Statcast gives insight into AL Wild Card Game's top storylines
By David Adler
The Yankees are hoping to bring American League Division Series baseball back to the Bronx for the first time in five years. But the Twins are looking to do what the Astros did two years ago -- knock out the Bombers on their home turf.
New York and Minnesota meet in the AL Wild Card Game at Yankee Stadium tonight. The Yankees took the regular-season series, four games to two, and are only a few weeks removed from a three-game September sweep of the Twins in the Bronx. But in one winner-take-all game, anything can happen, and tonight's should be a great one, with each team's ace set to take the mound: Luis Severino for the Yankees and Ervin Santana for the Twins.
This game will also showcase some of the game's Statcast™ kings -- with Aaron Judge and Byron Buxton leading the way. In fact, all season long, as both clubs made their run to the postseason, Statcast™ was following every aspect of their performance. Here are five key Statcast™ facts to know about this matchup:
1. Aaron Judge can crush baseballs like no one else in the playoffs
All Rise. No one should be sitting down when Judge steps to the plate in a postseason game. The Yankees' rookie phenom and Most Valuable Player Award candidate hit an AL-best 52 home runs during the regular season, and they weren't just any old homers. Judge hit the ball harder and farther than most humans can even dream of. Within a span of two days, he hit the farthest and the longest home runs of the MLB season -- a 121.1-mph shot on June 10, followed by a 495-foot monster blast on June 11 that cleared the Yankee Stadium bleachers. The 121.1-mph home run set a Statcast™ record for home run exit velocity, and even besides that, Judge has seven of the 10 hardest-hit home runs in the Major Leagues this year.
"This is what it's all about: postseason baseball," Judge said Monday. "The regular season, it's kind of like Spring Training's over. This is the regular season now. This is what it's all about. This is where a lot of those numbers that are hanging out there in left field, this is where they made a name for themselves, in the postseason."
Highest exit velocity on HR, 2017 1. Aaron Judge: 121.1 mph -- June 10 vs. Orioles 2. Aaron Judge: 119.4 mph -- April 28 vs. Orioles
3. Giancarlo Stanton: 118.7 mph -- Sept. 28 vs. Braves 4. Aaron Judge: 118.6 mph -- June 11 vs. Orioles 5. Aaron Judge: 118.4 mph -- July 4 vs. Blue Jays 6. Aaron Judge: 118.3 mph -- Sept. 30 vs. Blue Jays
7. Giancarlo Stanton: 118.2 mph -- Aug. 25 vs. Padres 8. Aaron Judge: 117.2 mph -- Sept. 14 vs. Orioles 9. Aaron Judge: 117.0 mph -- Aug. 16 vs. Mets
10. Nelson Cruz: 116.8 mph -- Sept. 27 vs. A's
2. Joe Mauer remains one of the most disciplined hitters in baseball
The Twins enter the AL Wild Card Game with a lineup anchored by their longtime leader, Mauer, who has found himself at the plate in 2017. Mauer hit .305 this season, his first time over .300 since 2013, his final season as a catcher before concussions forced him to first base. Mauer is extremely selective and disciplined at the plate -- he chased just under 20 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, the 15th-lowest chase rate among MLB regulars. He rarely misses -- he whiffed on only 12.7 percent of his swings this year, the fifth-lowest whiff rate in baseball. And when he swings, he squares up the baseball. Mauer ranked ninth in baseball with 203 hard-hit balls -- batted balls with exit velocity of 95 mph or higher -- and 21.7 percent of his swings this season produced a hard-hit ball, tied for the highest rate in the Majors.
"There's some argument for him being our most valuable player," Twins manager Paul Molitor said of Mauer.
Highest percent of swings resulting in hard-hit balls (95+ mph exit velocity), 2017 Min. 750 total swings 1-T. Joe Mauer: 21.7 percent
1-T. Yuli Gurriel: 21.7 percent
3. Mookie Betts: 20.8 percent
4. Manny Machado: 20.5 percent
5. DJ LeMahieu: 19.8 percent
3. Gary Sanchez can hit, too
Don't sleep on Judge's fellow masher. He had 33 home runs of his own this season -- the most by a catcher since Javy Lopez hit 43 in 2003 -- and when he gets ahold of one, it goes a long way. Judge might have the longest home run of the 2017 season, but Sanchez is right behind him: Sanchez's titanic 493-foot homer over the left-field seats in Detroit tracked just behind Judge's 495-footer in the Bronx. Of the nearly 250 hitters with double-digit homers this year, The Kraken averaged the fifth-hardest exit velocity, 107.3 mph, behind only Judge (who led the Majors at 110.0 mph), Stanton (109.3),Cruz and Joey Gallo (107.7).
"For a catcher, [33 home runs is] really, really good," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said Monday. "I think he's handled [the pressure of high expectations] really well. I think he handles the challenges of getting better really well, and I think he'll handle the challenge tomorrow night really well."
Longest HR in MLB, 2017 1. Aaron Judge: 495 feet -- June 11 vs. Orioles 2. Gary Sanchez: 493 feet -- Aug. 22 vs. Tigers
3. Joey Gallo: 490 feet -- Sept. 17 vs. Angels 4. Kennys Vargas: 483 feet -- June 20 vs. White Sox
5-T. Nelson Cruz: 482 feet -- Aug. 18 vs. Rays
5-T. Mark Reynolds: 482 feet -- July 23 vs. Pirates
4. The Yankees throw gas
The Yankees' pitching staff features some of the hardest throwers in baseball. That starts with Severino, whose four-seam fastball averaged 97.5 mph this season, tied with Reds rookie Luis Castillo for the hardest of any regular starting pitcher in the Majors. And it extends to the bullpen. Closer Aroldis Chapman averaged 100.0 mph with his fastball, the highest of any pitcher in the game, marking the fourth straight season his heater has averaged triple digits. Fellow late-inning reliever Dellin Betances isn't far behind, having averaged 98.3 mph with his four-seamer, tied for fourth-highest in the Majors. Tommy Kahnle (97.6 mph average fastball velocity) and Chad Green (95.8 mph) also bring fire out of the bullpen.
"[Severino's] stuff is electric. He's hard-throwing, and throws the slider very hard," Twins second baseman Brian Dozier said. "He's starting the game, but we also know their bread and butter is their bullpen."
Highest average 4-seam fastball velocity, SP, 2017 Min. 500 4-seamers thrown as SP 1-T. Luis Severino: 97.5 mph
1-T. Luis Castillo: 97.5 mph
3. Carlos Martinez: 96.4 mph
4. Jon Gray: 96.0 mph
5. Gerrit Cole: 95.9 mph
5. Byron Buxton is a defensive star
"Us outfielders have this thing," Buxton said after making a sensational diving catch on Opening Day, "where nothing falls but raindrops." That play had a catch probability of just 24 percent, according to Statcast™, making it a 5-Star catch -- the highest level of difficulty Statcast™ can assign a play. Buxton excels at making those highlight reel-type catches -- he's made 29 total 4- or 5-Star catches this season, the most of any outfielder in baseball. Buxton also tops the charts in Statcast™'s newest metric for outfield defense, Outs Above Average. He's been worth 24 Outs Above Average individually this season, best in the Majors, and has lifted the Twins to 30 OAA, the best of any team outfield. Buxton's sensational speed helps make all those catches possible. So it should come as no surprise that Buxton also sits atop Statcast™'s Sprint Speed leaderboard, just ahead of Billy Hamilton. Buxton's skillset could be a big difference-maker in a one-game playoff.
"Nobody expected us to be here," Buxton said Monday. "We have the least pressure of the two teams. We have to just keep going out there and having fun. The more relaxed we are, the more freely we play."