Let’s get the ugly truth out of the way right up front.
Since the beginning of the 2002 season, when Tom Kelly stepped down as manager and was replaced by Ron Gardenhire, the Twins are 33-89 against the New York Yankees. That’s a .270 winning percentage, or the equivalent of a 44-118 record in a 162-game season. It includes the playoffs, where the Twins are an even worse 2-12 (.142 winning percentage) vs. the Yankees, and have been knocked out in the first round by New York in each of their last four postseason trips, the last two (2009, and 2010) via 3-0 sweeps. It’s been 15 years since the Twins even managed a winning record against the Yankees during one season.
New York’s dominance over the Twins has shaped an entire generation of Minnesota baseball fans. Can you remember how old you were when you first started paying serious attention to baseball? For me it was eight. I started playing Little League, and the Twins won their second World Series title, in 1991. I can vividly remember watching those playoff games on my parents’ couch in Highland Park, recording my own version of box scores in a notebook. From that point forward, I was hooked for life.
Not only has it been nearly three decades since the Twins made a World Series run, it’s been 14 years since they won a playoff game. Thirty-something Twins fans—the ones who watched Kirby Puckett and Jack Morris, heard “Touch ‘Em All!” and “We’ll See You Tomorrow Night!”—they have fond memories. Twenty-something Twins fans have … well, they’re more like wartime flashbacks.
With all due respect to Phil Cuzzi, almost of that sadness has been dished out by the Yankees.
Win Probability Added is a stat that accounts for how each play impacts winning and losing, giving more weight to, say, a game-tying single in the ninth inning than a grand slam in the middle of a blowout. Joe Mauer leads this year’s Twins with +2.9 WPA, meaning he’s added nearly three wins compared to an average player. Kyle Gibson has a team-worst -1.6 WPA this year, meaning he’s subtracted about two wins.
Based on WPA, here are the Twins who have hurt the team the most in games vs. the Yankees since 2002:
-1.8, Brian Duensing
-1.6, Denard Span
-1.5, Michael Cuddyer
-1.4, Joe Nathan
-1.4, Glen Perkins
-1.2, Kyle Gibson
-1.1, Luis Rivas
-1.1, Cristian Guzman
-1.0, Nick Punto
-1.0, Mike Trombley
-1.0, Rick Reed
-1.0, Jesse Crain
Just looking at the names on that list provides plenty of nightmare fuel. Mike Trombley vs. Jason Giambi.
Joe Nathan vs. Alex Rodriguez.
Jesse Crain vs. Mark Teixeira. Mariano Rivera vs. everyone. WPA shows that 12 different players have cost the Twins the equivalent of at least one win vs. the Yankees since 2002.
On the flip side, Johan Santana is the only Twins player with a positive WPA of at least 1.0 against New York during that same time (Mauer leads all Twins hitters vs. the Yankees, at +0.9 WPA). When facing the Yankees in the playoffs since 2002, the Twins went 2-2 with Santana on the mound. They went 0-10 with anyone else starting.
Now, in fairness, most fan bases are sick of being beaten up by the Yankees, who have the best record in baseball since 2002 (yes, even if their near-automatic wins vs. the Twins are removed). Of the 15 teams that New York has played at least 40 times since 2002—the 14 other AL teams, plus their interleague rival New York Mets—the Yankees have a winning record against all of them. Certainly, the Yankees’ overall dominance from 2002-2017 explains some of their Twins-specific dominance. They were always in the playoffs, and always waiting to ruin the Twins’ season.
In nearly every one of those 16 seasons—including the postseason matchups—the Yankees were simply superior to the Twins. And in some of those 16 seasons, like 2011 to 2016, they were a vastly superior team. Given that, you’d expect the Yankees to have a winning record against the Twins, perhaps by a fairly wide margin.
But the manhandling is on another level, even by Yankees’ standards. New York’s winning percentage against the Twins since 2002 is .730, which is 66 points higher than their next-best mark (.664 versus the Royals). And from 2002-2017, the Twins have the 13th-best record in baseball, playing otherwise winning ball.
At some point you’d expect luck, or randomness, or chance, or karma to favor the Twins in these matchups, at least once a decade or so. It never has.
So now the Twins are fresh off another three-game spanking at Yankee Stadium, with fans already dreading going back there for a potential Wild Card game. What’s the point of even securing the Wild Card if it just means another sure loss in the Bronx? It’s difficult to blame a Twins fan for taking that view, but here’s the thing: There's a certain "any given Sunday" (or Tuesday, as it were) aspect to a one-game coin flip, and even the Yankees aren’t immune (just ask the 2015 Astros).
The longer a playoff series, the better chance a superior/favored team has to move on. That’s why there are fewer upsets in seven-game series, and why March Madness is so delightfully insane. If the Yankees and Twins played a best-of-100 series, the Twins would have little chance. Even a five-game series would be daunting.
But one game? Anything can happen, and at worst the Twins would likely be 65/35 or 70/30 underdogs, which is roughly the same odds Mauer has of getting a hit in any at-bat. Or think of it this way: As awful as things have gone in these matchups, the Twins have 33 wins vs. the Yankees since 2002. What’s one more?
[Update: This happened.]