The Yankees had to love watching the Tigers and Twins bloody one another over the course of 13 innings last night knowing that the exhausted victor would have to catch a red-eye to New York to face CC Sabathia in Game 1 of the ALDS this evening. That victor proved to be the Twins, who won on a walk-off single by Alexi Casilla that plated Carlos Gomez in the bottom of the 13th after burning through eight pitchers. That victory was the Twins’ fifth-straight and the 17th in their last 21 games, but it’s worth noting that only one of those wins (the first) came against a team outside their division (the A’s), and that win raised their record at the time to 71-72. The Twins’ comeback was remarkable and capped off by a true classic of a 163rd game, but the Twins are not a good ballclub, they’re just better than the other stiffs and mediocrities that make up the American League Central.
Consider, for example, that the two players who combined for the division winning run hit .229/.287/.337 (Gomez) and .202/.280/.259 (Casilla) on the season. That’s not entirely fair as both have been relegated to the bench and Joe Girardi has announced his intention to start Jose Molina (.217/.292/.268) behind the plate in Game 2 of the ALDS, but I found it striking that the Twins were relying on hitters of such pronounced ineptitude in such a significant situation.
The flip side of Gomez and Casilla is, of course, Joe Mauer, who won the slash-stat triple crown this year and should be the unanimous choice for MVP after hitting .365/.444/.587 as a fine defensive catcher. Right now, Mauer is the best player on either team, but he represents the sole advantage the Twins hold over the Yankees, as the following position-by-position comparison shows. (Note that when dealing with the starting nine, I prefer to do my position-by-position comparisons by batting order position rather than defensive position, as I think it presents a fairer apples-to-apples look at the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two offenses in question.)
Derek Jeter (.334/.406/.465, 30 SB @ 86%)
Denard Span (.311/.392/.415, 23 SB @ 70%)
This is closer than you might think. Span’s sophomore season looks a lot like the final three months of his rookie campaign (.297/.393/.449) minus some power (though he did lead the league in triples), but it was no match for the Captain in one of his finest campaigns.
Johnny Damon (.282/.365/.489, 12 SB @ 100%)
Orlando Cabrera (.284/.316/.389, 13 SB @ 76%)
Cover up the batting averages and this one isn’t close. Damon has 100 pints of slugging over Cabrera, nearly 50 points in on-base percentage and wasn’t thrown out stealing all year. It’s worth noting Damon’s splits, however, as 17 of his career-best-tying 24 homers came at the new Yankee Stadium and his resulting .533 slugging seems to have contributed to a spike in his walk rate in the Bronx (one every 7.4 plate appearances vs. one every 11 PA on the road). Still, even the road Damon is clearly superior to Cabrera at the plate, posting a .284/.349/.446 line.
Mark Teixeira (.292/.383/.565)
Joe Mauer (.365/.444/.587)
This was a hot topic a month ago, but what was obvious to many of us then seems to have finally become obvious to all now. Teixeira’s first season in pinstripes was excellent–he led the league in homers (tied with Carlos Peña at 39), RBIs (122), and total bases (344)–but Mauer’s season was historic. The only catcher since the 1880s to have a season rivaling Mauer’s was Mike Piazza in 1997 (.362/.431/.638), and Mauer was by far the best of hitter in the American League in 2009 at any position.
Alex Rodriguez (.286/.402/.532, 30 HR, 100 RBI)
Jason Kubel (.300/.369/.539, 28 HR, 103 RBI)
Again, this is closer than one might expect, but consider that Rodriguez not only has a big lead in on-base percentage, but compiled his counting stats in fewer plate appearances. Also, Kubel hit just .245/.301/.347 against lefties this year, which could be problematic for the Twins given that the Yankees will start CC Sabathia in Game 1 and a potential Game 4 and Andy Pettitte in Game 3. Of course, the flip-side to that is that Kubel crushed righties (.323/.398/.613), making Phil Coke and Damaso Marte important considerations when Kubel shows up in a big spot in the middle innings.
Hideki Matsui (.274/.367/.509, 28 HR, 90 RBI)
Michael Cuddyer (.276/.342/.520, 32 HR, 94 RBI)
This might be the closest fight in the two line-ups. Again, Cuddyer had more playing time to accumulate his counting stats and Matsui’s advantage in OBP is greater than Cuddyer’s in slugging. Going to the advanced stats, Godzilla has a slight edge in Baseball Prosepectus’s adjusted total-offense rate stat EqA (.307 to .300 prior to Tuesday night’s game). That Matsui hasn’t played the field all year while Cuddyer moved in from right field to replace Justin Morneau at first base is not relevant here as I’m only comparing their production at the plate, but Cuddyer’s abysmal UZR in the outfield this year just might negate that advantage anyway.
Jorge Posada (.285/.363/.522, 22 HR, 81 RBI)
Delmon Young (.284/.308/.425, 12 HR, 60 RBI)
The team’s resident hot-heads. The playing time here is similar, and Posada, who had one of the greatest seasons by a 37-year-old catcher in the game’s history, wipes the floor with Young, who is 14 years his junior. Young finished strong, but even his line over the final two months (.308/.326/.522) lacks Posada’s ability to get on base and his matching slugging average over that span was more dependent on an inflated batting average, which is true even if you limit the sample to his red-hot last few weeks. All of that said, Young is a threat in this series, both because he’s coming in hot, but also because he’s a lefty-killer.
Robinson Cano (.320/.352/.520, 25 HR, 85 RBI)
Jose Morales (.316/.386/.368)/Brendan Harris (.302/.348/.403 vs. LHP)
Morales is a 26-year-old who started the season as the third-string catcher and is now the strong side of a DH platoon with stone-gloved journeyman infielder Brendan Harris. Morales was a career .289/.340/.383 hitter in the minor leagues, had just three extra-base hits against right-handed pitching in the majors this year (in 113 PA), and has yet to hit his first major league home run. The platoon is a solid attempt to make lemonade out of lemons, but comparing it to Cano is almost unfair.
Nick Swisher (.249/.371/.498, 29 HR, 82 RBI)
Matt Tolbert (.228/.301/.306)
The 27-year-old Tolbert has hit .306/.343/.452 since taking over third base for an injured Joe Crede in mid-September and is a career .280/.341/.404 hitter in the minors, so his season line above is a bit misleading. Still, the divergence between these two lineups in the bottom third is striking. Swisher could hit fifth in either lineup. Tolbert’s lucky to be in the major leagues, let alone starting on a playoff team.
Melky Cabrera (.274/.336/.416, 10 SB @ 83%)
Nick Punto (.228/.336/.285, 16 SB @ 84%)
Punto is the Twins’ Miguel Cairo, a scrappy, hard-nosed, dirty-uniform player who is so harmful to his team’s chances of winning that broadcasters and columnists constantly feel the need to explain how valuable he really is. He isn’t. Melky didn’t need to have his best major league season to best Punto in this comparision, but he did anyway, so good on him. Melky may not be the Yankees’ long-term answer in center field (heck, he may not even be their current answer in center as Brett Gardner is a vastly superior fielder, a nearly unstoppable basestealer, and better at getting on base in the first place), but he was two wins better than last year per VORP and an almost exactly league-average center fielder (major league centerfielders hit .267/.334/.414 in 2009), which is just fine for the nine hole.
Game 1 starters:
CC Sabathia (3.37 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 2.94 K/BB, 34 GS)
Brian Duensing (2.73 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 2.20 K/BB, 9 GS)
Because of their arduous journey to the division title, the Twins are starting rookie Brian Duensing in Game 1. Duensing is a 26-year-old lefty with unexceptional stuff who ran off an impressive string of six starts from late August through mid-September before stumbling a bit in his last two turns. His last start was a four-inning loss to the Tigers in the nightcap of last Tuesday’s double-header. He faced the Yankees in relief in early July and walked four in 2 2/3 innings while facing every Yankee regular except Jorge Posada and Melky Cabrera. Duensing is starting tonight because Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, and Carl Pavano are unavailable. Only one of those names scares me, but not the way the owner wants it to. Tuesday night’s playoff game forced Minnesota to burn Baker, meaning the Yankees could sweep the Twins without having to face their best starter.
CC Sabathia, meanwhile, has something to prove. Despite winning the AL Cy Young in 2007, dominating the National League in the second half of 2008, and reaching the postseason both times, his last quality start in the postseason was his first, way back in 2001. One could blame his poor performances the last two Octobers on exhaustion. In 2007 he threw nearly 50 regular season innings more than he had in 2006 and in 2008 he surpassed that total by another dozen frames while making his last three starts on three-day’s rest. This year, he finished the season at 230 innings, 11 fewer than in 2007, and had at least one extra day of rest before each of his last four starts (good work by Joe Girardi and Dave Eiland there). In the ten starts prior to his season finale stinker, CC posted a 1.62 ERA with a 0.90 WHIP and a 4.21 K/BB. Given his lighter workload he has no excuse for not delivering this year.
Mariano Rivera (1.76 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 6.00 K/BB, 44 SV, 2 BS, 6.032 WXRL)
Joe Nathan (2.15 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 3.95 K/BB, 47 SV, 5 BS, 4.828 WXRL)
Nathan might be Rivera’s primary rival for the title, but at age 39, Rivera proved that he’s still the best closer in the game.
Phil Hughes (1.40 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 5.00 K/BB, 18 H, 3 BS, 3.843 WXRL, 44 G)
Matt Guerrier (2.25 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 3.36 K/BB, 33 H, 3 BS, 3.518 WXRL, 78 G)
Note that the adjusted win-expectancy-based stat WXRL is cumulative and that Hughes has a higher total than Guerrier in just more than half as many games.
This year’s match-up is the third ALDS between the Yankees and Twins. In the first two, Johan Santana beat Mike Mussina in Game 1 at Yankee Stadium, then the Yankees swept the next three to advance to the ALCS against the Red Sox. I’m expecting a similar result this year, minus the loss to Santana.