What makes Twins a tough wild-card opponent for Blue Jays

The Twins won fewer games than the Blue Jays while playing in an easier division, but that doesn't mean they aren't dangerous.

If the Toronto Blue Jays' actions on Sunday are any indication, they are not particularly worried about the idea of facing the Minnesota Twins in the playoffs.

That's not to say they take their wild-card opponent lightly, but if Toronto saw any value in fighting for the second wild-card spot as opposed to the third, it might have had someone other than Wes Parson start the final game of the season — or at least pulled him earlier.

Cam Eden's presence in the lineup was also a sign that the Blue Jays weren't particularly concerned with winning the game, as were the absences of George Springer, Matt Chapman, Alejandro Kirk, Kevin Kiermaier, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

It would be an exaggeration to say they threw the game, but they were more at peace with the possibility of a defeat than they would've been at any other time during the season.

That's because facing the Twins — and getting into the side of the American League playoff bracket that doesn't include the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles — gives the Blue Jays a better chance of making a run than starting their pursuit of a World Series title at Tropicana Field.

FanGraphs' projections gives Toronto a 57.5% shot of beating the Twins. Sportsbooks are a bit more bullish on Minnesota, categorizing the series as approximately a toss-up. If the Blue Jays were facing Tampa Bay, on the other hand, they'd be clear underdogs.

Just because Toronto has put itself in the best possible position to advance, it doesn't mean it'll be easy. Tangling with the Twins will be difficult for a few reasons:

The Twins' starters

A three-game series is a format that works well for Minnesota largely due to the quality of its starters.

Pablo Lopez and Sonny Gray are both top-10 starters by fWAR. The Philadelphia Phillies are the only other team with two pitchers in the top 15, and Aaron Nola is exactly 15th.

Pablo Lopez is coming off an outstanding season and will start Game 1 against the Blue Jays. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Pablo Lopez is coming off an outstanding season and will start Game 1 against the Blue Jays. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

The Lopez-Gray duo is special, combining for 378 innings of 3.25 ERA ball in 2023 while striking out nearly 10 hitters per nine innings (9.97).

Having to win a game against one of those starters won't be an easy task, but it's also far from impossible. The Twins were 33-31 when one of their top two guys took the hill during the regular season.

Some of that is undoubtedly poor run-support luck, but it goes to show that games started by one of the Twins' aces were far from automatic wins for Minnesota.

The strikeout issue

As much hay as the Blue Jays made on bases-loaded walks in September, putting the ball in play is a prerequisite to offensive adequacy.

The Twins pitching staff is awfully good at preventing it, as their strikeout rate was the best in the majors during the regular season (25.9%).

While the baseball world may have overreacted to the deep runs of the Kansas City Royals in the mid-2010s, there is a real correlation between contact and playoff success.

The good news for the Blue Jays is that they struck out at MLB's sixth-lowest rate this season (20.9%). Punchouts were rarely Toronto's top concern in 2023, but the Twins have the arms to change that narrative.

On the other side, it's worth noting that no team struck out more on offence than Minnesota (26.6%). The Twins will have the same worries as Toronto about Ks, making scoring more difficult.

The power discrepancy

While it's easy to think of the postseason as a time where good pitching means that it's best to score runs via small ball, home runs are often the key to winning games.

Against top-of-the-rotation starters and high-leverage relievers, it can be tough to mount sustained rallies. Jumping on isolated mistakes is often a better way to generate offence.

The Twins have a clear edge in this matchup when it comes to the long ball. Minnesota hit the third-most home runs in the regular season (233), while Toronto ranked 16th (188).

Those numbers deserve a little context as the availability of Byron Buxton, Royce Lewis, and Carlos Correa are in question for the Twins.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jays were far better at going long on the road, ranking 10th in the majors in that split.

Even so, Minnesota has more thump than Toronto and that could play an important role in this series.

A new-look bullpen in Minnesota

Most of the Twins' season-long numbers tell the story of a team with an unimpressive relief corps, but this group has been far better lately.

Louie Varland spent most of the season as a starter, but in the bullpen he's touching triple digits with his heater. Varland has allowed seven baserunners (and struck out 17) in 12 innings pitching in his new role.

Oft-injured starter Chris Paddack has looked nasty in relief, too, with far more juice on his heater than usual — and a changeup that's as deadly as ever.

Add in established high-leverage arms like Jhoan Duran and Emilio Pagán — as well as Kenta Maeda, who's no stranger to coming out the 'pen in playoff situations — and Minnesota's group is looking intimidating.

There's a reason the Twins bullpen managed a 3.40 ERA in September with an MLB-leading 30.6% strikeout rate. Late-inning runs could be elusive in this series.