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AL Wild Card Game Preview: The Twins’ ‘Yankee curse’ is real

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Can the Twins avoid yet another playoff exit at the hands of the Evil Empire?

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

This might be the most one-sided matchup we’ve seen since the Wild Card games came into existence. The six-win difference between the Yankees and Twins is one of the largest we’ve seen since the new playoff format started in 2012, and advanced metrics suggest it’s not even that close. According to pythagorean win-loss expectancies, the Yankees should have been a 100-win team this year, while the Twins slightly over-performed. Baseball Prospectus’ third-order win percentages create an even bigger gap, with the Yankees a 105-win team and the Twins a hair over .500.

Looking closer, it’s tough to find any advantage for Minnesota. MLB.com’s Mike Petriello went position-by-position and found a few areas where the Twins are better, but found just as many “big advantages” for the Yankees. This includes the bullpen, where many think this game will be won. The Yankees can trot out a host of power arms, including David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Chad Green, Dellin Betances, and closer Aroldis Chapman.

The Twins?

Offensively, the Yankees also hold a slight edge. They sported the second-best wRC+ in the American League this season (108), and that figure improved to 115 at Yankee Stadium. The Twins were also better at home than on the road, and finished with a meager (if respectable) 95 wRC+ in road games this season. Minnesota’s run differential is slightly better in road games, but not by enough to excuse the difference in run production. This is a much bigger gap than Minnesota’s +3 defensive runs saved advantage over New York, and could prove fatal, especially if New York can hand their bullpen an early lead.

Minnesota Twins (85-77) at New York Yankees (91-71)

Time/Place: 8:00 p.m., Yankee Stadium
SB Nation sites: Twinkie Town and Pinstripe Alley
Media: ESPN, WatchESPN, ESPN Radio
Pitching Matchup: RHP Ervin Santana (16-8, 3.28 ERA) vs. RHP Luis Severino (14-6, 2.98 ERA)

AL Wild Card Game Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Santana 211.1 19.3 7.1 4.46 2.9
Severino 193.1 29.4 6.5 3.07 5.7

Once again, advanced stats tell a much different story than what we see on the surface. At first glance, Ervin Santana and Luis Severino had similar seasons. Both produced solid ERA numbers, with Santana throwing a few more innings than the 23-year-old Severino. However, if we look further, the Yankees’ young ace was much better. Thanks to a gaudy strikeout rate, Severino produced a 3.07 FIP in nearly 200 innings, sixth-best in baseball. He also posted an excellent walk rate, resulting in a 22.9 K-BB% that trailed only Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer, and Clayton Kershaw. Severino also showed no signs of slowing down as he got deeper into the season — he was 3-0 with a 2.10 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 30 September innings.

Meanwhile, Santana’s ERA was a bit of a mirage. His 4.46 FIP was over a full run higher than his ERA, and ranked among the highest in the American League. His already-high home run rate got even worse, with 1.32 homers leaving the park every nine innings. He compensated with one of the higher pop-up rates in the AL (something Severino also does well), but seemed to falter slightly after the All-Star break.

Santana’s 42.5 percent fly ball rate plays well with Byron Buxton’s cavernous defensive range, but can get him into trouble at times, especially in a smaller environment like Yankee Stadium. Santana has allowed a 6.43 ERA in six starts at the new Yankee Stadium in his career, and lost his only matchup there this season.

Key matchup: Paul Molitor vs. the first sign of trouble

In the lead-up to this game, everyone has been talking about how Joe Girardi and the Yankees will navigate the later innings with their monstrous bullpen. Frankly, it doesn’t sound that hard to me. Sure, you can rearrange the pieces in different order — does Dellin Betances come in during the seventh or the eighth? — but there are still several hard-throwing relievers at Girardi’s disposal.

Twins manager Paul Molitor doesn’t have that luxury. His bullpen finished the year with a 4.40 ERA, fourth-highest in the American League. They had the second-lowest strikeout rate in the league, ahead of only our lowly Tigers. They even traded then-closer Brandon Kintzler prior to the July non-waiver deadline, a ground ball specialist that would have helped with their depth.

As a result, Molitor and the Twins are relying heavily on Santana to eat innings. If this comes down to a battle of the bullpens, the Yankees will almost surely come out on top.

Pick to click: Gary Sanchez

Aaron Judge has drawn more headlines than his teammate throughout the year, but Sanchez quietly had a monster sophomore season. He produced an .876 OPS and 33 home runs in 122 games, and was second on the team with 4.4 WAR, best among MLB catchers. Sanchez also finished strong, with an .896 OPS after the All-Star break. His 20 second-half home runs were tied for seventh in baseball, and he led his team with 50 RBI after the break. The Yankees will almost certainly manage a home run or two off the dinger-prone Santana, which may prove the difference in a win-or-go-home situation.

Also, Judge isn’t a fan of sliders.

Important thing to note that I can’t find another place for

Miguel Sano will not be on the Twins’ active roster for this game.

Prediction

The Yankees do as expected: get an early lead and ride their bullpen to a low-scoring victory.