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Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Playoff Preview - American League Divisional Series

Which stathead team will advance and can the Twins knock off the Yankees?


At first blush, this series seems to be a bit of a snooze.  And certainly the baseball media has treated it as such.  The overwhelming majority of their opinion favors the Yankees and I?m tempted to agree. The Yankees led the AL in wins, while playing in the same division with Boston and Toronto.  The Twins won "only" 90 games but they were able to feast upon Detroit, against whom Minnesota beat 15 times. Given their records and assorted other data points, the Yankees win probability is 69%. Plus, New York has beaten Minnesota 13 times in a row, including seven times without a loss this year.  And, of course, there are the intangibles, by which I mean that if the Chicago Tribune?s Phil Rogers is picking the Twins, isn?t that reason enough to go with the Yanks?  And, yet, I am going with the Twins in this one. Is it just another example of my inherent iconoclasm rearing its ugly head?


Many of those in the know have pointed to the Twins? Game One starter Johan Santana as the main reason for optimism in the Land of 11,842 Lakes.  Better late than never, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire finally turned Joe Mays?s rotation spot over to Santana on July 5th.  From that point forward, the Twins were the best team in baseball.  Before we wet ourselves in excitement over the guy though we should keep in mind that, as Chili Davis once said of Dwight Gooden, "He ain?t God man!"  Which, of course, is true.  Santana?s not Lefty Grove nor Sandy Koufax either.  Heck, he might not even be Frank Viola, but he can be very good ? as the Yankees themselves can attest.  Santana tossed five innings of scoreless ball against the Yankees this year, including a four inning, eight strikeout stint at Yankee Stadium.  So, what do the Yankees have to do to get to Santana?  Basically, you?ve got to get to him on the first two pitches of an at bat.  Santana?s opponents hit 308/313/538 on the first pitch; 487/473/815 on 0-1 counts; and 349/349/512 on 1-0.  After that though it?s just "Goodnight, Irene.”  For example, even on cripple counts like 2-0, opponents hit just 155/342/414 off him.  Once he gets ahead of a hitter, Santana can use his devastating change-up to make even excellent hitters looks silly.  The current Yankee roster has only a composite 242/324/333 average against Santana, but most of the Yankees that he abused back in April are gone.  He will not be able to feast upon the likes of Todd Zeile, John Flaherty, and Raul Mondesi in the divisional series.  Something else that may prove to be significant is Santana?s propensity for throwing a wild pitch or three.  He had six this year, including two against the Yankees, and let fifteen more fly last year. 


But it?s not just Santana that has been good of late for the Twins.  After the All-Star break the Twins had the second best team ERA (3.88) in the AL.  Game Two starter Scott Radke was a large factor in that transformation.  Radke was 9-1 with a 3.24 ERA since the break, walking just eight batters in those 94 innings.  And then when the Twins needed him the most, Radke went 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA and just one walk in 35 September innings.  Radke?s fate is basically in his own hands.  He must get ahead of hitters.  Batters hit 258/277/395 against him when he started with a first pitch strike and just 204/239/321 when he got to a 1-2 count.  He?ll just eat you up if he gets you to two strikes.  If he doesn?t get ahead of batters, it?s not a pretty sight.  One report on him holds that he goes almost exclusively to change ups after he falls behind batters, if that?s the case, they certainly get hit a great deal.  After beginning with ball one, Radke?s opponents hit 332/371/534 against him; after a 2-0 count they hit 290/375/493; 313/374/545 after 2-1.  To compound the problem he doesn?t pitch nearly as well when he has men of base (309/334/489 over the last three seasons) as he does when with the bases empty (260/285/419). Radke hasn?t overly dominated the Yankees current roster over the course of their careers.  Led by Jorge Posada?s 421/500/1053 and Bernie Williams?s 302/362/558 the Yankees that Radke will face in game two have a lifetime 276/321/492 average against him.


In fact, the current Yankees haven?t been baffled by much of anyone on the Twins current pitching roster.  They have hit 264/304/509 off of Game Three starter Kyle Lohse. And they have just tattooed Kenny Rogers during his long and erratic career, hitting 388/479/694 off him.  LaTroy Hawkins?s numbers are skewed by years as a bad starter so it?s hard to tell how much of his 333/383/616 numbers against the current Yankees represents his current talent level.  The only other Twins pitcher to have much success against the Yanks has been Everyday Eddie Guardado, who has held the Bronxmen to 203/259/392, even though Bernie Williams?s has hit 393/452/929 off him. 


The Yankees staff is a lot more famous.  New York?s Game One starter Mike Mussina is 20-2 lifetime against the Twins.  You will hear that stat 84 times during Tuesday?s game.  Part of that record was piled up against the bad late-Kelly era Twins, but even the current Twins haven?t had any success against him. Mussina has held them to dwarfish 199/228/274 numbers, with only Matt LeCroy and A.J. Pierzynski being able to do anything with him.  Corey Koskie and Jacque Jones are have an OPS of under 260 lifetime against Mussina.  In fact, the numbers suggest that you shouldn?t look for anything out of Koskie in this series.  But Mussina has been far from dominant for long stretches of the season.  In two of the last three months, Mussina has failed to post better than a 4.45 ERA.  Mussina could be great but he got absolutely tattoed by the Angels last year ? a team that, like the Twins, were peaking at the end of the season by riding a tide of timely hitting and hot pitching. 


Against Game Two starter Andy Pettitte, for example, Koskie has a lifetime batting average of about .077.  But fortunately for the Twins most of the Twins had better luck against Pettitte.  Led by Shannon Stewart, Doug Mientkiewicz and Pierzynski, the Twins have hit 289/358/351 against him.  Pettitte will need to be sharp with his control.  If not, he?ll be likely to seen an inning in which he gives up two walks, a double and a 325 foot homer by someone like Mientkeiwicz to make him a loser in game two. 


Rogers Clemens has dominated the current Twins roster, allowing them just a 185/250/243 average against him in their careers.  Not a single Twin player with more than four lifetime at bats against Clemens has better than a lifetime 700 OPS against him.  The worst offender has been Torii Hunter, who is 0 for 20 lifetime against Clemens with 12 strikeouts.  Those are pretty tough numbers to overcome.  But Clemens carries baggage of his own.  Take this for what you will but he?s been just awful in the ALDS for the last three years.  I mean, really awful. Nineteen earned runs in 25 innings awful.  Not one person in American (well, East of the Sierra Nevadas anyway) thought that the Angels could get to Rogers and they beat him like a cur.  This year Roger has an ERA of 4.24 since the All-Star break with 88 hits allowed and just 62 strikeouts in 87 innings.  Those are roughly Jon Garland numbers and I doubt that many of you would feel confident if Jon Garland were your number three starter in the playoffs. 


And then there?s the possibility that David Wells will be the Yankees Game Four starter.  Wells has been good in his career vs. the Twins (230/263/360 vs. the current roster), but he has pitched badly in the second half of the season.  Very badly.  Look for Torre to take advantage of the series?s two off days to go back to Mussina in game four unless the Yanks have a 2-1 series lead and a very rested bullpen. 


Two other items weigh against the Yankees.  First, their bullpen has not been very good.  Even if we are willing to concede that Rivera is A) the greatest post-season reliever ever and B) healthy, they will still need to count on someone to get the game to him.  The prospect of pushing Gabe White, Jeff Nelson and Chris Hammond into a crucial 7th inning situation should scare Yankee fans.  Minnesota?s bullpen, on the other hadn, is very, very good and it will be bolstered by Eric Milton.  It?s possible that Jose Contreras will be the Yanks? new Ramiro Medoza but it?s also possible that Weathers will float one of those 68 mph changeups in to Jacque Jones who will hook it around the foul pole. 


The other key to this series will be defense.  Minnesota?s defense is pretty good.  They only finished in the middle of the pack in Zone Rating (ZR) and Defensive Average (DER) this year, thanks in large part to their ability to hold onto the ball (second fewest errors in the AL and a .986 team fielding percentage).  They have had their problems in the middle infield and at the corner outfield spots this year but Hunter, Koskie and Mientkeiwicz have been very good.  The Yankees on the other hand, like a lot of old teams, are a very bad defensive ball club.  And that?s really not in dispute.  Not only were they at or near the bottom in several stathead categories (like last in the AL in ZR and 12 in DER), but also they don?t even catch what they get to.  They were 11th in the AL in fielding percentage this year.  Zone Ratings tell us that they are completely awful at first base, second base, shortstop and center field, and below average in left.  These ratings are pretty much accurate, it would seem.  Nobody disputes that Giambi and Soriano are bad defensive players and even sympathetic Yankee fans will concede that Bernie has lost a step or three.  Jeter is Jeter and I?m not going to get into his defensive ratings here, except to say that he has rated last or near last in ZR every year since he came into the league. 


In the second half of this season, the Twins have been better than the Yankees at getting teams out, which has led to a better second half record.  These Twins are not the Twins that went winless in seven April games against the Yankees.  These Twins are the hottest team in baseball, like last year?s Angels, and unlike last year?s Angels, the 2003 Twins have postseason experience.  So, take that conventional wisdom. 


Twins in four.  And then every Yankee will be fired.


The Oakland A?s GM became suddenly famous or infamous this summer, depending on your point of view.  In a particularly pertinent passage in Moneyball, the author Michael Lewis asked Billy Beane why he wasn?t more upset that his A?s had been leveled in the playoffs by Minnesota.  "My #### doesn?t work in the play-offs," said Beane said matter-of-factly, what happens there is just "####### luck."  Luck has certainly not been on the side of Oakland for the last several years.  Terrence Long broke the wrong way on a fly ball.  Derek Jeter pulled a baseball out of his butt. Jeremy Giambi forgot to slide. The Twins bats got red hot.  And so on.  Of course the franchise that opposes them in the Divisional Series has been rumored to have its run of bad luck also.  Although, I?m not sure, since the alleged travails of the Boston Red Sox franchise are so rarely discussed.  I just wish someone would write book on the subject.  Anyway, this is not your grandfather?s Red Sox team. According to them they couldn?t care less about curses, eighty-five year old trades, Galehouses, Dents or Stanley Steamers. 


Boston?s offense is a big scary machine.  They led the league in runs, batting average, slugging (by 47 points) and OBP; they were second in walks and homeruns.  Walker, Varitek and Kapler have had their struggles in the second half but they are still potent.  Oakland?s offense, on the other hand, should rise and fall with Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez.  These two keyed the A?s second half surge for the second consecutive year and they will need to continue to hit if the A?s have a chance in the Divisional Series. 


The key to this series is Pedro Martinez.  Really, the only thing that matters in this series in Pedro Martinez. Pedro needs to win two games in this series.  And he probably will, if his lifetime 1.18 post-season ERA is any indication.  So, should Oakland just punt on games one and four and focus on beating Wakefield and Lowe?  Hardly, a few of A?s hitters have actually had a little success against Pedro in their careers and the team has hit 237/273/404 against him.  Now there?s a raving plea for optimism, huh? Oakland?s offense is keyed by taking advantage of an opposing pitchers lack of control, so it will be important for Pedro to keep Chavez, Hatteberg and Durazo from getting the free pass.  But Oakland has the potential to win game one or game four with but a single run.  Over the course of his career, the A?s Game One starter Tim Hudson has been so good against this current crop of Red Sox hitters that he could make single run stand up. With the exceptions of Manny Ramirez and Nomar Garciapparra, no Red Sox player has even a lifetime OPS of over 667 against Hudson, who has held Boston hitters to just 203/270/319 during their careers. 


Game Two will feature flaky Barry Zito against fluttery Tim Wakefield.  Zito has had troubles against the current Beantowners, getting pasted to the tune of 284/340/409.  David Ortiz, Johnny Damon and Garciapparra, all of whom carry lifetime numbers in excess of 1000 OPS, have been particularly hard on Zito.  Zito has been the picture of stability this year, never turning in a month where his ERA topped 4.06.  He has held opponents to a .203 batting average in the second half of the season and has allowed just five home runs in those 97 innings.  Tim Wakefield and his Knuckleball of Horrors will try to keep the A?s in check until the BoSox batter can get to Zito.  His career numbers of 239/285/431 against Oakland?s hitters are solid.  Miguel Tejada has hit four home runs off Wakefield and Ramon Hernanadez hit two.  But the question is which version of Wakefield will show up. His season has vacillated between hearbreak (monthly ERAs of 4.83, 5.01 and 5.71) and bliss (monthly ERAs of 2.82 and 2.15, in September).  Wakefield seemed to have better control of his knuckler in the second half but, perhaps not coincidentally, he was prone to the gopher ball over the same period. 


Derek Lowe scoffed at the notion of Defense Independent Pitching Statistics (DIPS) during Spring Training.  Silly Rabbit, DIPS are for kids!  Thanks in part to Boston?s porous defense and in part to the sea tides of luck, Lowe saw his batting average against rise from .211 in 2002 to .272 in 2003. But don?t tell that to Oakland?s hitters.  At the nadir of his season in mid-August, Lowe faced Oakland twice and pitched 11 marvelous innings, giving up only seven hits and walking only two.  From that series forward Lowe was 6-1 with a 2.97 ERA.  In that series, Oakland?s Game Three starter Ted Lilly twice pitched the game right after Lowe?s, but he fared only half as well.  He was very strong at the Coliseum but then got shelled six days later in Fenway.  After that game, Lilly was almost unhittable.  Let me say that again, for the last six weeks Ted Lilly has been almost unhittable.  Granted he was facing Tampa (twice), Anaheim (twice), Toronto and Seattle in those weeks but that is still an amazing run of fortune, if nothing else.  So, which will win out ? Lilly?s past six weeks of excellent pitching or his career numbers against Boston (319/368/609)?  The smart money is on the latter. 


Oakland?s bullpen has been much better than Boston?s over the course of the year, despite the Red Sox attempts to bolster it.  Oakland?s pen is basically a three pitcher affair—setup guys Chad Bradford, Ricky Rincon and closer Keith Foulke.  Bradford has had his share of problems against the current BoSox during his career, as his 311/367/356 numbers will attest.  Rincon and Foulke have been very successful against the Red Sox batters.  They have hit 213/273/361 against Rincon, but it?s unlikely that David Ortiz, who has been particularly futile, will face Rincon in the series.  Foulke has dominated Boston?s hitters, who have hit just 165/224/291 against him.  Only Ortiz, Varitek and Damon have OPS above 500 against Foulke.  Boston?s bullpen is much better now than in the first half of the season.  Byung-Hyun Kim has been great in September, but his August ERA of 5.75 is an illustration that he is prone to losing his control and effectiveness for stretches of time.  Additionally, Scott Williamson has been unable to contribute since July, because of what looks like continuing injury problems.  If Williamson is ineffective then Boston must turn to Mike Timlin as their right-handed setup man to complement lefty Alan Embree.  Timlin is a month older than me, which isn?t pretty.  He has had a nice year, if you can ignore an ugly one week stretch in early September. Timlin has been very strong against the A?s, holding them to just a 163/250/279 average.  Embree should get a bunch of work against Durazo, Chavez and Hatteberg, but of those three he?s only had success (in limited outings) against Chavez. 


Boston?s defense has been rather shabby this year.  They rank 13th in ZR and 10th in DER.  Oakland is 2nd in DER but 7th in ZR.  Zone Ratings attribute the differences in these two teams defense basically to the wide disparity between their second basemen.  For Oakland?s Mark Ellis the glove is a precious tool; for Todd Walker, it?s a blunt instrument.  Can the fielding of a second baseman make that much difference? I don?t have that answer but this series may come down to the turning of a key double play.  I don?t think I would feel comfortable with Walker making that turn and I bet that Derek Lowe wouldn?t either. 


Boston in five.  Pedro wins two 1-0 games.


Anthony Giacalone Posted: September 30, 2003 at 06:00 AM | 7 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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Statements posted here are those of our readers and do not represent the BaseballThinkFactory. Names are provided by the poster and are not verified. We ask that posters follow our submission policy. Please report any inappropriate comments.

   1. Mark Donelson Posted: September 30, 2003 at 02:42 AM (#613072)
Some good points, but the Davis Weathers thing (I assume you confused Chris Hammond with David Weathers, who pitched for the '96 Yanks and is now with the Mets?) does undermine the credibility quite a bit.

Doesn't much matter, since both these series come down to: good enough teams that either could win, especially in a short series. I don't think anyone would be shocked to see any of these four teams in the ALCS.
   2. Mike Emeigh Posted: September 30, 2003 at 02:42 AM (#613074)
Boston?s defense has been rather shabby this year. They rank 13th in ZR and 10th in DER. Oakland is 2nd in DER but 7th in ZR. Zone Ratings attribute the differences in these two teams defense basically to the wide disparity between their second basemen. For Oakland?s Mark Ellis the glove is a precious tool; for Todd Walker, it?s a blunt instrument. Can the fielding of a second baseman make that much difference?

Given that 2Bs handle the second-highest number of BIP on the average team, yes.

A large part of the reason why Oakland is second in DER but seventh in ZR is that the BIP against Oakland tend to be easier chances for the fielders. In David Pinto's list in his Baseball Musings blog (see the homepage link), the A's had the highest expected DER of any team in the majors. The expected DER is a measure, more or less, of how easy the BIP against a team are to field - David combines information on ball location and how hard the ball is hit in calculating these expectations, and the higher the expected DER, the easier the balls are to convert into outs. Some of this (perhaps a large chunk of it) is due to the large amount of foul territory at the NAC, which keeps more balls in play; as Michael Humprhreys noted in a comment the other day on another thread, one reason Wakefield is going in game 2 and Lowe in game 3 is that Wakefield tends to allow many more popups than does Lowe, and thus his game is more suited for Oakland than is Lowe's.

The A's game - this year, anyway - depends on putting the ball into play, on both sides of the ball (Oakland's hitters have the highest BIP% per ball in play of any of the AL playoff teams). Boston's game, on the other hand, depends on reducing the number of balls put into play. I think that Oakland is more likely to be able to play their game against Boston than Boston will be against the A's, because I don't see the A's pitchers falling behind the hitters and I don't see Boston's pitchers (except for Pedro) being able to prevent the A's hitters from putting balls into play. Oakland also has, IMO, a significant late-inning advantage in the pen over Boston (which I don't see very many people mentioning). Thus, I think that the A's are more likely to be able to exploit Boston's weaknesses than the Red Sox will be to exploit Oakland's, and I think the A's will win the series in 4.

The Twins/Yankees series shapes up similarly - the Twins have a better defense and depend on putting the ball into play more than do the Yankees on both sides of the ball. However, here I think that Yankees are more likely to be able to exploit the Twins' weaknesses. The Twins aren't quite as good at keeping the ball in play as are the A's, and the Yankees are better at keeping the ball out of play than are the Red Sox. Thus, I think the Yankees will win in 4.

-- MWE
   3. Mike Emeigh Posted: September 30, 2003 at 02:42 AM (#613078)
Oakland also has, IMO, a significant late-inning advantage in the pen over Boston (which I don't see very many people mentioning).

Except for Anthony, above. Duh.

-- MWE
   4. Anthony Giacalone Posted: September 30, 2003 at 02:42 AM (#613082)
Damn, I knew that I should have looked at the rosters! I'm always forgetting something.

Although,I've never seen David Weathers and Chris Hammond in the same place at the same time. I always thought that one of them was just cashing two checks.

Aside from the accidentally putting Weathers in for Hammond, was my comment about the Yankees bullpen wrong? Hammond does throw 68 mph floaters and he hasn't been particularly effective against left handers.

And as for the Rogers thing is there someone out there who is suggesting that bad copy editing an error of the same magnitude at bad reasoning?

That said, I apologize for rushing the end of this enough that I was unable to do a proper job of editing my own work.
   5. Haven Posted: September 30, 2003 at 02:42 AM (#613085)
Well, the Twins are certainly off to a good start. It will be interesting to see the sheer panic in tomorrow's Post and Daily News. The panic already began on WFAN.

By the way, I am not sure every Yankee will be fired should the Twins win the series. Players have guaranteed contracts after all. But I wouldn't be surprised to see Torre quit and Cashman get the axe. And every other member of the front office and coaching staff will be fair game for a raging Steinbrenner.
   6. Carl Goetz Posted: October 01, 2003 at 02:42 AM (#613098)
Is there somewhere on the internet that has the 8 teams' playoff rosters? I haven't found 1, but its got to be somewhere.
   7. Carl Goetz Posted: October 03, 2003 at 02:42 AM (#613105)
I don't think the Sox should use Pedro in Game 4, even if he says he can go. They should win Game 3 given how well Lowe pitches in Fenway and the likelihood of the offense pounding Lilly, so I'll assume we'll see a game 4. The A's are going with Hudson and Zito both on short rest in 4&5. If the Sox go with Pedro on short rest in G4, they'll have to go with Wakefield on short rest in G5 or there wouldn't be any point in Pedro pitching G4. Hudson threw less pitches in G1 than Pedro and is more durable in general so, even though the same matchup in G1 favored Pedro, in G4, I'd have to say it favors Hudson. Clearly, Zito v Wakefield, both on short rest, favors Oakland. In this scenario, Oakland is favored in both pitching matchups, although the Sox offense might have a chance of overcoming that in G4 in Fenway, but probably not in Oakland G5. My solution: Take a chance on Burkett/Suppan(I don't have the playoff rosters in front of me, so don't chastise me if 1 was left off the Sox roster. In my mind, they're interchangeable anyway.) in G4. Oakland would still have the matchup advantage in G4, but Hudson would be on short rest and Burkett/Suppan would not, so the matchup only greatly favors Oakland instead of ridiculously. Given the large advantage the Sox offense has over the A's counterparts in Fenway, the Sox have at least a reasonable chance of winning this game. If they do, a fully rested Pedro would have a huge advantage over a short-rest Zito in G5. Conclusion: If the goal is to increase your odds of forcing G5, then go with Pedro in G4. If the goal is to increase your odds of winning the series, save Pedro for G5. I'd go with the second goal.

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