The question of how to beat the Yankees weighs heavily on the hearts of Twins fans. The hometown team has gone an astounding 48 and 126 against New York including the playoffs since 2000. They are 46 and 110 in the regular season and a somehow even worse 2 and 16 in the playoffs. This is well documented, but still mystifying. Baseball is the sport where the adages of “anything can happen” and “that’s why we play the games” originate. If the best team in the sport played the worst team in a 4 games series and that great team won 3 of 4, that would be considered a success. The mighty Dodgers have defeated the rebuilding Giants in their 19 game season series in each of the past 3 years. But the margins are 12-7, 10-9 and 11-8. Those Dodgers have won 88 more regular season games in that span and yet, the Giants have still beaten them 24 times out of 57.
So many variables factor into who wins any given ballgame, that for a team to dominate another over a period of 20 years to the degree the Yankees have dominated the Twins is unfathomable. The Twins are always the team that makes mental mistakes, the one that loses late inning leads and the one that takes that crushing strike 3. You can set your watch to it, and talking heads like Chris Russo don’t even try to analyze it. “Everybody knows the Twins can’t beat the Yankees in the playoffs,” is as deep as he gets.
Twins fans have their theories: The Twins choke, the Yankees always have better pitching, Yankee mystique gets in the way, the Twins don’t capitalize on opportunities, the Yankee hitters are more patient. The list goes on. I’ve argued in the past that the Twins simply didn’t have rosters that stacked up in the past:
In 2003 they had no pitching outside of Johan Santana and Brad Radke, and as much as I love Radke, he was always more regular season Jeff Suppan than postseason Jeff Suppan.
In 2004 had a rough lineup that actually played well in the playoff series. Lew Ford was our best hitter during the season. Joe Nathan pitched too long in game 2.
2006 had Boof Bonser as its #2 starter, so even though there were no Yankees to be played, that team wasn’t enough.
2009 had a few black holes in the lineup and Carl Pavano and Nick Blackburn at the top of the rotation.
2010 could have been great, but Morneau and Joe Nathan got hurt and although Francisco Liriano was good that year, you still don’t feel good about him and Pavano atop the rotation.
2017 was a little undercooked.
2019 was, of course, the best chance we had, but rotation depth was light and the bullpen untested. The lineup also swung at garbage on 3-1 counts, or took hanging fastballs on 2-0. Pineda and Buxton may have helped but you can never get through a season completely healthy.
But I’m starting to doubt overall roster strength as the cause, either. For instance: the Twins could, hypothetically, obliterate the competition and get to the ALCS healthy with record breaking run differentials, with amazing seasons from every question mark on their roster, only to come up against an injured Yankees team with massive flaws and still be huge underdogs. Baseball is a superstitious sport, but this is ridiculous. You can be the Giants playing Pablo Sandoval at 1st base just for fun and ticket sales, and still beat the Dodgers 40% of the time. So why can’t a successful team like the Twins even get to 30% against the Yankees?
The Yankees know the Twins, even with the new regime in place, still play the game a certain way and know how to exploit it.
For context, the two teams could not be more different. The Twins are a mid-market team from the Midwest. Dick Bremer is their TV commentator. They play in a place where people quietly seethe for lifetimes rather than confront someone who does them wrong. Their name is the Twins and when they hit a home run, a goofy animatronic cartoon shakes hands with another goofy animatronic cartoon. They are folksy and corny and their fans embrace that.
The Yankees are from New York where the middle finger was invented. They cuss each other out constantly, and the team is an icon of not just sports, but America itself. They are historically dominant and a failure of a season results in 85 wins. They are enormously profitable and can afford the most highly priced free agents. In fact, they have earned so much goodwill from their fans (whether or not that goodwill is given) that they can afford to NOT pursue certain free agents and leave teams with more fanbase pressure on them to make terrible mistakes (see Wheeler, Zack). They play the Twins knowing that none of the pressure is on them, and that if they just play their game, the results will end up fine.
The Twins play with something to prove, and in many instances are confident in the team they have. They often jump out to leads against the Yankees, including the 2017 WC game, and last years ALDS game 1. But the Yankees haven’t been the best-run business in America for 108 years because they panic. They weren’t going to be surprised by Randy Dobnak’s arsenal of pitches in game 2 of the 2019 ALDS. They made sure to take a few sinkers, hope they were called balls and then sit on something drivable when Dobnak was forced into the zone. THAT’S their secret, simple as it may be.
Here is Dobnak’s first batter of the game 2 last year, D.J. LeMahieu. The first two pitches are near strikes, but LeMahieu takes them for balls that a bad umpire may have called strikes. The 3rd pitch IS called a strike, but LeMahieu doesn’t care with the count in his favor. Looking to even the count, look where Dobnak places the 4th pitch. No surprise that LeMahieu stroked it for a double.
Here is a pivotal moment in game 1 with Gleyber Torres. John Smoltz was drooling over himself with how Torres conducted himself in this at-bat, because he “swings hard early in the count and protects late,” as if that is uncommon on any level. Duffey was working hard in this at-bat and threw some good pitches, but once he got to 3 balls, he insisted on staying in the strike zone and Torres made him pay for 2 runs. The bases were loaded, but the struggling Gary Sanchez was on deck. Would you rather 1 run or 2?
Next is the at-bat in the 2017 ALWC between Ervin Santana and Did Gregorius. Santana fell behind 2-1 and got a strike out on a foul ball out of the zone for a 2-2 count. He threw a good fastball IN THE ZONE on 2-2 that was called a ball. Instead of doubling down on what was a great pitch at 96 MPH (!) Santana threw a pitch in a horrible location and Didi did what he does best, hunt mistake fastballs. Except it wasn’t too much of a mistake because Santana did not want to walk the bases loaded. The weakest hitter in their lineup, arguably, was next in Starlin Castro.
The bottom line is that the Yankees take advantage of a pitcher that doesn’t want to walk them. They sit dead red on 2-0 and 3-1 because the Twins philosophy has always been to give in to hitters, even though they would never call it that. A Red Sox pitcher may still try to paint the black behind in the count, but Twins pitchers want to get back in the count to avoid a walk, and will throw a more hittable pitch with the hopes that the ball will be hit AT somebody (you hear that a lot from D. Bremer). What the Twins would officially say is that they like a quick, “crisp” ballgame, and sometimes you “gotta’ pitch to contact.” They never talk about the dark side of that philosophy because playing a “crisp” game just sounds so natural; so pure.
Observe a Twins game called by Jack Morris (who I love and am grateful for). He laments EVERY 3-2 count as bad for the game, and a sign of a pitcher who needs to get back to some old-school reach-back and-challenge-the-hitter type of style.* It is true he pitched a pretty crisp game in 1991, and personally, I would love for every game to be played “crisply” and for every 3-1 count to not result in a walk but a line drive out instead. But if you are placing actual value in that philosophy, you are showing your hand.
* He was at it again last night, at one point claiming that the emphasis on velocity is to blame for the injuries to Justin Verlander and Aaron Bummer, and that if they just pitched like Devin Smeltzer and Randy Dobnak (who throws 94-95) they would have a better chance of staying healthy.
This lack or reflection seeps into different aspects of the game. The Jack Morrises of the world would say it keeps the fielders alert when the game is played fast and the ball is put in play, and that might be true, but you can’t beat a confident, good-hitting team that way. You have to be willing to walk a few batters if it means staying out of the heart of the plate, especially with imperfect umpires.* That means 3-2 counts. It means 4 hour games. It means your fielders MIGHT be on their heels in some instances. It also means when you walk Aaron Judge and get a fresh count on Giancarlo Stanton, you now have an opportunity to get ahead in the count and throw better pitches, and all of a sudden, the pressure is on the Yankees to produce with men on base. This is how the Rays and Red Sox play them. Furthermore, and as Twins fans we never hear about this, the Yankees get roasted in their media market for not producing with men on base, even when their season RISP average is high. That is how pressure gets put on them, and THAT is how you get Yankee hitters to start chasing pitches. Let me explain.
*In the midst of my feelings last October, I lamented that the Twins couldn’t get past the Yankees until an electronic strikezone was implemented. I even tried combing through the games to pick out all the strikes called balls by Twins pitchers but the evidence was, admittedly, pretty inconclusive.
Have you ever noticed how the Yankees don’t chase pitches against the Twins? Last week I published a post where I put up a screencap of Luke Voit facing Tyler Duffey last July in the 8th inning of the marathon 12-14 game that went to 11 innings. Voit laid off 2 filthy and well located sliders. Each could have been called a strike and it was a pivotal moment in that game. Duffey was beside himself and got removed afterwards. It was a total “here we go again” moment, because had Voit struck out, the Twins would have gone to the bottom of the 8th with a 9-8 lead and not REQUIRE a Miguel Sano 2-run homer to get the lead back. Obviously that was not what transpired.
There was no pressure on Voit to come through in that situation- the Yankees had already made a grand comeback and had hit well with men on base. They wouldn’t get crucified in the press- it was their pitchers to blame if they ended up taking a loss- the offense did a great job of fighting back from being behind 8-2 and were playing with house money.
Now of course Voit himself would not tell you that- he certainly put pressure on himself to succeed in that situation and considers himself a competitor, but in a game of inches any reduction in pressure, or boost in confidence, can make a huge difference. That walk got the dominant Duffey out of the game and brought the more approachable Ryne Harper in, who promptly served up a double to Didi Gregorious. If Voit was on any level pressing or nervous, he would have swung at both sliders from Duffey, and likely missed by a lot. In short, the Twins play into Yankees hands, and other teams have shown there are alternatives.
Most casual fans are so bored by the pace of the game that not only do they applaud the comments made by Jack Morris and other dinosaurs, they actively avoid watching games involving other teams. They don’t watch how the Blue Jays or Athletics play the Yankees, or perhaps more instructively, the Texas Rangers. The Rangers have been an average team for the past decade, hitting highs of 2 World Series appearances early on and lows of rebuilding and multiple 95 loss seasons. Facing the Yankees, however, they are 38-37, playing them tough even in their lean years (Their worst year against the Yankees was 2011 when they went 2-7 against them. They made it to the WS that year). The Rangers are typically known this millennium for having a high octane offense and erratic pitching. They were a bad team last year and had the 5th most walks in baseball, but played the 103 win Yankees to a split of the season series. That isn’t crazy, but typically you would expect a subpar team with poor pitching to perform badly versus a team with a historically powerful offense.
I wish there were stats for “times given in” so we could see if the Rangers were a team that preached the philosophy of “be ok with a walk if it means keeping the ball out of the middle of the plate versus the middle of the Yankee lineup.” But outside of the statistical evidence of the Rangers usually ranking poorly in terms of walks allowed, there is some anecdotal evidence in the franchise’s most revered player being Nolan Ryan, a pitcher with the most walks in baseball history who made a career of “not giving in.” In fact, that could be the title of his autobiography. Watching his starts could be nauseating, as he either struck out or walked more batters than any other pitcher, ever. He holds unbreakable records in each category. The reverence for Ryan, as well as the general sense of individualism brought about by being Texan (don’t care how ya do it, just get it done), may have an impact on how the team plays the Yankees.
Here’s a game from last September where the Rangers beat the Yankees 7-0. Mike Minor pitched a great game and set the tone in the 1st, giving LeMahieu and Judge nothing to hit and getting 2 groundouts, and then falling behind Torres 3-1. You see the 5th pitch is right on the black and not something Torres wants to hit. He takes and it is called ball 4.
Gary Sanchez then jumps on a 0-1 change-up and doubles, getting Torres to 3rd. But Minor gives Mike Ford, one of the Yankees (relatively) weaker hitters, nothing but off-speed pitches and gets the groundout to end the inning (below).
Minor made mistakes in the inning, but when there were runners on 2nd and 3rd, he didn’t panic and worry about walking the bases full. He gave Ford zero fastballs and the one pitch he threw in the zone was a slider that Ford couldn’t swing at.
Is it that simple? Is it really just a curse placed on us by the man who gave us the most amazing moment in Minnesota sports history? To find out, watch a game without the Twins playing. Force yourself through a Red Sox - Yankee game or a nationally broadcast game (sans John Smoltz). Do you notice any hand wringing about the “crispness” of the game? Any admonishment from the commentators about there being too many 3-2 counts? For the most part, no, and what you do hear is an attempt at analyzing the game as it is, not how it should be. I understand this is broad and announcers of other teams can certainly be ham fisted and plain stupid in how they call the game. Dick Bremer can be insightful and cornily enjoyable at times. But Michael Kay is just calling Yankees games, his worldview isn’t structurally embodied by the team’s core pitching philosophy, even if he can be pretty annoying. Now, Bremer and Morris don’t intend to welcome 2-0 fastballs being thrown down the middle by Twins pitchers, but their views are a symptom of a disease known as the “Twins way.” You know the Twins Way as a general philosophy of hit and runs and not giving up walks and pitching to contact. It’s fun to watch when successful and results in many a “crisply played” game.
The Twins Way has gone away on the hitting side, however, with Rocco Baldelli generally shying away from sac bunts and hit and runs. The Twins steal very few bases and are only average in their base running aggressiveness overall. The question now is, are the Twins going to do away with their roots on the pitching side, as well? In 2019 they had the 4th fewest walks in baseball, and Jose Berrios threw more strikes than nearly any other starter. In 2020 their walk rate is mid pack.*
*Walks are a bad thing, I do realize, and not a barometer for Yankee beating. You can walk the world and still give batters cookies on 3-1. But the Twins are, year over year, always in the top 10 in least amount of walks, dating back to before Tom Kelly. That’s a real trend that explains the inexplicable failure the Twins have experienced against the powerful and patient Yankees and to a lesser extent, the slightly less but still powerful and patient Red Sox (the Twins went 28-38 against the Sox in the 2010’s) The Twins walk rate not being among the league’s lowest would indicate a change in philosophy if maintained.
We will have to wait and see if Wes Johnson and Baldelli, by way of Falvine, has moved past the purity test of “crispness” and into the new era of 3 true outcomes (walks, strikeouts, home runs) baseball, as unwatchable as it may be. Plenty of NBA fans dislike the pace and space plus 3 pointers style of play that has permeated their game in the modern era, but until a better style comes along, you either join it or get left behind. Let’s hope the Twins give in and let their pitchers stay out of the middle of the plate. Better a 4 hour boring win than an exciting loss.
Or maybe the Yanks were just cheating.