For the fourth time this millennium, the American League Division Series will feature the Minnesota Twins and the New York Yankees. The last three times, this matchup has resulted in a Yankees win. The Yankees are largely considered the favorites, with a -180 moneyline to win the series according to BoDog as of this writing. However, the talent spread between these two teams is nowhere near this large, and we should expect a tightly contested series from game one.
This first game will feature my personal selection for the American League Cy Young on the mound for the Twins and the winner of the 2010 AL Comeback Player of the Year Award: Francisco Liriano. Liriano has turned into a bonafide ace for the Twins staff, posting a 3.62 ERA and even better peripheral numbers, including a 2.66 FIP and a 3.06 xFIP. Basically, Liriano excels in every controllable aspect of pitching, striking out over a batter per inning, walking less than three per nine innings, and allowing one home run only about every two full games. He keeps the ball on the ground (53.6% GB rate) and induces swings and misses at a lofty 12.6% rate.
The left handed Liriano will face a powerful Yankees lineup that is deep from 1-9. Liriano will have the platoon advantage against the Yankees emergent second baseman Robinson Cano as well as the bottom end of their order in center fielder Curtis Granderson and left fielder Brett Gardner. The best hitters in the Yankees lineups, at least according to CHONE projections, are Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez. The switch hitting Teixeira and the right-handed Rodriguez will both own the platoon edge over Liriano. Even if he can get past that duo, however, he won’t be out of the woods – CHONE projects every single starter in the Yankees lineup as an above average hitter.
There’s no Justin Morneau here, but this lineup is still good top to bottom. The only below average hitters by CHONE here are Hardy, who makes up for it with top-tier defense at shortstop, and Valencia, who may not maintain a .345 BABIP but has put up an excellent 122 wRC+ so far as a MLB player. Mauer is possibly the best hitter in this whole series, and even without the pop that made his magical 2009 MVP season, he still managed a 136 wRC+ in 2010. Thome, of course, has been one of the league’s best stories, and his massive power makes him a threat every time up. Delmon Young still never walks but is another legitimate power threat, and Jason Kubel functions as a kind of Thome-lite at the plate. Denard Span and Orlando Hudson set the table well for the middle of the order and have a bit of pop by themselves as well.
Thome, Kubel, Mauer, and Span will all give up the platoon advantage to New York starting pitcher CC Sabathia. Of that quartet, only Span has exhibited reverse platoon splits. Sabathia should be able to attack the other three, a trio which comprises much of the power of the Twins lineup. However, should the first three hitters manage to find their way on, it will be in front of right handers Young and Cuddyer, who will have the platoon advantage and thus may be key for the Twins in game 1.
This game marks the inaugural postseason game at Minnesota’s Target Field. In order to bring home a win, the equation for the Twins is simple: get some support for Francisco Liriano and let the ace go to work. Liriano will be the real story on Wednesday night – he’s the ace of the staff making his first postseason start against the mighty Yankees. If he can get it done with just a little support from his hitters, the Twins should be looking at a series lead heading into game two.