As a part of The Yankee U’s effort to get you prepared for war against the loathesome Twins of Minnesota, I have interviewed the fine fellas over at Twins blog The Bat Shatters. I highly recommend them for all things Twins, so be sure to bookmark it and add it to your GReader.
TYU: At first glance the rotation of Liriano-Pavano-Duensing-Blackburn doesn’t appear too intimidating. How confident are you in the ability of the back-end of the rotation to win against the likes of Hughes, Pettitte and Sabathia (on short rest)
TYU: Do you think there was any consideration given to having Liriano start Game 4 on short rest? If not, why not?
TBS: I’m sure that there was at least a discussion about it, but I don’t think it was ever close to reality. I’ve having trouble finding the exact quote, but I’m pretty sure that Liriano has expressed in the past that he’s not generally a fan of pitching on short rest, nor is he especially effective when he does.
TYU: After a sparkling start, Liriano has cooled off a bit in August and September. Are you worried that he’s tiring down the stretch?
TBS: He’s obviously thrown more innings this season (191) than he ever has, and despite what you think of the Verducci effect, the simple fact is that he’s still young and isn’t used to a 200+ inning workload. The results the last few games haven’t been stellar, but positive signs are that his velocity isn’t showing significant signs of tapering off (94.0 mph average fastball in July, 93.4 in September) and there hasn’t been any hint of arm issues. His fly ball rate jumped a bit in September (and thus perhaps by extension his HR/FB rate, which partly explains the higher ERA on the month) but his LD% was also the lowest monthly split of the season. I don’t see any extremely worrisome signs that Liriano won’t be the pitcher in the playoffs that we’ve enjoyed watching all year. He’s certainly susceptible to a little “jumpiness” and over-throwing in the first few innings, but I like our chances if he can get past the first time through the order without major damage.
TYU: Does Liriano throw anything other than sliders when he’s ahead in the count?
TBS: It’s no secret that Liriano’s slider is his best offering and preferred out pitch, and with a two-strike count, odds are that’s what you’re going to get. This year, on an 0-2 count he’s throwing the slider 64% of the time, and interestingly, he’s throwing the slider a whopping 75% on a full count. On 1-2 and 2-2 counts, there seems a to be a little better chance that he’ll throw a changeup (14% and 12%, respectively) but the slider is still favored.
TYU: Do you expect Jon Rauch to be ready to go for the ALDS?
TBS: This is a tough question and one that I don’t really have the answer for yet. He got fluid drained from his knee and had a cortisone shot last week, which generally take effect in 48-72 hrs. Rauch is throwing a bullpen session on Monday, and I’d assume that the results of that are going to determine who gets that roster spot. At this point, I’d lean towards him being ready, but it certainly could go either way. If not Rauch, that spot will go to Scott Baker as another long relief option. Baker’s pitched well his last few outings, but I think there are enough questions about his elbow tendonitis that the Twins aren’t entrusting him with a chance to start.
TYU: Which player is most likely to come out of nowhere and have a big series?
TBS: I wouldn’t say that it would be out of nowhere per se, but I could see Jason Kubel stepping up and having a big series. After posting career numbers last year (.300/.369/.539, .383 wOBA, .239 ISO) he’s fallen off significantly (.249/.323/.427, .326 wOBA, .178 ISO). The HR and RBI totals are still there, but he’s definitely been a source of disappointment. Yankee Stadium is certainly friendly to left-handed power bats, which could benefit him against Pettitte and Hughes who both give up a fair number of fly balls (Hughes being one of the most fly-ball prone starters in the majors). He had a brutal postseason last year, going 1 for 14; maybe this is the year he steps up his game on the big stage.
TYU: Who’s the Twins’ biggest secret weapon that most Yankee fans have never heard of?
TBS: Despite a brutal start to the year and some very recent struggles, Jesse Crain has become one of the better relievers in the Twins’ bullpen this year. He’s posted an overall 3.45 FIP on the year while striking out 8.21 per nine, which aren’t completely dominant numbers, but he’s shown stretches this year where he’s been absolutely unhittable. His fastball is fairly pedestrian with good velocity but not much movement, but his breaking stuff (which he’s used much more often this season) is truly special. Based on the pitch type values at FanGraphs, he’s got far and away the most valuable slider among AL relievers at 14.6 runs above average, and his curveball ranks second to only Neftali Feliz at 3.8 RAA. From July to August, Crain allowed only three earned runs, striking out 32 in 33.4 innings and walking 13. He’s become the main “fireman” of the bullpen, a role that he’ll need to continue in the playoffs.
TYU: Compare the 2009 Twins to the 2010 Twins.
TBS: Talent-wise, much improved. Jim Thome has been an absolute monster in the DH slot, whereas last year in the ALDS, the Twins trotted out Brendan Harris for one game and Jose Morales for another. *shudders* When he’s been healthy, JJ Hardy has provided solid offensive numbers (.304/.363/.442 since the All-Star break) and been excellent defensively (12.9 UZR/150 for what it’s worth for a single season). Joe Mauer is still Joe Mauer, if perhaps not the superhuman offensive machine we saw last year. The bullpen (at least depth-wise) is much improved with the emergence of Jesse Crain and the addition of Brian Fuentes and Matt Capps, as much as it hurt to lose Joe Nathan. Justin Morneau will again not factor into postseason play, and with the way he was hitting before his injury, the offense could have been truly great. Although certainly playing over his head at the moment (evidenced by a .345 BABIP), Danny Valencia has solidified his grasp on the third base job, breaking out for a .311/.351/.448 line and returning Nick Punto to his role as a defensive utility man. I’ve already discussed the rotation a bit, and although Liriano has become a dominant force and Pavano has been very steady, Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey both took steps back this year. That said, team FIP for starters this year (3.92) is a marked improvement over last year (4.42), and as a team, the Twins’ xFIP ranked first in the AL at 4.01. In almost all facets of the game (outfield defense being a notable exception), this is a much better team.
TYU: Why will the Twins finally be able to get over the hump and beat the Yankees this year?
As I just mentioned, the Twins have a much deeper lineup than in previous years, in addition possessing the as-of-yet-difficult-to-quantify-for-the-stat-community enigma known as home field advantage. The Yankees, although certainly a formidable lineup, haven’t been quite the offensive juggernaut that they’ve been in the past, and there are some questions about the starting pitching outside of CC Sabathia (who, this year, isn’t perhaps as seemingly untouchable as in years past with a 3.54 FIP, his highest since 2005). And although it certainly didn’t erase the Twins’ past struggles in the House that Ruth Built, Kubel’s grand slam off of Rivera back in May served at least some notice that the Twins aren’t totally inept on the road in New York. The front office has finally made the sort of investment in the team that we’ve been hoping for, and if there’s been a year that the Twins could do it, this looks like it.
TYU:. Alright. Let’s have it. Give me your series prediction.
TBS: I could actually see this one going the distance, so my homer pick is going to be Twins in five. Vegas is treating the Twins as slight underdogs, which is probably fair. It would be hard for me to say without a doubt that the Twins should win this series, but there are plenty of reasons that I’ve outlined that shows that they could. I realize this is hostile territory and most of you will come up with plenty of reasons why the Yankees are going to win, blah blah blah, but I also think you have to admit that the Yankees are a more flawed team this year than they’ve been before.
TYU: I will not admit that. Screw you, we will own you guys!
TBS: NO U
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