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Detroit Versus Minnesota: Matchups, Part I

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In 2005, they flashed occasional brilliance on offense.  In 2006, they have some pitching, too.

It's a testiment to how great of a team Detroit is, that after the run the Twins have had since June 8 we've barely gained three games on the division leaders.  Last year the Tigers' offense began the year with a bang, only to be let down by their pitching staff.  By the end of the season the offense stagnated as well, finishing 11th in the American League in runs scored.  This season they're 8th in all of baseball.  To boot, Detroit boasts baseball's lowest staff ERA at 3.70, clearing second place by more than 1/3 of a run.

As the Twins jettisoned themselves into baseball's limelight by going 34-8 in their last 42, Detroit simply continued to do what they've done all season by going 31-11.  Tonight's matchup between the unstoppable Tigers and the soaring Twins is more than just another test for Minnesota...it will be the biggest series played in baseball over the weekend.  Angles v. Red Sox, Mets v. Braves, these games may gain more attention as they entertain larger markets.  But the Tigers and the Twins are the hottest teams in the game, and when the dust settles a tone will be set for coming weeks.

Face Off

Catchers
Name            Age Gam   H  Avg  Obp  Slg  CS   EQA  VORP
Joe Mauer        23  88 123 .375 .449 .534  37% .325  50.8
Ivan Rodriguez   34  83 107 .311 .337 .456  59% .265  18.7

These are two of the top catchers in the game.  One is just beginning what promises to be a long and productive career, while the other continues to defy his age and the physical demands of the position.  Both Mauer and Rodriguez have played 75 games as a catcher in 2006, each logging more than 650 innings in the crouch.  Looking at the Caught Stealing percentages, Pudge has the clear advantage.  Runners have tempted their fate only 22 times this year, and Rodriguez has gunned down 13 of them.  Mauer has had more runners test his arm, and he's caught 15 of 41.

Offensively there's no comparison as to who has the advantage, as Joe Mauer isn't just the best hitting catcher in baseball, he's the best hitter in baseball OVERALL.  He doesn't have the home run stroke, but he more than makes up for it in other areas.  He's racking up doubles, is still slugging well over .500 and the very idea of a hitter reaching base in 45% of his plate appearances is foreign to me as a Twins fan.

Advantage:  Minnesota

First Base
Name           Age Gam HR RBI  Avg  Obp  Slg  EQA  VORP
Justin Morneau  25  95 27  84 .313 .359 .597 .299  33.5
Chris Shelton   26  99 16  44 .275 .340 .480 .269  12.5

Shelton came out of the gate like a gangbuster, hitting .326/.404/.783 with 10 homers in April.  Since then he's been quite mediocre with a significant power lapse.  He's already struck out 95 times, but he's still one of the reasons the Tigers are where they are.  He may be slumping in power, but he's still a hitter to be reckoned with.  Justin Morneau came out of the gate like a snail, however, hitting .208/.274/.416 the first month of the season.  Now we all know what a different matter it is, as he belted .364/.400/.737 in June and .393/.418/.702 in July.

Defensively neither player is a Gold Glove contender, but neither player is a liability in the field, either.  Being primarily an offensive position, both men are capable defenders, and their defensive play shouldn't have too much of an impact in the outcome of any game.

Advantage:  Minnesota

Second Base
Name           Age Gam   H SB   RF  Avg  Obp  Slg  EQA  VORP
Luis Castillo   30  89 103 12 4.70 .278 .334 .370 .239   8.2
Placido Polanco 30  86 105  1 5.25 .290 .320 .359 .230   4.4

Both of these players will turn 31 before the first snowfall of the winter, and both are maintaining characters of light-hitting middle infielders.  Castillo's speed still gives him a significant advantage on the basebaths, and his OBP is inches better than Polcano's, but in the end each player is worth about the same with a bat in his hands.  The biggest difference between the two is a statistic that largely is reliant on the batters who follow them to the plate:  runs.  Castillo has been plated 59 times in 2006 to Polanco's 44.

Second base is a defensive position, and you can see by looking at the numbers I posted for Range Factor that Placido Polanco has a significant advantage over Luis Castillo.  As continued proof that Castillo's injuries are having an effect on his defense, his defensive rate of production is 97.  Polanco's defensive rate of production is 105.  While Polanco isn't flashing a stellar glove, he's been better than Castillo.

I know Castillo is ailing.  Everyone knows it.  The fact that the guy can come out day after day and still play at the level he does, when something just isn't right, is a testament to him as a man.  He has heart, and in all honestly he's been a decent second baseman for the Twins, in spite of what I've said.  Unfortunately, even through his VORP nearly doubles Polanco's, it doesn't take into account any defensive measure.  Polanco has contributed more, if only just slightly, on the defensive side of the ball, and being a defensive position I have to give the Tigers the advantage at second base.

Advantage:  Detroit

Third Base
Name         Age Gam  H HR RBI   RF  Avg  Obp  Slg  EQA  VORP
Nick Punto    28  77 72  0  23 2.37 .321 .403 .420 .282  15.9
Brandon Inge  29  98 83 20  60 3.28 .249 .307 .494 .259   6.0

This is the classic scenario of one spectrum versus the other.  On one side you have your regular, run-of-the-mill, just-what-you'd-expect third baseman:  decent glove, lots of power, mediocre overall hitter.  On the other side you have Nick Punto:  no power, quick, gets on base.  Third base, while definitely not to the extent of first base, has transformed itself into more of an offensive position over the last 10-15 years.  However, over the past couple of seasons, defense has again become a valuable commodity at the hot corner, and another trend may be on the horizon.

So, where do you sit?  With Punto, you're going to get solid at-bats.  With Inge, you have a scoring threat even with nobody on base.  Defensively, Inge has the better Range Factor.  Furthermore, Punto's defensive rate of production is 91; Inge's is 114.

If you're looking for flexibility as a tie-breaker, good friggin' luck.  Punto can play any outfield position, third base, short and second.  Inge can play any outfield position, third base, first base and catcher.  Push.

In fact, I have to score third base a push in general.  Inge has the edge on defense, but in spite of his power Punto is given the nod offensively.  Punto's EQA and Value Over Replacemnt Player are better proof than OBP or SLG.

Advantage:  Even

Shortstop
Name           Age Gam   H SB   RF  Avg  Obp  Slg  EQA  VORP
Jason Bartlett  26  37  41  1 4.02 .336 .415 .467 .291  12.2
Carlos Guillen  30  97 104 12 4.50 .304 .390 .509 .298  37.9

Looking at the lines you see above, the advantage should already be clear.  If Jason Bartlett had played at this level, with the Twins all season instead of the last 5 weeks, there would be some more competition.  Unfortunately this is not the case, and in spite of how great Jason has been since his callup, Guillen has been just as good for a longer period.

Guillen sports the Tigers' top VORP.  For a shortstop, he carries a big stick, even if not as big as Miguel Tejada's or Alex Rodriguez when he didn't play third.  He's jacked 12 homers on the year, driven in 61 runs (2nd in Detroit), and is slugging over .500, all the while maintaining not just a high batting average but a high on-base percentage as well.  On top of all this, he's not bad in the field, either.  He has great range, but his defensive rate is 95; 5 runs below average.  The same as Jason Bartlett.

I'm happy with Bartlett, I'm glad he's ours.  Guillen turns 31 in September, so as soon as next year you could see a reversal in who the better player is.  Until then, however...

Advantage:  Detroit

Outfield & Designated Hitter
Name           Age Gam   H HR RBI   RF  Avg  Obp  Slg  EQA  VORP

Jason Kubel     24  49  45  8  25 1.56 .281 .310 .463 .252   3.6
Jason Tyner     29  13  18  0   7 3.31 .353 .389 .373 .253   1.9
Rondell White   34  65  48  3  25 1.52 .215 .246 .296 .173 -17.2
Michael Cuddyer 27  88  85 14  63 1.83 .270 .355 .495 .279  16.7

Craig Monroe    29  86  81 14  51 1.99 .260 .290 .471 .247   2.8
Magglio Ordonez 32  95 111 16  70 1.86 .300 .347 .478 .271  16.5
Dmitri Young    32  20  18  2   9 2.26 .231 .277 .346 .209  -2.5
Marcus Thames   29  71  65 19  43 1.75 .275 .351 .597 .299  21.3

A couple of things here.  I've listed the designated hitters and outfielders together because it's the same case with both teams--each are alternating DH at-bats between players who generally are outfielders.  Second, as a complete and total homer, I have to point out this list would favor the Twins were both Torii Hunter and Shannon Stewart healthy.

As it is, there are no outstanding defenders on either side of the ball.  Jason Tyner's Range Factor indicates he can cover some ground, and indeed, his defensive rates in left and center fields are 131 and 120 respectively.  While the sample size isn't the largest, he's been quite effective so far.  Beyond this, however, everyone is remarkably mediocre.

Offensively, the Tigers' Maggio Ordonez is a significantly larger threat than anyone else on this list.  Their second-best threat, Marcus Thames, is also rated better offensively than our biggest stick, Michael Cuddyer.  For reference purposes, Torii Hunter is hitting .269/.346/.441, with 14 homers and 49 RBI.  His EQA is .260, Range Factor is 2.76, and his defensive rate is 106.

What the Twins have on their side here is youth and potential, in both Kubel and to an extent Cuddyer.  Tyner has been extremely valuable as a stop-gap until Hunter returns.  Against the Twins are the sheer numbers:  Detroit's outfielders and designated hitter have lodged prettier statistics.  This is what counts.

Advantage:  Detroit