Series Preview: Minnesota TwinsBy
Until it stops, we’re going to continue talking about it. During the Ron Gardenhire era, which began in 2002, the Yankees have downright dominated the Minnesota Twins. Of their 75 games in that span, including playoffs, the Yankees have won 57. As FanGraphs’s Jack Moore explains, the probability of that happening is 0.021% — and that’s not a misplaced decimal point. That dominance really shines in the Bronx, as CBS’s Danny Knobler notes. The Yankees are 30-6 there against the Twins since 2002, and four of those losses came during Johan Santana starts.
Tonight marks the first of four games the two teams will play at the Stadium this week. For the Yankees to continue their string of dominance would only extend a vast statistical anomaly. But, since we’ve already seen some crazy trends this weekend, maybe the Yanks will keep things going.
What Have They Done Lately?
We have only one series in the books, so this section is even less meaningful than it normal. (I.e., we know that momentum can change at any time, without notice.) But if the opening series means anything, the Twins are in a heap of trouble. Their Nos. 1 and 2 pitchers got bombed during their starts, and their closer nearly blew Sunday’s game. In total they were outscored 21-8 by the Blue Jays. Now they come into New York and face another hot offense, but this time they’re putting their Nos. 4 and 5 starters on the mound to start the series.
The team’s lack of offense to this point has been a bit startling. They’ve gotten some quality production from the top of the lineup in Denard Span and from Jason Kubel, but after them the rest of the team hasn’t done a lick. It’s early, of course, and that will change. But will it change as the Twins face the team that has cursed them for the past nine seasons?
Twins On Offense
In the past it wasn’t difficult to note the Twins’ strengths as a team. They’ve always had contending clubs — even in 2008, after they traded Johan Santana, they came within a few games of a playoff spot — but this year they appear to have more weaknesses. For the moment, though, we’ll look at where the Twins are strong.
Clearly, at catcher they have an advantage over most of the league. From 2008 through 2010 Joe Mauer led all catchers in fWAR by no insignificant margin. His wOBA was 30 points higher than his closest peer, Brian McCann. In the same period another of the Twins up-the-middle player, Denard Span in center, ranked among the best at his position.
Then there’s Justin Morneau at first base. He’s off to a slow start, but the concussion he suffered last July kept him out for the entire second half. He still has some rust to scrape off, but once he has that worked out he’ll rank among the league’s best hitters. (In fact, he was an MVP candidate last year before he got bonked on the head.) In the outfield corners the Twins have a trio of solid hitters in Delmon Young, who stepped up last year, Jason Kubel, and Michael Cuddyer. And at DH they have Jim Thome, who, even at his advanced age, continued to mash taters last season.
Twins On The Mound
Game 1: Scott Baker. The past two years have not been kind to Scott Baker. In 2008 it appeared that he was reaching his peak, with a 3.45 ERA and 3.79 FIP. But then this fly ball propensity caught up to him. His home run rate jumped. It appeared that he had been granted a reprieve when the Twins moved to spacious Target Field, but his home run rate stayed around the same level. (
Since 2008, only Ted Lilly and Jered Weaver have a higher fly ball rate than Baker — though his teammate, Slowey, would also rank higher if he qualified. That is not a good mix with Yankee Stadium, especially given the way the Yankees opened the season. Baker does mitigate that rate with a low walk rate and average strikeout rate. There’s a good chance he bounces back this year, as his peripherals last season were good overall. But against the Yankees, at Yankee Stadium, he doesn’t appear a good match.
2010 numbers: 29 starts, 170.1 IP, 4.49 ERA, 3.96 FIP, 3.82 xFIP
Game 2: Brian Duensing. The Twins pretty clearly prefer their pitchers to induce contact and avoid walks. In that way, Duensing is the consummate Twin. Even in the minor leagues he didn’t manage an average strikeout rate. During his season and a half in the bigs he has a 5.49 K/9, which is among the lowest in the league. (His teammate, Nick Blackburn, owns the lowest strikeout rate in the last two years.) Yet he produced some excellent results last year, thanks to a low home run rate, low walk rate, and high strand rate.
Despite the low strikeout rate, Duensing does have excellent peripherals. He avoids handing out free passes, which should match-up well against the patient Yankees. He also keeps the ball in the park, in part due to a ground ball rates that eclipses 50 percent. Duensing might not be a top of the rotation pitcher, but he’s the type of guy I can see giving the Yankees fits.
2010 numbers: 53 games, 13 starts, 130.2 IP, 2.62 ERA, 3.85 FIP, 3.96 xFIP
Game 3: Carl Pavano. The story you’ll hear throughout this game is how the Yankees nearly signed Pavano this off-season. It didn’t happen, which pleased many fans who can’t stand to look at him. Those fans would have been doubly pissed if Pavano pitched for the Yankees like he pitched on Friday for the Twins. It was an ugly, ugly drubbing in which he allowed eight runs, seven earned, in four-plus innings.
Last year Pavano re-established himself as a solid MLB pitcher. His strikeouts dropped, but he made up for it with an uptick in ground balls. And, of course, he always seems to do well against the Yankees.
2010 numbers: 32 starts, 221 IP, 3.75 ERA, 4.02 FIP, 3.86 xFIP
Game 4: Francisco Liriano. The Liriano-to-the-Yankees rumors ran rampant this spring, but nothing came of it. The two sides could come together for a deal later this year, but if the Twins are contending they have little reason to trade their most dominant pitcher. That is, he’s the only arm in their rotation with an above-average strikeout rate. He combines that with a high groundball rate to give them one of their most complete pitchers.
As with Pavano, Yankees fans would have been steaming mad if the team had traded for Liriano and he turned in a performance like Saturday’s, in which he allowed four runs, on five walks and two homers, in 4.1 IP. Chances are, he’ll turn in a better performance this time around.
2010 numbers: 31 starts, 191.2 IP, 3.62 ERA, 2.66 FIP, 2.95 xFIP
Bullpen. For years the bullpen had been a strength for the Twins, but this past off-season they lost a number of key contributors. Jon Rauch, Jesse Crain, and Matt Guerrier all departed. That might not hurt too too much, though, as the Twins got back Joe Nathan and will have a full season of Matt Capps. They also now have Slowey in the bullpen, who should prove a solid option — until they need him in the rotation, at least — and Jose Mijares, who picked up the pace after a terrible start in 2010. The real loss for the Yanks here is Guerrier, off of whom Alex Rodriguez has hit four home runs.