The Yankees and Twins played two three-game series this season with the Bombers taking two of three in New York and Minnesota. Even though the two teams last played in July, there is still plenty to be learned from those matchups.
Here are four takeaways from the season series:
1. The Twins’ right-handed power is scary
Derek wasn’t lying when he wrote that the Twins’ lineup is “nothing short of terrific” yesterday. Against the Yankees this season, they averaged over six runs per game.
The Twins hit an MLB-record 307 home runs this season, including 17 in the six games with the Yankees. Plenty of those home runs this season came against inferior competition, but they took it to the Yankees when they had the chance.
The major culprit in Minnesota’s offensive success against the Yankees was Nelson Cruz. The 39-year-old DH hit a home run in five of six matchups and batted a ridiculous .261/.370/.913 (226 OPS+). Juicy ball or no, that’s Ruthian. Derek already wrote about how lethal he is against just about any attack, but it’s worth emphasizing.
Meanwhile, the Twins also have the likely Silver Slugger for American League catchers in Mitch Garver. Rocco Baldelli is unafraid to bat him in the leadoff spot, where he did damage against J.A. Happ and CC Sabathia to the tune of three home runs. You don’t often see catchers in the top spot in the lineup, but you don’t often see catchers hit as well as him.
Beyond them, the team has Miguel Sanó, C.J. Cron and the switch-hitting Jorge Polanco for righty power. Cruz and Garver are the key batters for whom to watch out.
2. Neither team has seen each other’s best
Of the Yankees’ six starts against the Twins this season, two were by Happ. One by Sabathia. Minnesota faced an abbreviated start from James Paxton (the one where he injured his knee) and then lost two games started by Domingo German, who will miss the postseason while under MLB investigation for domestic violence.
Outside of three unrepresentative innings from Paxton, the Twins missed the Yankees’ top three starters. That’s an advantage early in the series for the Bombers.
However, that advantage evaporates if Happ takes the hill in a potential Game 4. Happ was rocked to the tune of 10 runs (four taters) in nine innings against Minnesota. Even with his late-season turnaround, will the Yankees be comfortable with him returning to Target Field and pitching a crucial game?
Meanwhile, the Yankees got to see presumed Game 2 starter Jake Odorizzi twice this year and hit .300/.383/.625 against the right-hander over two starts, one win and one loss. However, with Michael Pineda suspended, New York didn’t get to see much of Minnesota’s other potential starters in this series.
Expected Game 1 starter José Berríos has four career appearances against the Yankees with none since April 2018. That includes his only playoff appearance when he took the loss in the 2017 Wild Card Game. The 25-year-old faded some in the second half, but he is well rested going into this series.
3. Minnesota will test the Yankees’ bullpen
The Bombers will rely heavily upon their bullpen to pull out the series. Minnesota, however, won’t make it easy.
Of the Yankees’ top five relievers, only Tommy Kahnle (3.2 IP, 7 K, 0 H/BB) came away unscathed in matchups with the Twins. Adam Ottavino walked three batters in an inning during that 14-12 instant classic in July. The Twins failed to score after Chad Green relieved him only because of this:
Aroldis Chapman walked three in the same game and narrowly avoided a loss as well. The Yankees’ closer, though, has sterling individual numbers against the Twins’ hitters outside of that messy outing.
Zack Britton had a rough matchup with the Twins. He allowed a two-run homer to Sanó and Cruz, respectively, in his two outings against Minnesota. This was before he reinvigorated his season with the introduction of more sliders, but Cruz and Sano could be tough outs for him regardless.
4. The Yankees hold the edge
In every facet of the game, the Yankees top the Twins. They have a deeper and somehow about-as-healthy lineup. Their rotation reliably goes three deep instead of two. And, despite a sneakily good bullpen from Minnesota, the Yankees have the advantage there as well.
What does that mean? Combined with homefield advantage and whatever stock you want to put in their combined postseason history, the Yankees are the favorites.
But Minnesota is nearly as good as the Yankees in every phase of the game and could be better for 3-of-5. These aren’t the 2009-10 Twins that were cannon-fodder for the Yankees. They can actually come out and win this series without the Yankees playing awful baseball.
If the Yankees set the tone in Game 1 and can get to Berríos, they have a chance to make this a quick series. Otherwise, expect this to be more of a fight than previous clashes between these franchises.
Come Friday night, Yankees’ pitchers will have their hands full. Though the Yankees are favorites in this series, Minnesota is no pushover. The Twins’ offense is a force to be reckoned with and garnered the nickname “Bomba Squad”, apropos for the team that just set the single-season home run record (just beating the Yankees by one).
So, this isn’t a Twins club akin to those the Yankees manhandled in the playoffs a decade ago. The Yankees’ pitching staff will have to navigate a lineup that did this in the regular season:
Runs scored: 939 (2nd to Yankees)
Home runs: 307 (1st)
wRC+: 116 (3rd)
xwOBA: .345 (1st)
xBA: .261 (1st)
xSLG: .469 (1st)
Clearly, Minnesota’s lineup is nothing short of terrific. But, even historically great teams and players have flaws. And, there’s no question that the Yankees ramped up its advance scouting of the Twins as the regular season dwindled down. As one would expect, the Yankees will have a gameplan in place to slow Minnesota down. Whether or not they’re able to execute it remains to be seen.
With that, let’s take a look at some of the Twins’ most dangerous bats, descending from best to worst wRC+. This could give us some insight about what flaws the Yankees may be able to expose.
The 39 year-old designated just had the best season of his career (!) per wRC+ (163). Cruz has been one of baseball’s best hitters for years now, but he’s never been better than 2019. So, how do the Yankees get him out? There’s really no easy way, unfortunately, but a good start would be to throw as many curves and sliders as possible.
There’s nothing really novel about this approach — most hitters fare better against fastballs than other pitch types. It’s a big reason why the Yankees have thrown the fewest fastballs in all of baseball since 2017.
Obviously, the Yankees will have to throw Cruz some heaters. Can’t get too predictable, you know. Ultimately, I think it’ll be essential to throw strikes with breaking balls against him. In particular, I’d expect the Yankees to throw a lot of first pitch breaking balls to him. Cruz offered at just 20.2 percent of breaking balls to start his at-bats as compared to the league average mark of 25.9 percent vs. that pitch type. Now, that’s a dangerous proposition considering it’s generally harder to throw a strike with a non-fastball, which could put Cruz in a more favorable count, but it’s a risk the Yankees may have to take.
Someone like Masahiro Tanaka, who’s had great success against Cruz in his career (.111/.111/.148 in 27 ABs), should be apt for this matchup. In the bullpen, Adam Ottavino appears best suited with his patented slider. Meanwhile, guys like Chad Green and Tommy Kahnle don’t seem like good opponents for Cruz. Lastly, although James Paxton and Luis Severino are known for their fastballs, they can go to their curveball (Paxton) and slider (Severino) quite effectively.
Did you know that the Twins’ catcher had a 155 wRC+? I did not.
The ideal approach vs. Garver isn’t all that much different to Cruz in terms of pitch selection. The key: avoid the fastball as much as possible, even moreso than against Cruz.
Garver’s a dead red fastball hitter. That said, it looks like you can sneak a fastball by him to start him off as he’s quite passive at the plate. This year, he swung at just 14.4 percent of 0-0 pitches as compared to the league’s 29.4 percent mark. He’ll swing a little more often against first-pitch fastballs (17.5 percent), but that’s still way below the league rate (30.4 percent).
Additionally, Garver really thrives against pitches up and away. It’ll be important for guys who do rely on their fastballs, like Paxton or Green or Aroldis Chapman, to bust him inside. Breaking balls down and away should be a recipe for success too.
The Twins’ third baseman bounced back after a horrific .199/.281/.398 (83 wRC+) last season to post a 137 wRC+ in 2019. He has remarkable power, but it’s not always easy for him to tap into it considering his lifetime 36.3 percent strikeout rate.
Just to avoid repetitiveness, I won’t post another xwOBA vs. pitch type breakdown graph, but Sanó is very similar to Garver. He pounds fastballs but can’t do much against anything else.
Even though Sanó posts high strikeout numbers, he’s not an impatient hitter. He draws a good amount of walks (12 percent career), but there are undoubtedly holes in his swing.
Sanó loves to swing at pitches down in the zone, but isn’t particularly successful against those that are down and away. There’s no question that the Yankees will attack that area of the plate.
Arráez, a 22 year-old rookie, is a pest at the plate. He wasn’t a power hitter (.104 ISO), but he made a ton of contact (7.9 percent strikeout rate) and drew a good amount of walks (9.8 percent) in 366 plate appearances this year. All told, he posted a 125 wRC+. It looks like he had a decent amount of batted ball luck, as his batting average (.334) exceeded his xBA (.286). Still, it seems like his profile could make for a bit of a nuisance this series.
In spite of Arráez’s fourth-best wRC+ on the Twins, he’s someone Yankees’ pitchers need to pound the zone against.
Arráez is extremely patient at the dish. He swings less often than the rest of the league, even against pitches in the heart of the strike zone. And, considering that he doesn’t have much power, pitchers might as well go right after him. He’s not going to chase bad pitches and doesn’t strike out much anyway, so there’s no reason to nibble.
The 26 year-old outfielder has been hampered by a sore left shoulder of late, but is expected to play in the ALDS. He’s one of the Twins’ left-handed threats and yet another hitter to break out for them this season. In three full seasons prior, Kepler had never posted a wRC+ above 98. In 2019, he recorded a 121 wRC+ while belting 36 dingers.
This year, Kepler upped his pull percentage to 50.8 percent, an increase of nearly 10 percent from last season. That makes him especially dangerous at Yankee Stadium. Without digging further, one would think Yankees’ pitchers should go away, away, away. And yet, Kepler can be beat inside:
Kepler can be neutralized by lefties – his lifetime wRC+ against them is 80, compared to 114 vs. righties – so we may get to experience CC Sabathia as a LOOGY against him. Kepler actually handles southpaws’ fastballs pretty well (.405 xwOBA), but does nothing vs. breaking (.234 xwOBA) or offspeed (.232 xwOBA) from left-handers. CC could come in and pummel him with sliders.
Kepler’s a bit more balanced against right-handers. One somewhat notable weakness: he struggles the most against righty offspeed pitches (.266 xwOBA), so Tommy Kahnle would be a good option to face him in a tight spot.
Interestingly, although Kepler draws plenty of bases on balls, he’s very aggressive to start at bats. He went after a remarkable 40.4 percent of 0-0 offerings, so the Yankees have to be careful and not groove in a fastball to start match ups against him.
Minnesota’s shortstop had a heck of an offensive season after serving an 80 game PED suspension in 2018. In 704 plate appearances, the switch-hitter batted .295/.356/.485 with 22 dingers (120 wRC+).
Polanco is pretty disciplined at the plate in spite of league average walk rate (8.5 percent). He rarely swings at the first pitch he sees (23.5 percent), so perhaps the Yankees can get him behind in the count early.
For his career, he’s much better hitting left-handed (117 wRC+ vs. 86 wRC+ as a righty).
Since Byron Buxton is done for the season, we should see plenty of the ex-Yankees farmhand this series. The 26 year-old outfielder has some pop from the left side; he belted 8 homers in 228 trips to the plate this season (113 wRC+).
Cave’s biggest flaw is his bat-to-ball skills. He’s gone down on strikes 32.2 percent of the time in his young career. Pitches up in the zone seem to give him the most trouble:
Cave, a left-handed hitter, had a reverse platoon split this season, but I’m not sure I’d make too much of that. He was pretty terrible against southpaws last year. For what it’s worth, he absolutely hammered left hander’s breaking balls this year:
Again, I’m not convinced that it would be enough to prevent Boone from going left-on-left here, but it’s worth noting.
When I started this, I can’t say I expected Rosario to be this far down on the list. Another left-handed hitter, Rosario posted a 103 wRC+ this year, down from 114 and 117 in 2018 and 2017, respectively.
Rosario’s typical power was there (32 homers, .224 ISO), but his aggressive approach caught up to him this year. He’s never walked much, but an incredibly low 3.7 percent walk rate paired with a .273 BABIP hurt him. In spite of a low BABIP, he’s actually in line with his expected Statcast numbers, unlike prior years in which he usually beat them. He doesn’t tend to make a lot of hard contact, but he’s fly ball and pull-happy, so he’s a threat at Yankee Stadium no less.
Considering his walk rate, it probably doesn’t shock you that Rosario’s a hacker at the dish. He swung at 42 percent of first pitches seen this season. Additionally, he chased pitches out of the zone 41 percent of the time (league average is 24 percent), so the Yankees should be able to get him to 0-1 fairly often.
Rosario doesn’t have much of a platoon split this season, but historically he’s scuffled against lefties. In any event, Rosario’s easiest exposed away from the plate against lefties and down-and-away against righties.
Minnesota’s primary first baseman absolutely pummeled lefties this season (160 wRC+), so expect him in the lineup against James Paxton. He’s historically been a lefty masher (121 wRC+), though he’s generally held his own against righties (105 wRC+ career vs. 78 wRC+ this season). Let’s focus on his threat to Yankees’ lefties since that’s his biggest strength.
Cron’s crushed breaking balls against lefties this season, and though he’s had a good deal of success against those offerings in the past, it’s never been quite like this. Paxton will probably have to focus on his fastball and cutter against the righty slugger. The good news for Big Maple is that Cron has scuffled against pitches high-and-tight against southpaws this year:
Paxton loves throwing his heater up there, so hopefully that can neutralize Cron. Aroldis Chapman should be able to capitalize on that area of the zone too. On the other hand, Zack Britton’s sinker may not be a great pitch against Cron.
The former Oriole recovered from an ugly 79 wRC+ last season to post a league average number in 2019. He hardly walks (3.8 percent career), but his power has been pretty steady since he entered the league. This year, he hit 23 dingers in 464 plate appearances and had a career best .217 ISO.
The Yankees will undoubtedly challenge Schoop’s patience at the dish. He’s a free swinger, going after 40.9 percent of first pitches. He also struck out 25 percent of the time this season.
That Schoop swung more often than not at pitches up and out of the strike zone says a lot about his aggressiveness.
Considering that he’s hit non-fastballs harder this year and in the past, I’d expect a lot of high cheese against Schoop.
González is nursing an oblique issue but is expected to be available for game 1. Marwin had a down year in his first season with the Twins, posting a 93 wRC+. The switch-hitter has no platoon split for his career – even at 101 wRC+ vs. either handedness.
From both sides of the plate, González has long had a hard time with breaking pitches. The Yankees should be happy to oblige with the team’s anti-fastball philosophy, so González should get a steady diet of curveballs and sliders.