Teams that play in the postseason are rarely in the same division. This can cause a problem for fans, because they aren't as familiar with teams that they only see once or twice per year. That is likely the case this week for Twins fans, as the hometown nine faces an obscure team from over a thousand miles away with a strange name - the "Yankees."
The Yankees are from our nation's biggest city and have a rather rich baseball history, once boasting the major league's career home run hitter. They are very popular out east, and even nationwide among people with low opinions of themselves. You will often hear these folks talk about their Yankees to boost their own low self-esteem. That can be especially true when one's career has stagnated at a tertiary sports network, such as TBS.
But one gains little real information from such ramblings, so I thought it might be a good idea to present a primer of what we can expect to see when the Twins face them this weekend.
The strength of the Yankees is in their offense, and has been for the entire decade. Actually, that's not quite true. The real strength of the Yankees is in having a 100+ year history in the richest city on earth. But this most clearly manifests itself in their lineup. They ranked ranked first overall in runs scored and they ranked first overall in OPS.
But what's impressive about this lineup is how deep it is. There just aren't many weaknesses. For instance, versus the right-handers the Yankees ranked first overall in OPS. And the also ranked first overall versus left-handers.
And that balance isn't just at a high level - it goes down to the individuals. It used to be that you could, in late innings, mix-and-match a little to get the upper hand. For instance, the Twins almost always carried an extra southpaw when they played the Yankees because Jason Giambi would struggle against left-handers.
That's not the case anymore. Up and down the lineup there is no magic formula for getting every other guy out. Now you need to look at individual types of pitches. Hideki Matsui is really fooled by changeups. Mark Teixeira doesn't hit curveballs. Nick Swisher has trouble against anything offspeed.
In other words, this isn't a lineup you manage. This is a lineup you fight your way through, and you do it with a healthy dose of courage (to throw the offspeed stuff) and luck (to throw anything else). They are deep through the #8 hitter when Jorge Posada is catching, and through #7 when he's not.
People will say, however, that the offense has been a constant. Instead, this year, the pitching is the difference. That might be true, but that doesn't mean it's world class. Overall, it's been about average. The team sported a 4.26 ERA this year which ranked 12th in the majors. In terms of runs against, the Yankees ranked 14th, giving up just twelve fewer runs than the Twins staff. And we worried about the Twins staff all year.
For this weekend, we don't care so much about the overall staff. We mostly care about the next two starting pitchers, AJ Burnett and Andy Pettitte.
Burnett has been quite the topic in New York this year. They signed him for $82.5 million, guaranteeing five years to a 32-year-old who has battled injuries his whole career. But he stayed healthy this year, and to the Yankees credit, they've been very careful about extending him past 100-110 pitches in his starts. Most of his starts have gone well, but he's mixed in enough stinkers to leave his ERA at 4.04.
A lot of those clunkers came at the end of August and the beginning of September, which naturally caused a little insomnia in the city that never sleeps, seeing as they were counting on him for the playoffs. But his last really crummy start was September 12th, and he's been very good since.
He does, however, give up baserunners, because he walks quite a few and still gives up hits. I expected to find out that his personal catcher, Jose Molina, who will be starting tonight, would limit the damage those runners can do on the basepaths. But he isn't any better about stopping a running game than Posada, whose defense looked laughable in Game 1. Molina has thrown out just nine of 32 stolen base attempts.
The Twins ran a little in Game 1. It might behoove them to really focus on it in Game 2. It looks like a weakness on a Yankees team that doesn't have many. And candidly, the Twins don't have that much to lose by throwing caution to the wind.
The cliche about Pettite is that he gets a lot better as the season goes on, and sure enough his ERA is 3.30 after the all-star break, as opposed to 4.85 before. He's exactly the kind of Yankees pitcher that has baffled the Twins for the last decade. He's a veteran. He never challenges batters, preferring to keep making his pitch until he finds an impatient batter. And he's left-handed.
If you only watch one-pitch per at-bat with Pettitte on the mound, make it the first one. It's usually a strike, and if it's good enough to hit, the batter will do fairly well (.360 batting average). But if Pettitte gets strike one, batters have hit just .212 against him this year. On the other hand, if he falls behind 1-0, batters have posted an 876 OPS against him.
I mentioned last week that Michael “Sammy” Samuelson had a get-together at Sunday’s game. Sammy is a life long baseball fan who, along with Julian Loscalzo, is responsible for the irreverent Hot Stove League Banquet each January. For Sunday’s game, he was followed by a video team from StarTribune.com, and the video has been posted here.
A great baseball game can bring out the best in us. As proof I offer “Ode to the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome” by Andrew Berg. Well worth the click.
Finally, please consider signing up to follow me on Twitter this weekend. I don't know where I'll be watching (or attending) the games, but whatever is going on, I'll be talking about it in short 140 character snippets. I'd love you to be a part of that.