ALDS Preview: Twins vs. A’s

The Twins owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Kansas City Royals. Thanks to Kansas City’s season-ending sweep of the Tigers, Minnesota gets to open the playoffs at home against Oakland instead of traveling to face the New York Yankees.

Oakland is a good team, no question about it. The A’s won 93 games and very much deserve to be in the postseason . But the Yankees certainly look like the class of baseball right now, so Twins fans will be happy to avoid seeing them in the first round.

Will they still be happy a week from now? Well, that’s what we start finding out today. Let’s see what we can learn ahead of time by breaking down the offense and defense for both Minnesota and Oakland.

Offense

For the offense we’ll compare spots in the batting order from top to bottom. Obviously, we don’t yet know exactly what lineups the teams are going to use, but we can get an idea based on the lineups they’ve been using this year. And even if the order isn’t exactly right, the players in the lineup should mostly be the same.

Leadoff: Luis Castillo for the Twins vs. Jason Kendall for the A’s. Castillo hit .296/.358/.370 this season, Kendall .295/.367/.342, so the leadoff hitters for these teams are pretty similar. Does either player have an advantage elsewhere? Well, Castillo is a better hitter against right-handers whereas Kendall was pretty even in the past, but much better against lefties this year. Both teams will likely use three righties and one lefty on the mound, but the lefty will go twice (if necessary) for each team, so it’s probably negligible.

Both players have been slightly better since the All-Star break than they were over the course of the season, while Castillo has been better at home and Kendall has been better on the road. No matter how you slice it, the leadoff hitters for these teams are almost dead even.

No. 2: Nick Punto for the Twins vs. Mark Kotsay for the A’s. Punto hit .290/.352/.373, Kotsay hit .275/.332/.386. Overall, Punto’s been the better offensive player this season. However, after hitting surprisingly well much of the season, Punto struggled terribly with a .560 OPS in September. Kotsay, meanwhile, has been very consistent over the final three months of the season. Anything can happen over five games, but it seems more likely that Punto will struggle than not.

No. 3: Joe Mauer for the Twins vs. Milton Bradley for the A’s. Mauer has a significant edge, hitting .347/.429/.507 while Bradley hit .276/.370/.447. The gap may not be quite as big as it appears, however, as Mauer tailed off in the second half of the season, posting an .876 OPS since the All-Star break. During that same time, Bradley had an .860 OPS.

That’s not to say that Bradley’s a good bet to provide the same amount of offense as Mauer during the series, but you shouldn’t forget that Bradley’s been a good hitter during various parts of his career and it’s entirely possible that Mauer was a bit over his head the first half of the season. Expect Mauer to be an advantage for the Twins, but not necessarily a huge one.

No. 4: Michael Cuddyer for the Twins vs. Frank Thomas for the A’s. This is the first spot in the order that clearly favors the A’s. Cuddyer hit a very respectable .284/.362/.504 for the Twins, but Thomas carries the A’s with a .270/.381/.545 line. And Thomas is even better when you consider that he posted an awful .669 OPS in April and has had an OPS above .930 in every month since then.

No. 5: Justin Morneau for the Twins vs. Jay Payton for the A’s. The advantage swings back to the Twins in a huge way here as Morneau hit .321/.375/.559, while Payton was at .295/.325/.418. Morneau has been pretty consistent throughout the season while Payton was quite a bit better in the second half than the first, but no matter how you slice it, the Twins get much more offense from this spot in the lineup than the A’s.

No. 6: Torii Hunter for the Twins vs. Eric Chavez for the A’s. Hunter hit .278/.336/.490 while Chavez hit .241/.351/.435. They get their value in vastly different ways, but the overall value comes out pretty close to even for these two. Hunter probably had slightly better production over the course of the season, and he improved in the second half while Chavez struggled mightily during the middle of the year, when he played hurt, but there’s not much to distinguish between the two right now.

No. 7: Rondell White for the Twins vs. Nick Swisher for the A’s. At first glance, this would seem like a second clear victory for the A’s. White managed to hit just .246/.276/.365 while Swisher posted a .254/.372/.493 line. If you look closer, however, you’ll see that White was hurt early in the season. He was a different hitter after he got healthy, and he had an impressive .892 OPS after the All-Star break. So instead of a clear victory for the A’s, you might be looking at a push or even a small win for the Twins.

No. 8: Jason Tyner for the Twins vs. Marco Scutaro for the A’s. Tyner hit .312/.345/.353 while Scutaro was at .266/.350/.397. And not only do the A’s have the obvious advantage because their hitter was better over the course of the season, they also have the hitter who’s going into the playoffs on a hot streak. While Tyner was pretty steady from month to month, Scutaro posted a .601 OPS before the All-Star break and an .866 OPS after it. He’s not an .866 OPS player, but the hot second half combined with the better overall numbers make this spot a clear win for the A’s.

No. 9: Jason Bartlett for the Twins vs. Mark Ellis for the A’s. Probably a better choice to hit at the top of the order than either Castillo or Punto, Bartlett hit .309/.367/.393 while Ellis struggled to a .249/.319/.385 line. The only concern for the Twins is that Bartlett really tailed off at the end of the season, posting a .526 OPS in September. Ellis, meanwhile, improved from a .599 OPS before the All-Star break to a .787 OPS after it. Despite those trends, Bartlett is probably a better bet on offense than Ellis.

Overall: So what do all those individual comparisons add up to? Well, the two teams scored close to the same number of runs over the course of the season, ranking eighth and ninth, respectively, in the AL. The Twins (801 runs) averaged nearly two-tenths of a run more per game than the A’s (771). While the Twins have more impressive-looking hitters in Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer and Hunter, the A’s may actually have the better offense. Their scoring was depressed more by their home park and they also scored more over the second half of the season than the Twins.

In reality, it’s probably too close too call one way or the other.

Pitching and Defense

The majority of defense is pitching, but that doesn’t mean there’s no value in what we actually think of as defense. For the purposes of these two teams, though, it’s easier to just focus on the pitching because the defenses are fairly even. So, let’s get right to comparing the starting pitchers and the bullpens.

Game 1 starters: Minnesota’s Johan Santana vs. Oakland’s Barry Zito. Santana was the best pitcher in baseball this year, just as he was last year and the year before that. He was 19-6 with a 2.77 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 245/47 K/BB ratio in 233.2 innings this year, and 55-19 with a 2.75 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 748/146 K/BB ratio in 693.1 innings over the past three seasons. Zito’s solid (16-10, 3.83 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 151/99 K/BB ratio, 221 innings), but he can’t hold a candle to Santana.

Game 2 starters: Minnesota’s Boof Bonser vs. Oakland’s Esteban Loaiza. Bonser (7-6, 4.22 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 84/24 K/BB, 100.1 innings) and Loaiza (11-9, 4.89 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 97/40 K/BB, 154.2 innings) are both unlikely Game 2 starters. Bonser because he was demoted to the minor leagues for a month in the middle of the season, Loaiza because he simply wasn’t very good this season.

After coming back from the minors, Bonser finished the season on a high note, posting a 2.63 ERA in 37.2 innings over his final six starts, striking out 30 and walking seven batters during that stretch. If he can pitch even close to that well Wednesday, he’ll have nearly as big an advantage over Loaiza as Santana has over Zito. Loaiza had just one good month all season, as he posted a 1.48 ERA in August and an ERA of at least 4.90 in every other month.

Game 3 starters: This is where things get dicey. Both teams have a pitcher recovering from injury who could pitch Game 3, Game 4 or not at all. Let’s be optimistic and say Minnesota’s Brad Radke and Oakland’s Rich Harden both go Friday. If they’re both healthy, Harden’s a better pitcher than Radke. But they’re both not healthy, at least not completely.

Radke was 12-9 with a 4.46 ERA when he shut things down in late August. He returned in time to make one start before the playoffs, allowing one unearned run in five innings against the Royals. He’s reported no problems since then, so he should be good to go. How good he’ll be when he goes is the question, and one solid start against Kansas City doesn’t really answer it.

Harden made five starts in April, missed all of May, made one start in June and then didn’t pitch again until September. He was 3-0 with a 3.86 ERA after his June appearance. He came back in time for three rehab appearances, allowing one run in three innings against Cleveland and then pitching five scoreless innings against Seattle in his first two starts. He was unable to make further improvement in the third start, however, allowing six runs in 3.2 innings against the Angels. He has the potential to be dominant and the possibility of being useless.

Game 4 starters: Minnesota’s Carlos Silva vs. Oakland’s Dan Haren. After a solid first four seasons in the majors, Silva really struggled this year, going 11-15 with a 5.94 ERA. He only got the nod for Game 4 because he pitched well in his final start (one run in 5.1 innings against the White Sox), while Matt Garza struggled in his.

Haren had a nice season, going 14-13 with a 4.12 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 176/45 K/BB ratio in 223 innings. However, he struggled quite a bit down the stretch, and his ERA ballooned from 3.52 before the All-Star break to 4.91 after it. If he pitches the way he did in September (5.80 ERA), then he’s not any better than Silva.

Bullpen: The A’s have a very good bullpen this year, ranking third in the AL with a 3.60 ERA from their relievers. Closer Huston Street blew 11 saves this year, but he also posted a 3.31 ERA and 1.09 WHIP with 67 strikeouts and 13 walks in 70.2 innings. The top two setup men are Justin Duchscherer (2.91 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 51 strikeouts and nine walks in 55.2 innings) and Kiko Calero (3.41 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 67 strikeouts and 24 walks in 58 innings). Joe Kennedy (2.31 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 29/13 K/BB in 35 innings as a reliever) and Ron Flores (3.34 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 20/10 K/BB in 29.2 innings) will also likely be on the playoff roster.

As good as that group of relievers for the A’s is, though, the Twins have the best and deepest bullpen in baseball. They led the majors with a 2.91 ERA from their relievers, and what makes them so scary for the playoffs is that their top four relievers are all excellent. Closer Joe Nathan led the way with a 7-0 record, 36 saves, a 1.58 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 95 strikeouts and 16 walks in 68.1 innings. He may be the most impressive reliever in baseball right now.

His top setup man is Juan Rincon, who posted a 2.91 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 65 strikeouts and 24 walks in 74.1 innings. Pat Neshek came up from Triple-A during the season and posted a 2.19 ERA, 0.78 WHIP, 53 strikeouts and six walks in 37 innings (and you should watch the Twins games just to see his delivery) and Dennys Reyes had a ridiculous 0.89 ERA with a 0.99 WHIP, 49 strikeouts and 15 walks in 50.2 innings.

With that quartet of relievers, the Twins only need to get five or six decent innings out of their starting pitcher before they turn things over to a bullpen that doesn’t allow many runs, or even baserunners. The A’s don’t have quite as many good relievers, and their top relievers aren’t as good as Minnesota’s top relievers.

Overall: The Twins had a slight advantage in ERA during the regular season, posting a 3.95 team ERA to rank second in the AL while Oakland was fourth with a 4.21 team ERA. But Minnesota’s advantage will grow during the playoffs as they make use of off days. Whereas their top pitchers (Santana, Francisco Liriano and the bullpen quartet) accounted for just 40.6 percent of Minnesota’s innings pitched during the regular season, they could provide as much as 60 percent of the innings in a five-game series.

Prediction

If the A’s want to win, their best chance is to take games two, three and four. Not only can Santana pitch twice this series, but both of his starts would be at home, where he’s undefeated since Aug. 1, 2005. In his last 22 starts at home, he’s 15-0 with a 1.96 ERA in 156 innings. Because of that advantage, the Twins are my pick to win, in five games.

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