American League Wild Card Preview: Minnesota Twins vs. Toronto Blue Jays

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Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports activities

The Minnesota Twins and a brief first spherical playoff collection: Title a extra iconic duo. The Twins have been quietly glorious this 12 months, compiling the seventh-best run differential in baseball. To make certain, a few of that’s as a result of they’ve the great fortune of dealing with fellow AL Central golf equipment, however quite a lot of it’s as a result of their staff is filled with good pitchers. They’ll meet the Toronto Blue Jays in a Wild Card conflict. You’ve in all probability watched and heard loads concerning the Blue Jays this 12 months, and I’ll get to them, however let’s begin with the factor you in all probability most want to listen to: The Twins are good, not simply the token AL Central consultant, they usually received loads higher once you in all probability weren’t paying consideration.

The Minnesota rotation could be brief on title recognition relative to another playoff squads, however Pablo López and Sonny Grey are every prime 10 pitchers by WAR this 12 months. Joe Ryan, Kenta Maeda, and Bailey Ober are each above common as properly – Ryan will doubtless draw the third begin, however the different two will certainly be obtainable to alleviate him if needed. They’re a kind of basic playoff tropes, the staff you hate to face as a result of a lot of their worth is concentrated in good pitching. López has gone six or extra innings whereas permitting one or fewer runs 11 instances this 12 months; Grey has completed it 9 instances himself. It’s simple to think about the Jays coming into Minneapolis and leaving with only a few runs to point out for his or her journey.

Then again, the Twins are extra instantly one other playoff trope: These bumbling Twins who can’t get out of their very own method. The final time they gained a playoff recreation was 2004; they’ve been swept in 5 collection (plus misplaced a Wild Card recreation) within the interim. It’s a very good factor that playoff mojo isn’t a predictive metric, as a result of the Twins are pushing all-time ranges of unhealthy mojo. No less than they aren’t enjoying the Yankees, I suppose.

If you happen to’re searching for methods this Twins staff might unravel, properly, it’s baseball. You by no means need to look very laborious to search out issues that would go mistaken. López and Grey have all these nice begins, certain. They’ve additionally allowed 4 or extra runs a mixed 12 instances, and gone 5 or fewer innings 17 instances. The distinction between nice pitching and mediocre pitching can come right down to one thing so simple as which facet of the mattress your starter wakes up on that day; the margins are vanishingly skinny towards good main league opposition, a class the Blue Jays definitely match into.

Which may carry Minnesota’s bullpen into play early, which sounds scary. They put up one of many worst WAR totals amongst playoff-bound bullpens. However regardless of that ominous word, I don’t suppose the bullpen is an issue. Actually, it could be an asset. Lots of their reliever woes got here from gamers who aren’t on the staff anymore. Jorge López was terrible earlier than getting traded to Miami. Josh Winder pitched 34.2 ineffective innings. Brent Headrick, Cole Sands, Jordan Balazovic, José De León, Jorge Alcala, Oliver Ortega – the Twins gave a ton of bullpen innings to guys who’re a) unhealthy and b) not a part of the bullpen.

The highest 5 members of that unit now are all solidly above-average relievers. Jhoan Duran runs the ship together with his 100 mph weirdo splitter/sinker hybrid. Caleb Thielbar missed an enormous chunk of time with damage, however he’s been greater than succesful within the center innings since returning. Louie Varland has been dominant since shifting into aid, to the tune of 17 strikeouts towards one stroll over 12 innings. Emilio Pagán is a wonderfully cheap setup man. Even Griffin Jax, squeezed on the depth chart due to all of these guys I named up above getting pushed off it, has been on fireplace of late. When the Twins can shorten their ‘pen, it ceases to be a weak point and may even be a energy.

Ah, then, their best weak point have to be their offense? Once more, not precisely. The Twins began out the season fairly slowly on the offensive facet of the ball. On the All-Star break, they’d the Twentieth-best wRC+ within the majors. Amongst playoff groups, solely the Brewers have been worse. However within the second half, the Twins have been the third-best hitting staff within the recreation, led by a mix of unheralded veterans and thrilling rookies.

Keep in mind Max Kepler? He’s lastly producing the best way everybody anticipated him to for years, with a 124 wRC+ pushed by his standard energy and the very best BABIP season of his profession (.289 — the man simply can not purchase a success). Ryan Jeffers is within the midst of his finest season within the majors. Jorge Polanco is sweet (the identical as yearly) and underappreciated (the identical as yearly). He’s even shifting round defensively, one other one in every of his specialties, and is now enjoying third base to squeeze extra offense into the lineup. Alex Kirilloff is delivering the facility he’s at all times promised in a platoon position. Even Donovan Solano, miscast at first base (he’s 5-foot-8!), wore his hitting sneakers this 12 months.

The younger weapons have been even higher. Royce Lewis, who got here into the season with solely 41 profession main league plate appearances due to a laundry listing of accidents, has torn the quilt off the ball all 12 months, although he after all missed the top of the season with a hamstring damage and can return to the playoff roster together with his well being in query. Edouard Julien burst onto the scene on the World Baseball Basic and hasn’t stopped hitting since; his gaudy minor league batting traces translated completely to the bigs, and he’s even performed satisfactory second base protection, one thing few evaluators anticipated coming into the 12 months. Matt Wallner has a 146 wRC+ and the underlying statistics to match; if he’d spent extra time within the majors this 12 months, you’d be listening to about him as a possible Rookie of the Yr candidate.

Surprisingly, the 2 most well-known Twins hitters haven’t been a part of this offensive resurgence. Byron Buxton hasn’t performed the sphere this 12 months and can also be within the midst of his worst offensive marketing campaign. As is all too widespread for him, he’s additionally been on the IL for the reason that begin of August and certain figures into their postseason plans solely as a bench bat. In the meantime, Carlos Correa is having the worst season of his profession and can also be injured, although he’s on monitor to play on this collection.

The Twins have gotten glorious manufacturing out of Solano (or Kirilloff, relying on who you suppose they’d bench) and Kyle Farmer to switch Buxton and Correa’s enjoying time. Michael A. Taylor went from speculative fourth outfielder to key defensive cog in brief order. This doesn’t look prefer it’s an important offensive unit, as a result of all the blokes you suppose are the important thing hitters have been unhealthy, however they’ve carried out prefer it for months at this level. Their worst on a regular basis hitter within the second half has been Correa, and even he’s over a 100 wRC+.

If there’s something holding the Twins again, it’s their lack of true stars. That’s a nebulous time period, clearly, however let me put it this manner. The very best offenses, those that put up large numbers all season lengthy and rating foolish piles of runs, do it as a result of they’ve a bunch of stable hitters and likewise an MVP candidate or two. The Braves and Dodgers look much like the Twins within the again half of their lineups, however the prime finish is simply greater when you may throw in an Acuña and an Olson right here, or a Betts and a Freeman there. In an AL temper? Strive a Semien/Seager mixture. Briefly collection, that doesn’t at all times matter, however the Twins are simply working at a run-scoring drawback as a result of they don’t have any gamers that really feel like cheat codes.

Talking of stars, let’s speak concerning the Blue Jays. Regardless of being the street staff on this collection, they gained two extra video games within the common season, they usually did it regardless of dealing with a brutal AL East slate. Just like the Twins, you in all probability suppose you realize the take care of the Jays: They’ve an important offense constructed on the sons of former main league greats. However just like the Twins, you in all probability have the mistaken thought. Amongst playoff groups, solely the famously offensively challenged Milwaukee Brewers have scored fewer runs.

Lots of that comes right down to poor efficiency with runners in scoring place, however even if you happen to’d choose to disregard context and concentrate on wRC+, this was a disappointing Toronto offense. The legacy youngsters weren’t at their finest this 12 months; Vladimir Guerrero Jr. scalded the ball however received little to point out for it (118 wRC+), Bo Bichette began the 12 months on fireplace however cooled off whereas coping with damage points down the stretch, and supporting second-generation acts Daulton Varsho and Cavan Biggio had forgettable seasons.

Even the Jays’ auxiliary stars have been off their recreation. George Springer struggled to a 104 wRC+, Matt Chapman ended with a 110 mark after beginning the 12 months off on fireplace, and Alejandro Kirk turned in a clunker of a season, although he improved because the season wore on. If it weren’t for surprising contributions from Brandon Belt (138 wRC+) and Davis Schneider (176 wRC+, although he’s been ice chilly of late), the Jays doubtless would have missed the postseason.

Actually, Belt’s presence could be the very best factor the Jays have going for them offensively on this collection. The Twins are closely right-handed, however the very best Toronto hitters are righties. The staff particularly tried to deal with that by bringing in Belt, Varsho, and Kevin Kiermaier this 12 months, however solely Belt has actually clicked offensively. Toronto is able to wail away towards lefties, however there simply gained’t be lots of them on this matchup, and I count on them to largely be deployed towards Belt in high-leverage conditions.

Fortunately for Canadians in every single place, the Jays secretly became a pitching-and-defense operation. They’ve been heading this manner for some time, the truth is; they persistently make use of glorious receivers behind the plate, their offensive acquisitions are typically good and versatile defenders, they usually’ve devoted each prospects and cash to bettering the pitching employees.

Whenever you add Chapman, Varsho, and Keirmaier to your protection, as Toronto has completed prior to now two seasons, it stands to purpose that it could get higher. Per Statcast, it was the Tenth-best unit within the recreation this 12 months, and the catchers have been prime 10 in each framing and blocking. DRS, which wraps this all into one quantity and likewise measures protection in another way, had them as the very best general protection in baseball. The attention take a look at agrees; the one clear weak hyperlink of their default defensive alignment is Bichette, and even he’s a lot improved this 12 months.

These defenders make issues simpler for a gaggle of starters that can give the Twins’ group a run for his or her cash. Kevin Gausman is the headliner right here, and he’s a perennial Cy Younger candidate at this level, a real ace able to stringing collectively zeroes with nice regularity. Chris Bassitt and José Berríos will observe him up in some order, they usually’ve been very comparable pitchers this 12 months: first rate strikeout price, above-average command, at all times seemingly three pitches away from imploding.

Berríos has given up 4 or extra runs in 5 of his final 9 begins, however he’s additionally able to brilliance. I’d usually say that Bassitt is extra of a gentle center floor kind, however he simply twirled a 12-strikeout gem his final day trip, so it could be a mistake to dismiss him as simply one other innings eater. They each rely closely on sinkers and blend in a heaping serving to of secondary selection, they usually’re each right-handed, so I don’t see a lot distinction between them with regards to who ought to go first. They’re solidly in that Joe Ryan tier that Minnesota will carry to the third recreation, which implies I’d give Toronto an edge in a single pitching matchup, Minnesota the sting within the second, and name it a useless warmth within the final one.

Toronto’s bullpen is a curler coaster experience for each the staff and the opposition. Jordans Romano and Hicks headline the unit, they usually’re each masters of the uncomfortable save — baserunners left and proper however sufficient strikeouts or grounders to make the entire bundle work anyway. Erik Swanson, one other 2023 acquisition in Toronto’s continued shift in the direction of run prevention, is a superb third possibility. Issues get fairly mix-and-match after that. Tim Mayza has seemed shaky just lately however was nice earlier within the 12 months. Chad Inexperienced returned from damage in September and appears like principally the identical glorious reliever he’s at all times been. Génesis Cabrera and Yimi García throw laborious, and García even has command. Yusei Kikuchi will probably be lurking, maybe sleepily, as a protracted reliever. It’s a stable unit, even when it’s constructed on nerve-wracking relievers.

If you happen to’ve been maintaining monitor all through this preview, you’ll discover that these groups really feel extraordinarily evenly matched. They each have glorious beginning rotations, so good that they’ll each go away above-average starters within the bullpen for this three-game collection. They each have good bullpens – Minnesota’s has been higher of late, however Toronto’s might need the higher-octane arms. They’re each prime 10 offensive items, although they received there in numerous methods. This doesn’t really feel just like the worst division winner towards the worst Wild Card staff, as a result of the American League was stacked on the prime this 12 months. It looks like two deserving playoff golf equipment duking it out. I predict a three-game collection – and why not, a long-awaited Minnesota victory within the last accounting. However most of all, I feel that it is a higher collection than persons are giving it credit score for, and I’ll be excited to look at the younger Twins and namesake Jays battle it out.



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