Late-season swoons aside, Detroit remains the story of 2006.
That the A's face the Twins in their Division Series matchup is absolutely pitiful luck for the organization. Long destined to face a Detroit club that has barely outpaced the Royals in the second half, Oakland's fate turned on the last day of the regular season, as the Twins quietly took the AL Central crown from the floundering Tigers.
Fronted by 2004 Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, batting champion Joe Mauer and a dominant bullpen, the Twins are a club that could easily make a run through the playoffs without breaking a sweat. Oakland, for its part, had the best record in MLB after the All-Star break -- but is still the worst team (ranked 16th overall by our Moneyball Valulation System) entering the 2006 postseason.
Is the calculus that simple, though? Like those teenagers are always saying: Let's break it down ...
First thing's first: Johan Santana is a complete stud -- by some measures not only the best pitcher in baseball, but the best player as well. When he's on, Santana is among the most dominant starters ever to take the mound, capable of making the 1927 Yankees look overmatched. He pounds the strike zone with a hard fastball and changes speeds even when behind in the count. His starts are as close to guaranteed wins as you can find. The A's, owners of the worst offense of any team in the playoffs, will be hard-pressed to generate an attack when facing the Twins' No. 1 hurler.
Lucky for the Oakland, it takes three games to win a Division Series, and they have the nominal advantage in non-Santana starts.
While full-season MBR totals indicate that Esteban Loaiza was just a touch above the MLB average this year, that isn't the whole story. Loaiza spent most of the first half fighting through an injury, and he was awful as a result. A trip to the disabled list allowed him to heal, however, and in the second half he was much better. The American League Pitcher of the Month in August, Loaiza posted a 4.01 ERA after the All-Star break and generated 13.2 Moneyball Runs, the most on the Oakland staff. He's better than his opponent, Boof Bonser, who has also improved since being recalled by the Twins.
Game 3 sees a matchup between Dan Haren and rookie Matt Garza, who dominated Triple-A but was wildly inconsistent at the Major League level. Haren spent July and August just dominating opposing batters; he's come down to earth since then, but not enough to call into question the favorite here. It's clearly the A's, playing their first game of the series at home.
Brad Radke is surviving largely on guts at this point, as he nurses a torn labrum and a stress fracture in his throwing shoulder between starts. In a potential Game 4, he's slated to face Rich Harden, who's looked impressive in limited time since returning from the DL. The biggest issue for Harden is whether he can keep his pitch count low enough to make his start really count.
While the A's are nominally better on the three days when Santana doesn't take the mound, the difference isn't huge. In a best-of-five format, guaranteeing yourself at least one win in the first three games has a lot of value. Advantage: Push.
While Oakland's bullpen grades out better than Minnesota's, there are a couple factors at play that distort reality. First of all, Oakland's depth isn't worth nearly as much in a five-game series as it is over the course of the regular season. That their No. 9 reliever, Scott Sauerbeck, was above average this year is of little consequence. There's no reason believe someone that low on the depth chart will see important innings. Secondly, the A's bullpen has generated value in all the wrong ways -- by racking up innings. In five- and seven-game playoff series, it's much more important to have explosive relievers who can create outs in a jam -- and aside from Kiko Calero, the A's bullpen lacks that. There's a uniform quality to Oakland's relief corps, but it doesn't have an individual with the out-making potential of Pat Neshek, Minnesota's fourth-best man out of the 'pen.
That said, Oakland gleans one advantage with its depth: The ability to stay in a game when its starter is knocked out early. Chad Gaudin, Brad Halsey, Joe Blanton and Rich Harden all made starts for the A's this year, and all have the ability to go more than four innings without fatigue. In extra-inning games, the advantage swings toward Oakland in a hurry. But overall: Advantage: Minnesota.
|Minnesota Twins and Oakland A's|
|Luis Castillo||-2.4||Jason Kendall||-3.6|
|Nick Punto||-9.4||Mark Kotsay||-7.8|
|Joe Mauer||28.9||Milton Bradley||12.9|
|Mike Cuddyer||20.8||Frank Thomas||35.1|
|Justin Morneau||44.2||Eric Chavez||-2.3|
|Torii Hunter||2.7||Jay Payton||-7.6|
|Rondell White||-16.9||Nick Swisher||29.7|
|Mike Redmond||-4.6||Marco Scutaro||-5.8|
|Jason Bartlett||2.4||Mark Ellis||-5.5|
While few analysts have discussed this fact, the Twins and the A's have lineups structured in a similar fashion: three strong contributors surrounded by filler. On a game-to-game level, this could mean very few runs, as pitchers will be able to work around the Frank Thomases and Justin Morneaus without losing too much sleep over who can hurt them down in the order. The A's penchant for plate discipline could pay dividends here, as baserunners will be worth their weight in gold during close games. That the Twins lineup features so many free swingers isn't a good recipe for success, especially if the A's staff can hit the strike zone on a consistent basis.
Much has been made of the A's weak offense -- and deservedly so. Ranked 24th in MLB in Moneyball Batting Runs, trailing such juggernauts as the Cubs and Diamondbacks, the A's rate out at barely above average. But their story really is of two halves: the first, when they were the second-worst offense in baseball with a minus-38.9 MBBR (better than only the Devil Rays), and the second, when they trailed just the Yankees with a 39.2 MBBR. To say that this team pulled a "180" at the plate would be a complete understatement. This is clearly a different club from the one we knew in June.
Which is not to say that Oakland's offense isn't flawed. Like the Twins, the A's gave 2,000 plate appearances to replacement-level hitters with no power this year. That stretch of at-bats from the No. 8 spot to the No. 2 hole can be brutal to watch sometimes, and it's likely that this series will feature blocks of quick innings in which the ball doesn't even reach the outfield. Unfortunately, Oakland's bench doesn't do much to supplement the team's offensive weaknesses, as Ken Macha's best options consist of Bobby Kielty and those two kids from Alameda County Little League who spent all year impersonating Antonio Perez (.102-.185-.204) and Dan Johnson (.234-.323-.381). Somebody should really call those youngsters out on their prank. It's getting tiresome.
The Twins offense has the same problems as that of the A's: long stretches of below-average hitters flanking their studs. We hate to beat the stat-head drum with such predictability, but that this isn't a particularly patient lineup could spell trouble if one or two of Minnesota's stars takes an 0-for. Advantage: Oakland.
|Minnesota Twins and Oakland A's|
No matter how you slice it, the Twins have the advantage here, saving 30-plus runs more than the A's on the year. Adding insult to injury, the A's got significantly worse as the season wore on, rating at 40.1 runs below average following the All-Star break. In general, season-long defensive numbers don't have too much of a bearing on how you rate teams in a short series, but the gap between these clubs is too large to dismiss. Advantage: Minnesota, with a bullet.
Oakland gets solid starts in games 2, 3 and 4, but a gusty performance from Brad Radke forces a trip back to the Metrodome. There, as always, Johan Santana is just too much. Twins in five.
"If the Twins were a Beatles album, they'd be ..."
Rubber Soul. When putting their best foot forward, the Twins can compete with any team in the game. Their stars -- Mauer, Morneau, Santana -- shine as brightly as any. However, there's a lot of filler on this roster, with far too much playing time going to retreads like Tony Batista and Rondell White. It's the same deal with Rubber Soul: A handful of the best songs the Fab Five ever recorded ("Norwegian Wood," "I'm Looking Through You," "Nowhere Man") coupled with tracks that stretch your patience. You can really taste the sawdust in "Girl," with John decrying the fickle nature of women, and in "Michelle," with Paul trying to recreate the simple beauty of "Yesterday" but coming up short.