Why the Twins Will Beat the Yankees…
My college roommate hailed from Edina, Minnesota. Eric was a catcher with an arm-shaped cannon (he’s unavailable to suit up for the Yankees Wednesday night) and remains a die-hard Twins fan. When we played stickball in the park in the sweltering June heat, he wore a turtleneck. When he went out to retrieve the Washington Post from a snow pile in February, he wore shorts and sandals. These Minnesotans are built differently than us New Yorkers. We save our shorts for the summer and bundle up in righteous indignation when it snows.
When the Yankees fell into their September funk, I began envisioning a brief, chilly, miserable series in Minnesota, with their ecstatic fans stomping their flip-flops and Robinson Cano inappropriately smirking from within the latest Gore-Tex innovation in hood-masks as he went oh-fer eight. Weather reports from Minnesota predict sun and warmth, so the Yankees will luck out in the first two games of the ALDS weather-wise. Hopefully it’s the first of many breaks that will go their way, because if they don’t catch some futher good fortune, this is the year the Twins get over the hump and beat the Yankees in the ALDS.
Minnesota set the tone for their 2010 season on March 21st. That’s the day they signed their franchise-player and reigning American League MVP to an eight-year, $184 million contract. The contract was almost Yankee-like in terms of length and amount. It was a commitment to the player, sure, but it was also a commitment to the team and the fan base. In concert with opening a new stadium, the organization was assuring any doubters that the Twins intended to compete with the big spenders.
It was only a few years ago that the Twins desperately peddled Johan Santana to the Yankees and Red Sox. After realizing they were being used as the target in an organizational pissing contest, they turned, dazed and confused, and accepted whatever crappy deal was still left on the table from the Mets. Santana has been good for the Mets, but the Twins are probably thrilled that they’re not the ones paying him right now, with or without shoulder surgery. But I can’t believe that either the fans, players or the management was happy about being the shuttlecock in a game of badminton between Brian Cashman and Theo Epstein.
Now the Twins have a new outlook, beginning with their new ballpark and continuing with a payroll that added 50% from 2009. The payroll still doesn’t come within half of the Yankees’, but for the players and fans in Minnesota, it must feel liberating. It must feel like they have finally joined the big time. And I think this optimism and confidence will fuel the upcoming ALDS. It’s their house; it’s their time.
Eric just returned from a trip to Target Field, and he witnessed a notable shift in attitude from last year. In 2009, as the Twins staggered across the finish line in game 163, the fans were content with just making it to the ALDS, and were resigned that the looming Yankees, rested and ready, presented a likely insurmountable challenge. This year, the opposite is true. During their last homestand, he spoke to fans that were begging for the Yankees. In his sense, the Twins used to be a JV-squad sacrificing itself for the Varsity in a tune-up before their big game, but now those JV players are ready to be the Varsity.
It’s tempting to dismiss our conversation as “fan-think.” How much do professional athletes reflect or adopt the attitudes of their fan base? Do the players really care about the payroll? Do they even care about payback? Do they care about having home-field advantage? And even if they do, how much can it effect the bottom line? Does any of this matter if Arod hits a 440 foot three-run homer off Liriano in the top of the first Wednesday night? I know we want to quantify this experience into numbers, and leave the speculations on the emotions of the players to the unwashed mainstream, so let’s leave these questions unanswered for the time being and see how the teams stack up against each other and if there are good reasons to favor the Twins apart from the tidal wave of positivity swelling there at the moment. And what preview would be complete without terrible little introductory phrases?
Reason #1 – Bring Back the Baggie
In the first year of Target Field, home runs were scarce. The Twins hit 52 at home and 90 on the road; their opponents were good for a 64 to 91 split. Yet the Twins outscored their opponents 399 to 313 at Target field, and by the much narrower margin of 382 to 358 on the road. Of course it’s normal to play better at home than on the road, even for very good teams. But not-so-hidden in this data is that the Twins don’t rely on home runs to score their runs. At home, where they win at a .654 clip (even better than the Yankees at home), the Twins score almost five runs a game despite hitting very few home runs. The Twins put the ball in play more often than the Yankees, with fewer walks and whiffs and more hits. They play to their park. The Yankees, whose runs scored correlate much more closely with their homers, might be hard pressed for runs in this environment. They only scored six runs in Target Field during a three-game set in May. I don’t like the Yankees chances to win one of two or two of three in Minnesota without the long ball.
Reason # 2 - Gotta Walk Before You Run
When the calendar read Friday the 13th, the moon was full, and the necessary rituals and incantations were performed to conjure Carl Pavano into a Yankee uniform, he only walked 30 men in 145.2 innings. He’s actually gotten better for the Twins. Or to put it another, more-vomit-inducing way, the Yankees paid him $1.3 million per base on balls; in 2010, the Twins paid him about $190k for each walk. The Twins throw strikes. Every starting pitcher that the Yanks are likely to face walked fewer men per nine innings than the Yankees most accurate starter, CC Sabathia. The Yankees were middle of the pack this year in hits and batting average, but third in homers and second in walks. If Target Field eliminates the former, and the Twins pitchers can effectively limit the latter, then the Yankees are going to have to finish off some rallies with hits with runners in scoring position. Shudder.
Reason # 3 – Can Phil Thrive in Five?
The Yankees have a starting pitching dilemma. After CC Sabathia, they have a choice between Phil Hughes and Andy Pettitte. It makes sense to start fly-ball-prone Hughes at Target Field, but that lines him up for Games two and five. If the season comes down to a Game five in Minnesota, I’d rather have Andy Pettitte on the mound. So do the Yankees draw up the rotation to give Pettitte two starts or do you hope it doesn’t get that far? Either Hughes will let up a few home runs in Yankee Stadium or be called upon to start the biggest game of his life.
The Twins have no such indecision. They will give the ball to Liriano and Pavano in Minnesota and have some flexibility from that point forward. Due to Liriano’s previous arm trouble, I don’t expect to see him on short rest, but it’s an option for the Twins in Game four if they want it. More importantly, Carl Pavano doesn’t even need to pack his spikes for the flight to New York. He’ll only toe the rubber in front of those who love him (well, those who fervently support him, at least). That’s probably a good thing; the Yanks have a budget and all the extra security guards required for a Pavano-start might have cost an arm (Cliff Lee) and a leg (Carl Crawford).
Reason # 4 – It’s Hard to Find a Good Mechanic
Recent history suggests that teams sputtering (or charging) as the regular season ends don’t necessarily sustain that quality of play into the Postseason. So the fact that one of these teams has managed only two wins in the last ten games can be seen a simple matter of a strong team resting its best player and taking its foot off the gas once the Postseason berth was assured. Much more telling is its 18-12 record in September and October (or its 36-22 record since August). That team is the Twins and I see no reason, provided Mauer is 100%, to dock them for their last ten games.
The Yankees on the other hand, have not taken their foot off the gas. They have removed the wheels and engine and thrown the keys in a briar patch along the side of the road. They have to rebuild the machine, going 9-17, 13-17, or 29-30 to end the year (depending on which arbitrary cut-off you prefer). Since August, they just have not been very good. I don’t think it’s the same thing to end the year with ten bad games and to have a below .500 final two months of the season. Even great teams play poorly for stretches of time. But how long before you re-evaluate the quality of the team? For me, the Yankees are right up against that point of re-evaluation.
I think the above picture is fairly bleak for the Yankees, but I admit a large part of that is a negative reaction to their recent play. In 2000, they showed that a veteran team, a defending Champion, could access a different gear in the Postseason. I also didn’t mention that big-bopper Justin Morneau is out for the ALDS. That makes the Twins less scary than they could be, but he hasn’t been there for the entire second half of the season. The Twins 36-22 record over the last two months come entirely without him. They have had plenty of time to form an identity around the players available to them now, with Jim Thome providing the power. Like when the Thing briefly left the Fantastic Four and they used She-Hulk as temporary muscle. If they end up playing two games at Yankee Stadium, how many home runs will Thome hit? I’d set the over-under number at 2.5.
Many of the excuses the Twins could fall back upon when they faced the Yankees are now obsolete. They have a new state of the art ballpark and are filling it up every night. They don’t have to worry about their star player being sucked into the Yankees’ financial tractor beam. Now the team has to answer the bell and reward the ownership for their investment and their fans for their faith. I can only guess, but I believe these Twins are a credible mirror for their fan base right now: filled with pride, eager to prove themselves against the biggest bully on the block, sensing that things have changed and that this is their time. They will be fired up beyond recognition and will play a fantastic series. I just hope you all have the good sense to look away when Carl Pavano is dancing around like Kenny Rogers circa 2006, celebrating his team’s advancement to the ALCS. Especially if CC Sabathia can’t set the course in Game 1, because then it’s going to be a sweep and that celebration will be at Yankee Stadium.
If all of this wasn’t enough, the Twins have a song. This is not the Super Bowl Shuffle. This is not a song by the Twins, it’s a song about the Twins by Craig Finn of The Hold Steady and the Baseball Project. It’s 2010, and there are only like five famous active rock bands, so the chance that anybody reading this actually knows who The Hold Steady are is pretty remote. But they’re a heckuva a band and Craig is known for name-checking all things Minnesota in his songs and has appeared on stage in a Ron Gardenhire jersey more than once.
I can ignore Craig’s religion in his songs, so I can forgive him his baseball team. Even though The Hold Steady is based out of Brooklyn (which last time I checked, Craig, was in New York Fucking City) and he disses the Yankees repeatedly by spewing the tired refrain that the Twins “don’t buy their titles” (they do now, Craig), what upsets me most is that the Hold Steady got me through last Postseason with their revved up anthem “Stay Positive” which implores, unambiguously, that “We gotta stay positive.” Now, when pessimism encroaches, and I seek solace, I’ll think, oh shit, this is the douchebag that wrote the damn Twins song. So one last time, before Liriano throws the first pitch on Wednesday night and this song is forever ruined, with the big bad Twinkies licking their chops, we gotta stay positive.