Yankees vs. Twins ALDS Breakdown: The Lineups

The most dangerous hitter in the Twins' lineup. (AP)

The Yankees and Twins meet in the Division Series this week for the fourth time in the last eight years. The Yankees won the first three matchups with combined 9-2 record in games, the only two Twins victories coming in Games One in which Johan Santana beat Mike Mussina at the renovated Yankee Stadium. This year, however, things are different.

For the first time in these four meetings, the Twins have home-field advantage, and both teams now play in different ballparks than they did during those first two matchups in 2003 and 2004. In writing this preview for Bronx Banter a year ago, I wrote "the Twins are not a good ballclub, they’re just better than the other stiffs and mediocrities that make up the American League Central." That’s no longer true. After having to play a 163rd game to determine the division each of the last two seasons, the Twins won the central by six games this year with the fourth-best record in baseball at 94-68, just one game behind the Yankees’ 95-67.

You can still dock the Twins for playing in an easier division. They won 47 games against intra-division foes while going 10-18 against the Yankees, Rays, Red Sox, and Blue Jays, with a losing record against each, but they also outscored their opponents by more than 100 runs for the first time since 2006, when they won 96 games with Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano, pre-Tommy John surgery, heading the rotation.

Their new ballpark, which will host the first two games of this series as well as a possible double-elimination Game Five, has been a not-insignificant part of that success. The Twins have never been a big slugging team, and now they have a ballpark that works to their strengths. Target Field is a slight pitcher’s park that is 411 feet deep to the left of center field and has a 23-foot fence extending from the right-field foul pole to a point in center field 403 feet from home plate.

The biggest impact of those dimensions is that Target Field is an extremely difficult place to hit a home run . The Twins’ visitors have hit just 64 taters all year, less than were hit by visitors to San Deigo or Seattle. By comparison, visitors to Yankee Stadium hit 108 home runs. That’s bad news for a Yankee team that hit 201 home runs, the third highest total in the majors this year, but slugged 70 points lower on the road than at home. It’s also good news for a Twins offense built around inside-the-park extra-base hits (third in the AL in doubles, first in triples), which Target Field favors with its expansive pastures. Though it’s worth noting that the Yankees are no slouch in the triples department themselves.

Here then is the first of a three- or four-part head-to-head breakdown of the two teams in anticipation of Wednesday’s Game One. I’ll compare the lineups here, the defenses and benches later today, and the pitching tomorrow.

A note on method: rather than compare the two teams by defensive position, I prefer to do it by batting order, focusing entirely on offensive measures, then dealing with defense separately. I think this approach gives a more apples-to-apples approach as the batting orders tend to match up players with similar offensive skill sets regardless of position. Batting orders also determine playing time in terms of plate appearances, so this approach implicitly takes that into account. Crow about Brett Gardner’s on-base percentage all you want, Derek Jeter is still going to come to the plate more often than he is. That said, I reserve the right to fudge a little to produce better comparisons if necessary. After all, batting orders do tend to fluctuate.

On with it, then:

Leadoff:

R - Derek Jeter (.270/.340/.370, 18 SB @ 78%)
L - Denard Span (.264/.331/.348, 26 SB @ 87%)

Jeter and Span seem to be mirroring one another. Last year, this matchup looked like this:

Derek Jeter (.334/.406/.465, 30 SB @ 86%)
Denard Span (.311/.392/.415, 23 SB @ 70%)

Both have fallen off considerably this year, but either way, the raw comparison produces the same result: Jeter is just a little bit better. Last year, Jeter’s advantage was more clear. This year, it’s small enough that one could chalk it up to the difference in the players’ respective home ballparks. I say could, because Span is actually a perfect fit for Target field and hit .302/.371/.390 there this year, a line that looks a lot more like his productive 2009 season. The flip side of that is that Span’s road numbers were abysmal, despite the fact that he hit all three of his home runs this season in road grays. A comparison of home-to-road shows that the deciding factor in this matchup is which player gets to wear white:

Span home: .302/.371/.390
Jeter road: .246/.317/.317

Jeter home: .295/.365/.425
Span road: .228/.293/.309

Also worth noting: the left-handed Span has had a slight reverse platoon split both this year and over his career. That’s important because it means Joe Girardi needn’t worry about matchups when facing him in a key spot late in a game. Jeter, meanwhile, has looked like his old self against lefties this year (.321/.393/.481), with most of his struggles coming against right-handed pitching. That’s encouraging given that the Twins are starting two left-handed pitchers in this series, Francisco Liriano in Game One and Brian Duensing in Game Three.

Edge: Yankees

2nd:

L - Curtis Granderson (.247/.324/.468, 24 HR, 67 RBI, 12 SB @ 86%)
S - Orlando Hudson (.268/.338/.372, 6 HR, 37 RBI, 10 SB @ 77%)

Both of these players missed time due to injury this year. Granderson played in just 136 games and missed a month with a groin injury. Hudson played in just 126 and twice hit the DL, first with a sprained left wrist, then with a right oblique strain. More recently, ankle and shoulder injuries helped contribute to a dismal .202/.252/.253 performance for Hudson in September and October. Compare that to Granderson’s .259/.354/.560 line with 14 home runs in 193 plate appearances since Kevin Long retooled his swing, and the Yankees hold a big advantage here. Also worth noting: Granderson’s struggles against lefties have vanished since that retooling. Here are his splits across those 193 plate appearances:

vs. RHP: .245/.344/.591 (129 PA)
vs. LHP: .286/.375/.500 (64 PA)

That’s a tiny sample size, to be sure, but it’s extremely encouraging. The switch-hitting Hudson, meanwhile is a bit weaker against lefties, but not enough to worry about matchups against him, either.

Edge: Yankees

3rd:

S - Mark Teixeira (.256/.365/.481, 33 HR, 108 RBI)
L - Joe Mauer (.327/.402/.469, 9 HR, 75 RBI)

Yes, but Teixeira started slow, right? Here are their second-half numbers:

Teixeira: .259/.372/.502, 15 HR, 48 RBI
J.Mauer: .373/.447/.527, 5 HR, 40 RBI

Teixeira hit out of his mind in July and cracked nine homers in August, but otherwise was below his usual standard throughout the season and had a poor September, in part due to some nagging injuries (a broken toe and a strained thumb). Teixeira looked like his old self over the season’s final nine games (.297/.400/.595 with a trio of long balls), but that’s a small sample, and Mauer hit .387/.441/.548 over a similar year-end sample despite inflammation in his left knee which cost him ten games in late September.

Breaking down the platoon splits, Teixeira’s struggles have come against righties this year (.244/.342/.457), while Mauer is indeed a lesser hitter when there’s a lefty on the hill (.272/.342/.369). That last is good news for the Yankees, who will throw lefties CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte in two of the first three games, but while Sabathia does seem to own the Twins catcher (.231/.286/.308 including last year’s postseason), Mauer has hit .300/.333/.450 against Pettitte, a diminished line to be sure, but not an awful one, particularly given the question marks surrounding Pettitte entering the series.

Edge: Twins

Cleanup:

R - Alex Rodriguez (.270/.341/.506, 30 HR, 125 RBI)
R - Delmon Young (.298/.333/.493, 21 HR, 112 RBI)

Justin Morneau would have taken this matchup easily given the insane season he was having (.345/.437/.618) before suffering what is now officially a season-ending concussion in early July. Instead we get this matchup, which is too close for comfort for Yankee fans. Still, Rodriguez carries the day rather easily when you consider that he has the superior on-base and slugging percentages despite giving Young an 18-point head start in batting average. Rodriguez is also the hotter hitter coming into the series, having hit .295/.375/.600 with nine home runs in September and October. September also seemed to fix Rodriguez’s bizarre reverse platoon split. He hit just .198/.292/.372 against left-handed pitching through August 31, but .318/.429/.818 against southpaws over the final month.

Edge: Yankees

5th:

L - Robinson Cano (.319/.381/.534, 29 HR, 109 RBI)
L - Jim Thome (.283/.412/.627, 25 HR, 59 RBI)

Cano is a top AL MVP candidate, but his season is a bit less impressive when you take his defense out of the picture (remember we're only concerned about offense here), and even more so if you factor out his red-hot April (.307/.372/.497 since, still outstanding but not really MVP numbers). Cano has a standard platoon split, but not a dramatic one (.285/.343/.514 vs. LHP) and has had success in absurdly small samples against the two lefty Twins starters, Francisco Liriano and Brian Duensing.

Thome, meanwhile, hit just .241/.298/.471 against lefties this year, hasn’t hit a home run against Andy Pettitte outside of the 1998 ALCS, and is just 4-for-27 (.148) in his career against CC Sabathia. Of course, all four of those hits against Sabathia were home runs. That’s the kind of power not even Target Field can contain. Indeed, Thome slugged .688 at home this year with 15 of his 25 home runs coming in Minnesota. Thome’s counting stats were suppressed by the fact that he’s not really an everyday player anymore, he never started more than four consecutive games this season without an off-day in there somewhere, but there are enough of off-days to make Thome a regular in the Twins lineup in the postseason. Then there’s this: since the end of interleague play, when he was forced to the bench in National League parks, Thome has hit .310/.435/.714 with 19 homers in 207 plate appearances.

Edge: Twins

6th:

S - Nick Swisher (.288/.359/.511, 29 HR, 89 RBI)
R - Michael Cuddyer (.271/.336/.417, 14 HR, 81 RBI)

For the second straight postseason, the Twins will have Cuddyer at first base in place of an injured Morneau. That was a bummer last year when Cuddyer hit .276/.342/.520 with 32 homers during the 2009 season. This year, it could have been crippling if not for the emergence of Thome, who effectively replaced Morneau via Cuddyer’s move from right field to first base and Jason Kubel’s move from DH to right field. Cuddyer, meanwhile, has hit just .259/.322/.382 since the end of July, though he does do well against lefties (.285/.400/.475 this year). Cuddyer has owned Andy Pettitte (.381/.409/.619 including last year’s postseason, albeit in just 22 PA), but hasn’t solved Sabathia (.218/.271/.327 in 59 PA). No matter how you slice it, he can’t hold a candle to Swisher, who was one of the Yankees best hitters this season.

It’s worth noting, however, that though Swisher slimmed down and learned to hit for a higher average, his secondary production actually slipped this year. His .359 on-base percentage was his lowest outside of a White Sox uniform since 2005, his isolated slugging was down 26 points from his career high in 2009, his 2.40 strikeout-to-unintentional-walk ratio was the worst of his career (in ’09 it was 1.33), and his secondary average was the lowest full-season mark of his career, White Sox year included. So, yes, he set a career high in batting average, but with his new approach, he needed to.

Digging deeper on Swisher, after two years of bizarre home-road splits (in ’08 he only hit at home, in ’09 he only hit on the road), he had a fairly even split this year, and while his K/BB issues came primarily against right-handed pitching (he actually walked more than he struck out against lefties), so did most of his power (.264 ISO vs. RHP, .139 ISO vs LHP). It’s also important to note that Swisher has been playing with a bad left knee since fouling a pitch off his leg back on August 24 (I’m continually perplexed when YES shows footage of Swisher fouling the pitch off his leg then writing on the ground in pain and the Yankee broadcast team says, “we think this is how he hurt his knee”). Swisher has hit .274/.336/.519 since then, but had to sit out a week in mid-September and has had cortisone shots in the knee to combat the inflammation, so it bears watching. Still . . .

Edge: Yankees

7th:

S - Jorge Posada (.248/.357/.454, 18 HR, 57 RBI)
L - Jason Kubel (.249/.323/.427, 21 HR, 92 RBI)

Like Thome, Posada can no longer play every day, or even five of every six days, but should be able to catch most if not all of the Yankees playoff games thanks to the off-days in the schedule. Also, there’s a distinct chance that A.J. Burnett won’t start in the Division Series (more on that in my pitching breakdown tomorrow), so there won’t be any temptation for Joe Girardi to match up Burnett and Francisco Cervelli. Also like Thome, his limited playing time during the regular season 120 games to Kubel’s 143, has limited his counting stats.

Kubel is another Twins regular who declined significantly in 2010 (Span and Cuddyer being two others). Again there’s a temptation to blame the new ballpark. Again it just doesn’t work. Span has been at his best at Target Field. Cuddyer has been slightly better at home. Kubel has been worse, but not my much. His home/road split is almost even. He did hit 13 of his 21 homers on the road, but that doesn’t explain the 50-point drop in batting average or why he still slugged just .433 on the road. Kubel struggles against lefties, but he only hit .260/.328/.464 against righties, so Girardi would be best advised to save Boone Logan for Mauer or Thome.

Posada’s platoon split was pretty even, but he hit just .205/.332/.362 on the road this year, though compensated for those struggles a bit with increased patience outside of the Bronx. That split makes this closer than it seems, but with Kubel due to face two lefties, it’s still . . .

Edge: Yankees

8th:

S - Lance Berkman (.248/.368/.413, 14 HR, 58 RBI)
R- Marcus Thames (.288/.350/.491, 12 HR, 33 RBI)

R - Danny Valencia (.311/.351/.448, 7 HR, 40 RBI)

Here are a couple of players headed in opposite directions. Berkman is 34-year-old former star in decline. Valencia is a 26-year-old rookie who should pick up some low-ballot Rookie of the Year votes. Valencia was a .298/.353/.469 hitter in the minors with 15-homer power, so the line you see above, compiled in 85 major league games, is properly representative of Valencia’s abilities. That means that the Twins have a real-life hitter at third base for the first time since Corey Koskie (or perhaps Cuddyer’s one-year at the hot corner back in 2005, the team’s first season without Koskie). Like Cuddyer, the right-handed Valencia gives the Twins some balance with his strong performance against southpaws (.374/.441/.525), but like Span, he disappears completely outside of Target field (.251/.298/.359). He has also hit just .273/.308/.421 since July 28, which covers the majority of his time as the Twins’ starting third baseman. That still makes him an upgrade over Nick Punto, but it makes him less of a threat in this lineup.

Of course, Berkman has hit just .255/.358/.349 as a Yankee, but he has also hit .299/.405/.388 since returning from a mid-August ankle sprain. The former Home Run Derby champion’s power seems to have retired early, but you can’t argue with his consistent ability to keep his on-base percentage more than 100 points above his average (the last time he failed to do that was 2001 when he hit .331 with a .430 OBP). Also, Berkman has hit .267/.393/.463 against righties this season and is unlikely to face many lefties with Marcus Thames around to platoon and pinch-hit for him.

Thames will draw the Game One and Three starts against lefties Liriano and Duensing, but has actually slugged close to 100 points higher against right-handers this year with seven of his dozen homers and ten of his 19 walks coming against righties in 47 fewer plate appearances than he’s had against lefties. Still, Thames line against lefties is solid (.300/.352/.454), and though it might seem unfair for these two veterans to gang up on the poor rookie, once again it’s . . .

Edge: Yankees

9th:

Brett Gardner (.277/.383/.379, 5 HR, 47 RBI, 47 SB @ 84%)
J.J. Hardy (.268/.320/.394, 6 HR, 38 RBI)

Here’s a fun stat courtesy of Baseball Prospectus’s Ken Funck (with a hat-tip to my former Bronx Banter cohort Diane Firstman): though pitch-count data only goes back to 1988, Brett Gardner’s 4.62 pitches per plate appearance this season is the highest rate of pitches seen on record, breaking Rickey Henderson’s mark of 4.54 set in 1994. Gardner swung at just 31 percent of the pitches he saw this season, only Rickey Henderson and Barry Bonds had seasons during which swung less often, and made contact with 90 percent of them. That’s a historic level of patience, and it paid off with a team-leading .383 on-base percentage, a particularly valuable stat for Gardner given his ability to turn walks into doubles.

That’s the other way that Gardner can be tied to Rickey Henderson. The last Yankee to steal more than the 47 bags Gardner swiped this year was Henderson way back in 1988. In fact, Gardner’s 47 steals are the ninth-highest total in team history and he’s just the fourth Yankee since the arrival of Babe Ruth to steal that many bags, the other two being Ben Chapman in 1931 and Snuffy Stirnweiss in 1944, while most of the league was still off fighting World War II. Factor in his outstanding success rate on the bases and the fact that he’s one of the best defensive outfielders in the major leagues according to UZR and we’re talking about a tremendously valuable slap-hitter.

Of course we don’t care about defense here, and there’s also Gardner’s post-wrist injury performance to take into account. Gardner has hit just .232/.363/.340 since being hit on the right wrist by a Clayton Kershaw pitch on June 27, but that OBP is still solid and he still stole 23 bases at an 85 percent success rate since then. Gardner loses some value against lefties and hit all five of his homers at the new Yankee Stadium, but he gets on base and steals bases everywhere against everybody.

Curiously, the story of Hardy’s season also involves a wrist injury, though his was suffered sliding into third base in early May. Steve pointed out Hardy’s strong second-half performance yesterday, and it can be traced to his return from the disabled list on July 3. Hardy’s left wrist sent him to the DL twice in the first half of the season, and after returning from the second stint, he has hit .302/.356/.436. That despite further pain in the wrist costing him games in August and left knee inflammation that sidelined him in late September.

Hardy and Gardner are the most apples-to-oranges comparison among these nine, but if you factor Gardner’s steals and times caught stealing into his batting line (adding his steals to his total bases and deducting his times caught stealing from his hits), his season line looks like this: .258/.364/.478. Then again, his post-wrist injury line is just .216/.346/.419. That’s better than the AL average (.260/.327/.407), but not better than the post-injury Hardy. I’d much rather have Gardner than Hardy for 2011, but for the last three months, Hardy has been the more productive hitter.

Then again, there’s this: Hardy has had an odd reverse split that has persisted since his return from the DL. He has hit just .250/.342/.375 against lefties since July 3 and is also being murdered by his home ballpark, hitting .270/.336/.360 at home but .333/.376/.510 on the road. The interesting twist there is that if the Yankees start lefties Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia (on short rest) in Games Three and Four, respectively, they could wind up neutralizing Hardy completely. If that’s the case, give the Yankees the edge here, but for now, let’s just call it . . .

Edge: Even

Conclusions:

Last year, the bottom three spots in the Twins lineup were occupied by a DH platoon of backup catcher Jose Morales and since-outrighted infielder Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert, and Nick Punto. This year’s lineup, with Valencia and Hardy in place of Tolbert and Punto, and Jim Thome properly replacing Morneau, who also missed last year's ALDS, further up the lineup, is much deeper. It’s still not in the Yankees’ class, but you knew that before you read the preceding 3,500 words. What you might not have realized is that the gap between the two lineups isn’t as large as we’re used to, which is problematic given how much the Yankees will need their league-best offense to do the work for them this postseason.

Check back later today for comparisons of the two teams’ benches and defenses.

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