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.
Rotations

GAME 1:
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
GAME 2:
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
GAME 3:
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
GAME 4:
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
GAME 5:
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.
Lineups
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.
Bullpens
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.
Prediction
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.

Report: Koji Uehara close to signing with the Cubs

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 10:  Koji Uehara #19 of the Boston Red Sox pitches in the eighth inning against the Cleveland Indians during game three of the American League Divison Series at Fenway Park on October 10, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Evan Drellich of the Boston Herald reports, citing a source as well as Nikkan Sports, that reliever Koji Uehara is close to signing a one-year, $4.5 million deal with the Cubs.

Uehara, 41, finished the 2016 season with a 3.45 ERA and a 63/11 K/BB ratio over 47 innings. He missed some time in the second half with a strained right pectoral muscle. When Uehara returned from the disabled list on September 7, he tossed 11 scoreless innings with 12 strikeouts and two walks through the end of the regular season. So there’s at least some evidence, albeit in a very small sample size, that Uehara has stuff left in the tank.

The Cubs recently acquired closer Wade Davis from the Royals. Uehara would join Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards, Jr., Justin Grimm, and Mike Montgomery in what is once again a very deep bullpen.

MLB implements another player-unfriendly rule, this time targeting draftees

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 28:  MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to the media before Game Three of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Jon Morosi of MLB Network and FOX Sports reports that the MLB draft has a new program in which the top-50 pitching prospects are asked to undergo a voluntary pre-draft MRI on their throwing arm. At first glance, it seems reasonable because, hey, pitchers are injury-prone and players sometimes hide injuries. It would feel bad if my favorite team drafted a lemon!

The reality is that this is just another player-unfriendly rule that shifts financial risk away from the owners and onto the players. The players, in this case, are often not wealthy and are about to begin life in the minor leagues where they earn less than $8,000 per year. Signing bonuses help alleviate some of the immediate financial discomfort of minor league life.

The pre-draft MRI is “voluntary” with quotes around it. Choosing not to undergo the MRI will only give prospective teams more reason to be skeptical of one’s durability. It’s a lot like those voluntary workouts in football that aren’t so voluntary due to superior and peer pressure. You don’t show up, you’re lazy, entitled, a bad teammate, etc. In this case, a pitching prospect refuses to undergo the MRI, it’s because he’s hiding an injury.

Ian Anderson was the first pitcher taken off the board in the 2016 draft, going to the Braves at No. 3. He got a $4 million signing bonus. Let’s say this new MRI program had already been instituted and Anderson refused, or something came up that caused the Braves to change their minds. Anderson’s draft stock falls, let’s say to 21 where the Blue Jays took T.J. Zeuch with a $2.175 million signing bonus. Falling 18 spots in this case costs Anderson about $2 million, perhaps more because he loses a lot of negotiating leverage. Maybe he falls further, even to the second round.

In a column for FanGraphs nearly two years ago, Nathaniel Grow showed that, as a percentage of total league revenues, player salaries have been declining since the early 2000’s. In 2002, player salaries made up 56 percent of league revenues. In 2014, it was only 38 percent.

In isolation, the MRI program isn’t a big deal. The injured player loses stock, but another player moves up to take his place and earns a bit more money. As part of the bigger picture, however, this is part of an ongoing trend in which owners abdicate financial risk and push it all onto the players. The new collective bargaining agreement, for example, capped international signings at $5-6 million per team per year. That removes any incentive for overseas stars like Shohei Otani from coming over to play Major League Baseball. If he wanted to anyway, he would make much less money than he otherwise would on an open market. The amateur draft itself is almost entirely risk-avoidant for owners and it’s terrible for the players because they, too, would earn much more on an open market. And let’s not forget how owners have fought tooth-and-nail to keep minor league salaries suppressed.

Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick once paid $2.8 million for the Honus Wagner T-206 baseball card. Let’s not act like these owners can’t afford to shoulder the risk on young pitchers.

EDIT (4:40 PM EST): As I’ve seen others mention it, it’s worth bringing up the Astros/Brady Aiken issue. The Astros took him first in the 2014 draft, but they took issue with his elbow health. The two sides had agreed to a $6.5 million signing bonus, but the Astros wanted to reduce it to $5 million as a result. Aiken didn’t end up signing with the Astros. He underwent Tommy John surgery and was later selected by the Indians 17th overall in the first round of the 2015 draft. He got a $2,513,280 signing bonus.