Let us dispense with this first, so that we can move on: Derek Jeter isn’t here, and neither are the rest of the Core Four. For that matter, there’s no Johan Santana, Michael Cuddyer, Francisco Liriano, or Joe Mauer. The four Yankees teams that manhandled the Twins in the 2003, ’04, ’09 and ’10 Division Series by a combined total of 12 wins to two are no more relevant to this series than Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig. Aside from “Yankees Bullpen: Still Very Good,” there’s no point overthinking the results of the 2017 AL Wild Card Game, either. These 101-win Twins and 103-win Yankees are a pair of excellent, evenly-matched squads here to write new stories instead of extending old ones.
Some thoughts on the series, which begins at Yankee Stadium on Friday at 7:07 pm ET.
Keeping It 100
This year was the first in major league history with four 100-win teams, and while that seems impressive, it’s an indication of the game’s competitive balance issues (a topic worth revisiting on another day). While 33 teams have won at least 100 games in a season during the Wild Card era, only three previous times have two of them crossed paths in the postseason, all within the past three years: the 2017 World Series between the Astros (101-61) and Dodgers (104-58), the 2018 Division Series between the Red Sox (108-54) and Yankees (100-62), and the subsequent ALCS matchup between those Red Sox and the Astros (103-59). Inevitably, one of these teams will be the unlucky 13th 100-game winner to make a first-round exit, after the 1998 Astros (102-60), 1999 Diamondbacks (100-62), 2001 A’s (102-60), 2002 A’s (103-59), 2002 Yankees (103-58), 2002 Braves (101-59), 2003 Braves (101-61), 2003 Giants (100-61), 2008 Angels (100-62), 2011 Phillies (102-60), 2015 Cardinals (100-62), and 2017 Indians (102-60). It’s going to hurt.
Not all 100-win teams are created equal, of course. This pair had similar levels of scoring and runs allowed, and both similarly overachieved relative to their Pythagen records. However, the Yankees distinguished themselves in a few ways:
|Yankees||103-59||943||739||+204||100-62 (+3 W)||94-68 (+9 W)||54-22||43-32|
|Twins||101-61||939||754||+185||98-64 (+3 W)||98-64 (+3 W)||50-26||32-37|
The Yankees outdistanced their BaseRuns projected wins by a much wider margin, which suggests that they were some combination of luckier and better at sequencing; for what it’s worth, they have the higher combined clutch score, 6.19 (0.21 offense, 5.98 pitching, the latter second in the majors) to 1.27 (-3.14 offense, 4.41 pitching). They also posted a higher intradivisional winning percentage (.711 versus the Twins’ .658) in a stronger division. The four other AL East teams posted a combined winning percentage of .465, with the 96-win Rays claiming a Wild Card spot and the 84-win Red Sox being competitive (though just 5-14 against the Yankees). The four other AL Central teams posted a combined winning percentage of just .418, with the 93-win Indians the only team that won more than 72 games, and the 103-loss Royals and 114-loss Tigers accounting for two of the season’s four 100-loss teams (the 108-loss Orioles and 105-loss Marlins being the others). The Yankees posted a .573 winning percentage against teams that finished .500 or better (they were 4-2 against the Twins, taking two out of three in both venues), while the Twins posted a .463 mark. I’m not claiming any of this is predictive, particularly in a five-game series, but it is noteworthy.
When last year’s Yankees hit 267 homers, they inched past the previous record of 264, held by the 1997 Mariners. Aided by an even more aerodynamic baseball, both of these teams blew past last year’s mark, with Twins catcher Mitch Garver hitting home run number 268 on August 31. The Yankees closed the gap and temporarily overtook them during the final four weeks, aided by a record 74 homers in August and another 52 in September, compared to 59 and 39 for the Twins. Minnesota beat New York to 300 via Jonathan Schoop’s dinger on September 26, but thanks to a six-homer outburst on September 27, the Yankees pulled ahead 305-303; they held the lead heading into game 162, but the Twins out-homered them 3-1 and finished with 307 to the Yankees’ 306. “It’s a record that’s going to be broken next year, and the following year it’s going to get broken again,” said Aaron Judge, who didn’t sound likely to lose any sleep over the outcome.
Led by Nelson Cruz, the Twins became the first team ever to have five players reach 30 homers in a season, and to have eight reach 20. Meanwhile, the Yankees, who dealt with a record number of injuries (more on which below), became the first team to have 14 players reach 10 homers.
|Nelson Cruz||41||Gleyber Torres||38|
|Max Kepler||36||Gary Sánchez||34|
|Miguel Sanó||34||Brett Gardner||28|
|Eddie Rosario||32||Aaron Judge||27|
|Mitch Garver||31||DJ LeMahieu||26|
|C.J. Cron||25||Gio Urshela||21|
|Jonathan Schoop||23||Luke Voit||21|
|Jorge Polanco||22||Didi Gregorius||16|
|Marwin Gonzalez||15||Mike Tauchman*||13|
|Jason Castro||13||Edwin Encarnación||13|
|Byron Buxton*||10||Aaron Hicks*||12|
Why does this all matter? Because power plays in the postseason, and study after study after study supports the idea that homer-reliant teams retain more of their scoring in October and have greater success. As YES Network researcher James Smyth summarized, “As you’d expect, scoring drops in the postseason, but home runs drop at a much lower rate, so the impact of each homer is even greater, and the share of runs scored on them is higher than it is during the season.”
Via Smyth, from 1995-2018, playoff teams’ per-game scoring fell 16% relative to the regular season, but their per-game home run rate fell by just 8%. Against good pitching, it’s not chaining together singles that will win; it’s the long ball. Per MLB.com’s Mike Petriello, whether you look at 2018, at the Wild Card era (1995 onward), or at the Division era (1969 onward), teams that out-homer their opponents have higher winning percentages in the postseason than the regular season. The Twins were third in the majors in the “Guillen Number,” the percentages of runs scored via homers (51.2%). The Yankees were fourth, just 0.1% behind them. All of that suggests we could get plenty of fireworks in this series, but it doesn’t point to either team as having a clear edge; we’re splitting hairs here.
|Team||AVG/OBP/SLG||wRC+||wRC+ vs L||wRC+ vs R||BB%||K%||BsR||Off||Def||WAR|
Both of these teams ranked among the AL’s top offenses, with a wRC+ that trailed only the Astros. The Twins were second in batting average and slugging percentage, and fourth in on-base percentage, while the Yankees were respectively fourth, third, and third in those slash stats. The Yankees had the sixth-highest walk rate, the Twins 11th; by strikeout rate, the Twins had the third-lowest mark, while the Yankees were seventh-lowest. There’s some evidence that lower strikeout rates lead to more success in the postseason (advantage Twins), but also evidence that “three true outcome”-oriented teams become more productive (advantage Yankees).
One area that favors the Twins’ offense is matchups. First-year manager Rocco Baldelli‘s batters had the platoon advantage on 59.7% of all plate appearances, fourth in the AL, while Aaron Boone’s Yankees were virtually tied with the Astros for last at 42.9%. The Twins, who have a pair of switch-hitting regulars in Polanco and Gonzalez, plus lefties Kepler and Rosario, hit .264/.333/.484 against righties and a particularly potent .285/.351/.521 against lefties (first or second in each slash stat) — which could be a factor given plans for southpaw James Paxton to starts Game 1 and 5 for New York, and for J.A. Happ to have a significant role, either as a starter or primary pitcher following an opener.
The Yankees are particularly righty-heavy, with Gardner and Gregorius the only full-time lefties; the lefty-swinging Ford, who hit .259/.350/.559 for a 134 wRC+ in 163 PA, could get the nod over the righty Voit, who despite a very solid overall showing (.263/.378/.464, 126 wRC+ in 510 PA) is on the roster bubble due to his second-half struggles (.368 SLG, 95 wRC+). The Yankees hit .265/.336/.484 against righties and .273/.346/.506 (third in the latter two stats, fourth in average) against lefties.
Offensively, it looks to be quite even; the edge could come down to injuries and availability. Which brings us to…
Who’s Here and Who Isn’t
The Twins are without Buxton, who after a career-best offensive performance underwent season-ending surgery to repair his left labrum in early September. There’s some concern about Kepler, who has been out with a left rhomboid strain and hasn’t taken a competitive plate appearance since September 14, though he deemed himself “ready to go” on Tuesday. He’s expected back in the lineup and starting in center field, with Gonzalez, who hasn’t played since September 22 due to an oblique strain but is also considered good to go, in right, and Rosario in left field. While that’s a lesser outfield defensively than one with Buxton, Kepler has been above-average in the middle pasture by both UZR and DRS annually across small samples, with 9.1 UZR/150 in 939.1 career innings.
As for 22-year-old rookie infielder Luis Arraez, who hit a sizzling .334/.399/.439 in 92 games, his inclusion on the roster could be a last-minute decision due to a Grade 1 right ankle sprain. Ehire Adrianza, who’s been out since September 12 due to an oblique strain, will be available, but the most likely outcome boils down to plenty of Schoop at the keystone; he’s a better defender than Arraez, whose small-sample defensive metrics are Not Good (-3.8 UZR, -8 DRS in just 390 innings), but the righty-swinging Schoop has struggled against same-side pitching this year (87 wRC+ versus 136 against righties).
As for the Yankees, they set a major league record with 30 players hitting the injured list this year, including every projected positional regular except for Torres. Their five top home run hitters from last year (Giancarlo Stanton, Miguel Andujar, Hicks, Judge, and Gregorius) dropped from 146 homers to 58, that in just 273 total games, with Judge (27 homers in 102 games) leading that bunch in both categories.
The losses of Hicks to a right flexor strain and Tauchman to a left calf strain are offset by the return of Stanton, who was limited to just 18 games and three homers by a left biceps strain, a left shoulder strain, and a right posterior cruciate ligament sprain. He’s hit .286/.382/.571 in 34 PA since returning, averaging a modest 88.2 mph in terms of exit velocity but producing a .426 xwOBA. On September 27, after shortening his swing somewhat, he collected three hits, including a 109.9 mph 440-foot homer off the Rangers’ Joe Palumbo, a reminder that he can still summon the thunder. The plan is for him to be the team’s regular left fielder, with Gardner in center and Judge in right, though Maybin could be in the mix with Stanton DHing.
The lineup’s other injury concerns appear to be on the wane. Sánchez was sidelined for 11 games in September by a groin strain — suffered on his only stolen base attempt of the season, for some ridiculous reason — that previously sidelined him for 16 games in July and August. He made two appearances, both behind the plate, in the season’s final weekend and is ready to go. Encarnacíon, out with an oblique strain since September 12 and unable to get some planned plate appearances before the end of the regular season, is good to go. Urshela, who exited game 162 with a mild left ankle sprain, says the ankle is fine.
Rotations Far From Mint Condition
Over the course of the full season, the Twins had a significantly better rotation than the Yankees by both ERA (4.19 to 4.51) and FIP (4.09 to 4.74), largely due to the difference in their home run rates (1.22 per nine vs. 1.76). However, both teams are down one key starter due to suspensions, with Michael Pineda out due to a PED violation and Domingo Germán on administrative leave during an investigation into a domestic violence allegation. Statistically, that’s a bigger loss for the Twins, because Pineda had been the team’s most effective starter since early June, while Germán was expected to play a reduced role — most likely out of the bullpen — due to his career-high workload.
Both rotations are in greater flux than that. Kyle Gibson was cuffed (5.92 ERA, 4.56 FIP) in the second half and missed time in September due to ulcerative colitis; he’s only had one outing longer than two innings since August 30, and that was a 4.2-inning, six-run start against the Nationals on September 12, his first game back. Martin Pérez has been torched (6.27 ERA, 5.94 FIP) in the second half and at best may be limited to a situational role in October. Meanwhile, 24-year-old rookie Randy Dobnak, an undrafted indy-league veteran has emerged as a cult favorite amid a 28.1-inning late-season run (1.59 ERA, 2.90 FIP). The best guess is that he gets a turn after José Berríos and Jake Odorizzi — a pair who respectively ranked eighth and ninth in the AL in WAR (4.4 and 4.3) — start Games 1 and 2. Gibson and/or rookie Devin Smeltzer (3.86 ERA, 4.58 FIP in 49 innings, mostly as a starter or primary) would probably account for the other start, though the latter, a lefty, may not be a very good fit against the righty-heavy Yankees.
Meanwhile, the Yankees’ rotation has gotten a major upgrade in the form of Luis Severino, who has pitched very well (1.50 ERA, 2.13 FIP) in three turns since returning from a bout of rotator cuff inflammation and a Grade 2 strain of his latissimus dorsi. The combination of his performance, the loss of Germán, and a strong September from Happ (1.05 ERA, 2.20 FIP) could yield a more traditional-looking rotation than Boone anticipated as of mid-September, when he said that Paxton would likely be the only starter used in a traditional manner.
Paxton, who will start Game 1 despite having left his final start of the regular season after one inning due to nerve irritation in his left glute, led the staff with 3.5 WAR and pitched to a 2.51 ERA and 3.26 FIP over the final two months of the season, though five of his 11 starts in that span were against teams that lost at least 94 games. That said, in their final outings of the season, both Happ and Masahiro Tanaka pitched out of the bullpen as bulk guys following openers and have said they’re comfortable with such a plan. Chad Green would be the likely opener in such a situation.
|Yankees (Severino 162)||648.0||24.1%||7.0%||17.1%||1.45||TK||4.20||4.18||.293||12.5|
|Twins (Dobnak 162)||676.0||22.6%||6.7%||15.8%||1.15||TK||3.96||3.81||.305||12.6|
Most of these numbers favor the Twins, even if I use preseason projections for Severino and Dobnak to weight them more equally within their respective rotations, given that they’ll be represented here to a much greater degree. That said, there’s more to projections than just this year’s performances, and in Dan Szymborski’s game-by-game ZiPS simulations, which utilize projected starters and platoon splits, the Yankees have very narrow edges in Games 1 and 5 (Paxton vs. Berríos twice), and a big edge in Games 2 (Severino vs. Odorizzi). Game 4 (Happ vs. Gibson) yields a similarly big edge for the Twins, with Game 3 (Tanaka vs. Dobnak) a toss-up. The caveat is that none of that reflects anything but fairly standard usage with innings distributions centered around season averages, and the overall forecast (Yankees win the series 51.4% of the time, compared to 60.1% per our standard ZiPS/Steamer projections) is hardly definitive. Less Happ and/or Gibson, with openers involved, might yield different results, but until those plans are outlined, the system will rely on more conservative assumptions.
The Bullpen Battle is Tighter Than You Think
In planning this piece, I initially figured that the Yankees would have the biggest edge of either team in any area with regards to the bullpen. But at least based upon 2019 major league performance — as opposed to memories of years past, such as 2018, when New York’s bullpen set a record for WAR (9.7, since reduced to a fourth-best 8.8 by the incorporation of our pitch framing metrics and the updating of our five-year park factors) — this looks a lot closer. Over the course of the full season, this Yankees’ bullpen ranked second in the AL in WAR at 7.5, with the Twins third at 7.3; the Yankees had the lower ERA of the two (4.08 to 4.17), the Twins the lower FIP (3.92 to 4.15).
Yes, many of the pitchers who threw lower-leverage innings for both teams are out of the equation. So are two intended late-season upgrades, the Yankees’ Dellin Betances and the Twins’ Sam Dyson. Betances, sidelined until September 15 due to a shoulder impingement and a lat strain, partially tore his left Achilles tendon in his return outing, ending his season. Dyson, acquired from the Giants on July 31 — at which point Craig Edwards anointed him the best reliever traded at the deadline — struggled in 12 appearances and was sidelined first by biceps tendinitis and then by a capsule tear, the repair surgery for which could keep him out for a full year.
When you compare the Yankees’ name-brand relievers (closer Aroldis Chapman, setup men Adam Ottavino and Zach Britton, middle man Tommy Kahnle, and the swingman Green) against the Twin’s top five (closer Taylor Rogers, setup men Sergio Romo and Tyler Duffey, and middle men Trevor May and Zack Littell) — and here I’m ignoring the starters-turned-bulk-guys, treating Green’s body of work as if it were all relief, and including Romo’s work with the Marlins — it’s a dead heat:
|Yankees Top 5||316.0||31.6%||10.4%||21.2%||0.85||49.1%||2.79||3.12||.285||6.9|
|Twins Top 5||288.1||29.1%||6.5%||22.6%||1.09||38.5%||2.84||3.21||.274||5.8|
The cream of the Yankees’ bullpen had the slightly higher strikeout rate and a substantially lower home run rate, while that of the Twins had the substantially lower walk rate. The Yankees’ lower home run rate owes something to a much higher groundball rate, though it’s skewed somewhat by Britton’s absurd 77.2% mark; Kahnle (50.4%) is the only other one above Chapman’s 42.1%. That said, on the Twins, Rogers (50.6%) and Romo (36.1%) are the only ones of their big five above the team average. It’s not hard to envision the dangers of giving up a home run in a high-leverage situation, particularly in Yankee Stadium, so I think it’s fair to suggest that the needle here points in the Yankees’ direction, but by much less than most expected.
One more thing to note: velocity. Per Pitch Info, the Yankees’ big five averaged 94.3 mph or higher with their fastballs (including Britton’s sinker), led by Chapman’s 98.3 mph. From among the Twins’ big five, only May (95.9) and Rogers (95.4) exceeded that, while Duffey and Littell were around 94. There’s evidence that higher-contact teams do better against higher velo, which means that the Twins could counter the Yankees’ heat. Towards that end, it’s worth noting that the Twins’ .354 xwOBA against four-seam fastballs 95 mph or higher ranked second in the majors, while the Yankees’ .339 ranked sixth.
The bottom line is that these are two very good teams with power galore, and while their rotations as currently constructed have their flaws, the quality of their bullpens should offset that, so long as managers Boone and Baldelli act with urgency. In our staff predictions, I chose the Yankees, but the more I look at this, the less surprised I’d be if the Twins pull it off.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.