Ah, poor Minnesota. Perennial favorites in the always wide-open AL Central — though I’ll take some credit for being a bit skeptical during the pre-season of their being able to continue to win despite losing several key components and not really replacing them with anything of value — the pride and joy of the Twin Cities has had about as nightmarish a season as possible, once again losing a not-all-the-way-back Justin Morneau to the DL for a stretch and finding Morneau joined by Joe Mauer for a good portion of the season as well. To add insult to injury, Mauer hasn’t even gotten going when he has been healthy this season (89 wRC+), leading to undoubtedly endless frustration on the part of Twins’ fans who were hoping for big things from their homegrown star in the first year of his mega-extension.
Injuries and ineffectiveness have led to a lineup with just three men producing: Michael Cuddyer (136 wRC+), Jason Kubel (122) and newest-member-of-the-600-home-run-club Jim Thome (141). Oh, and Cuddyer is currently on the shelf. The Twins’ team wOBA is .297 — worse than the Athletics — and their wRC+ is 85, better than only the Mariners.
Unfortunately for the Twins, it’s not as if anyone else in the lineup is starting to come on either, as those aforementioned three heavy hitters are also the only lineup regulars to produce at an above-100 wRC+ clip over the last two weeks. Justin Morneau‘s been at 66 wRC+ since returning to the lineup, while Mauer’s at 62. While we all know those numbers represent neither’s true talent level, if there were ever a time to be
feasting on meeting up with the Twins, that time’d be now.
Things have been no better for Minnesota on the pitching side — typically a strength for the organization that loves to pitch to contact — with a 4.43 team ERA and 4.28 FIP (both 3rd-worst in the AL). xFIP doesn’t see things getting any better, with a 4.27 that’s the 2nd-worst mark in the AL. The Twins haven’t even been able to maintain their Twinniest attribute — limiting the bases on balls — as their BB/9 is 3.06, 6th in the AL. As a point of comparison, the Twins’ pitching staff produced a 2.37 BB/9 in 2010 — the lowest mark in the AL by over half a walk.
While the starters have been no great shakes, the bullpen has been utterly deplorable, with a triumvirate of dead-last-in-the-AL triple slash stats: 4.67 ERA (and one of only three AL teams with a bullpen ERA over 4.00), 4.53 FIP and 4.67(!) xFIP. The Twins literally currently have only two men sporting fWARs above 0.0 in the ‘pen, and one of them is only at 0.1 (Anthony Swarzak). The other is Glen Perkins, who has been phenomenal at 1.6 fWAR, but he certainly can’t do it alone. Jose Mijares and Matt Capps have been slightly better of late than they have on the season, but that’s not saying much. Even poor Joe Nathan appears to be a shell of his former self.
Probable Pitching Match-Ups
In tonight’s opener we get a rematch of 2009 ALDS Game 1 starters as CC Sabathia takes on Brian Duensing. Yankee fans surely have fond memories of Duensing, who has faced the Yankees in the playoffs twice in the last two seasons and lost both times. Duensing’s having a fairly crappy year even by his own middling standards, though a lot of that is the result of an inflated BABIP (.322), although I’m not sure how much bad luck we can ascribe to BABIP when talking about Twins pitchers. Duensing isn’t quite a junkballing lefty (91mph avg. fastball), but he’s not going to overpower anyone. His most effective pitch this season per pitch type linear weights has been his slider, which is bad news as the Yankees feast on sliders. With CC Sabathia coming off two straight poor outings and almost certainly due to right the ship against a significantly underperforming offense, this one has severe mismatch written all over it.
Tomorrow night has Phil Hughes facing Kevin Slowey. Heading into the season Slowey was deemed out man out of the Twins’ starting rotation and was relegated to the bullpen. He didn’t fare particularly well and wound up getting hurt. When he was ready to come back, he spent part of June and all of July rehabbing in the minors. This outing will be his first start of the year, and he actually hasn’t started against the Yankees since May 17, 2009, in which he somehow threw 7.2 innings of 2-run ball. Slowey, true to his name, has a slow fastball that he complements with a curve and a change. Slowey is a major control artist, as his 1.48 walks per nine innings mark is the second-lowest mark among all starting pitchers with at least 450 innings pitched since 2007, behind only Roy Halladay (1.37 BB/9), per this article on ESPN. However, he also owns a 1.4 HR/9, the third-highest mark over that same time period. While pitching at home should help him keep the ball in the park, the Yankees really should be able to pound Kevin Slowey, especially considering he’s just come back from injury. Hughes of course last saw the Twins in Game 3 of the 2010 ALDS, in which he obliterated them.
The Saturday evening game (7:10pm Eastern) will see everyone’s favorite Yankee, A.J. Burnett, take on Francisco Liriano. Liriano of course has gone from one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2010 to baffling enigma, with all of his numbers in every major statistical category down from last year except, somewhat oddly, BABIP. Part of the problem likely has something to do with the mysterious disappearance of 2mph from Liriano’s heater, which has led to it being one of the least effective in the American League. Of course, given that his counterpart in this pitching match-up has the worst wFB/C in the league, this could be a rather high-scoring affair. Liriano of course does the fastball-slider thing, which, as we’ve seen numerous times before this season, the Yankees generally go to town on.
And the Sunday afternoon game (2:05pm Eastern) has Ivan Nova, fresh off perhaps his least effective start of the season, facing Nick Blackburn. Blackburn last saw the Yanks in May 2010, somehow holding them to two runs over seven. The Yanks have historically gone to town on Blackburn (.318/.366/.477 over 143 PAs), and rightly so — his “fastball” averages 89.6mph, and all four of his pitches are currently below average. Like most of his rotationmates — save Scott Baker and Liraino — Blackburn strikes no one out (4.65 K/9), but has the second-worst BB/9 and worst HR/9 of the starting rotation. It’s hard to see a Yankee team that’s been pretty locked in on offense of late not pounding a pitcher like Blackburn.
With a red-hot Yankee team (.379 wOBA over the last 14 days) coming in to face a reeling Twins squad (.282 wOBA over the last 14), plus the return of Alex Rodriguez to the lineup this Friday, this series appears to be completely lopsided from the outset. I’m sure the Twins will mange to Twin their way to one win, but the Yankees have no business doing anything less than taking three of four from this bruised, battered and beaten Minnesota squad.
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