19 May 2009

Why the Yankees Dominate the Minnesota Twins

The Yankees completed a four game home sweep of the Minnesota Twins last night, stretching their current winning streak to six games, four of which were won by only one run. This improves the Yankees' overall record to 21-17, bringing the team within 4.5 games of the Blue Jays for first place in the American League East division.

A brief look back at the four games:

Friday - Yankees 5, Twins 4: In a game started by two youngsters of whom much is expected, Phil Hughes and Felipe Liriano were both gone by the end of the sixth inning, leaving the game to be decided by the bullpens. Justin Morneau hit two homers and Derek Jeter and Joe Mauer each hit one, as did the scrappy Brett Gardner, his second in two days. This one was an inside-the-park job, though, more his game than the one he hit in Toronto the night before.

Down 4-1 in the 6th, the Yankees scored a run in the 7th and then three more in the bottom of the ninth, the last two on a walk-off, bases-loaded, two-out single by Melky Cabrera, who's gone a long way toward redeeming himself from both his horrid 2008 season and my skepticism of his value to the team. Twins closer Joe Nathan took the loss, while the Yankees' best reliever never left the bullpen, which came in handy for...

Saturday - Yankees 6, Twins 4
(11 innings): Nick Blackburn and Joba Chamberlain started, and each pitched reasonably well, but again the bullpens would decide matters in the end. Morneau and Mauer each homered off Joba, and Mark Teixeira hit a three-run jack in the third, his 8th of the year and drove in his 4th run of the game with a game-tying single in the bottom of the 8th to make it 4-4.

Bucking standard closer procedure, manager Joe Girardi brought in a well rested Mariano Rivera in the tied 9th inning, and he threw two scoreless innings to keep the game going. Without their own closer (who had thrown 27 pitches the night before, his fourth consecutive day of work) the Twins were forced to turn the ball over to journeyman lefty Craig Breslow, who walked Teixeira and then allowed a walk-off homer to Alex Rodriguez, his first hit in the new Yankee Stadium.

Sunday - Yankees 3, Twins 2: On the anniversary of David Wells' perfect game against the Twins in 1998, this game was appropriately a pitching duel that remained scoreless until the 7th inning. Twins' starter Kevin Slowey provided the best pitching line of the day, going 7.2 innings with eight strikeouts, no walks, and only two runs allowed. Yankees' starter A.J. Burnett walked six and needed 123 pitches to get through 6.2 innings, again leaving the game in the bullpen's capable hands.

Alex Rodriguez hit another homer, a solo shot off Slowey in the 7th. A double and two sacrifices tied the game at 2-2. Jonathan Albaladejo pitched out of trouble in the 7th and then back into it in the 8th, whereupon journeyman batting practice pitcher Brett Tomko rose up from the ashes to get two outs with the bases loaded and preserve the tie.

Girardi brought in Rivera in the tied 9th inning again, and was not disappointed as he pitched a scoreless inning. Alfredo Aceves kept the Twins at bay in the top of the 10th, which allowed Johnny Damon's one-out solo homer in the bottom half of the inning, for the Yankees' third straight walk-off win.

Monday - Yankees 7, Twins 6: Andy Pettitte pitched 6.2 innings allowing 12 hits, one walk and four earned runs in the only game of the series in which either starting pitcher got a decision. Twins starter Glen Perkins got only two outs and allowed six earned runs in the worst start of his career, and has not had a Quality Start since April 19th. On the plus side, R.A. Dickey provided 4.1 innings of scoreless relief as he continues his comeback as a knuckleballer.

Mark Teixiera homered from both sides of the plate and A-Rod smacked his third bomb in three games, back-to-back with Teixiera in the first. Michael Cuddyer and Denard Span each homered for the Twins, the latter coming in the 8th off Edwar Ramirez. He and Phil Coke made the game interesting in the late innings, allowing the Twins to come within a run before finally capping the game and the sweep with a grounder to second base.

Overall, the Yankees were not exactly dominant in the series, winning the four games by a total of five runs, three of them in their last at bat. But their starters were mostly solid, the offense scored just enough and the bullpen posted a 3.07 ERA in almost 15 innings of work.

Winning close games in your last at-bat is not a recipe for long-term success, however, as anyone who knows anything about sports odds will tell you. The Yankees have actually been outscored over the season despite their winning record. Most of that is die to the 22-4 drubbing they received at the hands of the Tribe last month, but even removing that game puts them only slightly in the black.

Amazingly, the Yankees have dominated the Twins in this millennium, winning 40 out of 58 contests in the regular season, plus six of eight in the postseason, for an overall record of 46-20 since 2001. This is the second best winning percentage they have against any team in the AL in that span, behind only the dismal Kansas City Royals.

They do have higher winning percentages against some NL teams in Interleague play, though these are only in a handful of games. Oddly enough the Yankees' worst winning percentage is against the Reds, to whom they have dropped four of six contests. Fortunately they only occasionaly play a series in the Cincinnati Reds schedule.

Regardless, the Yankees' continued success against the Twins is quite remarkable. You'd expect that the team with the best overall record in this century would do well against the lowly Royals, who have been the worst team of the 2000's, who have had only one winning record (83-79) in the last decade and a half. No surprise there.

But the Twins? They've got the 7th best record in all of baseball in that time, a .543 winning percentage in spite of their small payroll. They've had four playoff appearances in the last eight years, two Cy Young awards, an MVP award, a catcher who wins batting titles, a continuing influx of young pitching talent...so how are they so terrible against the Yankees?

At Yankee Stadium (either of them) it's even worse. At the Metrodome the Twins are actually somewhat respectable, with only a 13-16 record agains tthe Yankees, but in New York? The Yankees are 24-5 at home against the Twins since their last World Series victory, including a current stretch of eight in a row going back to July 2007. The Twins have not won a series against the Yankees in New York since 2001, and in one stretch went two whole seasons (2002-2003) without winning any games at all against the Yankees, losing 13 straight.

And there really isn't any explanation for it. The Yankees have generally been a better team than the Twins in the last eight seasons and change, but that much better? No, of course not. The Yankees tend to play better at home, just like most teams, but again, not that much better. Maybe it's just a combination of being slightly overmatched and slightly intimidated by the big crowds in New York.

Maybe it's the Yankees' propensity for hitting homers combined with the Twins' inability to prevent them. In the last eight years, the Yankees have never finished worse than 4th in the AL in home runs hit, while the Twins have only once finished better than 8th in the AL in homers allowed. Interestingly, they usually do much better than that in ERA, finishing no worse than 7th each of the last eight seasons, with an average of less than 5th.

But it seems they have kept the team ERA down mostly by avoiding walks, and therefore extra baserunners when they allow all those home runs. The Twins have finished in the first or second in fewest walks allowed each of the last eight years, with the exception of 2002, when they were 3rd. The Yankees, however, generally have fairly patient hitters, having been in the top three in drawing walks seven of the last nine seasons, including 2009. That puts a damper on the Twins' strategy perhaps, and lets the Yankees in the door. And so when the inevitable homers are allowed, the Yankees get more bang for their buck than most other teams do, since they tend to have more runners on base.

But it's really the homers that are killing the Twins. Indeed, the Twins have allowed 90 home runs to the Yankees in the 58 games they've played since 2001, a rate of 1.55 HR/game, slightly above the Yankees' overall rate of 1.34/game in the past eight years and change. Twins pitchers, accustomed to allowing about 1.1 homers per game, must find the Yankees quite a shock. Too bad for the Yankees they only get to play them a few times a year.

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1 comment:

Louise said...

Minnesota Twins should be always competitive enough to keep pace with the others. I really like them; they’ve always been my favourite teams in MLB. Just read about them here: