Yanks over Twins in WC Game? Not so fast

Unpredictability of one-game format may negate years of New York dominance

September 21st, 2017

There was a moment on Wednesday -- admittedly a brief and fleeting moment, but if you are a Minnesota baseball fan, you take them when you get them -- when it looked like the Minnesota Twins would beat the New York Yankees and even up the season series at three games apiece. This would have been a big deal. The Twins have not split a season series with the Yankees in more than a decade.
The Twins took a 3-0 lead in the third inning, thanks to a surprising flurry of hits against , the generally unhittable young Yankees starter. For the season, only and Chris Sale have allowed fewer hits per nine innings among American League starters. But the Twins scraped together four hits and a walk and took a 3-0 lead. That gave them a roughly 80 percent expectancy of winning the game.
• Up-to-the-minute standings
But because these are the Twins and the Yankees, the math had it wrong. The Yanks scored three runs in the bottom of the inning, six more the next and the world order was restored. The Yankees won, 11-3. They won the season series, 4-2.
The Yankees' record against the Twins since 2002 -- and this includes four soul-crushing postseason series for Minnesota -- is now 89-33.
Repeating: New York is now 89-33 against Minnesota since 2002. That's a .730 winning percentage -- basically three wins out of four. That would calculate to 118 wins in a 162-game season.

And, as I wrote a couple of years ago, many of those Twins losses have been particularly heartbreaking.
• 2017 postseason picture
But even without looking at the particulars, these are staggering numbers. It's easy to forget because of a few rough years recently, but the Twins have hardly been doormats. Since 2002, they have a winning record -- even including a lamentable postseason record -- against teams not named the Yankees.

The Yankees have a .569 non-Twins win percentage since 2002.
The Twins have a .507 non-Yankees win percentage since 2002.

By the math, the Yankees should win more games against the Twins, but it should be reasonably close. You would expect Minnesota to win its share, to take the season series now and again, to (gasp) perhaps even take a postseason series. But none of these things are happening. Our own Tom Tango found that the chances of these Yanks beating those Twins 89 out of 122 times is basically 0.01 percent -- one-hundredth of one percent.
It isn't the math, though, that is the most baffling part of all this. The Twins and Yankees do not stay the same. Not one player from either 2002 team is still in the big leagues. The 2002 Twins featured a young Johan Santana, who has been retired so long he's Hall of Fame-eligible. The 2002 Yanks featured Robin Ventura, who has already been hired and dismissed as a manager. There is no reason for this domination to linger.
• 2017 postseason schedule
And yet, it lingers -- the Yankees have a winning record against the Twins every single year since 2006. New York has outscored Minnesota by almost 200 runs (657-460) since 2002.
All of this is particularly current because, should the standings hold -- no sure thing, of course, but should they hold -- the Twins will play in New York in the winner-take-all American League Wild Card Game on Oct. 3. And while this scenario might give Twins fans nightmares because of history, I can't help but think that Yankees fans might be more nervous.

Here is why: The Yankees will be heavy favorites in that game. They will be heavy favorites because, by most measures, they're better than the Twins. They will be heavy favorites because (assuming both teams get to set up their rotations the way they want) the Yanks will have the dominant starting pitcher. In a perfect world, New York would probably start Severino and his 100-plus-mph fastball. And Minnesota would presumably start , who has put up good traditional numbers (15-8, 3.34 ERA) but has been thumped since mid-June.
(The Twins might surprise by putting up their 23-year-old phenom with the invisible slider, , but, yes, that would be a surprise.)

And the Yankees will be favored because of this crazy history.
But that's the appeal and volatility of baseball's Wild Card Games: The Twins absolutely could win that contest to advance to the AL Division Series. Most of the players on Minnesota's current roster were kindergarteners or so back in 2002. plays the best center field in the game right now. Joe Mauer is having a renaissance season. is …
… well, the point is that when two good baseball teams play against each other in one game, they each have a good chance of winning. This is true even for the Twins and Yankees, no matter what the numbers might say.