American League Wild Card Preview: Will the Yankees End the Twins' Cinderella Run?
After a grueling 162-game regular season played out over six months during a long, hot summer, one team's season will end because of one game.
The wild card single-elimination playoff is an aberration in baseball, a sport that generally decides things over the course of multiple games, both during the regular season and the postseason. But since we don't have all the time in the world and playing a three- or five-game wild card playoff series would push the Fall Classic into Christmas, MLB's opted to have the two wild cards in each league meet up for one game to decide who will advance to the Divisional Series.
It's tremendous theater for fans and pure agony for the four teams (two in the American League and two in the National League) involved, but that's their problem. Tonight, we get to watch the New York Yankees host the surprising Minnesota Twins in the AL Wild Card do-or-die game at Yankee Stadium. Here's a look at the matchup.
Why the Yankees Will Win
New York's starting pitcher will be Luis Severino, who quietly turned in one of the best seasons from any starter in baseball this year. In 31 starts, he went 14-6 with a 2.98 ERA, 3.07 fielding independent pitching (FIP) and a deserved run average (DRA) of 3.05. He posted an fWAR of 5.7, third-best among qualified American League starters, and at 23 years old, Severino struck out 230 batters and walked just 51. He led baseball with 16 starts in which he allowed one run or less, and he was the youngest pitcher with a sub-3.00 ERA and 230 strikeouts since Roger Clemens in 1986.
Even if Severino unexpectedly struggles, New York has perhaps the best bullpen in baseball, a key for October success. Their relievers led baseball with an fWAR of 9.2 and a 29.1% strikeout rate, and their 3.34 ERA was third-best in MLB. They can shorten games with Aroldis Chapman locking down the 9th inning, and then some combination of Dellin Betances, Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson and Chad Green in the middle-to-late innings.
The Yankees also feature certain Rookie of the Year and potential MVP Aaron Judge, who hit 52 home runs -- setting the all-time mark for a rookie -- with a .284/.422/.627 slash line and an fWAR of 8.2 that was the best in baseball. Catcher Gary Sanchez turned in a terrific sophomore season, hitting .278/.345/.531 with 33 homers and 90 RBI. Veterans Didi Gregorius, Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, Chase Headley, and Starlin Castro form a lineup that scored more runs (858) than all but one team in baseball this season (Houston).
Why the Twins Will Win
Minnesota will counter with their top starter, veteran right-hander Ervin Santana, who went 16-8 with a 3.28 ERA, 4.46 FIP and a DRA of 3.74 in 33 starts. He struck out 167 batters in 211.1 innings and walked 61, providing stability at the top of the Twinkies rotation all season long. His 2.9 fWAR ranked 11th among qualified American League starters this year.
The Twins' best chance to win this game lies in the bats. In the second half, no one scored more runs than Minnesota (412), and only four teams hit more home runs (106) than them.
Brian Dozier is the team's most consistent position player, and he batted .269/.357/.496 this year with 34 homers, 106 runs scored, 93 RBI and 16 stolen bases, good for a team-leading fWAR of 4.9. His 3.6 fWAR in the second half was second only to Cleveland's Francisco Lindor in the AL. Byron Buxton emerged from a catatonic first half with a tremendous second half, hitting .300/.347/.546 after the All-Star Break. Eddie Rosario, Joe Mauer, and Jorge Polanco also had fantastic second halves for the Twins.
The player who could make the biggest difference is All-Star Miguel Sano, who has been activated from the disabled list with a shin injury. Manager Paul Molitor said he's leaning toward starting the game with Sano on the bench, but Minnesota went 35-24 over the last two months mostly without him, so his addition would be a bonus.
As for Minnesota's bullpen, it's a middle-of-the-pack unit, with a 4.40 ERA that was tied for 20th in baseball and a strikeout rate of 19.8% that was second-to-last.
Who Will Win
The Yankees appear to be the clear favorite on paper, and our metrics give them a 61.47% chance of winning this game and moving on face the ALDS against the Cleveland Indians. Of course, the Twins were the first team in baseball history to make the postseason after losing at least 100 games the year before, so another Minnesota surprise, especially in the crapshoot of a one-game playoff, is certainly a reasonable possibility.