First, an apology—I haven’t been writing much, due to a computer issue as well as the single worst repair job in history. What should have been a small three or four day fix turned into two weeks. There are pieces in the pipeline, but conducting research at work is a risky proposition, so most of them are half-finished.
Now that my screen is functional again, you shall have your analysis, such as it ever was.
Anyone who thinks the terms "critical late season matchup” and “Kansas City Royals” are incompatible hasn’t been paying attention to the AL Central’s recent history.
2008 saw the Twins drop two of three to the other team from Missouri, forcing the one game playoff they would go on to lose.
2007 was less competitive in the Central, but KC did their best to trip up Detroit in August when things were close, enroute to Cleveland’s most recent division win.
KC swept the Tigers in 2006 in the last three games of the season to allow the Twins to sneak past Detroit to steal the division crown. This wasn’t as big a deal as it may have seemed to be, both teams went to the playoffs, after all, and Detroit still made it to the playoffs.
Nevertheless, there is great precedent for Kansas City lying in wait for unsuspecting playoff hopefuls.
Already in 2009, KC has swept Detroit, helping what had appeared to be the Tigers’ September victory lap become one of the only competitive races left in baseball.
Now it’s the Twins turn to make a run through the viper’s den. They hold a small lead in the season series against the Royals, but have yet to face Zack Greinke, which seems almost impossible, given the teams have faced one another 12 times already.
Their luck runs out Sunday, when the prohibitive Cy Young favorite squares off against Francisco Liriano, who has to be considered among the most enigmatic pitchers in baseball today.
I’ve dissected a few of his starts in this space already, so I won’t rehash it too much, lest your eye wander elsewhere, but with Joe Mauer’s recent note that Liriano’s outing against the White Sox was the best he’d seen the ball come out of Liriano’s hand in a long time, it’s an interesting situation to ponder.
Lest we get ahead of ourselves, starting with today’s match would be prudent.
Friday: Carl Pavano v. Robinson Tejada
Every team still in the AL Central Race made a move at the deadline to bolster their chances, with the Twins and Sox making another move during the waiver period. Of the major players added: Jake Peavy, Alex Rios, Jarrod Washburn, Orlando Cabrera, and Carl Pavano, it would be hard to say that anyone has had a bigger impact on the race than Pavano has. Well, positive impact, Washburn has been bad since his arrival in the Motor City, which has certainly changed the character of the race.
In his nine starts as a Twin, Pavano has gone six or more innings in eight of them, taking pressure off of a bullpen which is rapidly approaching overworked status. Far from a Livan Hernandez-like turtle whose only utility is durability, Pavano has given the Twins seven quality starts, including six in a row. He’s just 3-3 with the team, but as any good sabermetrican will tell you, wins are one of the worst possible ways to measure a pitcher’s performance.
Robinson Tejada was converted from a reliever to a starter at the beginning of the month. All he’s done since then is go 3-0 with just two runs and nine hits allowed in 22.1 innings over four starts, good for a WHIP of .850 and an ERA of 0.89. His support neutral value above replacement (adjusted for quality of lineups faced), a stat which measures a starting pitcher’s value to his team outside of bullpen, offensive, or defensive performance is 1.4, equivalent to Armando Galarraga’s output and in 21 fewer starts.
He’s already beaten the Tigers twice, now he’ll turn his attention to the other AL Central contender.
Tejada’s only major limitation right now is the number of innings he throws. He’s yet to go more than six innings in a start and has two starts of fewer than six. Given that the Royals’ bullpen has been less than stellar, fifth worst in the majors over 433.2 innings*, the Twins may be best served by forcing Tejada to throw a ton of pitches and getting him out of the game as early as possible. They can certainly score enough runs off the bullpen as long as they don’t mind only having 3-4 innings to do it.
*In point of fact, this flatters the Royals bullpen, which has been downright terrible. They are actually posting a lower team WXRL than Joakim Soria is posting on his own. This means that the pitchers in the ‘pen not nicknamed ‘The Mexicutioner’ have been around two full wins below replacement level.
Pavano had his second worst start as a Twin against KC, but also through seven innings of two run ball the last time he faced them. If he can keep the Twins close while the bats wait out Tejada, the Twins will have a decent chance against the Royals ‘pen.
Saturday: Scott Baker v. Lenny DiNardo
On the surface, this would seem to be the Twins best shot at a win in this series. Baker has been their best pitcher all season by any metric, and DiNardo is the weakest of the three pitchers the Twins are slated to face.
DiNardo spent most of his season in the PCL where in 23 starts he posted a 10-5 record with an era of exactly pi (well, pi to three digits, 3.14) and a WHIP of 1.14. Those are certainly serviceable numbers, and if he was posting similar figures since his call-up, the Twins might be nervous.
However, since returning to KC, DiNardo has failed to deliver even a quality start. He’s yet to finish the sixth inning, and has a WHIP of 2.35. His last time out he was scorched for eight runs on 10 hits and an appalling six walks in just five innings of work against the Boston Red Sox. DiNardo’s role on the team seems to be best described as “lull the opposition into a false sense of security before Greinke pitches tomorrow.”
Baker, on the other hand, has been good as gold for the Twins. He’s delivered the Twins a winnable ball game in 52 percent of his outings, better than A.J Burnett, Carlos Zambrano, or Cole Hammels. He was beaten his last time out by the Tigers in his shortest outing since he had faced the Tigers on August 4th. After that game, Baker won his next three starts including a two-hit shutout of the Indians in his next start.
The Twins shouldn’t need him to be quite that good, though there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, assuming Pavano throws six or seven innings. If he can go seven innings with fewer than two runs, the Twins should be able to score more than that off of DiNardo.
There is virtue in having two strong arms leading off the series beyond the obvious. Since neither Baker nor Pavano is likely to need a massive bullpen intervention, there should be plenty of fresh arms for Sunday’s matinee between Liriano and Greinke.
I’d like a little more space than the last 1500 words of an already full article to discuss what Greinke has meant to the Royals, and whether the Twins have any chance of beating him, so rather than tack it on here, stop back this weekend for a full look at Sunday’s game.