Neither the Yankees nor the Twins were supposed to be here, or anywhere else on the playoff slate. A year ago, the Yankees finished a respectable 84-78, albeit while tearing up their roster in July and turning toward a much-needed rebuilding—or at least remodeling—plan. Meanwhile, the Twins were the worst team in baseball, an unsightly 59–103 after showing signs of life the year before. Both teams have rebounded in short order, thanks in large part to major leaps forward by young players such as Luis Severino and Aaron Judge for New York, and Byron Buxton and Eddie Rosario for Minnesota. It's not that those youngsters’ advances were unexpected—Buxton was considered the game's top prospect as far back as 2014, and all four made at least one top 100 prospects list—but that they endured ups and downs, demotions and trips to the bench or bullpen before getting to their current stages.
The Yankees and Twins have squared off in October before, of course, but New York's four series victories from 2003–10, and their 90–33 advantage since 2002 aren't particularly relevant here, even if Joe Mauer and David Robertson can tell you about way back when. The Yankees won this season’s series 4–2, but this is anybody's game. In the two wild card era, visiting teams have won seven times out of 10.
Tuesday's game begins at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, when Ervin Santana (16–8, 3.28 ERA) and Luis Severino (14–6, 2.98 ERA) will square off. Below is an in-depth comparison of the teams' starting pitching, offense and bullpens.
By not having to chase playoff spots all the way to the final day of the season, both teams were able to line up their rotations to have their top starters on the hill. The 34-year-old Santana is coming off the best season of his career in terms of ERA+ (135), and he led the league in complete games (five) and shutouts (three) while throwing more innings (211 1/3) than any year since 2011. That said, he was rather homer-prone (1.3 per nine) and pedestrian when it came to missing bats (7.1 per nine), and his 4.46 FIP was actually his worst mark since 2012, but he parlayed the league's second-best rates in terms of soft contact (22.3%, behind only Corey Kluber ) and hard contact (27.9%, behind only Marco Estrada) into a league-low .247 batting average on balls in play. An extreme flyballer for years, Santana still doesn't get many groundballs (41.2%), but he does generate a ton of popups (12.2% of all flies, second in the AL). He pitched better away from Target Field than at home, and for the second straight season was a bit more adept at stifling lefties (.215/.260/.386) than righties (.234/.308/.397). That could be a problem, given that the Yankees' two biggest bats, Judge and Gary Sanchez, are righties.
The 23-year-old Severino rebounded from a dreadful 2016 campaign that found him exiled to the minors and the bullpen, emerging as both the staff ace and one of the top starters in the AL. Thanks to an outstanding fastball/slider/changeup mix, he ranked third in the league in both ERA and FIP (3.08) as well as groundball rate (50.6%), fourth in strikeouts (230) and strikeout rate (10.7 per nine), fifth in WAR (5.4), strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.5), and sixth in home run rate (1.0 per nine). Understandably, he had a bit of trouble keeping the ball in the park at Yankee Stadium (1.4 homers per nine) but via excellent command and a flurry of groundballs, he still managed a 3.71 ERA at home. Overall, Severino smothered righties (.198/.253/.297), and didn't fare too badly against lefties (.221/.281/.387). The bulk of Minnesota's power comes from the right side; Brian Dozier, Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and company slugged .442, while their lefties slugged just .412.
Aided by their ballpark, the Yankees led the AL in homers (241) and walks (616), ranked second in scoring (5.30 runs per game) and on-base percentage (.339), and third in slugging percentage (.447). Those impressive rankings owe plenty to the great work of Judge and Sanchez. Judge, arguably the top player in the game through the first half of the season, overcame a dreadful six-week slump in July and August to finish with an incredible September. Overall, he led the AL in homers (52), walks (127), strikeouts (208) and runs (128) while ranking second in WAR (8.1), on-base percentage (.422), slugging percentage (.627) and OPS+ (171). Sanchez overcame a slow start and a triceps strain to finish with a .278/.345/.531 line, 33 homers and a 126 OPS+.
The rest of the Yankees' lineup is more solid than spectacular, as six of the other seven regulars finished with an OPS+ between 97 and 106, with designated hitter the weak link. The late July deal that brought third baseman Todd Frazier from the White Sox helped to shore up an abysmal first base situation, first via Chase Headley's shift across the diamond and then via Greg Bird's emergence from a nightmarish season of right ankle woes. The 24-year-old Bird “hit” .100/.250/.200 in 72 PA through May 1, but after undergoing surgery on July 17 to remove a small bone in his foot, the os trigonum, he returned to hit .253/.316/.575 in 98 PA from Aug. 26 onward, clubbing eight of his nine homers in that span. He's been getting starts at first base against righties lately.
Over/Under: Which Teams Exceeded or Fell Short of Their Expectations?
What's up in the air at this writing is who will play centerfield and who will DH. Either lefty Jacoby Ellsbury or switch-hitter Aaron Hicks could start in the middle pasture, with the other one—likely Ellsbury, the inferior defender—and Headley probably in the mix for DH, and Matt Holliday likely consigned to a bench role, as he hit just .220/.301/.418 against righties and hasn't been the same since missing four weeks in August due to a lower back strain. The other three all produced OBPs between .363 and .373 against righties this year, albeit with only modest power.
As for the Twins, they ranked a robust fourth in the AL in scoring (5.03 per game) and on-base percentage (.334) and sixth in slugging (.434) despite being just ninth in homers (206). They were even better down the stretch, scoring 5.86 runs per game while batting .274/.344/.482 from August 1 onward, helping to lift a team that was 50-53, with just about a 5% chance of making the postseason, into a coveted October spot.
The Twins don’t have any bats as fierce as Judge or Sanchez, and their biggest one, Miguel Sano—owner of 27 homers and a team-high 127 OPS+—is inactive, having not fully gotten his swing back since missing 38 games due to a stress reaction in his left shin. Activated over the weekend, he went just 1-for-8 and struggled against off-speed pitches, apparently s to the point that the Twins brass couldn’t imagine him even changing the game with one swing—or even the threat of one—off the bench. His absence leaves Eduardo Escobar starting at third base and Robbie Grossman at DH.
Like the Yankees, the Twins do have a slew of hitters within the vicinity of league average; six (including Grossman and Escobar) finished with an OPS+ between 93 and 100, with only Joe Mauer (116), Eddie Rosario (120) and Brian Dozier (126) appreciably above. In the aforementioned productive period from Aug. 1 onward, it's been Dozier (.309/.407/.600, 17 HR), Rosario (.292/.326/.566, 16 HR), Mauer (.340/.404/.459), shortstop Jorge Polanco (.316/.377/.553, 10 HR) and Buxton (.298/.342/.541, 11 HR) leading the charge. Polanco, Grossman and Escobar are all switch-hitters, and all significantly stronger against righties.
The Twins ranked fifth in the AL in stolen bases this year, with 95, while the Yankees were seventh with 90. Both teams have a few threats to run, with Buxton swiping 29 bags in 30 attempts, Dozier going 16-for-23 and Polanco 13-for-18. Backup infielder Ehrire Adrianza, who went 8-for-9 in steals, could figure as a late-game pinch-runner. On the Yankees side, it's Brett Gardner (23-for-28), Ellsbury (22-for-25) and Hicks (10-for-15) who are the biggest threats to run, though both Judge and Headley stole nine apiece.
Beyond the top-shelf power from the Yankees' best two hitters, it's in the bullpen that New York separates itself from the Twins and has a decided advantage in the winner-take-all game. In Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson, Dellin Betances and, after missing nearly four weeks in September due to back spasms, Adam Warren, manager Joe Girardi has a veritable clown car of effective righties who can miss bats and take over before Twins batters get too familiar with Severino. Green, Betances, Kahnle and Robertson—the last two of whom came over from the White Sox in the Frazier deal—are among the majors' 10 relievers who threw at least 50 innings and whiffed at least 37% of batters faced; all finished with ERAs below 3.00. Closer Aroldis Chapman, whose shoulder and hamstring injuries earlier in the year cut into his effectiveness, may be back to peak form; he pitched 12 scoreless innings with 17 strikeouts and just five baserunners allowed in September.
Matchup-wise, both Betances and Green suffocated lefties (.121/.277/.163 in 120 PA for the former, .120/.170/.241in 88 PA for the latter), as did Robertson (.140/.207/.234 in 116 PA), giving Girardi better options than merely settling for their available southpaws, Chasen Shreve (.161/.235/.262 in 68 PA) and starter-turned-reliever Jordan Montgomery (.195/.271/.391 in 96 PA).
The Twins' bullpen ranked 11th in the league with a 4.40 ERA, but it's been significantly remade since closer Brandon Kintzler was dealt at the deadline. Thirty-seven-year-old Matt Belisle took over closer duties, pitching to a 1.71 ERA and 9.6 K/9 after the All-Star break, and righties Trevor Hildenberger and Alan Busenitz and lefty Taylor Rogers emerged as the top setup options. Twenty-three-year-old Jose Berrios, the team's second-best starter, could figure significantly out of the bullpen, as he can throw multiple innings — 50 to 60 pitches, if need be, helping to cover for the lack of depth. Rogers is just about the only reliable option to combat lefties, holding them to .171/.253/.307 in 84 PA; Buddy Boshers (.220/.258/.397 in 62 PA) is the only other southpaw reliever who gave the team more than 20 innings out of the bullpen, and none of the righties are as good at stifling lefties as the aforementioned Yankees.
It’s not hard to imagine the Yankees getting a solid five innings from Severino and unleashing the bullpen as they count down the outs. The Twins’ best shot, on the other hand, probably depends upon Santana going deep, with the bullpen getting minimal exposure. Anything can happen in a one-game playoff, but it will still rate as a surprise if it’s the 85-win Twins and not the 91-win Yankees advancing to face the Indians in the Division Series.