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Monday, September 29, 2003

Don’t Count Out the Twins

Steve takes a look at the recent exploits of the forgotten playoff team.

The 2003 playoff picture is set. The New York Yankees, as usual, have been invited to the party. The Oakland Athletics, after winning a thrilling battle with the Seattle Mariners, will be there, too. The Boston Red Sox fended off the Mariners and don?t look like they?re about to slow down. But another team is also in the mix. One that has gone largely overlooked in the playoff picture. That?s right: The Contraction Kids. The Twin City Thrashers.

The Minnesota Twins.

The Twins will face the Yankees in the American League Division Series, which is reason enough to think they might not last long in the post-season, but it would be a mistake to overlook them. Although their winning percentage is far lower than any of the other playoff partygoers, they stand just as good a chance as anyone, maybe even better.

The Twins struggled during the first half of the season, posting a losing record of 44-49. What?s worse, they were seven and a half games behind the Kansas City Royals in the American League Central, a team which lost over one-hundred games the previous season. Baseball writers nationwide predicted doom for the Twins; they would surely not repeat as AL Central champions.

However, just as quickly, they were back in the thick of the pennant race. During the second half, they have played like nothing short of the best team, winning 44 games while losing just 20, a winning percentage of .688. Of course, that isn?t reason enough to believe that the Twins are a much bigger threat than most are taking them to be. A good record in the second half doesn?t ensure success in the post-season, especially when your first opponent is the Yankees.

But it?s the way with which they?ve gone about winning that should excite people. In the first half, their pitchers seemingly could not figure out how to not allow runs. Their earned-run average was at 4.74 before the All-Star game. During the second half, however, they have posted a 3.73 ERA while they?ve scored 5.5 runs per game, much better than their 4.63 runs per game during the first half.

Perhaps no one person is more responsible for the Twins? rapid turnaround than the person they traded for on July 16, just one day after the All-Star game. They traded Bobby Kielty to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for Shannon Stewart. Rumors were circulating all year about Stewart not wanting to be on the Blue Jays anymore and the Blue Jays not wanting Stewart anymore. Whichever one had the thought, they got their wish.

But nobody knew it would turn out to be this productive. Not even the Twins.

Since leaving Toronto, Stewart has done nothing but be a boost to the Twins. A large boost, a larger one than even the Twins hoped for. According to Clay Davenport?s Equivalent Averages, Stewart?s EQA with Minnesota has been twenty-three points higher than it was when he was in Toronto. His Equivalent Runs, although he?s played in fewer games, are also higher by one and a half points.

Stewart has provided a much-needed spark to the Twins? lineup; since the trade, the Twins are 5 points better with an on-base percentage 18 points higher. Only the power numbers have dipped a bit with their slugging percentage dropping 10 points, but the fact is that they are winning baseball games at a much higher rate than they were before Stewart joined the club.

But the Twins are going to have to play the Yankees in the first round, which is a chore within itself. During the regular season the Twins, fared poorly against the Yankees, poorly enough to make people think it will be an easy sweep for the Yankees. During the regular season the Twins played 7 games against the New York team and lost all 7. Their pitching staff had an ERA of 7.05 against them while their hitters almost scored 2 runs per game (1.8).

Not exactly favorable numbers.  But the Yankees never played the Twins during the second half of the season, which is when their season took a turn for the better. In the first series in New York, which was supposed to be four games but one was postponed, the Yankees swept scoring 3.67 runs per game to the Twins? 1.33. It was in Minnesota where it got ugly; the Yankees scored 9.5 runs per game during a four game set in Minnesota while the Twins scored only 2.25 runs per game.

One of the most notable reasons the pitching has been so much better during the second half is because of Johan Santana. Santana started in only four games, posting a 1.87 ERA in those starts, during the first half but the Twins finally became wise to Santana?s ways. He pitched in thirteen games since the All-Star break, starting all of them, and has had an ERA of 3.22. He is probably the Twins? number one starter heading into the playoffs.

In fact, the entire Twins rotation has fared much better this half. Brad Radke?s ERA was 5.49, but during this half it?s 3.24. Same story with Kenny Rogers (4.89-4.10). Kyle Lohse has also improved, though not to the extent as the others. Joe Mays? ERA has gone down from 6.50 to 5.68 but he doesn?t start games for the Twins anymore. The only first half starter who has gotten worse is Rick Reed who hasn?t had a quality start since August 17. All told, the Twins? second half ERA is better by a run, from 4.74 down to 3.73.

If the Twins are able to take a game from the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, where they haven?t won since 2001, they?ll have a much better chance at winning the Series at the Metrodome. During the second half the Twins are 25-10 at home, including a team record 12-game home-winning streak. The Metrodome certainly provides one of the best home field advantages in baseball and if the Twins are able to take a game at The Stadium that will increase their chances of taking the Series greatly.

It will be hard for the Twins to win, but nobody should count them out. They surprised the Oakland Athletics last year in the Division Series, so why couldn?t they do it to the Yankees?

After all, the Anaheim Angels did it.


Steve Brooks Posted: September 29, 2003 at 06:00 AM | 8 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Mark Donelson Posted: September 29, 2003 at 02:42 AM (#613057)
I don't think anyone sensible thinks the Twins are going to go down to the Yankees easily. I suppose parts of the mainstream media do, but even there it's been mostly a straw-man argument. Even on Baseball Tonight, most of what I've heard is "Of course everyone thinks the Yanks will roll over the Twins--but wait a minute, the Twins will probably be tough."

   2. Nick S Posted: September 29, 2003 at 02:42 AM (#613058)
Half of the Twin's second half schedule (32 games) was against Detroit, Cleveland, and Baltimore. 6 games were against New York, Boston, Oakland, Seattle, or Toronto (4 against Oakland, 2 against Seattle - The Twins did go 5-1 in those games.) Don't count out the Twins because the odds of them winning 3 out of five against any team aren't too shabby, not because they flipped Kielty for Stewart (!?! Stewart !?!)
   3. Bud Selig Posted: September 29, 2003 at 02:42 AM (#613060)
Wait a second, the Twins can't be in the play-offs. That was last year's anomaly.
   4. Mark Donelson Posted: September 29, 2003 at 02:42 AM (#613061)
Just to clarify, I didn't mean to imply that I'm convinced the Twins will lose to the Yankees at all, let alone easily...
   5. Bruce Markusen Posted: September 29, 2003 at 02:42 AM (#613064)
Over the last two months of the season, Wells has been the least effective of the Yankees' big four. I think holding him back for Game Four makes perfect sense.

I think Torre has set up his rotation as effectively as possible. The Yankees' best pitcher goes in Game One (Mussina), their top left-hander who fares well at the Stadium pitches in Game Two (Pettitte), followed by a fly ball, strikeout pitcher like Clemens in the Metrodome--with its artificial turf--in Game Three.
   6. Marc Posted: September 29, 2003 at 02:42 AM (#613066)
One local reporter says he put Stewart 4th on his AL MVP ballot--otherwise, it was a reasonable ballot with ARod, Delgado, Boone, then Posada 5th. But while Stewart 4th is a pretty obvious homer vote, speaking as a Twins fan, I don't see how anybody else could be the Twins' MVP.

The Twins' achilles heel remains situational hitting, however. The Twins' numbers with runners in scoring position, and especially RISP with less than 2 outs, were not much better in the 2nd half of the year than the 1st--ie. terrible. Torii Hunter hit about .220 with RISP (and still drove in 102). With a team record 4 guys hitting .300 and 3 of them--Stewart, Mientkiewicz and Pierzynski--being much better in the 2nd half, they simply had more runners on base. If they're forced into some small ball in the playoffs, which is likely, their weakness could be fatal.

Also they go into the playoffs with just 3 "real" relievers who are pitching well and one of those--Rincon--doesn't throw in pressure situations. So getting from their starters, who despite their nice numbers, are all pretty much 5-6 inning guys (yes, including Santana) to Hawkins in the 8th and Guardado in the 9th will be an adventure. The others are Romero, who has been getting creamed throughout the 2nd half, and Rogers and Reed. Reed also has gotten creamed quite routinely. Rogers has pitched very well, but he is not a reliever as you know. It is difficult to imagine him coming into a game mid-inning. It is difficult to see him coming into a game other than one in which the Twins are down in the 3rd or 4th inning. So, again, getting to Hawkins and Guardado will depend upon the eminently undependable J.C. Romero and the eminently untested Rincon.

But of course, the other guy's got weaknesses, too. I just don't happen to know what they are. But I'm sure the Twins 2 (count 'em) advanced scouts (Tom Kelly and Paul Molitor) have identified them, while, who knows, maybe the Yankees 7 (count them, too) scouts have failed to accurately assess the Twins. After all, the Twins have hit much more poorly against lefties and have always been dominated by David Wells and yet Joe Torre is starting off with 2 out of 3 righties. Let's say he's down 2-1 after that really when you want to go to Davey Wells? It looks to me like Torre thinks Wells is going to pitch game 1 of the ALCS. Well, my mama told me, cocky is as cocky does.
   7. Mark Donelson Posted: September 30, 2003 at 02:42 AM (#613073)
As a Yankee fan, I can tell you Wells is scheduled for Game 4 because he's been struggling in the second half, not because they're setting ANYTHING up for a future series. There's some question as to whether Wells will pitch at all, or if Mussina will come back to pitch that last game. But there's no way anyone wants to see Wells pitching game 1 of any series this year.
   8. Indy Posted: September 30, 2003 at 02:42 AM (#613081)
if the Twins are able to take a game at The Stadium that will increase their chances of taking the Series greatly

To be picky, any increase from 0% seems pretty significant...

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