The Home Run Derby hasn’t been at Yankee Stadium since 2008, but there is a good chance that the 2019 ALDS that starts in the Bronx will have a lot of long balls to it. The Minnesota Twins hit 307 home runs to set a record. The New York Yankees hit 306 home runs. Only the Astros rated higher from a wOBA and wRC+ standpoint than the Twins and Yankees. The ultimate irony is that the team that pitches better is going to win this series. Or so we would think. Whichever team does a better job at preventing doubles and dingers should advantage to the ALCS. The Yankees are an enormous favorite at -245 to win the series per the odds at BetOnline. As is often the case with the playoff representative(s) from the AL Central, we have to take the numbers with a grain of salt. Getting to beat up on the White Sox, Royals, and Tigers for 57 games can most definitely skew the stats. Of course, the Yankees also had the luxury of pummeling the Blue Jays and Orioles this season. There were just some truly awful teams in the big leagues this season. Most teams are going to have pronounced splits against .500 or better teams and teams with a losing record. The Twins were no different. They finished ninth in OPS at .761 and sixth in SLG at .443 against teams that were .500 or better. They were first in OPS at .883 and first by a wide margin in SLG at .531 against teams with losing records. The Yankees, meanwhile, were third in OPS and third in SLG against teams with a losing record, but also third in OPS and first in SLG against teams that were .500 or better. Over the course of a best-of-five series, how much does this actually matter? It’s hard to say. The Yankees have a solid pitching staff, but not a great pitching staff. To me, this would have more application against the Astros if the Twins were to advance than it has here, although the Yankees do have a very strong bullpen. Does the same ring true on the pitching side? I’m glad you asked! The Twins were 14th in ERA at 4.76 against teams with a .500 or better record. The Yankees were 13th at 4.74. The Yankees were seventh in K/BB ratio and the Twins were 15th. Against teams with losing records, the Twins were ninth in ERA at 3.75 and the Yankees were 14th at 3.94. Minnesota was, however, second in K/BB ratio and the Yankees were 11th. My honest assessment about this series is that the Twins are going to have to out-hit the Yankees to win it. That seems like a tall task. Here are three keys to the series for me:
  1. Twins Pitching
Jose Berrios has to get right. The right-hander posted a 4.31 ERA with a .301 wOBA against in 31.1 innings in the month of September, which helped to ease some concerns about his awful month of August. Berrios posted a 4.64 ERA over his last 83.1 innings of the regular season. His K% went up, but his command went down and his walk rate also increased. Minnesota is going to put a really heavy strain on the bullpen in this series. Jake Odorizzi had a career year, but his extreme fly ball stylings are a big worry against a Yankees team that hits for a ton of power. As the league adjusted to Odorizzi, he also saw a bump of almost 80 points in his SLG and an increase of 41 points to his wOBA against in the second half. The shine completely came off of Martin Perez, who allowed a .542 SLG and a .382 wOBA in the second half. He may be completely unusable in this series. The Twins bullpen ranked first in fWAR in the second half, but it will be tested in this series, especially because there aren’t a lot of multi-inning relievers. The Yankees bullpen throws slightly harder than the Twins bullpen, but not by much and both bullpens were in the bottom 10 in velocity in the second half. The Yankees bullpen struck out a higher percentage of batters, but the Twins bullpen walked the lowest percentage of batters by a large margin. The Minnesota bullpen walked 5.9% of opposing batters in the second half. That could be a hidden advantage in the late innings, when walks can be extremely costly.
  1. Yankees Starters
The New York bullpen is stacked and Aaron Boone has plenty of matchup options. How much is he willing to trust the starters? For the year, Yankees starters ranked 15th in ERA and 18th in FIP. Things didn’t get any better in the second half, as the Yankees rotation was bottom 10 in FIP. James Paxton left his last start with a pain in the ass, literally, which is sort of microcosmic of the Yankees season. The lineup was awesome. The bullpen was great. The rotation was lacking and the injury frequency was off the charts from an aggravation standpoint. The offense, except for Edwin Encarnacion, is in tact now. But, the starter question still looms large for the Yankees. Masahiro Tanaka hung a 5.26 ERA in the second half and his K% plummeted while his HR rate went up. JA Happ never really figured things out. Luis Severino only worked 12 innings, so we have no idea what to expect from him. Paxton said he’s fine going into the season and he was markedly better in the second half than he was in the first half, but also he allowed 21 HR to right-handed batters and a .445 SLG. The Twins can run out a lot of those.
  1. Pulling the Right Strings
This series could very well come down to the managers. Rocco Baldelli has impressed me in his first season. His team has responded well to his laid-back approach in the clubhouse and before the game and he has shown a tremendous feel for in-game situations. The Twins have one of the smartest front offices in baseball and that could be a weapon in this series. Unfortunately, Aaron Boone has shown a lot of those same skills and the Yankees are wise beyond their years in the front office as well. Setting up players to succeed is going to be a tremendous factor in this series. Knowing when to pull a starter a batter too early instead of a batter too late. Going to the right bullpen weapons at the right times. Players still have to execute, but these situations are when the mettle of a manager really matters. We saw Alex Cora do a masterful job in 2018. The same from AJ Hinch in 2017. Terry Francona did the same in 2016 to push the Indians and their 2.5 starters to Game 7 of the World Series. The managers matter now. The managers could matter a lot in this series, especially with two suspect starting rotations. This will be a series predicated on timely home runs in all likelihood. Managerial missteps could prove fatal. Much will be made of the narrative about how the Twins can’t beat the Yankees. The Twins lost the AL Wild Card Game in 2017 to the Yankees. The Yankees eliminated the Twins in both the 2009 and 2010 ALDS. You know how many players that played in that 2010 series are still on the same team? One. CC Sabathia. A good number of guys from that series have retired already. It doesn’t matter. Look, the Yankees probably advance, but the Twins offense is being disrespected with this price. The Yankees pitching staff is a bit better, especially when it comes to the bullpen, but +205 is a pretty reasonable price to take a position on the Twins. If the Twins win Game 1, you can easily play back. If the Twins don’t win Game 1, the bet is likely dead anyway. I think this series is a little bit closer than the line would suggest. It’s a hard hedge to make if you’re sitting on a Twins future. The better play there is to take Houston and the Yankees to win the AL pennant. I think the Yankees win and probably do so in 4 or 5 games. At +205, the Twins would be a small lean, but I think we’re better off looking at this series game by game.