Minnesota completed one of the biggest turnarounds in modern American League history, going from 103 losses and the worst record in baseball to 85 wins and a playoff spot. Their reward is a date with the Yankees, who have dominated the Twins to an absurd degree since 2002. That year marked the start of a new era of Twins baseball, as Ron Gardenhire replaced Tom Kelly as manager and Minnesota made the playoffs for the first time since a championship in 1991. And during what is an otherwise successful 16-year period of team history, the Twins are 33-89 (.270) vs. the Yankees, including 2-12 (.143) in the playoffs.
It’s been 15 years since the Twins managed a winning record against the Yankees within any season and four of their last five playoffs trips have been ended by New York, including the last two via sweeps. For nearly two decades, the Yankees have cast a dark shadow over any Twins brightness, squashing any potential for a generation of Minnesotans to experience postseason magic. From the Twins’ point of view, there is much more to this matchup than one game. From the Yankees’ point of view, it’s another seemingly unfair fight with a Glass Joe-like opponent that has rarely been more than a stepping stone to bigger things.
But maybe things are different now. After all, don’t the tables have to turn at some point? Minnesota has a new front office, a new manager, and a new crop of stars. It would be silly to assume, for instance, that Byron Buxton cares if Alex Rodriguez vs. Joe Nathan matchups will forever give Twins fans nightmares. Buxton was nine years old when the Yankees first knocked the Twins out of the playoffs and 16 the last time it happened. This is the beginning of another new era of Twins baseball and what better way to start with a clean slate than to slay the dragon right away.
Of course, this is a new era of Yankees baseball as well. New York’s youth movement wasn’t supposed to pay dividends this quickly, but while Yankees fans were dreaming of a prospect-packed future the first wave of young talent arrived in a huge way. Aaron Judge (25), Gary Sanchez (24), and Luis Severino (23) emerged as stars in their first full MLB seasons, with Judge and Sanchez both leading the league in homers and WARP at their positions and Severino ranking third among AL pitchers in WARP. The story of Minnesota’s season is young talent breaking through, but nowhere is that more true than in New York.
Perhaps this isn’t really about the upstart Twins trying to slay an old dragon, but rather the stage being set for another decade of Minnesota/New York clashes, this time with Judge, Sanchez, Severino, and a cadre of incoming prospects against Buxton, Miguel Sano, Jose Berrios, and new leadership. Whatever the case, it’s about a lot more than one game, although the one game carries plenty of drama. Loser goes home, with a slightly less rosy feeling about their expectations-defying year. Winner goes to the ALDS in Cleveland, where the defending AL champions (and the hottest team in baseball) await them.
2B-R Brian Dozier (.269/.357/.496/.280)
1B-L Joe Mauer (.305/.384/.417/.274)
SS-S Jorge Polanco (.256/.313/.410/.248)
LF-L Eddie Rosario (.290/.328/.507/.271)
3B-S Eduardo Escobar (.254/.309/.449/.255)
RF-L Max Kepler (.243/.312/.425/.247)
CF-R Byron Buxton (.253/.314/.413/.247)
C-L Jason Castro (.242/.333/.388/.247)
DH-S Robbie Grossman (.246/.361/.380/.261)
Minnesota had the second-youngest lineup in the league, with 45 percent of all plate appearances going to 25-and-under hitters, yet they scored the fourth-most runs overall and led the AL in scoring after the All-Star break. Much of that second-half damage was done without their lone position player All-Star and OPS leader, Sano, who spent a month on the disabled list with a leg injury. Sano returned for the final weekend of the season, but was clearly playing at much less than 100 percent and is not on the Wild Card game roster.
Based on TAv, the Twins had five of the AL’s top 25 hitters in the second half (Dozier, Mauer, Rosario, Polanco, Buxton), and the midseason turnarounds of Buxton and Polanco were particularly startling. Buxton started 4-for-49 with 24 strikeouts, but then hit .274/.335/.448 in his final 125 games, including .309/.358/.538 after July 1. He’s also the fastest man in baseball (yes, ahead of even Billy Hamilton), with 23.8 FRAA and 29 steals in 30 tries, producing 4.1 WARP at age 23. Polanco struggled for months, including a .078 average in July, but then batted .316/.377/.553 in August and September to become the no. 3 hitter.
First-year hitting coach James Rowson, one of the new regime’s few offseason changes, deserves a ton of credit for the work he’s done with Buxton, Polanco, and Rosario, the latter of whom finally unlocked his potential by becoming more patient. Toss in Dozier’s second straight monster second half, Mauer’s return to .300-hitting form, and Escobar's nice work subbing for Sano, and the lineup is young, deep, powerful, and last but not least patient, ranking third in walk rate despite all of that youth. They were also better against righties than lefties, which plays in their favor for this game (until the ninth inning, at least).
LF-L Brett Gardner (.264/.350/.428/.271)
RF-R Aaron Judge (.284/.422/.627/.339)
C-R Gary Sanchez (.278/.345/.531/.297)
SS-L Didi Gregorius (.287/.318/.478/.282)
2B-R Starlin Castro (.300/.338/.454/.269)
1B-L Greg Bird (.190/.288/.422/.261)
CF-S Aaron Hicks (.266/.372/.475/.286)
CF-L Jacoby Ellsbury (.264/.348/.402/.266)
3B-R Todd Frazier (.213/.344/.428/.268)
New York’s lineup is pretty heavy on veterans, but it revolves around a pair of young sluggers. Judge has resumed crushing after an extended post-break slump, hitting .311/.463/.889 with 15 homers in September to put a bow on one of the greatest rookie seasons of all time. Sanchez was the best-hitting catcher in baseball, smacking 33 homers despite missing most of April. And while he’s criticized incessantly for poor defense, Sanchez’s good framing and throwing numbers more than make up for too many passed balls.
No other Yankees full-timers cracked an .800 OPS, but Gardner grinded away to his usual .350 on-base percentage atop the lineup, Gregorius topped 20 homers for the second straight year, and Castro slugged a career-high .454. Ellsbury has become an expensive afterthought in the lineup, but his .348 OBP and speed could be factors given that the Yankees are likely to test Twins catcher Jason Castro like they did in last month's series. Frazier has the ninth-most homers in baseball since 2014, but will hit near the bottom of the lineup.
First base and DH aren’t strengths for this version of the Yankees, but Joe Girardi can play matchups with decent options at each spot. New York led the league in homers and walks while ranking second in runs scored, including being the AL’s best in runs, homers, and OPS at home. This isn’t quite the Hall of Famer-filled gauntlet that so often beat the Twins into postseason submission—and the absence of multiple left-handed sluggers is good news for a Twins staff that lacks reliable southpaws—but the combo of Judge and Sanchez surrounded by a bunch of average-or-better veterans is plenty scary.
Twins: Ervin Santana (211, 3.28, 3.65)
Rumored to be on the trade block all offseason because the assumption was that the Twins were still fully in rebuilding mode, Santana instead struck around and went 4-0 with a 0.77 ERA in April. He maintained a sub-2.00 ERA through two months and the 34-year-old right-hander made his second All-Star team a decade after his first selection. He predictably came back down to earth, posting a 4.15 ERA in 22 starts since June 1 to nearly match his 4.03 career ERA, but DRA shows Santana as one of the league’s dozen best starters for the second season in a row. He’s not an ace, but he’s been a legitimate no. 1 starter.
Santana throws strikes, misses a decent number of bats, does a good job limiting damage, and has fared better against lefties than righties in back-to-back seasons, making him the Twins’ clear top choice to take the mound at Yankee Stadium despite career-long homer issues. He allowed 31 in 33 starts this season, including one to Judge in his lone start facing the Yankees, three weeks ago in New York. His reverse platoon split isn’t much help against Judge and Sanchez, and as an extreme fly-ball pitcher facing a lineup with the league's most homers it’s a particularly tough matchup for Santana.
Yankees: Luis Severino (193, 2.98, 3.06)
Severino’s promising 2015 debut gave way to a rough 2016, but he bounced back with a fantastic first full season at age 23. He’s the first Yankees pitcher to start at least 30 games with an ERA below 3.00 since Andy Pettitte in 1997, racking up 230 strikeouts in 193 innings while reducing his walk rate by 20 percent. Severino has always had top-shelf raw stuff and he was the only MLB starter this season with an average fastball velocity above 97 mph. His command of that overpowering heat is much improved, and both his slider and changeup became weapons as well.
On a rate basis, his fastball (seventh), slider (sixth), and changeup (third) ranked among the AL’s top 10 for each offering, which makes Severino’s breakout easy to understand. He’s got three plus-plus pitches, including the fastest fastball, and among AL starters he trailed only Chris Sale and Corey Kluber in both strikeout rate and DRA. Severino has a pronounced platoon split and can lose the zone at times, both of which are things Minnesota’s patient, lefty-heavy lineup might be able to exploit to some extent, but he’s 9-2 with a 2.28 ERA, .181 opponents’ AVG, and 106/24 K/BB ratio since the All-Star break.
Relief Pitchers (IP, ERA, DRA)
RHP Matt Belisle (60, 4.03, 3.47)
RHP Trevor Hildenberger (42, 3.21, 2.50)
RHP Jose Berrios (146, 3.89, 3.62)
RHP Alan Busenitz (32, 1.99, 4.98)
RHP Ryan Pressly (61, 4.70, 4.40)
LHP Taylor Rogers (56, 3.07, 4.97)
Minnesota sold at the trade deadline, sending All-Star closer Brandon Kintzler to the Nationals. They were 50-53 at the time, with 5.3 percent playoff odds, but two months later the Twins would love Kintzler back. It’s hard to argue that the loss of Kintzler hurt them down the stretch—Belisle performed well as closer and rookies Hildenberger and Busenitz were excellent in setup roles—but the Twins’ bullpen looks shaky enough that they may turn to 23-year-old starter Jose Berrios in relief after a one-appearance bullpen tryout during the final weekend featured an average fastball velocity of 96 mph.
Belisle converted nine saves with a 2.55 ERA and 19/3 K/BB ratio in 18 innings after the trade, but he’s a 37-year-old career-long middle reliever with a low-90s fastball. Hildenberger is one of the unsung heroes of Minnesota's season, finally getting a call-up at age 26 after posting a 1.57 ERA in the minors. He quickly earned Paul Molitor’s trust as the go-to fireman, logging big workloads in August and September in part because guys like Pressly, Rogers, and Tyler Duffey were so inconsistent. Many teams will lean heavily on their bullpen this month, but the Twins want to avoid that.
LHP Aroldis Chapman (50, 3.22, 3.34)
RHP Dellin Betances (60, 2.87, 3.03)
RHP David Robertson (68, 1.84, 2.22)
RHP Tommy Kahnle (62, 2.59, 2.79
RHP Chad Green (69, 1.83, 2.66)
LHP Chasen Shreve (45, 3.77, 3.14)
Meanwhile, the Yankees have one of the best, deepest, and most overpowering bullpens in baseball, with at least five relievers who would be the no. 1 option for the Twins. Among all AL relievers with at least 40 innings this season, Yankees rank second (Green), third (Betances), fifth (Kahnle), sixth (Robertson), and 13th (Chapman) in strikeout rate. Yes, you read that correctly: Chapman, who struck out 12.3 per nine innings, has the lowest strikeout rate of the Yankees’ top five relievers. Together, those five relievers combined for a 2.38 ERA and 456 strikeouts in 303 innings this season.
Whereas the Twins are hoping to get at least six or seven innings out of Santana because things can get scary once he leaves, the Yankees may have Severino on a much shorter leash simply because Girardi has the luxury of never-ending power arms. Chapman, Betances, and Kahnle are capable of hurting themselves by not throwing strikes, which is the Twins’ best hope if a comeback is required. New York has the on-paper edge over Minnesota in a number of different areas, but none more so than in the bullpen, where the Yankees can trot out flame-throwers all night while the Twins struggle to start a fire.
Molitor shifted into micro-manager mode down the stretch, calling for more bunts—even from the middle of the lineup—and making more mid-inning pitching changes. Given an unbalanced Wild Card roster, with bench bats in place of extra starting pitchers, he’ll be very tempted to bunt and run his way into small- and smaller-ball strategies. Fairly or not, Girardi has long been mocked for his binder-related decisions, but in a win-or-die scenario with five high-octane relievers he’d be justified in going to the bullpen early. He also figures to give Gardner, Ellsbury, and Hicks bright green lights to run on Castro.
New York is a huge favorite in this game, whether or not you care about the two teams’ Lucy/Charlie Brown relationship. Not only did the Yankees win 91 games, compared to 85 for the Twins, they did so with the majors' second-best run differential at +198 (the Twins were +27). Betting odds have the Yankees around -240, which works out to 70 percent. PECOTA odds, which is based on the game’s expected matchups, has the Yankees at 67 percent to win. On paper, at least, they have the better starter, the much better bullpen, and the better lineup, along with home-field advantage.
There's no logical reason to pick against the Yankees, at home, vs. a lesser team that they have so thoroughly manhandled for so long. That’s certainly less true in a one-game “series” than in five or seven games—let alone in 122 games—but it’s still true. I can only say now what I’ve been telling Twins fans for the past month: If the Twins managed 33 wins vs. the Yankees while being dominated by them since 2002, why can’t they win one more? This could just be a Minnesotan trying to remain optimistic, or maybe an overall belief that things can’t stay the same forever, but I'll take the Twins to make it 1-0 instead of 33-89.