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Braves at Twins Series Preview: Beyond Metrodome

Brooks Conrad is so badass he doesn't even have to high five.
Brooks Conrad is so badass he doesn't even have to high five.

The Braves' first interleague series is shaping up to be quite a doozy, featuring two first-place teams with almost identical records. The Braves (35-26) and Twins (35-25) are similar in style as well as results. Both teams have a good, OBP-driven offense, a deep starting rotation that doesn't strike out many guys, and an excellent bullpen. The pitching matchups in the series seem oddly even as well, as you'll see below. It's actually kind of eerie.

This will be the first trip for the Braves to the Target Field, and thus their first chance to be exposed to the Minnesota weather during a baseball game (not counting the suspicious air currents at the Metrodome). As of right now, it looks like rain might be an issue for Saturday's game, at least. The temperatures should be okay, though. And you know what? It still beats playing on turf.

Pitching Matchups

Friday, 8:00 ET: Tim Hudson (6-1, 2.44 ERA, 4.48 FIP) vs. Francisco Liriano (5-3, 3.10 ERA, 2.28 FIP)

The series gets off to a fantastic start with each team throwing its ace. While Tim Hudson continues to get extreme amounts of ground balls and outperform his FIP by almost half, Liriano has done something even more impressive--outpitch Ubaldo Jimenez. I know, I know. Those of you who still swear by things like won-lost records and ERA will probably give a giant THUMBS DOWN to that statement. But if you dig a bit deeper, it's true:

Liriano: 9.41 K/9, 2.60 BB/9, 0.25 HR/9, 2.28 FIP, 3.13 xFIP
Jimenez: 8.04 K/9, 2.99 BB/9, 0.21 HR/9, 2.72 FIP, 3.52 xFIP

So how is Liriano's ERA more than 2 runs higher than Jimenez's? Jimenez has given up a .229 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and stranded an astonishing 92.4% of his baserunners (LOB%). Liriano, on the other hand, has given up a ridiculous .349 BABIP and has a pedestrian 75.4% LOB%. With normal luck, Liriano would be getting much more attention; he certainly deserves it (so far).

The rest of the pitching matchups, and much more, after the jump...

Saturday, 7:00 ET: Derek Lowe (8-5, 5.04 ERA, 4.30 FIP) vs. Nick Blackburn (6-3, 5.21 ERA, 5.10 FIP)

After starting with its ace, each team throws probably its worst starter. And, funnily enough, both these guys have more wins than their ace counterparts.

Blackburn has actually had a fascinating year. He's struck out only 17 guys in 67.1 IP, which is easily the lowest rate in the league (2.27 K/9). To give you some idea of how low Blackburn's K rate is, the Braves have 6 relievers with more strikeouts than Blackburn, and none of them have thrown even 40% as many innings*. Blackburn has never been a high-strikeout guy, but his K rate is down steeply from the past 2 years. He's reportedly been suffering from forearm soreness all year, which might explain the dip. Regardless, I don't think there's any way he can stay in the Twins' rotation if he doesn't start striking out at least a couple more guys per 9 innings.

* You'll never guess who's thrown the most relief innings for the Braves this year. It's not Moylan, or Saito, or Wagner, or O'Flaherty, or Chavez. It's Jonny Venters, who didn't even start the year on the team!

Sunday, 2:00 ET: Kris Medlen (3-1, 3.21 ERA, 3.92 FIP) vs. Kevin Slowey (7-3, 3.45 ERA, 3.83 FIP)

Yet another fairly even matchup. Both these guys have flown under the radar a bit, but they're both good pitchers. Slowey has been very consistent this year. He's only given up more than 3 runs in 2 of his 12 starts. He's also coming off probably his best start of the year, in which he threw 7 innings of 3-hit shutout ball. Of course, that was against the Royals, so you should take it with a grain of salt, but it's still impressive.

Stat of the Series - .356 / .387 / .492

That line is what Melky Cabrera has done since May 20th, a span of 20 games.

Question of the Series: Who are these Twins, anyway?

Since many of you are probably unfamiliar with the Twins (outside of Joe Mauer), here's a review of some of their key regulars and bullpen guys:

  • Mauer has been great (.320 / .396 / .454), though not as ridiculously great as he was last year.
  • First baseman Justin Morneau, though, has been Mauer-esque. He leads the majors in OBP (.474), SLG (.665), and wOBA (.481). He's second in the majors in AVG (.365), walks (44), and ISO (.307). He's been pretty much unstoppable. Fun fact: the slugging Canadian already has as much WAR as he earned in his entire 2006 MVP season (4.3).
  • Orlando Hudson (.305 / .377 / .421) has been a good pickup at second base, but he's on the DL now. They've tried outfielder Michael Cuddyer (.276 / .337 / .452) at second lately, but that's obviously just a stopgap measure, as he's not really a second baseman. Hudson should be back soon (but not in time for this series).
  • The Twins have really needed Morneau's crazy season, because the left side of their infield has been downright McLouthian. The puu-puu platter of J.J. Hardy, Nick Punto, Brendan Harris, Alexi Casilla, Matt Tolbert, Danny Valencia, and Trevor Plouffe have combined for a brutal .213 / .277 / .285 line, mostly at short and third. Actually, that's even worse than McLouth's line, and in more than twice the total at-bats! Hardy and Casilla are also on the DL and will miss the series.
  • The Twins' 4-man outfield is solid but not spectacular. Delmon Young (.279 / .318 / .475) still doesn't walk, but has had a bit of a breakthrough year with the bat nonetheless. Denard Span (.277 / .354 / .365) is a solid player, though he seems to have lost his power this year. Cuddyer, who I mentioned above, is an average regular. And Jason Kubel (.239 / .347 / .417) makes up for his low average with lots of walks and decent power.
  • At DH, the Twins usually rotate Kubel and Jim Thome. Thome's put up a .242 / .377 / .475 line when in the lineup. Not bad for a guy making $1.5 million.
  • In the bullpen, the Twins have not missed a beat in Joe Nathan's absence. New closer Jon Rauch has been very good (2.63 ERA / 3.15 FIP) and has converted 15/17 save opportunities. The top 4 set up guys all have ERAs under 2.50: Matt Guerrier (1.63 ERA / 3.32 FIP), Brian Duensing (1.85 ERA / 3.89 FIP), Jose Mijares (2.31 ERA / 5.00 FIP), and Alex Burnett (2.45 ERA / 2.76 FIP). As you can see, all of those guys have out-pitched their peripherals, but aside from Mijares, all of their peripherals are pretty good, too.

The Braves are fortunate to catch the Twins at a time when 3 of their main infielders are on the DL, but despite that, this will be a very tough series. I expect a lot of close games (watch, they'll probably all be blowouts now that I've said that). If the Braves can somehow win at least 2 games, I will be extremely impressed. Even losing 2/3 should not be seen as a bad result. The Twinkies are an excellent team, and we are playing in their park, where they are 20-10.

With that said, I'm hoping that we put a 1980's-era-Mike-Tyson beatdown on them and sweep them by a score of, I don't know, 42 to 2. I want revenge for 1991, and I want it to be (metaphorically) bloody.

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