ALDS Preview: Twins vs. Yankees

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Two full weeks after the Yankees clinched their spot in the playoffs, the Twins and Tigers played a 12-inning thriller yesterday to decide the AL Central.
Thirteen pitchers were used, 391 pitches were thrown, and when the Twins emerged victorious they had less than 20 hours to celebrate in front of a record crowd at the not-dead-yet Metrodome, get to the airport, fly from Minneapolis to New York, presumably get some sleep, and then be at Yankee Stadium for the first pitch of the ALDS tonight.
Congratulations on the division title. Hope you enjoyed the celebration. Now try beating this 103-win powerhouse with three times your payroll.
Before becoming the biggest underdogs of the playoffs the Twins trailed the Tigers by seven games on September 6 and remained three games behind with just four games to play, which is a deficit that no team in baseball history has come back from. Until now. Minnesota went 31-14 down the stretch, including 17-4 after losing Justin Morneau to a season-ending back injury, and scratched out a one-game playoff win after falling 1-0 to the White Sox in the same situation last year.
Their reward? A late-night flight to New York for a matchup against baseball’s most dominant team. Oh, and just in case the above scenario isn’t daunting enough the Twins are 16-45 against the Yankees under manager Ron Gardenhire, including 0-7 this season, and New York is responsible for two of their last three playoff exits. This is David versus Goliath, if Goliath wore pinstripes and David was tired from dousing himself with champagne the night before, but fortunately for the Twins their slingshot is still warm.

CC Sabathia         230 IP    7.7 SO/9    2.6 BB/9    42.9 GB%    3.94 xFIP
Brian Duensing       84 IP    5.7 SO/9    3.3 BB/9    45.5 GB%    4.97 xFIP
A.J. Burnett        207 IP    9.5 SO/9    4.2 BB/9    42.8 GB%    4.50 xFIP
Nick Blackburn      206 IP    4.3 SO/9    1.8 BB/9    45.8 GB%    4.78 xFIP
Andy Pettitte       195 IP    6.8 SO/9    3.5 BB/9    42.9 GB%    3.94 xFIP
Carl Pavano         199 IP    6.6 SO/9    1.8 BB/9    44.5 GB%    4.24 xFIP
CC Sabathia         230 IP    7.7 SO/9    2.6 BB/9    42.9 GB%    3.94 xFIP
Scott Baker         200 IP    7.3 SO/9    2.2 BB/9    33.9 GB%    4.39 xFIP
A.J. Burnett        207 IP    9.5 SO/9    4.2 BB/9    42.8 GB%    4.50 xFIP
Nick Blackburn      206 IP    4.3 SO/9    1.8 BB/9    45.8 GB%    4.78 xFIP

* xFIP stands for Expected Fielding Independent Pitching, which is generally a better measure of pitcher performance than ERA. GB% is ground-ball percentage.
Minnesota had to rebuild its rotation on the fly thanks to Francisco Liriano falling apart and injuries to Kevin Slowey and Glen Perkins, and the revised front four of Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Carl Pavano, and Brian Duensing went 17-9 with a 3.76 ERA over the final 45 games of the season. Ideally the Twins would start Baker in Game 1, but since he was needed in yesterday’s one-game playoff they’ll go with the 26-year-old rookie Duensing against CC Sabathia.
Duensing was 5-2 with a 3.64 ERA in 84 innings split between the rotation and bullpen, but his secondary numbers weren’t nearly as impressive, his stuff is mediocre, and he went 20-22 with a 4.00 ERA at Triple-A before making his big-league debut this year. Sabathia versus Duensing is the biggest mismatch of a lopsided series, but the Yankees also hold smaller edges in each of the other four games and it’s possible that the Twins’ best starter won’t ever take the mound.
Sabathia struggled in his final start, but went 11-2 with a 2.74 ERA after the All-Star break and is 13-8 with a 3.05 ERA lifetime against the Twins, including seven innings of one-run ball in July. Minnesota will likely need to win two of the other three matchups, because it’s awfully difficult to envision the Twins beating Carsten Charles twice. One matchup that could favor the Twins is the Blackburn-Burnett combo, because Blackburn has repeatedly come up big in key starts and Burnett has been mediocre all season.
New York led all of baseball in hits, homers, walks, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage on the way to scoring an MLB-high 915 runs, which is 32 more than any other team and 145 more than the league average. Eight of the nine regulars in the lineup posted an OPS above .800, and even the Melky Cabrera-Brett Gardner platoon in center field managed above-average production. Minnesota’s fly ball-heavy pitching staff will be in constant danger as seven Yankees smacked at least 20 homers.
No team can match the Yankees when it comes to lineup depth and offensive firepower, but the Twins were plenty good at scoring runs themselves, ranking fourth in the league with 816. Joe Mauer had one of the greatest seasons of all time for a catcher, hitting .365/.444/.587 with 28 homers for his third batting title in four seasons, and Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, and Denard Span were also among the league’s top bats.
Morneau’s injury robs Minnesota of a fifth big-time threat, but Cuddyer hit .333 with nine homers and 24 RBIs in 21 games after replacing him at first base and guys like Delmon Young, Orlando Cabrera, and Matt Tolbert caught fire down the stretch after being easy outs for most of the season. They’re certainly not going to out-slug the Yankees, but the Twins have plenty of pop and scored 6.3 runs per game during the season-ending 17-4 stretch.
Twins relievers had a 3.88 ERA in 512 innings and Yankees relievers had a 3.91 ERA in 515 innings, but bullpen depth ceases being a big factor once the playoffs begin. In other words, no more R.A. Dickey and Edwar Ramirez. Instead playoff bullpens are all about closers and their primary setup men, which means Mariano Rivera, Phil Hughes, and Joba Chamberlain for New York and Joe Nathan, Matt Guerrier, and Jon Rauch for Minnesota. No pitcher can match Rivera’s postseason success, but Nathan is right there with him when it comes to regular-season dominance since becoming a closer in 2004:

             IP      ERA     WHIP      SV      SV%
Rivera      440     1.90     0.94     243     93.1
Nathan      419     1.87     0.93     246     90.8

Amazingly close, as Rivera and Nathan have been the two best closers in baseball during that time. However, while the Twins feature a solid but unspectacular setup trio of Guerrier, Rauch, and Jose Mijares the Yankees potentially have two shutdown relievers in front of Rivera. Hughes has been overpowering since moving to the bullpen, going 5-1 with a 1.40 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 51 innings, and while a question mark Chamberlain has a 1.50 ERA in 50 career relief appearances.
Overrated Angle: Pavano versus his former teammates
Yes, the Yankees and their fans still hold a grudge against Pavano, who made a grand total of 26 starts in four injury-filled seasons in New York and earned nearly $5 million per win. However, he’s been healthy and productive this season while making a career-high 33 starts, going 14-9 with a 4.67 ERA since a rough April. Plus, for all the drama of Pavano facing New York in a playoff series he’s already pitched against the Yankees twice this season, allowing four runs over 13.1 innings in a pair of no-decisions.
Underrated Angle: Burnett over Pettitte in Game 2
Because of the incredibly drawn-out ALDS schedule the first two starters will each pitch twice. Sabathia was a no-brainer atop the rotation, but Burnett over Pettitte in Game 2 is somewhat curious. Burnett was 13-9 with a 4.04 ERA and Pettitte was 14-8 with a 4.16 ERA, so they had similar seasons, but Pettitte is a tougher matchup for the Twins given that three of their four best hitters are left-handed. Beyond that, manager Joe Girardi announced that Jose Molina will serve as Burnett’s personal catcher, so Jorge Posada’s bat will be on the bench 40 percent of the time.
Minnesota has all the momentum in the world, but history has shown that doesn’t mean a whole lot once the playoffs begin and New York is simply a superior team with the benefit of rest and homefield advantage. Yankees in four.

Astros grab early lead in Game 1 of ALDS against Royals

Houston Astros' Colby Rasmus watches his two-run home run ball clear the fence against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the sixth inning of a baseball game Friday, Oct. 2, 2015, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
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The Astros have grabbed an early 2-0 lead against Yordano Ventura in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Royals in Kansas City.

Things could have been much worse, as the Astros loaded the bases against Ventura to begin the game after Jose Altuve singled and George Springer drew a walk before Carlos Correa singled to shallow right field. Colby Rasmus grounded out to second base to score the first run before Evan Gattis grounded out to shortstop to bring in the second run. Ventura finally escaped after striking out Luis Valbuena swinging.

Ventura threw 24 pitches in the first inning. The Royals will attempt to fight back against Collin McHugh in the bottom of the first.

Pete Rose suggests Josh Donaldson should have stayed in Game 1 despite head injury

Former Cincinnati Reds player and manager Pete Rose poses while taping a segment for Miami Television News on the campus of Miami University, Monday, Sept. 21, 2015, in Oxford, Ohio. (AP Photo/Gary Landers)
AP Photo/Gary Landers

Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson was forced to exit Game 1 of the ALDS against the Rangers on Thursday after he took a knee to the head on a takeout slide at second base. The Blue Jays announced after the game that Donaldson passed concussion tests, but he’ll be reevaluated on Friday.

After the game, the Fox Sports 1 panel consisting of Kevin Burkhardt, Pete Rose, Frank Thomas, and Raul Ibanez discussed the high-profile injuries from Game 1. This led Rose to suggesting that Donaldson should have stayed in the game despite his head injury. Seriously.

Courtesy of Big League Stew, here’s the quote from Rose:

His comments created some awkwardness, but the other panelists gently tried to remind him that things have changed for the better and nobody takes any chances with a head injury. In fact, Donaldson wouldn’t be the first player to pass a concussion test one day before feeling symptoms later. It’s remarkable that nonsense like this could be said on a major sports broadcast in 2015, but here we are.

Blue Jays have to beat Hamels after losing Game 1

David Price

With their rented ace on the mound and the home crowd riled up, this was supposed to be the Blue Jays’ game. After all, they’re the one overwhelming favorite to win their LDS. Well, they were. After a 5-3 loss to the Rangers on Thursday, the Blue Jays face an uphill climb to advance in the best-of-five series.

It’s not over, obviously. For one thing, the Blue Jays get to face left-handers in at least two of the next three games, and the Jays destroy southpaws. The Jays will have the pitching advantages in Texas after Friday’s Game 2 showdown against Cole Hamels, and they’ll probably have a sharper David Price out there next time if the series goes five games.

How Toronto’s lineup shapes up in the coming days will hinge on the health of Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista. Donaldson passed his initial concussion tests after colliding with Rougned Odor‘s knee, but he’d be far from the first player to experience lasting effects after initially getting the all clear. Bautista, too, is expected to be ready to play Friday after leaving with a hamstring cramp. At this point, there’s no reason to suspect that the Jays are understating the extent of the problem.

If Donaldson is fine, the Jays will have a much better chance of taking down Hamels. Game 2 starter Marcus Stroman has looked outstanding since returning from his torn ACL, and he should be able to hold down the Rangers’ offense better than Price did. He might not even have to face Adrian Beltre, who left Thursday’s game with a back problem.

The Rangers have yet to announce the rest of their rotation, though it sounds like Martin Perez is the favorite to get the ball opposite Marco Estrada in Game 3. It would then be either Colby Lewis, Derek Holland or Yovani Gallardo on three days’ rest in Game 4 (with the Jays starting knuckleballer R.A. Dickey). Lewis seems the more likely choice because of Holland’s inconsistency and the Jays’ dominance of left-handers. Those would both be winnable games for Toronto.

So, what it comes down to is beating Hamels. If the Jays head to Texas tied 1-1, they’re still the favorites to advance to the ALCS. If it’s 2-0 Rangers, three in a row is going to be a lot to ask.