Playoff Bubble, New Rules Create Interesting Wrinkle for Twins

Photo credit: David Berding (USA TODAY Sports)

The good news is that the Minnesota Twins are going to the playoffs. They haven’t officially clinched it yet — like the Chicago White Sox did in front of them — but it’s more or less a cinch.

The bad news is that it might, in fact, mean the Twins face the New York Yankees in the first round.

But there’s a reasonable chance it’ll be in a series played exclusively at Target Field, where the Twins are 21-5 this season.

In question is whether or not that last point will, in fact, happen. The Twins have two wins in hand over the Yankees with eight games to play. According to Team Rankings, the Twins have a 39.4 percent chance to be the No. 4 seed — and host — and a 44.5 percent chance of being the No. 5 seed, and going on the road.

Those odds will shift once the AL Central is clinched, one way or the other. Since seeds 1-3 are division winners no matter what, the chances of the Twins grabbing one of those seeds still hover in the 1-4 percent range. In other words, as things stand right now, Team Rankings has the Twins at 48.5 percent odds of securing one of the top-four 4, and 51.5 percent at, well, not.

Now with that said, the Yankees are in a similar spot in terms of the AL East not being clinched yet. And if we look at the projected standings on FanGraphs, they have the Twins with an ever-so-slight advantage to end the season. They have the Twins winning 35.3 games and the Yankees 34.9.

If they were to tie with 35 wins, hypothetically, the first tiebreaker would be divisional record. The Twins are 21-17 against the AL Central; the Yankees are 20-13 against the AL East.

In other words, the rest of the season lies in the hands of the final eight games for the Twins — Cubs (3), Tigers (2), Reds (3) — and the final 10 for the Yankees. That’s three games against the Red Sox, four against the Blue Jays and three against the Marlins.

The divisional games will loom large in terms of tiebreakers — and the Red Sox have basically played dead all season — but the Blue Jays and Marlins have a lot to play for. Toronto’s playoff odds as of this writing are 97.2 percent according to Team Rankings and Miami’s are, somehow, 65.4 percent.

The Yankees also have a 10-game sprint to end the season in the next 10 days. The Twins are off on Sept. 21 and 24, meaning they could shuffle their rotation to, for instance, perhaps get Kenta Maeda an extra start down the stretch.

Is your head spinning yet?

Now ordinarily it’d be an exciting situation for the Twins to be heading into the playoffs with the prospect of such a home-field advantage. But the wrinkle here is that every game after the initial series will be played in a bubble location — either in Los Angeles or San Diego for AL playoff qualifiers.

How much will this matter?

Well, consider that the Twins have an .808 winning percentage at home this season, but also factor in that it’s not a typical season. The Twins have only had to face AL and NL Central foes at Target Field. The NL Central has, well, not been strong this year: Four of the five teams are below .500 as of this writing. The only team the Twins haven’t faced yet is the Cubs, who are the only NL Central team above .500.

Where will the Twins face the Cubs? That’s right, on the road.

In the Wild Card Game era, which started in 2014, playoff teams are 115-96 (.545) at home. That’s not an immense advantage — akin to an 88-win regular season, for context — but it’s certainly not comforting when thinking about the Twins, again, possibly going into Yankee Stadium.

That’s also especially concerning when one of those three games — probably Game 1, but who knows how the Yankees will line things up if they have to win every last game down the stretch — will come against Gerrit Cole. The rest of the Yankees rotation is more vulnerable, but Cole plus that bullpen is an easy way to punch a ticket to a 1-0 deficit in a short series.

Not just any short series — but a best-of-3.

But if we wipe all that aside, the postseason is actually lining up quite nicely for the Twins because of a new wrinkle recently announced. That is, that there will be zero off days in each series that precedes the World Series.

As Mike Petriello of notes, this will favor teams with more good pitchers. And while that sounds simple enough, keep in mind that teams like the Nationals and Astros dominated in recent seasons with three-headed monsters atop their rotations — Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin in the former, Cole, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke in the latter — while teams like the Yankees made hay with stellar, deep bullpens.

Now, it’ll likely take a confluence of both to make this happen in October.

This happens to favor the Twins. As Petriello wrote on Sept. 16, the Twins have a deep pitching staff. At that time, they had 10 pitchers with an ERA+ of 100 or better — trailing only the Dodgers (13).

If a team has to go four or even five deep rotation-wise in October, few teams are as well-equipped as the Twins. The Twins could feasibly throw Maeda, Jose Berrios, Michael Pineda and one or two of Rich Hill/Jake Odorizzi/Homer Bailey/Randy Dobnak at an opponent with any of the others giving some length in an expanded bullpen.

Having Dobnak come out of the bullpen in a big spot when the Twins need a double play seems like a pretty good idea (58.8 percent groundball rate) if he isn’t going to be in the rotation, for instance.

But either way, the Twins have the depth to let things play out in this bizarre scenario better than most other teams.

And Petriello’s innings threshold was 15 frames. If we dip under that, Cody Stashak (146 ERA+ in 11.2 innings) and Bailey (130, but just one start) also qualify. Both could feasibly play at least nominal roles in October as well.

So yeah, things are going to get wild here for the Twins down the stretch and into October. Buckle up.

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