Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Myth of Momentum

Brian Duensing hands the ball to Ron Gardenhire after a disappointing start in Detroit on Sunday.
My, oh my... how things can change in a week.  Judging from Facebook and Twitter feeds, we might as well stick a fork in the Twins.  After clinching the division last Tuesday, the Twin Cities were positively buzzin' with playoff fever.  There was talk of having the best record in baseball and home field advantage throughout the AL playoffs.

All because of momentum.

Yes, the Twins were rolling last week after sweeping Cleveland out of Target Field.  By the time they hit Motown for a hugely anticipated Liriano vs. Verlander pitching matchup on Friday, there was even talk of a 100 win season.

But Liriano left that game with a tummy ache.  The Tigers teed off on Jeff Manship and Alex Burnett (two guys who will not be on the playoff roster), and the Twins winning streak was over.  They finished the sweep by destroying Carl Pavano and by cashing in on an uncharacteristically wild Brian Duensing.  No matter, though, because the last-place Kansas City Royals were next on the schedule.

Two games into the three-game set in Kansas City, people are starting to freak out.  Kevin Slowey was horrible on Monday, probably pitching himself out of a post-season roster spot.  Nick Blackburn was equally atrocious tonight, putting his #4 playoff starter spot at risk (Scott Baker has a huge opportunity if he can come through with a big game on Wednesday).  The Twins have suddenly lost five in a row, mostly on account of lousy pitching.  They have given up ten or more runs in four of those five games.  Now there is panic.

All because of momentum.

Here is my plea, Twins fans.  Settle down.  Relax.  It's going to be okay.  Yes, home field advantage would be nice, but it's not as important as being healthy and rested.  (It should be pointed out, though, that neither the Yankees or Rays have capitalized on the Twins slump.  The Twins are still only two games behind Tampa with five games to play.)

  • Joe Mauer and Jim Thome have not played in any of these last five games.  (Do you think it's a coincidence that Mauer hasn't been behind the plate for any of the recent pitching meltdowns?)  
  • J.J. Hardy has only played in one of them.  
  • All the relief pitchers who will make the post-season roster (Capps, Fuentes, Crain, Rauch, Guerrier, Mijares) have been fine.  
  • Clinching early has given Gardenhire the ability to set up his rotation for the playoffs.  There will be no repeat of last year, when Brian Duensing and all nine of his career major league starts was matched up against CC Sabathia in Game 1 of the ALDS.  This year it will be Liriano, at home, against either Sabathia or David Price.
Yeah, they'll be fine.  Especially since... you know... momentum doesn't mean shit.

The post-season is a new season.  There are countless examples in baseball history of teams who have momentum crashing and burning come October.  There are just as many examples of teams with no momentum, who are able to turn it on with the bright lights.  Let's use a couple of examples from Twins history

The 1987 World Series Champions had no momentum heading into the playoffs.  After clinching the weak American League Western Division in Texas on September 28, the Twins dropped their final five regular season games.  Their 85-77 record would have only achieved fifth place that season in the AL East.  The Detroit Tigers, their ALCS opponent, finished the season on a four-game winning streak, including a victory over the Blue Jays on the last day of the season to give them the division title and a league-best 98-64 record.  They had their aces Doyle Alexander and Jack Morris lined up to pitch the first two games of the ALCS.  They were huge favorites and were, obviously, the team with momentum.

The Twins finished them off in five games.

So much for momentum.

Fast-forward to 2006, and the Twins were on the other side of the coin.  The Tigers dominated the American League all summer.  The Twins were hovering around .500 in early July, about 10.5 games behind Detroit.  You may remember the Twins' unbelievable second half that season, though.  That was the year that we were able to boast the MVP (Justin Morneau), Cy Young winner (Johan Santana), and batting champion (Joe Mauer).  The Twins were able to make up that huge deficit, thanks in no small part to the Tigers collapse.

The Tigers needed just one win in their final regular season series, at home, against the 62-100 Royals, to clinch the AL Central.  They were swept.  The Tigers had a 10 game lead in the division on August 7.  They lost their final five regular season games.  They still made the playoffs as a Wild Card team, but instead of hosting Oakland in the Division Series, they had to travel to Yankee Stadium.  The Tigers did not have the momentum that year.

Because the Twins did.  The Twins topped off their incredible two-month long hot streak by watching the end of the Tigers' loss on the Jumbotron at the Metrodome.  When it was over, the team celebrated on the Dome's turf with the fans.  They were staying home to open the playoffs against Oakland.  They were a clear favorite and were the fashionable pick among baseball experts to win the World Series.  The Twins had all the momentum in the world in 2006.

They were swept by the A's in three games.

Meanwhile, the ice cold Tigers upset the Yankees and dominated Oakland, easily advancing to the World Series.  There, they would meet the only team who entered the 2006 post-season with less momentum than them - the St. Louis Cardinals.

Much like the '87 Twins, the '06 Cardinals had the good fortune to play in a terrible division.  They backed into the playoffs with a 83-78 record.  They were 35-39 after the All-Star break, and just 12-17 in September.  They squeaked past the San Diego Padres in the NLDS, only to run into the team with the most momentum in baseball, the New York Mets, in the NLCS.

The Mets finished with a league-best 97-65 regular season record.  They ended the regular season on a four-game winning streak.  They swept the Dodgers in three games in their NLDS series, extending their overall winning streak to seven games.

So, of course, the Cardinals beat them in seven games, beat the Tigers in five, and won the World Series.

So much for momentum.

Make no mistake, I am not arguing that the Twins are going to win the World Series in 2010.  They are in the playoffs, though.  Therefore, they have a chance.  As do the Rays, Yankees, Rangers, Phillies, and Reds (so far).  Just like the '06 Cardinals, '06 Tigers, and '87 Twins.