The Twins came away from Houston with a split and return home to Target Field for two more home playoff games tomorrow and Wednesday. FanGraphs’ projections still favor the Astros to win the series (57%-43%), but the Twins did what they had to in Houston to give themselves a shot. Among major North American professional sports, the MLB playoff format has proven to be uniquely set up to give underdogs a chance. To wit, in the history of this division format, teams returning home with a split in the first two games, have won the series in 28 of 42 chances, per MLB’s Sarah Langs.
When a Division Series with the current 2-2-1 format has been tied after two games, the club heading home for Games 3 and 4 has wound up winning the series 28 of 42 times (67%) https://t.co/e8L8EQpzGt— Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports) October 9, 2023
While plenty of the attention will deservedly be focused on Carlos Correa and Pablo López for their efforts in last night’s win, I’ll focus today on some observations from the Twins playoff games thus far and look ahead at the continuing matchup with the Astros.
I’ll begin though, with a really simple observation: Winning playoff games is a lot of fun!
Scouting Cristian Javier
Houston’s expected starting pitcher for Game 3 tomorrow afternoon is right-hander Cristian Javier. If you are not familiar with Javier’s prior work, which includes a dominant October stretch last season, he’s basically the answer to the question “What if Joe Ryan had an above-average breaking pitch?”
Cristian Javier stepped up in a HUGE way in Game 4 for the @astros #MLBTonight breaks down what worked so well for "El Reptil" en route to being part of a historic night in Philadelphia.#WorldSeries | @CameronMaybin | #LevelUp pic.twitter.com/NeLgUqik5m— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) November 3, 2022
Like Ryan, Javier flummoxes opposing lineups with an uber-flat angle four-seamer that punches way above its velocity at the top of the strike zone. Opposing hitters know it’s coming up high, and most of the time, they can’t seem to get the barrel of the bat to it.
That said, Javier is also like Ryan in that he became quite homer-prone during a mid-season stretch from mid-June through August (6.71 ERA and 6.26 FIP in 13 starts from June 9 through August 28). His overall seasonal numbers are far less impressive than last season’s, with significantly fewer strikeouts (23.1%, down from 33.2%) and slightly more walks and home runs allowed.
He was quite a bit better in September as the strikeouts returned (32.3%) and he chopped his walk rate down from the mid-season struggles, but he remained homer-prone (4 allowed in 30.1 innings).
Javier’s last outing was a 6-inning scoreless gem on October 1st when the Astros had to have it to win the AL West. He’ll be working on eight days of rest, so it will be interesting to see if that extra rest and the October boost of adrenaline help give his fastball some extra life.
Running Wild? (Or Not)
Javier, like Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez before him in games 1 and 2, is also susceptible to the stolen base. He allowed 22 this season with just 3 theft attempters being cut down.
Houston’s preferred catcher, Martín Maldonado, is known as a defense-first receiver with superior framing and throwing skills. But this season, Maldonado and his pitchers allowed a whopping 86 stolen bases, against just 14 caught stealings.
So far in the series, the Twins have not sought to take advantage of this vulnerability. They are not particularly built for the stolen base in the first place, with only 86 on the season (tied for 23rd most), and they are hampered further in this aspect by the absence of Byron Buxton and a hobbled Royce Lewis.
Nonetheless, Ed Julien, Jorge Polanco, Willi Castro, Michael A. Taylor, and Andrew Stevenson off the bench should have favorable opportunities to swipe 90 feet if the Twins need them to.
It’s the Little Things on the Bases
That’s not to say that the baserunning hasn’t played an important role in the series thus far. Julien ran into an out on the bases to stymie a 3rd inning rally against a wobbly Verlander in game 1. Carlos Correa was thrown out at the plate on Julien’s insurance-cashing single in the 7th inning in Game 2.
On the opposite side, José Abreu was involved in both a good and a bad play on the bases in Game 1. In the 5th inning in a 4-0 game, Abreu made a heads-up play to keep running from first to third on Chas McCormick’s single to left field. With the play in front of him, Abreu was dead to rights at 3rd base when he baited the Twins into cutting the throw to the plate that might have prevented a fifth run from scoring. It was a good trade of an out for a run for the Astros.
Later, though, Abreu was surprisingly thrown out in a low-effort attempt to advance from first base to second base on a low breaking pitch that skittered away from Ryan Jeffers. Abreu, clearly assuming Jeffers was just going to eat it, coasted in second base and Jeffers’ strike to Correa was on the money for the out to end the threat.
Twins escape a seventh-inning jam thanks to Jose Abreu's bad baserunning and a very nice play by Ryan Jeffers. pic.twitter.com/o64bRRcPgi— Aaron Gleeman (@AaronGleeman) October 7, 2023
Jeffers’ Blocking Could Be a Factor
While Jeffers salvaged an out with a great recovery and throw on the play above, it’s worth pointing out his approach to block that low pitch from Caleb Thielbar. It was an awkward location and attempt for Jeffers, with the pitch not quite in the dirt but also too low for him to successfully glove it. Jeffers opted for the one-handed glove attempt instead of trying a block and the ball got away.
There was a similar event in game 2 against the Blue Jays immediately preceding the Sonny Gray-Correa pickoff of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at 2nd base. A low Gray breaking ball got away and allowed the Blue Jays to get the tying run into scoring position.
Jeffers has proven this season to be a superior option to the veteran Christian Vázquez at the plate and in controlling the running game with his arm. Rocco Baldelli has acknowledged that by starting Jeffers in each of the Twins' four playoff games thus far.
But Jeffers does cede the advantage to Vázquez in blocking, by a fairly wide margin. Per Statcast’s catcher blocking leaderboard, Vázquez was 15th among all catchers, making three more blocks than expected based on the pitches he dealt with. Jeffers ranked 55th by the same measure, making five fewer blocks than expected.
It’s a small thing, and it’s likely not worth the downgrade at the plate or throwing for the Twins to turn to Vázquez in Game 3, but it’s something to watch in a tight game when 90 feet can mean all the difference.
Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t
Let’s finish today with a discussion that ends with no good options: Facing Yordan Álvarez.
Across baseball, and throughout baseball history, almost all hitters perform worse when they are facing same-handed pitchers. Studies have shown that what’s known as the “platoon advantage” is worth about 40 to 50 points of weighted on-base average (wOBA).
Believe it or not, the lefty-swinging Álvarez has historically performed worse against left-handed pitchers, too. The problem is, his “worse” is still really freaking good. For his career, Álvarez has a .414 wOBA against righties and a .398 wOBA against lefties. Said differently, against righties, he’s Mark McGwire (.415 wOBA). Against lefties, he’s Chipper Jones (.397 wOBA).
As Yahoo’s Zach Crizer pointed out after game 1, Álvarez is the best left-on-left batter in baseball over the last 20 years. There isn’t a good option to face him, as the Twins learned first hand in Game 1.
Lefty batters had 6 hits in 47 at-bats (.128) with no homers and 14 strikeouts vs. Caleb Thielbar this year.— Bobby Nightengale (@nightengalejr) October 8, 2023
Until Yordan Alvarez showed up. "Look at where that pitch was. You don't see too many lefthanded hitters who can hit that pitch out of the park." https://t.co/kIBfiHUoJX
Nonetheless, Caleb Thielbar and his breaking balls are probably the Twins’ *best* option. Thielbar is the Twins’ only lefty on the ALDS roster, and, despite Álvarez tagging him in Game 1, will likely get another chance or two vs. Álvarez in important middle-inning spots this series.
Álvarez’s career line against lefty breaking pitches (Thielbar’s forté) is .317/.369/.598 (.402 wOBA). Against right-handed off-speed pitches (changeups and splitters), that’s .291/.340/.631 (.406 wOBA). Álvarez hits for more power against right-handed offspeed and gets on base more against left-handed breaking pitches.
In a choice with no good options, the lefty breaking balls are the best option for limiting the damage, this side of just keeping the bases empty in front of Álvarez, as Pablo López mostly managed to do during his part of Game 2.