Series Preview: Minnesota Twins

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?

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darren Calabrese)

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

(Charles Krupa/AP)

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

(Tom Olmscheid/AP)

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

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

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.

Record low attendances at Yankee Stadium this weekend

The Yankees previous low attendance at the new Stadium isn’t much of a surprise. On May 3, 2010, the Yankees drew only 41,751 against the Orioles. An early season games against a non-contender will always draw fewer people, so this is to be expected. What’s surprising is that it is now the former low. Both of the games this weekend against the Tigers drew fewer fans. Ross at Stadium Insider examines the trend. While I don’t agree that “casual fans got their first chance to catch the 2011 Yankees live” on Saturday — countless casual fans made it out for Opening Day — Ross does bring up some interesting information about the weekend games.

Of particular note is his point about dynamic ticket pricing. On the primary market, tickets cost the same whether you’re going to a July game against the Rays or an April game against the Indians. The secondary market helps correct for this, but the tickets hit the primary market before the secondary. In other words, someone’s taking a loss here. Maybe it was just the ominous weather forecasts that had everyone staying home — after all, snow was originally predicted for Friday/Saturday. But it’s still a bit of a disturbing trend.

2011 Draft: Catching up with Gerrit Cole

The Yankees knew they had landed themselves a gem in 2004 when they selected a high school kid by the name of Phil Hughes out of Southern California in the first round of the amateur draft. Four years later, they thought they had done it again. Baseball America called Gerrit Cole, a right-hander who could throw in the high 90s, the best high school pitcher since Hughes, and the Yanks picked him 28th in 2008. We knew the signing would go down to the wire, but Cole, a lifelong Yankee who went to the 2001 World Series as an 11-year-old, seemed likely to land in the Bronx.

On August 14, 2008, the bottom fell out. Word broke that Cole had opted for UCLA over the Yanks, and a three year mourning period began. In the intervening years, I’ve followed Cole closely.

For a young arm to opt for college over a lucrative deal from his favorite team is nearly unprecedented. First, it’s a very risky move. College coaches don’t pretend to care as much about their top pitchers’ arms as Major League organizations do, and they are more willing to overwork their youngsters to win now. If Cole got hurt at UCLA, his earnings potential would drop precipitously. Second, by eschewing the Yanks, odds were good that Cole wouldn’t have a chance to return to his favorite team until he’s a Major League free agent. If he becomes truly as good as advertised, he would become a top-five draft pick, and if he were to collapse, the Yanks would be entirely out of the picture all together. No small amount of emotion enters the picture.

Of course, in those intervening years, Cole has indeed been as good as advertised, and it stings. At UCLA, Cole, now a junior, has made a total of 41 appearances — 40 of those starts — and has been absolutely stellar. He has a 3.16 ERA in 256 IP and has given up 100 walks and 17 home runs while striking out 313. Barring an injury between now and June, either the Pirates or Mariners will take Cole as one of the first two picks of the draft. It stings.

In The Times today, Tyler Kepner profiled Cole, and it’s a fantastic read once Yankee fans get past the punch to the gut. “He’s a big C. C. Sabathia guy,” UCLA catcher and Cole’s former roommate Steve Rodriguez said. “He still is a huge Yankee fan. He gets intense when he watches their games.”

Kepner rehashes the negotiations:

Knowing they would exceed the recommended bonus for that slot, the Yankees waited until August to open negotiations with Cole’s adviser, Scott Boras. But by then, Cole and his family had decided that he would enroll at U.C.L.A. They told the Yankees not to make an offer, so the Yankees never did. Cole became the first high school pitcher in seven years to be drafted in the first round but choose college instead.

“The interesting thing is, everybody says he’s going to come out this year and make more money,” said Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees’ amateur scouting director. “How does anybody know what we would have gone to?”

…In 2009, Cole told The Los Angeles Times that he and his family had done “just an absurd amount of thinking” about the decision, comparing future earnings of players who sign out of high school to those who choose college. Cole’s father, Mark, has two graduate degrees and a successful consulting business. Unlike most families of drafted players, financial considerations were a lower priority. The Cole could afford to take a long-term view.

To me, it’s still a strange equation. The Cole family never, as Oppenheimer notes, heard an offer from the Yanks because they didn’t want to. Furthermore, had baseball not worked out, Cole could have gone back to college. Thousands of players have gotten their degrees after or even during their careers. Instead, the family gambled and, depending upon what happens in June, just might come out ahead.

It’s clear that the Yanks still regret missing out on Cole and still feel misled. “We knew it was going to be a tough sign, but we also were told in predraft meetings with the family that he was willing to play pro ball and forgo college,” Brian Cashman said to The Times. “We rolled the dice and took our chances. Everybody has a right to change their mind.”

I’ve long wondered where Cole would fit in with the Yanks’ plans, and I asked Keith Law that question a few months ago. He believed Cole would be ready for the Major League pen right now and would be the organization’s second best pitching prospect behind Manny Banuelos. Instead, Cole, who thinks he could pitch in the majors by September, will wind up as the key piece to a club hoping to rebuild.

No matter where he goes, though, the Yankees expect to see big things. “At some point in his life, maybe he wants to become a Yankee again,” Oppenheimer said to Kepner. “I don’t want to ruin that by having some bitter attitude toward the guy. I do think he really likes playing baseball, and genuinely he’s a good kid.”

Link Dump: Sabathia, Triple-A Scranton Rotation, Three True Outcomes, Contraction

Random Moose sighting. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Some afternoon news, notes, links, minutiae…

Yankees line up Sabathia for Red Sox

The Yankees have manipulated their rotation ever so slightly to allow CC Sabathia to start against the Red Sox next weekend. Ivan Nova will start tonight as scheduled, then CC will go tomorrow instead of Freddy Garcia. Don’t worry, he’ll be on regular rest. Garcia will then pitch on Wednesday and A.J. Burnett will follow on Thursday. The Yankees will roll into Boston next weekend with Phil Hughes (Friday), Nova (Saturday), and Sabathia (Sunday, regular rest). Not ideal, but whatever. It’s April.

The Twins are throwing Scott Baker, Brian Duensing, Carl Pavano, and Francisco Liriano this series, in that order. You have to figure that Andruw Jones will make his season debut against Duensing on Tuesday, and also play against Liriano on Thursday. Given the way Brett Gardner swung the bat over the weekend, two days off this week won’t kill him.

Triple-A Scranton Rotation Set

Speaking of lining up rotations, Donnie Collins spoke to Triple-A Scranton manager Dave Miley, who confirmed that his starting rotation is set. David Phelps will start the opener on Thursday, and will be followed by Hector Noesi, Adam Warren, D.J. Mitchell, and Andrew Brackman, in that order. Hooray for an all-prospect rotation. Kevin Millwood will presumably remain in Extended Spring Training for a while to build up arm strength and get stretched out, you know, Spring Training kind of stuff.

Manny Banuelos and Brett Marshall are on track to start Opening Day for Double-A Trenton and High-A Tampa, respectively, according to Josh Norris. Those are unconfirmed though, the days just happen to line up.

Three True Outcomes Weekend

I was screwed around with some data at B-Ref and came across something only the nerdy will love. The Yankees came to plate exactly 100 times against right-handed pitching in the Tigers’ series, and in those 100 PA they hit seven homers, walked a dozen times, and struck out 20. Thirty-nine of their 100 PA vs. RHP ended in a walk, strikeout, or homer, otherwise know as the three true outcomes. For perspective: Mark Reynolds saw 41.9% of his plate appearances end in the three true outcomes last season, by far the most in the bigs. The second most was Adam Dunn at 38.1%, and third was Colby Rasmus at 33.7%. So yeah, that’s quite a gap.  The Yankees really brought the power and patience (and whiffs) against the righties this weekend, eh?

MLB making a push to contract the Rays?

From the I don’t believe it for a second department, Mike Ozanian of Forbes reports that Major League Baseball is making a “strong push” to the contract the Rays. If true, that would be a major leak and one hell of a scoop, but it doesn’t add up. Does it suck that the Rays have such a crappy stadium (in an even crappier location) and low revenue? Of course, but baseball as a whole is incredibly profitably and Tampa is one of the best teams in the game. And besides, they couldn’t contract just one franchise (unless they plan to have one team be idle every day of the season, something the owners would hate), it would have to be two. The union would also put up a major, major fight if MLB tried to eliminate 50 jobs like that (really 80 when you count 40-man rosters). So yeah, cool story bro, I just don’t buy it.

The RAB Radio Show: April 4, 2011

The Yankees offense went nuts this weekend, scoring 17 runs on Saturday and Sunday. Unfortunately, the Tigers scored 16. Mike and I talk about the offensive victories and the pitching failures.

Podcast run time 24:21

Here’s how you can listen to podcast:

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Intro music: “Die Hard” courtesy of reader Alex Kresovich. Thanks to Tyler Wilkinson for the graphic.

Should the Yankees be more aggressive on the bases?

I prefer slow trots around the bases. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Whenever you think of the Yankees, stolen bases aren’t exactly something that jumps to mind. They’re a power and patience club build around extra base hits and working counts, and they’ve been immensely successful with that approach. And yet, you might be surprised to learn that they’ve stolen at least 100 bases as a team every year dating back to 2005. They’ve swiped 594 bags during the last five full seasons, the third most in the AL and the fifth most in baseball overall. For a team that often gets criticized for being one-dimensional, they really aren’t.

The 2011 Yankees have a number of stolen base threats, led by Brett Gardner. His 47 SB last year were the most by a Yankee since Rickey Henderson stole 93 bags way back in 1988. That’s his game, that’s what he’s supposed to do. Derek Jeter has stolen double-digit bases in every full season of his career while Curtis Granderson has done it every year since 2007. Alex Rodriguez is usually good for double-digit steals as well, though last year he fell well short of that mark (just four). Russell Martin showed off his skills by stealing third in the first game of the season, and his 57 SB from 2007-2010 are 27 more than any other catcher. They certainly have enough players capable of wreaking havoc on the basepaths, and now Joe Girardi wants them to really force the issue.

“That was one of the things we talked about during Spring Training that one of the things we wanted to focus on was base-running and being more aggressive, [getting] better secondary [leads] and going first-to-third,” said Girardi before Sunday’s game. “Those type of things, putting pressure on the opposing club. I know that [Gardner] and [Granderson] talked a lot about stealing bases. I think that is a healthy competition.”

We’ve already discussed the stolen base things, but it’s worth mentioning that the Yankees were one of the league’s worst teams in terms of going first-to-third on a single last year, at least in terms of percentages. Just 87 Yankee baserunners went first-to-third on a single in 328 chances in 2010, or 26.5%. The league average was 28.7%, and the only teams worse than the Yankees were Indians (22.4%), Blue Jays (25%), Orioles (25.2%), and Red Sox (25.7%). So at least there was a decent-sized gap between them and the teams below them.

However, when you consider the type of lineup the Yankees have, stealing bags and/or taking the extra base isn’t a crucial component of their offense. They simply don’t need to do that kind of stuff to score runs, as we saw this weekend. That’s not to say taking the extra base and whatnot is a bad strategy, it obviously isn’t, but the number one priority has to be getting men on base and keeping them there. In plain English, the Yankees shouldn’t take unnecessary risks on the bases. Knowing when to just stay put and not force the issue is just as important as knowing when to put your foot on the gas.

On the other hand, you could argue that the Yankees have a higher margin for error. Their offense is so good that a runner getting thrown out trying to steal or go first-to-third won’t kill them since they could easily get that run back (in theory). I can see both sides of the argument, but I tend to fall on the conservative side. Sometimes the threat of a stolen base creates more havoc than the stolen base itself. If Girardi wants his team to be more aggressive on the bases, that’s fine. I just hope they’re smart about it.

Fan Confidence Poll: April 4th, 2011

Record Last Week: 2-1 (23 RS, 19 RA)
Season Record: 2-1 (23 RS, 19 RA, 2-1 pythag. record), 1.0 game back
Opponents This Week: vs. Twins (four games, Mon. to Thurs.), @ Red Sox (three games, Fri. to Sun.)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.