Picking Your Poison

As it stands right now, with the Twins holding the second-best record among American League division leaders, Minnesota would face the Red Sox in the first round of the playoffs. However, Oakland is right on the Twins’ tail, just a half-game back (with Anaheim and Texas just two games behind them), so things could quickly change. If the Twins drop behind the AL West leader in the standings, they would instead play the Yankees in the opening round and they’d lose homefield advantage.

Basically, the options for the Twins boil down to this:

  • vs. Yankees: 3 games in New York, 2 games in Minnesota.
  • vs. Red Sox: 3 games in Minnesota, 2 games in Boston.

There are a whole slew of different ways to look at the issue of which option is best for Minnesota, but I think there are three main things that need to be examined:

1) How much does homefield advantage mean?
2) Which team is better, New York or Boston?
3) How well do they match up against the Twins?

Let’s hit those in order …

How much does homefield advantage mean?

Here are some numbers to chew on …

The Twins are 47-31 (.603) at home and 41-34 (.547) on the road this year, a homefield advantage of 10%. Combined over the last two years (which gives a much better sample size), the Twins are 95-64 (.598) at home and 83-73 (.532) on the road, a homefield advantage of 12%. Meanwhile, the Yankees have been 24% better at home than on the road this season, but just 9% better at home over the last two seasons. The Red Sox have been 33% better at home this year and 30% better at home over the past two years.

There are a lot of different things to be taken from that information, particularly depending on if you’d rather look at the numbers from this year or the numbers from the past two years, but I think the one definite is that the Twins are better at home and the Red Sox are significantly worse on the road. A simple look at the winning percentages — Minnesota is a .598 team at home over the past two years and Boston is a .516 team on the road — would seem to indicate that the Twins have plenty of incentive to hold off Oakland, because they’d be best off playing Boston in the first round, with homefield advantage.

Which team is better, New York or Boston?

A look at the AL East standings shows that the Yankees have been 4.5 games better than the Red Sox thus far in 2004, which would seem to indicate that New York is the superior team (assuming they can hold on to the lead down the stretch). However, I think the question is a little more complicated than a simple look at the standings can provide an answer for.

For one thing, there is a school of thought that a team’s runs scored and runs allowed totals are perhaps an even better indicator of their abilities than their actual record. If you buy into that (and I do, although only to some extent), then the Red Sox have actually been the better team.

                RS      RA     DIFF     ExW%
Boston         877     718     +159     .603     
New York       861     757     +104     .559

Despite being in second place, the Red Sox have scored more runs and allowed fewer runs than the Yankees, leading to a run differential of +159, compared to New York’s +104. Of course, I’m going to take a wild guess that people in New York aren’t big believers in this type of approach and people in Boston think it’s a wonderful idea.

Another way to look at who the better team is might be to look at how they’ve done against other contending teams, as opposed to how they’ve done beating up on Tampa Bay and Toronto. So let’s break the American League down into two groups — above-.500 teams and below-.500 teams — and see how the Yankees and Red Sox fare.

               >.500     WIN%     <.500     WIN%
Red Sox        28-21     .571     63-40     .612
Yankees        24-22     .522     72-35     .673

Both teams have beaten up on the below-.500 teams, but the Red Sox have been better against playoff-caliber opponents, although the margin is fairly slight and the sample size is small.

Yet another factor in proclaiming one team better than the other is that the team in the playoffs isn't always the team that played the entire regular season. I examined this issue in a column earlier this month, showing that while 15-20 pitchers typically make up a team's pitching staff for the regular season, most teams lean heavily on just 7-8 different pitchers in the playoffs.

This fact is important when considering not only a team's record (how many of those games were won or lost with a non-playoff pitcher on the mound?), but also a team's overall numbers (how many of those runs were allowed by Tanyon Sturtze?). In the first-round series with the Twins, it's very likely that both the Yankees and Red Sox would need to rely on as few as six pitchers in key situations. Like the Twins, they would need just three starting pitchers and, like most playoff teams, they would probably need just 3-4 main relievers.

The Red Sox would benefit most from needing just three starting pitchers, because it would allow them to throw Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling four times in five games, leaving just one game for someone from the Tim Wakefield/Derek Lowe/Bronson Arroyo group. Meanwhile, I think the Yankees, while not benefiting as much from needing only three starting pitchers, would be at a bigger advantage when the bullpens shorten up, as their bullpen is good, with Mariano Rivera, Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill, but not very deep.

The other thing about a team in the playoffs not always being the same team from the regular season is that what a team does in the second half is sometimes more representative of their quality come playoff time than what they did in the first half. This is especially true in a situation like Boston's, where the team made major changes at midseason. With that in mind, here are the second-half records of Boston and New York ...

                W      L     WIN%
Boston         43     23     .652
New York       41     26     .612

Not a huge difference there (just 2.5 games in Boston's favor), but it's a lot different than what the overall standings show.

How well do they match up against the Twins?

First, let's look at how Minnesota has done against New York and Boston during the Twins' run of three straight division titles:

               2002     2003     2004     TOTAL
vs. BOS         3-3      4-2      4-2      11-7
vs. NYY         0-6      0-7      2-1      2-14

In 2002 and 2003, the Twins were embarrassed by the Yankees, losing all 13 regular season meetings and three out of four postseason meetings. This year, they've actually taken two out of three from the Yankees (with another three games left on the schedule), although that 2-14 record against New York since 2002 is still very ugly. Minnesota has done much better against Boston, taking 11 out of 18 games over the past three years, including four out of six in each of the past two seasons.

Now let's delve a little deeper and look at some of the specific matchups ...

Johan Santana, who will start two of the five games for the Twins, has been equally dominant against New York and Boston this year. In his only start against the Yankees, back on August 18, Santana took a shutout into the eighth inning, before allowing two runs. In his lone start against the Red Sox, on August 1, he went eight innings and allowed two runs, striking out 12. Santana was 2-0 with a 1.35 ERA in two games against the Red Sox last season and had a 0.00 ERA in 5.2 innings against the Yankees, although he didn't fare particularly well against them in the postseason (partly due to forearm cramping and bone chips in his elbow).

Brad Radke, who will also start twice, has done fairly well against New York and Boston this year. Radke won his only start against New York, throwing seven innings while allowing just one run, and had a 4.73 ERA in two starts against Boston. Last year, however, Radke was roughed up by both New York (seven runs in five innings) and Boston (five runs in 6.1 innings), but did pitch well against the Yankees in the playoffs.

Minnesota's likely Game 3 starter is Carlos Silva, who won his only start against Boston this year by throwing 6.1 innings and allowing one run, but got knocked around by New York, giving up seven runs in five innings. Playing for the Phillies last year, Silva didn't pitch against the Yankees and logged only two-thirds of an inning against the Red Sox as a reliever.

On the flip side, the Twins, a team with plenty of left-handed hitting and not much in the way of right-handed power, have the good fortune of not having to face a left-handed starting pitcher in the first round, regardless of whether they play New York or Boston. In fact, even when the games get into the late innings and the bullpens get involved, Minnesota will rarely see a southpaw on the mound.

Here's how the potential New York and Boston starting pitchers have done against the Twins over the past three years:

NEW YORK            GS       IP     ER      ERA
Mike Mussina         5     31.2     17     4.83
Javier Vazquez       1      6.2      6     8.10
Orlando Hernandez    1      6.1      5     7.11

For his entire career, Mike Mussina has extremely dominant numbers against the Twins: 20-3 with a 2.91 ERA in 25 starts. However, much of that good pitching came while Mussina was a member of the Orioles and it came against Twins teams that were, quite frankly, awful. Over the past three years, the Twins have had quite a lot of success in five starts against Mussina.

The rest of New York's rotation has seen very little action against the Twins since 2002. Kevin Brown and Jon Lieber haven't faced them at all, and Javier Vazquez and Orlando Hernandez have each only faced them one time, earlier this season. As you can see, when the Twins have faced New York's starters over the past three years, they've done very well.

BOSTON              GS       IP     ER      ERA
Pedro Martinez       5     37.0     11     2.68
Tim Wakefield        5     34.1     11     2.88
Derek Lowe           3     18.1     14     6.87
Bronson Arroyo       1      7.1      2     2.46
Curt Schilling       1      7.0      1     1.29

Boston's starters have far more experience against the Twins of late, with a total of 15 starts against Minnesota over three years. Minnesota struggled in their only games against Schilling and Arroyo earlier this season, scoring just three runs in 14.1 total innings. They've also struggled against Martinez (who hasn't?) and Wakefield, but have done extremely well in three games against Lowe.

What does it all mean?

Since you amazingly made it this far, I'm guessing you'd probably like an answer. The funny thing is, after all these numbers and all this typing, I'm still not sure what the better scenario for the Twins is.

I am leaning toward Boston being the better team, or at least the more dangerous first-round, best-of-five opponent. They've scored more runs and allowed fewer runs than New York, they've got a better record than the Yankees in the second half, and they benefit a ton from being able to have Martinez and Schilling go four times in five games. Plus, even with the Yankees' dominance over Minnesota lately, Boston's current group of starting pitchers has had a lot more success against the Twins than New York's group has.

On the other hand (you just knew there was going to be a "other hand," didn't you?), it's hard to ignore the fact that the Twins have been about 10% better at home over the last couple years, while the Red Sox have been about 30% worse on the road. Combining those two factors could make a pretty big difference, and is certainly preferable to Minnesota going to Yankee Stadium for three games, where New York is a .650 team.

What I'd really like to see happen, simply in the interest of the Twins getting the best possible scenario, is for the Red Sox to come back and overtake New York for first place in the AL East. Why? Because I'd like for the Twins to play the Yankees, but I'd like them to be able to do so with three games at the Metrodome. Sadly, with New York extending their lead to 4.5 games last night, that doesn't look particularly likely.

What's that? I still haven't given an actual answer? Okay, fine. With a gun to my head, I'll take my chances with the Yankees. And I'm not even sure I believe I just said that.

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