Entering must-win G3, Twins needing offense

Minnesota has been handcuffed by NY starters early in ALDS

October 7th, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS -- It might not have seemed like it based on their performances over the weekend, but the Twins were the second-best team in the Major Leagues at hitting offspeed and breaking pitches this season.

The Twins slugged .441 against non-fastballs during the regular season, trailing only the Astros. But Yankees starters James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka executed their offspeed offerings and mixed their pitches throughout their starts in Games 1 and 2 of the American League Division Series, handcuffing Minnesota's lineup for two games and putting the Twins in an 0-2 hole.

Entering the postseason, the Twins had the fourth-fewest strikeouts and the fourth-lowest whiff rate in the AL, but they struck out a combined 27 times in the first two games of the ALDS. They owned the AL's third-best hard-hit rate during the regular season, but they mustered only six hard-hit balls total in Game 2.

That has catcher Mitch Garver wondering about the Twins' offensive approach and preparation.

"That's something we're going to have to address going into Game 3," Garver said. "It seems like we're swinging at a lot of balls and taking a lot of strikes. It's almost like our approach is a touch backwards, one pitch ahead or one pitch behind. Guys are looking for something, they're getting the opposite."

It was clear to Twins manager Rocco Baldelli that the Yankees' pitching staff was attacking the Bomba Squad with a greater degree of offspeed pitches than they could have anticipated, which could have subverted the Minnesota's expectations and kept it guessing to a greater extent.

"Sometimes, the pitcher comes up and it's not even close to the scouting reports," infielder Jonathan Schoop said. "Sometimes, the pitcher doesn't throw a lot of fastballs. Like Paxton, he throws a lot of fastballs, but he came up and threw a lot of curveballs. So you've just got to make an adjustment in the game."

It would be easy to say that the Twins should adjust by taking more pitches early in the game -- as the Yankees have in this series -- to force the opposing starter to work deep into counts and potentially make mistakes in the zone. But that would actually further remove the Twins from their offensive identity this season, in which they generally try to identify pitches early in counts and ambush pitchers with aggressive swings.

The Twins had the third-highest swing rate in the AL at 48.2 percent, the highest first-pitch swing rate at 31.9 percent and they see the fewest pitches per plate appearance at 3.85. But it seemed to C.J. Cron that the conviction with which many of the Twins typically swing early in counts was absent because of how the Yankees threw them for a curve -- literally.

"I just didn’t think we were committed all the way around," Cron said. "We were timid. We wanted to swing, but we weren’t swinging with the same aggression we have all year."

Some of the Twins' hitters, like Max Kepler, Jake Cave and Marwin Gonzalez, simply tipped their caps to Tanaka and the Yankees for their pitching plans and acknowledged that Tanaka's execution was the driving factor in Minnesota's lack of success.

It seems like the Yankees' pitching staff has been content to aberrate from their season-long pitching tendencies, with the normally fastball-reliant Paxton throwing as many curveballs as four-seamers in Game 1. But around the Twins' clubhouse, the message seemed to be, as a whole, trusting in the plan that got them a record-breaking 307 homers -- among many other records on offense -- throughout the regular season, despite the lack of success in two postseason games.

"It'll be important for us to simplify our approach," Garver said. "Simplifying it, quality at-bats, putting the ball in play. Hard contact the way we know how, that's what we're going to be looking for."

"We're a great offensive team," outfielder Jake Cave said. "We've showed it all year. A couple glimpses these last two [games[ we showed that we can still swing and stuff like that. So I don't think there's going to be anything different that anybody is going to be trying to do or a different approach or anything like that."

If history is any indication, Yankees Game 3 starter Luis Severino should attack the Twins with his fastball. If more recent history is to be taken into consideration, the Yanks might scrap that again in favor of another offspeed attack. If the Twins are to stay alive in the playoffs, they'll need to quickly identify which version of Severino will be on the mound and adjust more effectively than they have in the first two games.

"Of course, we don't know what they're going to do next," Baldelli said. "No one ever does. But I think that's what happened in the game. I think they pitched in a very particular way, and it's our move next."