Sizing up each component of Blue Jays-Twins wild-card series
Photo credit:Connor Cunningham/Minnesota Twins
By Thomas Hall2 months ago
Despite losing their final two games of the 2023 campaign, the Toronto Blue Jays narrowly secured the third American League wild-card seed with an 89-73 record, earning a first-round matchup versus the AL Central-winning Minnesota Twins, who finished 87-75.
Now the question becomes, which franchise is better equipped to come away victorious in this best-of-three series? Can Toronto pull off the upset at Target Field? Or will Minnesota overcome the narrative of being an average team in baseball’s least competitive division this season?
With that in mind, let’s explore how these clubs match up against one another and determine who holds the edge in each category.
Advantage: Slight edge to Twins
On paper, Minnesota and Toronto stack up similarly in the batter’s box, deploying above-average offences in the regular season. The Twins, however, registered a bit more power as their team slugging percentage (.427) finished .010 percentage points higher than the Blue Jays’.
In addition, Minnesota’s lineup also crushed 233 home runs in 2023, 45 more than Toronto. Since it’s more challenging to string hits together in the post-season, round-trippers typically have a significant role in October – an aspect that may not bode well for the Blue Jays, barring an offensive surge.
The Twins made considerably less contact (74.1%) and struck out at a much higher clip (26.6%) than the Blue Jays’ offence (78.5% contact rate, 20.9% K rate) during the regular season. Still, their edge in the slugging department could serve as a difference-maker.
Injuries, however, could throw a wrench into the conversation as the Twins currently have three key position players on the IL: Carlos Correa, Royce Lewis and Byron Buxton. Manager Rocco Baldelli has previously stated that he expects his All-Star shortstop to be available by Tuesday, but there’s still plenty of uncertainty surrounding Lewis and Buxton.
If both miss the series, it’d be a massive advantage for Toronto, which will be without catcher Danny Jansen – one of the club’s most productive power threats.
Jun 1, 2023; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (39) catches a fly ball hit by Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Tyrone Taylor (not shown) in the fifth inning at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Advantage: Blue Jays
Toronto’s front office prioritized defence over offence last winter, and it certainly paid off during the regular season, as the organization led the majors in DRS (82) and ranked 10th in OAA (11). The Twins, in comparison, placed ninth in DRS (33) and 21st in OAA (-8) throughout the industry.
The Blue Jays outfield, of course, was the main reason for the club’s stellar defensive performance. Thanks to the elite Daulton Varsho-Kevin Kiermaier-George Springer combination, the club posted the most DRS (46) and the second-most OAA (21) in the big leagues.
With Matt Chapman roaming the hot corner, a Gold Glove-calibre defender at first base in Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and a reliable pitch blocker and framer in Alejandro Kirk behind the plate, Toronto should hold the edge in the field by a wide margin.
Most clubs around the majors capitalized on MLB’s incentive to increase action on the basepaths. But that group didn’t include the Blue Jays or Twins, who were among the least impactful baserunning threats this season.
Toronto, in particular, recorded a minus-13.5 baserunning runs above average – or BsR – good for 27th in baseball. That ranked ahead of just the New York Yankees (-13.7), Miami Marlins (-14.1) and Colorado Rockies (-17.8). But Minnesota wasn’t much better, finishing 18th with a -1.3 BsR.
Interestingly, with 99 stolen bases, the Blue Jays swiped 13 more bags than the Twins in 2023. But they weren’t as effective as their counterpart at advancing first to third and scoring from any of the three bases, explaining the wide disparity in BsR values.
Cam Eden – playoff-eligible as an injury replacement for Jansen – could be Toronto’s X-factor in pinch-running scenarios, though, as the 25-year-old went 53-for-57 in stolen-base attempts with triple-A Buffalo this season.
Aug 23, 2023; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Kevin Gausman (34) throws a first inning pitch against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Advantage: Slight edge to Blue Jays
All season long, the strength of this Blue Jays roster was led by one of the sport’s premier pitching staffs, which endured a gruelling workload over these past six months. But so, too, did the Twins’ starting rotation.
Toronto’s starting five posted the third-lowest ERA (3.85), the fourth-highest strikeout-to-walk rate difference (16.7%), the fifth-most innings pitched (894.2) and the sixth-highest fWAR (13.5) in the majors. Minnesota, however, finished ahead of them in all those categories. They also enjoyed superior results when facing a lineup for a third time, registering an AL-best .222 OPP AVG.
But depth is where the Twins’ rotation begins to drop off, as there is a significant gap between front-line starters Sonny Gray and Pablo López and the remaining three. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, don’t have that issue with José Berríos and Chris Bassitt – in no set order – positioned behind ace Kevin Gausman.
While Minnesota may possess an edge in a two-game set, the scales would likely shift in Toronto’s favour with Berríos or Bassitt on the mound in a pivotal Game 3, opposed by Bailey Ober or Joe Ryan – two far less experienced arms.
Advantage: Blue Jays
Relief pitchers have been tasked with shortening playoff games for almost a decade. Assuming that trend continues, it should undoubtedly favour the Blue Jays, who enter this post-season with one of their most potent bullpens in franchise history.
Toronto’s ‘pen concluded the regular season leading the majors in K-BB rate difference (17.6%) and chase rate (34.6%), whereas Minnesota’s placed eighth (15.8%) and 28th (28.8%), respectively.
The mid-season acquisitions of Jordan Hicks and Génesis Cabrera, plus Chad Green’s return from Tommy John surgery, played massive roles in both metrics. But it also saw the relief corps’ average velocity tic up considerably, increasing to 95.2 m.p.h. since Aug. 1. That put them slightly ahead of the Twins, whose relievers were clocked at 93.8.
Minnesota’s bullpen consists of a fearsome trio at the back end, including Jhoan Duran, Emilio Pagán and Griffin Jax – all of whom can effectively generate swing-and-miss while limiting free passes.
Still, like with the starting rotation debate, Toronto’s depth of high-leverage options could go a long way in deciding the outcome of this tightly contested bout.
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