Potential Playoff Preview - Does the Opponent Matter?

As we delve into the rest of September/October, there are about 23 games left for the teams in the playoff hunt.  For the most part, the AL races have been decided; the Twins have the lowest percentage chance of making the playoffs out of all the leaders and they currently sit at 94.1%, while the Yankees, Rays and Rangers are all above 97%.  Outside of a miracle, these are the 4 playoff teams.  The Rangers are done with the AL West and have been in coast mode as they try to get healthy for their first division title in over a decade.  The Twins are playing solid baseball as they usually do in the stretch run.  So for excitement, that leaves us to watch the Rays/Yankees beat each other up for the right to claim the division title.

Right now, the Rays are in position to claim the Wild Card berth with a record of 84-55, as the Yankees have an even better record of 87-53 (2.5 game lead, 2 in the loss column).  Two and a half games isn't very much and with seven games left in head-to-head match ups - and considering the Rays have an easier schedule down the stretch - the division title could be anyone's to win. 

So the question stands: who would the Rays rather face in the first round, Minnesota or Texas?  This is not to say you don't try to win as many as possible and take the division, giving you have home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Home field advantage is important in the postseason, especially in the ALCS, and would especially help versus the Rangers, who are a poor road team (33-37).  But ignoring that, for the five-game ALDS, who would the Rays stand a better chance beating: Cliff Lee and the Rangers or Joe Mauer and the Twins?

Line-ups on September 8, 2010:

Twins BA OBP SLG Rangers BA OBP SLG
Span 0.267 0.334 0.350 Kinsler 0.296 0.380 0.425
Hudson 0.282 0.353 0.393 Young 0.292 0.342 0.465
Mauer 0.325 0.403 0.469 Cruz 0.310 0.367 0.564
Kubel 0.257 0.334 0.440 Guerrero 0.298 0.342 0.498
Cuddyer 0.273 0.338 0.420 Francouer 0.240 0.294 0.368
Young 0.301 0.332 0.485 Murphy 0.286 0.353 0.434
Morales 0.200 0.278 0.200 Cantu 0.253 0.304 0.386
Hardy 0.266 0.316 0.396 Molina 0.237 0.289 0.318
Tolbert 0.242 0.325 0.424 Guzman 0.266 0.312 0.338
Thome 0.278 0.407 0.635 Hamilton 0.361 0.414 0.635
Valencia 0.343 0.382 0.454 Andrus 0.276 0.355 0.315

The reason Thome+Valencia and Hamilton+Andrus are listed separately is because they figure to start, but weren't in today. Morneau is on the 60-Day DL and is not likely to make the starting postseason lineup.

For one, both teams have strong line-ups for the postseason.  The Minnesota Twins have a more well-rounded line-up compared to the Rangers and would present a more difficult challenge in the playoffs.  Since the Rays would play the Rangers at home compared to the Twins on the road, they would have an offensive advantage against the Rangers since Texas does not hit well away from Arlington:

Home---Away---wOBA

Twins: .289/.362/.427---.269/.332/.432---.340

Rangers: .290/.352/.455---.262/.322/.387---.332

Rays: .248/.338/.400---.253/.335/.415---.332

The fielding for both teams is a plus, but with the Twins again having the advantage over the Rangers.  The Twins' UZR is 26.5 and a UZR/150 of 4.0, compared to the Rangers' 15.3 UZR and 2.9 UZR/150. To give a comparison, the Rays' UZR and UZR/150 are 37.0 and 6.6.  This was definitely evident when the Rays played the Rangers at home.  Granted the Rangers did not have all their starters during that series, but they did make numerous defensive errors that were costly to the team.

Okay, so the Twins are the better team when batting and fielding the ball, but what about pitching?

Twins ERA FIP xFIP Rangers ERA FIP xFIP
Liriano 3.24 2.37 3.05 Lee 3.37 2.63 3.24
Pavano 3.52 3.71 3.96 Wilson 3.10 3.60 4.28
Duensing 2.09 3.67 4.14 Lewis 3.96 3.69 3.99

This is where the balance of the series becomes difficult.  Both teams have a #1 starter that is a potentially dominating LHP (who doesn't have one of these nowadays though?).  Although Fransisco Liriano has been the better starting pitcher so far this season, Cliff Lee (when healthy) has been dominant on a level that's rarely seen; in a five game series, he could easily be the difference between a series victory or less.  Even though the Rays have gotten to Lee three times this season, all three were close games until the eighth inning, who knows how many more times they can keep scratching a run across. 

After Lee, though, the Rangers still have two very strong pitchers.  C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis have been putting up solid numbers all season and the Rays haven't seen much of them.  Facing those two and Cliff Lee in the same series would make Texas a tough opponent, even with home-field advantage. The Twins have an easier rotation* after Liriano; Carl Pavano and Brian Duensing don't overpower the opposition as much, but will still pose a challenge.

*Slowey and Baker are currently injured, so I'm not going to put them into the top three just yet.

In the bullpen, it's Matt Capps against Neftali Feliz.  One throws 100+ and the other doesn't (hint: Feliz is really, really good).  The Rays have had success against both bullpens though, but moreso against Minnesota. And as for stadiums, comparing Arlington to Target Field is a tough at this point, considering how new Target Field is. It doesn't seem to be as difficult place to play in as the Metrodome and it's tougher for a ball to leave the park, while Texas is the opposite.

So overall, it's hard to figure which way the Rays may be better off.  Both teams are well balanced, and the games will likely be close regardless of who the Rays play.  Minnesota would probably allow more offense than Texas, but they're also a better all-around team.  The Rays don't have a specific advantage against either team, so we should expect the games to be what postseason baseball should be: hard-fought and enjoyable.

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