With over 5,000 baseball games played since late Match, the great month of October is finally here and it’s time for the fate of the teams that have made it to the dance to be decided in just a handful of games. With the AL Wild Card Game behind us, we can move on to breaking down the American League Division Series. If you’re looking for background, statistical analysis and some players and storylines to watch over the next week, we have you covered.
New York Yankees (103-59) vs. Minnesota Twins (101-61)
If you were expecting anything but an extreme shellacking by the Yankees historically, I have some bad news for you. The Yankees are 13-2 against the Twins in the postseason, with the most recent blow being a victory in the 2017 Wild Card Game. Back-to-back sweeps in the ALDS in 2009 and 2010 don’t help, and 1-3 routs in both the 2003 and 2004 ALDS add a little je ne sais quoi. Throw in some heartbreaking losses and the fact that these are the Yankees and there’s plenty of bitterness on the Twins’ side of the equation.
This year, New York took the season series 4-2, with a +4 run differential with each game averaging over 13 runs per game total. We’ll be talking more about home runs soon enough, but that last stat should give you a hint of what’s to come. Leaning into the season on an emotional/visceral level, the Twins are perhaps the best story in baseball this year, having taken advantage of the Indians’ complacency and winning the division for the first time since 2010. The Yankees are, well, the Yankees.
The Yankees had the second best run differential in the American League (+204) and finished with the 2nd best record with 103 wins. The Twins were third (+185) and came in third with 101. They both overperformed their Pythagorean record a bit by an equal 3-runs, so not much to take away from that. BaseRuns, which looks at all the statistics that contribute to scoring runs and allowing them, regardless of context, paints a slightly different picture, as the Yankees overperformed by an MLB-leading 9 wins. You can chalk it up to sequencing luck or you can say they were just “clutch.” Either way, though, those are both ephemeral and can disappear in the postseason in a heartbeat.
Because we shouldn’t just rag on the Yankees in this section, it’s worth noting that the Twins played in a slightly easier division. Thanks to the White Sox, Royals and Tigers, the Twins were tied for the easiest schedule in baseball with the Indians. That means you might want to take at least some of those wins with a grain of salt.
While we’ll address some of the more specific issues below, the Yankees dealt with an insane number of injuries this season on route to a division title. Per Spotrac, Yankees player collectively spent 2,616 days in the IL and lead all of baseball. They set the record for most players ever to lose time to injury. That they were able to win 103 games, even with a little luck, is a testament to how well the team was constructed and managed.
Did you like dingers? The Bronx Bombers and Bomba Squad will not disappoint. A year after setting the single-season team record for home runs with 267, they obliterated their old record by hitting 306. The only problem is that the Twins had to go and hit 307. The similarities between the lineups as a whole do not start and end with home runs, though, as the Twins hit .270/.338/.494 for a 116 wRC+ with the Yankees slashing .267/.339/.490 for a 117 wRC+. Both teams had some iffy defense at various spots in the field and notched 32.7 fWAR (Yankees) and 31.0 fWAR (Twins).
While the similarities in the overall stats are very similar, the route to get there wasn’t exactly identical. The Yankees’ injuries woes were legion this year, and they relied on a revolving door of players to rack up all that WAR. If you tell me you picked DJ LeMahieu (.327/.375/.518, 136 wRC+, 5.4 fWAR) as the Yankees’ most valuable position player this season this year, I will not buy anything you are attempting to sell me. Did you have 27-year old journeyman Gio Urshela, who hit .225/.274/.315 in 167games from 2015 to 2018, hitting .314/.355/.534 after Miguel Andújar went down? Take your snake oil elsewhere.
Now that they’ve made it to October, they’re going to cede some of the playing time to players that are finally healthy(ish). Giancarlo Stanton (.288/.403/.492, 139 wRC+) has only appeared in 18 games for them, but, in his return since September 18, he’s hit .286/.382/.571 (146 wRC+). Edwin Encarnación (.244/.344/.531, 129 wRC+, 34 HRs) has been on the shelf since September 12 but has said he’s ready to go. Gary Sanchez (.232/.316/.525, 116 wRC+, 34 HRs) has returned. It’s possible that their lineup has too many players now.
The Twins had injury issues of their own to deal with this season. Nelson Cruz (.311/.392/.639, 163 wRC+, 4.3 fWAR) only appeared 120 games, but he somehow hit 41 home runs over that span, a 55 home run season when extrapolated to 162-games. He’s something of a postseason masher, too, hitting .292/.347/.669 with 14 home runs over 41 games. But we already knew about Cruz and what he can do.
The biggest surprise on the Twins’ roster has to be catcher Mitch Garver (.273/.365/.630, 155 wRC+). The former ninth-round draft pick came out of nowhere to hit 31 home runs and rack up 3.9 fWAR in just 93 games. In case you want to prorate his dinger total to 162-games like we did with Cruz, he comes in at 54. In an era when catchers mostly don’t hit, a seemingly defense-first backup catcher with seven career home runs broke out in a big way for the Twins this year.
They have three other 30 HR hitters on the lineup, Max Kepler (41), Miguel Sano (36) and Eddie Rosario (32). So, yes, there will be lots of home runs. One downside to the dinger-first platform is that it often, but certainly not always, comes at the cost of defense. The Twins’ loss of Byron Buxton (.262/.314/.513, 111 wRC+) certainly isn’t going to help in that department, and both of these teams’ defenses are worth keeping an eye on. Even theseteams can only hit it out of the park so often. But, regardless of that, these are best (non-Houston) offenses in the American League, so get ready for the fireworks.
Now that we’re done talking about the folks who will hit the dingers, please accompany me into the back of the sausage manufacturing facility so we can see how this sweet, sweet baseball-meat is made. On the surface, the Twins seem to have a clear advantage off the bat, with their rotation posting numbers (4.19 ERA, 4.09 FIP, 16.6 fWAR) far superior to the Yanks (4.51 ERA, 4.74 FIP, 10.6 fWAR). While the surface stats certainly look better, those WAR numbers are misleading, since Yankee starters threw 110 less innings.
José Berríos (3.68 ERA, 3.85 FIP, 4.4 fWAR), Jake Odorizzi (3.51 ERA, 3.36 FIP, 4.3 fWAR) and Michael Pineda (4.01 ERA, 4.02 FIP, 2.7 fWAR) were the Twins’ best starters this year. Pineda was suspended in mid-September for taking a banned substance. Berrios saw his walks spike in the second half, from a 1.77 to 3.02 BB/9. Odorizzi has remained solid but missed his last start because of a hamstring issue. The back of the rotation starters who might have been in line to step in have really struggled, with Martín Pérez going from 4.26 ERA/3.71 in the first half to a 6.27 ERA/5.94 in the second and Kyle Gibson’s ERA jumping from 4.09 to 5.92.
While the Twins lost one of the pitchers they were going to potentially rely on for breaking with PED policy, the Yankees lost one for a far worse offense when Domingo Germán was ruled ineligible for the postseason for a violation of the league’s domestic violence policy. We’re not going to get into the asymmetry that exists in the league’s treatment of these two very different types of offenses, but you can certainly read up on the problems that are an anathema to MLB if you want.
Despite the loss of Germán, who, to be fair, was the Yankees’ third most valuable starter by WAR but might have been a long reliever in this series, the Yankees have a rosier picture than Minnesota in the rest of their rotation. James Paxton (3.82 ERA, 3.86 FIP, 3.5 fWAR) had a 1.05 ERA in September. Masahiro Tanaka (4.45 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 3.3 fWAR) had some ERA issues in the second half, as he jumped from 3.86 to 5.26, but his FIP stayed pretty much the same. But the Yankees also just got Luis Severio back on September 17 and he has a 1.50 ERA/2.13 FIP over three starts. While there will be some innings limits at work here, that’s less of a problem for the Yanks, as we’re about to discuss.
Since 2015, Yankees relievers as a group have ranked either first or second by fWAR in all of MLB, and this year they come in second with 7.5 (and only missing out on first by 0.1, which is basically a rounding error). But that doesn’t tell the whole story, since Twins relievers come in just behind the Yankees in 3rd, with 7.3, and they pitched 91 less innings. Yankees relievers posted a 4.08 ERA/4.15 FIP, Twins a 4.17 ERA/3.92 FIP.
The Yankees’ bullpen definitely has the name recognition. Closer Aroldis Chapman (2.21 ERA, 2.28 FIP) has a 0.59 ERA since August 1. Adam Ottovino (1.90 ERA, 3.44 FIP), Tommy Kahnle (3.67 ERA, 3.33 FIP) and Zach Britton (1.91ERA, 3.74 FIP) provide a bridge to Chapman. They can turn to J.A. Happ or CC Sabathia if need be. There’s a reason that the phrase “super bullpen” immediately conjures images of flamethrowers in pinstripes. Manager Aaron Boone has plenty of options after his starters go through the order a couple of times.
While Minnesota doesn’t have the name recognition or depth that New York does, Taylor Rogers (2.61 ERA, 2.85 FIP) might be one of the most underrated closers in baseball. The lefty has been excellent against hitters of both hands this season and can pitch multiple innings. Tyler Duffy (2.50 ERA, 3.06 FIP) and Tevor May (2.94 ERA, 3.73 FIP) have been reliable and September call-up Randy Dobnak (1.59, 2.90 FIP) has availed himself in his first cup of coffee. While the Yankees have more depth, harder throwers and bigger names, the Twins were actually better down the stretch, with a 2.94 ERA/3.37 FIP in September that surpassed New Yorks collective 4.29 ERA/4.21.
On paper, there’s not really a reason to suspect that the Yankees won’t win the series. While the Twins are an excellent team, and clearly much easier to root for as a neutral than the Yankees, there’s not really any individual area that you can say Minnesota has a clear cut advantage over New York. But I want the Twins to win and I should probably pick one team in the NLDS to pull off an upset, so we’ll just do it here. While my confidence level is low on this, I am a great deal more confident in making these two assertions: There will be dingers, and there will be handegg scores.
Pick: Twins in 5