average hitters at all nine lineup spots including eight starters with at least a .290 EqA They get on base, they hit for power, and they even have a bit of speed-more when Brett Gardner plays center field, as he may against right-handers. Teixeira's switch-hitting skills make it hard to go tactical against this team, although you do see a lot of lefties come in once Alex Rodriguez's spot goes by. Melky Cabrera shares time with Gardner in center, not strictly in a platoon, and famously, Jose Molina will start behind the plate in any game A.J. Burnett pitches. That decision reeks of Joe Girardi overmanaging, as well as his fealty to the idea-the same one which gave him a career-that catchers have a substantial influence on pitchers' performance. The small-sample statistical support for this move that we've seen over the last day is an effort to justify the unjustifiable. It won't make the difference in the first round, but do you want to give up that much offense against a better team?

The Twins had a middle-of-the-pack offense during the regular season. The Twins also had Justin Morneau in the lineup. Without him, you have four good hitters carrying everyone else, including Delmon Young, whose .340 batting average after August 31 came with two unintentional walks attached. It's a mirage created by the bad-joke pitching staffs the Twins faced down the stretch. Young makes bad decisions at the plate and will certainly be exploited by the Yankees' veteran hurlers.

The Twins' top four batters, though, are quite dangerous. Joe Mauer is the most valuable player in the AL this season, a catcher who added to his average and OBP this year by having a power breakout. Denard Span is that rare player who learned on-base skills while coming through the minors and is now one of the best leadoff men in the league. Jason Kubel's career path was altered by his 2004 knee injury, but he has finally become the combination of power and patience that had some of us using the words "Edgar Martinez" when talking about him. Finally, Michael Cuddyer is having the second-best year of his career, and his performance over the last three weeks has helped the Twins sustain their run scoring in the absence of Morneau. Any chance the Twins have to pull an upset revolves around these four players, which is why Ron Gardenhire has to stop bunting in front of Mauer. Kubel is a good hitter with enough of a platoon split that you can't keep making it easy on teams, walking Mauer and pitching to Kubel. The big inning is what you need to beat that Yankees, and that means never bunting with anyone before the seventh slot in this lineup.

Benches


Yankees                    AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA   VORP
OF-S Melky Cabrera        .274/.336/.416  .266   14.0
UT-R Jerry Hairston Jr.*  .251/.315/.394  .251    4.0
4C-L Eric Hinske*         .242/.348/.432  .277    3.1
C-R Jose Molina           .217/.292/.268  .203   -6.2
C-R Francisco Cervelli    .298/.309/.372  .232   -0.7

Twins                     AVG/ OBP/ SLG    EqA   VORP
CF-R Carlos Gomez        .229/.287/.337   .225   -8.3
INF-R Brendan Harris     .261/.310/.362   .238   -0.1
2B-S Alexi Casilla       .202/.280/.259   .206  -11.4
3B-L Brian Buscher       .235/.360/.316   .253   -0.4
C-R Mike Redmond         .237/.299/.289   .210   -3.7
*: Full-season stats.

The Twins used just 18 position players in 2009. Two of those, Justin Huber and Jason Pridie, combined to appear in two games. Two others, Morneau and Crede, are out for the year with injuries. That leaves 14 guys, which makes sussing out the roster pretty easy. It's a lousy bench, with Gomez there to run and d-rep for Kubel, and perhaps play against a lefty starter; I think he should start in center with Span in right, Kubel in left and Young either DHing or on the bench, and we may see that alignment against Andy Pettitte. Harris gets occasional DH at-bats, usually pinch-hitting for Morales. Buscher hasn't batted since September 19, and with word Wednesday morning that the Twins will carry 12 pitchers, he may be the odd man out.

In contrast, this is the strongest bench the Yankees have carried into the postseason in a decade, even conceding the presence of a third catcher in Cervelli. Rather than Ramiro Pena, Hairston will serve as the backup middle infielder, freeing up a spot not for pinch-runner Freddy Guzman-who would have had tactical value given the lack of speed up and down the Yankee lineup-but for a needless 11th pitcher in Chad Gaudin. As with the Molina decision, it's the kind of thing that is more likely to hurt them in the next round than in this one. Eric Hinske is a power threat against right-handers whose most likely role in this series will be to hit for Molina or Cabrera when a home run is called for.

Rotations


Yankees                   IP      ERA  SNLVAR   SNWP
LHP CC Sabathia          230.0   3.37   6.4    .582
RHP A.J. Burnett         207.0   4.04   4.7    .529
LHP Andy Pettitte        194.2   4.16   4.2    .520
 
Twins                    IP       ERA  SNLVAR   SNWP
LHP Brian Duensing       84.0    3.64    2.1   .639
RHP Nick Blackburn      205.2    4.03    4.6   .537
RHP Scott Baker         194.0    4.36    4.2   .525
RHP Carl Pavano*        199.1    5.10    2.8   .483
*: Full-season stats.

What was strange about the decision to choose short-rest Carl Pavano over full-rest Brian Duensing on Sunday is that Duensing has been fairly effective since being called up. The lefty gets the draw tonight, making his post-season debut against the best offense in baseball on the game's biggest stage. If the goal was to keep the rookie out of harm's way, it doesn't appear to have worked. Once the Twins get through Game One, they'll be able to use their top two starters, Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker, on full rest in the next two. Both are strike-throwers who can be homer-prone, so it's a bit of good and bad against a Yankee team that loves to hit get the ball in the air. Conceding that the Game One matchup is a huge edge to the Yankees, the next two are basically draws-Blackburn and Baker may be anonymous and inexpensive, but they're good pitchers in the Brad Radke tradition, and essentially of the same caliber as Burnett and Pettitte as far as their performances this season.

The Yankees' spending spree is on display this week in the Bronx, as Sabathia and Burnett, to whom the team committed a combined $240 million last winter, start the first two games. Sabathia was down a bit from his statistical 2007-08 peak this season, some of which can be attributed to tougher competition, some to aging, some to the difficulty of sustaining that peak. He remains a difficult matchup, especially for a Twins lineup in which a lot of guys can have the bats knocked out of their hands. Burnett and Pettitte were a concern for the Yankees as recently as three weeks ago; both finished the season on a high note, which means more for Pettitte-whose struggles were injury-related-than it does for Burnett, who has always been hard to predict. His velocity is always there, but his command comes and goes, and Girardi's decision to go with Molina, however wrongheaded, is motivated by a desire to have the good A.J. show up Tuesday. The Twins' chances in this series are not going to be any better than in the Game Two matchup; they need to beat Burnett.

Bullpens


Yankees                   IP     ERA    WXRL    FRA 
RHP Mariano Rivera       66.1   1.76   6.032   1.80
RHP Philip Hughes        86.0   3.03   3.843   1.27*
LHP Phil Coke            60.0   4.50   1.792   4.32
RHP Alfredo Aceves       84.0   3.54   2.492   3.67
RHP Joba Chamberlain    157.1   4.75   2.000   5.60
RHP David Robertson      43.2   3.30   0.172   4.67
LHP Damaso Marte         13.1   9.45  -0.053   7.19
RHP Chad Gaudin**       147.1   4.64   0.393   4.95*
*: Relief-only FRA.
**: Full-season data.

Twins                    IP      ERA   WXRL    FRA 
RHP Joe Nathan           67.0   2.15   4.828  1.50
LHP Jose Mijares         61.2   2.34   3.487  2.88
RHP Jon Rauch*           69.1   3.63   0.972  4.39
RHP Matt Guerrier        75.2   2.26   3.518  2.41
RHP Jesse Crain          50.1   4.65  -0.467  5.77
LHP Ron Mahay*           50.0   4.32   0.162  6.98
RHP Bobby Keppel         52.2   4.96   0.127  4.84
LHP Francisco Liriano   136.2   5.80   -----  2.22*
*: Relief-only FRA.

The Yankees made a last-minute decision to put Gaudin on the roster rather than Freddy Guzman. This is unlikely to make much difference, although Guzman would have more uses. Gaudin is there as insurance against a long game or a short start, and his addition may have been inspired by last night's 12-inning affair. Girardi took most of the year to sort out his many relief options-remember, Jose Veras, Edwar Ramirez, and Brian Bruney were all once prominently featured-and the bullpen he goes into October with is as strong as he's had in his two seasons. Mariano Rivera is a rock, and Philip Hughes leads into him by getting anywhere from three to five outs. Both Phil Coke and Damaso Marte will be used in the sixth and seventh, and perhaps the eighth, against Mauer and Kubel. Alfredo Aceves and David Robertson are more likely to be employed in longer outings or, more likely, when the Yankees trail.

The Twins' core relievers have been effective, bolstered by the acquisition of Jon Rauch and the return to form of Jesse Crain. ERAs aside, Gardenhire should think about moving Crain ahead of both Rauch and Guerrier on the depth chart; he's got his velocity back and has outpitched the field for the last ten weeks. He's more likely to get a strikeout than Guerrier, and keeps the ball in the park better than Rauch does. The back end of Joe Nathan and Jose Mijares is fantastic, and while Mijares' role has been more limited since the addition of Rauch, he's capable of going full innings and even longer. The Yankees are a little bit better because of Rivera, but it seems that both of these units are strengths.

Defense

The Yankees' habit of letting defense go changed this year, as they upgraded at first base with Teixeira and in center field by playing Cabrera most of the time. A high-strikeout pitching staff allows them to get away with trading defense for offense, but their PADE places them as an average defensive team. If there's a key weakness, it's throwing the ball: Johnny Damon is awful in left, Nick Swisher a bit below average in right, and Jorge Posada has lost what little arm he had behind the plate to a shoulder injury. Robinson Cano's statistically all over the place, and tends to make mental mistakes while being awkward turning the double play. Derek Jeter, long a problem defensively, had a strong season with the glove, which may be the result of improved positioning.

By reputation, the Twins do the little things well. However, the team I watched pretty extensively over the last three weeks is terribly prone to mistakes on both sides of the ball. When Carlos Gomez isn't on the field, the outfield has below-average range and below-average arm strength, with Delmon Young hurting in both areas. Michael Cuddyer is inexperienced and inflexible at first base, and while Orlando Cabrera is a smart and effective player, he has lost some lateral range in his thirties. For a team that needs to play defense to win, the Twins don't do a very good job of it. Only Joe Mauer (and Gomez, when on the field) is a good defensive player.

Managers

This is the Twins' biggest edge. Joe Girardi hurts the Yankees by forcing his small-ball preferences onto a team that should never, ever, ever bunt. While the bullpen fell into place thanks to Hughes' strong work in relief, Girardi still gets a bit too frisky with his relief staff rather than letting them pitch. The off-field issues that have marked his time in New York, mostly his relationship with the press, are not likely to be helped by the post-season spotlight. Already, his decision to start Molina over Posada has created a controversy where there was none.

Ron Gardenhire gets a lot of credit for managing teams with relative small payrolls to success, but as the end of this season shows, he hasn't exactly been beating the toughest competition. The Twins' reputation for doing the blessed "little things" far outstrips their actual ability to do so, and it's not clear how that wouldn't be obvious to anyone watching them stumble their way around the diamond last night. At some point, Gardenhire has to take some blame for this, given how much credit he took when the Twins did have that skill set.

What Gardenhire does have as as strength, one he's learned over the years, it's how to run a pitching staff. He uses his relievers aggressively, rarely leaves a starter in past his in-game expiration date, and funnels the high-leverage spots to his best pitchers. The Twins will have an edge late in games because Gardenhire does his job better than Girardi does his.

Prediction

If the Twins had Slowey and Morneau, if they were coming in on-rotation and with a couple days of rest, if they had a fresh bullpen, you could see a path to an upset here. The core talent the Twins have is good enough to win, which is why they keep contending and making their way back to the postseason. That core talent is weakened by injury, however, and the replacements aren't good enough. The Twins have to be perfect, and they make mistakes. The team that takes the field tonight is one of the weakest of the 120 teams to make the postseason since 1995, and while they deserve credit for their late-season run, their last-week push, and their comeback victory last night, it is likely that they've won their final game of 2009. Yankees in three.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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