Playoff Preview: Twins vs. Yankees
Five of the franchise’s past six postseason appearances have ended by the hands of the Yankees. “I don’t care, to be honest,” said Twins manager Rocco Baldelli. “Nothing that’s happened in the past affects our team in any way. And I mean that.” And he couldn’t be more right. It matters not what Justin Morneau or Joe Mauer were or were not able to accomplish 10 years ago against a Yankees roster whose lone holdover from then is Brett Gardner. It’s little more than trivia.
On Friday, these two teams will meet at Yankee Stadium to commence a best-of-five series whose winner will claim the right to advance to the ALCS.
The Offenses at a Glance
|MIN||307 (1st)||939 (2nd)||906 (1st)||28 (30th)||20.9% (27th)||.338 (6th)||.270 (2nd)||.347 (2nd)||116 (3rd)||+185 (4th)|
|NYY||306 (2nd)||943 (1st)||904 (2nd)||55 (24th)||23% (19th)||.339 (4th)||.267 (4th)||.346 (3rd)||117 (2nd)||+204 (3rd)|
2019 was undoubtedly the year of the home run. And both of these offenses embraced that to the fullest with the Twins (101-61) just barely eeking out the MLB lead in home runs at 307 while the Yankees (103-59) were just behind at 306. Shattered was the single-season team record of 267 previously held by … the 2018 New York Yankees. The Astros were third in home runs at 288.
Both teams were back-to-back in wOBA, OBP, and wRC+. This is nothing new. If you’ve been following along this year, you knew that both of these offenses were among this year’s elite. But it’s pretty wild to see just how close these teams measured up in both rate and counting stats. Even in run differential, both teams were back-to-back, with the Yankees having the edge there at +204 to the Twins’ +185.
These teams played each other six times this year, with the Yankees earning the 4-2 advantage. And in those six games, 81 runs were scored. There may be some runs scored in this series.
|Max Kepler OF||596||16.6%||.252||.336||.355||121|
|Jorge Polanco SS||704||16.5%||.295||.356||.352||120|
|Nelson Cruz DH||521||25.1%||.311||.392||.417||163|
|Eddie Rosario OF||590||14.6%||.276||.300||.329||103|
|Mitch Garver C||359||24.2%||.273||.365||.404||155|
|Miguel Sano 3B||439||36.2%||.247||.346||.378||137|
|Marwin Gonzalez OF/1B||463||21.2%||.264||.322||.313||93|
|Luis Arraez 2B||366||7.9%||.334||.399||.360||125|
|C.J. Cron 1B||499||21.4%||.253||.311||.325||101|
|Jonathan Schoop 2B||464||25%||.256||.304||.324||100|
|Jake Cave OF||228||31.1%||.258||.351||.343||113|
|Jason Castro C||275||32%||.232||.332||.328||103|
|Ehire Adrianza IF||236||16.9%||.272||.349||.326||102|
Note this article was written prior to both teams having released their official rosters (10:00 a.m. on Friday), so this is simply my guess as to what they will look like.
Max Kepler missed time late in the season with a left shoulder strain. But all indications are that he should be ready to resume his role as the team’s leadoff man against right-handed pitchers. Kepler enjoyed a power surge in 2019, mashing a career-best 36 home runs, his previous high being a much more modest total of 20 in 2018. Kepler may have been one of the more under-the-radar breakouts of 2019 as he was one of just six hitters to hit 36 or more home runs while also having a strikeout rate below 20%. Those other hitters? Cody Bellinger, Alex Bregman, Nolan Arenado, Freddie Freeman, and Josh Bell.
Jorge Polanco had a breakout year in 2019 as he managed to increase his walk rate to 8.5% and trim his strikeout rate to 16.5% all while tallying a career-best 22 home runs. His .356 OBP and .295 batting average (28th among qualifiers) provided the Twins with a quintessential 2-hole hitter.
Nelson Cruz simply scoffed at the mere notion of Father Time slowing down his boomstick as he paced this Twins offense in almost every meaningful offensive category. His absurd 19.9% barrel rate and .420 xwOBA were both good for top 1% marks in the league. Cruz is very clearly the heart of this lineup, and he will almost certainly be pitched to deliberately throughout the series.
Second in the league in home runs among catchers (minimum 350 plate appearances) was none other than Mitch Garver. First in the league? That would be his counterpart in this series, Gary Sanchez, with 34. Garver’s .404 wOBA easily paced his peers. Second among catchers was the Cubs’ Willson Contreras at a distant .368. Garver gives the Twins one of the very few true impact bats at the position. Garver has also hit leadoff for the Twins when they are facing lefties. So that could be where we see him in Game 1 against James Paxton.
We know that Miguel Sano has the power to flip a game with one swing, but he also has the type of profile (36.2% strikeout rate) that could be doubly exposed by the upper-tier pitching of the postseason.
Luis Arraez was the antithesis of 2019 baseball. His 7.9% strikeout rate would have easily paced the league if he qualified (Hanser Alberto led with 9.1%). Arraez’s .334 batting average would have been good for second behind Tim Anderson (.335) if he qualified. The man can certainly put the bat on the ball like very few others. Arraez suffered an ankle sprain in the last game of the season and is questionable. If he were forced to miss the series, Jonathan Schoop would likely fill the void.
After last year’s 30-home run breakout campaign with the Rays, C.J. Cron struggled a bit this year, though coincidentally he did manage to match last year’s .253 average. It’s worth mentioning though that he did battle through a thumb injury during the second half, so that certainly could have held him down some. He’s an aggressive but certainly dangerous hitter at the bottom of the order.
|D.J. LeMahieu 1B/3B||655||13.7%||.327||.375||.375||136|
|Aaron Judge OF||447||31.5%||.272||.381||.382||141|
|Gleyber Torres 2B||604||21.4%||.278||.337||.358||125|
|Giancarlo Stanton OF||72||33.3%||.288||.403||.379||139|
|Edwin Encarnacion DH||486||21.2%||.244||.344||.362||129|
|Gary Sanchez C||446||28%||.232||.316||.346||116|
|Brett Gardner OF||550||19.6%||.251||.325||.344||115|
|Gio Urshela 3B||476||18.3%||.314||.355||.369||132|
|Didi Gregorius SS||344||15.4%||.238||.276||.297||84|
|Luke Voit 1B||510||27.8%||.263||.378||.360||126|
|Cameron Maybin OF||269||26.8%||.285||.364||.362||128|
|Austin Romine C||240||20.8%||.281||.310||.315||95|
|Tyler Wade SS||108||25.9%||.245||.330||.303||88|
The 2019 New York Yankees managed to hit 306 home runs despite missing Giancarlo Stanton for virtually the entire season in addition to extended absences from Aaron Judge, Sanchez, Edwin Encarnacion, Aaron Hicks, and Luke Voit. We can only dream of what this team could have done had it not faced a cavalcade of injuries. Like the Twins, who are down Bryon Buxton, the Yankees will also be without their starting center fielder in Hicks, who dealt with a back injury early in the season before an elbow injury eventually put him on the shelf for good.
In an offseason that featured the likes of Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, it may just have been D.J. LeMahieu who proved to be the best acquisition. His stellar season rendered the loss of last year’s AL Rookie fo the Year runner-up Miguel Andujar a mere afterthought as LeMahieu paced this offense in runs, RBI, and batting average, hitting a lusty .327 (fourth among qualifiers). His 26 home runs and 102 RBI were both career highs. LeMahieu’s 13.7% strikeout rate provides this team with some much-needed balance as the middle of this order features several hitters who strike out north of 25% in Judge, Stanton, and Sanchez.
Yes, Judge may strikeout a bunch. But when he makes contact, the earth can only shudder as his 95.9 average exit velocity led the league. Second? Well, that would be the Twins’ Sano at 94.4. This is going to be a fun series.
Gleyber Torres paced the Yankees in home runs with 38, cementing his status as one of the game’s rising stars.
Something to keep an eye on: How does the middle of the order look? Both Stanton and Sanchez were only able to log a limited amount of at-bats following extended absences. And Encarnacion hasn’t had an at-bat since Sept. 12. How do they respond now being thrown into the frying pan that is postseason play?
The last remaining holdover from the Yankees’ last World Series way, way back in 2009, Brett Gardner was supposed to be an afterthought on this team, but injuries to Stanton, Hicks, and Mike Tauchman afforded him ample opportunity. He responded with a flourish, belting 10 home runs in the month of September. He’ll feature prominently here in what could be his final hurrah as a Yankee.
One of the more interesting dilemmas will be what do the Yankees do with Voit? After returning from a sports hernia injury in late August, he’s fallen into a tailspin, hitting .194 with a .299 wOBA and 85 wRC+ in the month of September. That’s not what you want heading into the playoffs. Voit has, however, had a very good season overall as his OBP of .378 is third on the team while his wOBA of .360 ranks fourth on the team (minimum 350 plate appearances). While it seems unlikely that he’ll cede a spot on the roster to Mike Ford (.372 wOBA, 134 wRC+ in 163 plate appearances), Voit looks to be legitimately on the roster bubble, and if he is included, he’ll be a bench bat at least in the early going.
And that would be thanks to Gio Urshela‘s breakout campaign, which saw him hit a career-best 21 home runs, his previous best being six with the Indians as a part-time player back in 2015. Now, to be clear, Urshela himself as had an awful September, hitting just .207 with a .269 wOBA. But given his defensive ability at third, its an easier decision to make as it would simply slide LeMahieu over to first.
While much has been made of Voit’s recent struggles, Didi Gregorius has had the far worse season since returning from Tommy John surgery in June. His .297 wOBA, .276 OBP, and .236 average are easily the worst marks of his Yankee tenure. The Yankees prefer his defense at short, but shifting Torres there and nixing Gregorius from the lineup could be a possible outcome if his struggles continue.
Outside of LeMahieu and Judge at the top, it’s anyone’s guess how exactly this Yankee lineup will look. They’ve run out seemingly endless iterations of it this year, mostly on account of injuries, so it will be very interesting to see how Yankees manager Aaron Boone ultimately decides to deploy his hitters for this series.
|Taylor Rogers||69||32.4%||2.61||1.00||2.63||Aroldis Chapman||57||36.2%||2.21||1.11||3.10|
|Trevor May||64.1||29.7%||2.94||1.07||3.68||Chad Green||69||33.2%||4.17||1.23||3.04|
|Sergio Romo||60.1||24.1%||3.43||1.11||3.98||Adam Ottavino||66.1||31.1%||1.90||1.31||4.09|
|Tyler Duffey||57.2||34.5%||2.50||1.01||2.74||Tommy Kahnle||61.1||35.5%||3.67||1.06||2.79|
|Zack Littell||37||21.9%||2.68||1.16||4.06||Zach Britton||61.1||21.6%||1.91||1.14||3.81|
|Brusdar Graterol||9.2||25%||4.66||1.24||3.34||Jonathan Loaisiga||31.2||26.6%||4.55||1.48||4.34|
|Martin Perez||165.1||18.3%||5.12||1.52||5.01||J.A. Happ||177.2||20.7%||4.91||1.30||4.72|
|Cody Stashak||25||24%||3.24||1.20||3.85||Luis Cessa||81||21.9%||4.11||1.31||4.30|
|Devin Smeltzer||49||18.8%||3.86||1.27||4.69||Stephen Tarpley||24.2||28.3%||6.93||1.99||4.17|
The Yankees will have available at their discretion four relievers with strikeout rates over 30% in Aroldis Chapman, Adam Ottavino, Chad Green, and Tommy Kahnle. The loss of Dellin Betances to an Achilles injury is a big one though, and it shouldn’t be overlooked as his 40.3% strikeout rate from 2017-18 is third among relievers (minimum 50 innings pitched) behind only Craig Kimbrel and Josh Hader.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate Kahnle’s changeup. Against lefty hitters this year, it’s returned a 50.3% whiff rate, .141 batting average, and .185 wOBA.
For the fourth straight year, Chapman, who went 37 for 42 in save opportunities, has upped the usage of his slider at the expense of his fastball. This year, he threw the slider 31.1% of the time, just about double the amount we saw from him in 2016 (15.7%). It’s hard to argue with the results though as the slider has returned a 43.2% whiff rate and .159 batting average against this year.
Jonathan Loaisiga has shown some terrific swing-and-miss stuff in his short stint in the majors. Both his changeup and curveball have returned whiff rates over 40%. He’s not a lock to make the roster by any means, but he’s an arm who could give the Yankees some length out of the bullpen should a starter get knocked off early or a game goes deep into extras.
The Twins bullpen may have been one of the more underrated units of the year as their relievers combined for a 3.92 FIP, which led all teams. (The Yankees were 9th at 4.15.) And it starts at the top with Taylor Rogers, who went 30 for 36 in save opportunities and was nothing short of a stalwart for this Twins team. Of his 30 saves, 12 were four outs or longer.
Tyler Duffey has been excellent this year as his 34.5% strikeout rate ranks 17th among relievers (minimum 50 innings pitched).
Sergio Romo’s slider has returned a 38% whiff rate and .236 wOBA against opposing right-handed hitters. He’ll certainly be called upon to get some tough righty hitters out in this series.
Brusdar Graterol spent most of the year in Double-A, where he made nine starts with a 24% strikeout rate across 52.2 innings. He’s the Twins’ top pitching prospect and gives them a legit flame-thrower out of the bullpen as his sinker sits at 99 mph.
Schedule and Possible Starters
|10/4||Jose Berrios||200.1||23.2%||3.68||1.22||4.28||James Paxton||150.2||29.4%||3.82||1.28||3.93|
|10/5||Jake Odorizzi||159||27.1%||3.51||1.21||4.14||Masahiro Tanaka||182||19.6%||4.45||1.24||4.46|
|10/7||Luis Severino||12||35.4%||1.50||1.00||3.80||Randy Dobnak||28.1||19.5%||1.59||1.13||3.92|
*= if necessary
For the Yankees, the loss of Domingo German (19.2% K-BB rate, 30.6% CSW) is huge as he led the team in wins with 18 across his 143 innings. This will put the onus on James Paxton (20.7% K-BB rate, 29.9% CSW). Big Maple has been everything Yankees GM Brian Cashman had hoped for when he traded for him last offseason as he hummed right along to the tune of 3.63 ERA and 10 wins in the second half. It’s a tough matchup though as this Twins team hit for a league-best .872 OPS against left-handed pitchers.
While some may point to his 1.50 ERA and 0.80 WHIP across 30 innings in the Postseason as a reason to give Masahiro Tanaka (14.4% K-BB rate, 28.5% CSW) the opening start, 2019 was a legitimate down year for the righty, who saw his strikeout rate dip from 25% to just 19.6% this year, a career low. That can be attributed, in part at least, to the mysterious disappearance of his splitter, which saw its whiff rate plummet from 36.2% to just 18.4%. As a result, lefties in particular hit him hard this year, to the tune of a .349 wOBA and .285 batting average. He showed some signs of improving late in the year, but given the nebulous nature of his splitter, this version of Tanaka is a coin flip and a rather scary one at that once you consider his propensity for relinquishing the longball. He’ll start Game 2 for the Yankees.
Jose Berrios (17.1% K-BB rate, 29.8% CSW) led the charge for the Twins rotation with 200 innings and pitched well. Meanwhile, Jake Odorizzi (19% K-BB rate, 28.2% CSW) was a pleasant surprise for the Twins as he led the staff with 15 wins. He’s been great against right-handed hitters this year, holding them to a .255 wOBA and .194 batting average. The Twins were judicious in their usage of Odorizzi this year, and with good reason. Through the first two times through the order, he limited opposing batters to a .269 wOBA and .220 batting average. Third time through? Those numbers jumped to .367 and .296, respectively. Expect the Twins to keep a tight leash on Odorizzi.
As the series shifts back to Minnesota for Game 3, the Twins’ loss of Michael Pineda (4.18 SIERA, 18.7% K-BB rate, 28.5% CSW) to suspension will loom large. Both Martin Perez and in particular Kyle Gibson pitched poorly down the stretch, so it would appear that they are on the outside looking in for a spot in the rotation. That leaves rookie Randy Dobnak (15.3% K-BB rate, 29.5% CSW) as an option for Game 3. His highest pitch count this year across five starts in the majors was just 78, so he’ll figure to be on a very tight leash if he gets the nod.
Leaning on Luis Severino fot October glory may be a tenuous proposition given the amount of time he missed the season, but we know the upside. It’s both real and spectacular (22.6% K-BB rate, 3.26 SIERA across 384.2 innings 2017-18). He’ll start Game 3, and it makes sense in that he’ll follow an off day, meaning the bullpen will be rested given that he’s peaked at just 80 pitches in his three starts this season. Here in Game 3 is where I think the Yankees have a clear advantage in the starting pitching matchup.
J.A. Happ could potentially start Game 4, though given the schedule of the first round, it’s not a given as Boone could opt to give the ball to Paxton on three days rest, which would leave Tanaka to start a pivotal Game 5 on full rest if need be.
Some may say the Twins took advantage of a weak division, going 41-16 against the Royals, White Sox, and Tigers, but a 100-win season shouldn’t be taken for granted. In the end, you can only play the schedule that’s given you. Plus, it’s not like the Yankees didn’t roast the Orioles and Blue Jays all year long.
I think the Yankees have the better roster and a decided edge with their starting pitching, so they deserve to be the favorites in the series. But this is a really dangerous Twins team that shouldn’t be taken lightly. I’ll say the Twins push the Yankees to the brink but fall short in Game 5.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@FreshMeatComm on Twitter)