Labor Day weekend might have meant one last chance to savor summer for many, but across baseball, it signals that the home stretch has officially arrived, and it is go time for those chasing a spot in the postseason field.
With that in mind, we asked ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle, Sam Miller, Buster Olney and Jeff Passan to take a look at the standings and let us know what stands out to them with less than a month of regular-season baseball to play.
1. What’s the first thing that jumps out to you in the standings right now?
Doolittle: In the NL, we have two divisions still in play, both because the deficits faced by the second-place teams are manageable and because those teams (Cubs and Nationals) have better run differentials than the teams they are chasing. These races are more interesting to me than the NL wild-card race because even though there are a lot of teams hovering in the four-to-six-games-behind range, none of them has shown that it is likely to get far enough above .500 to challenge the Cubs or Nationals. Both of those teams should have win totals at least in the high 80s, and I don’t see the Phillies, Mets, etc. getting there.
Passan: The binary nature of the American League standings vs. the relative across-the-board mediocrity of the National League. There are almost no average teams in the AL, by record or run differential. Teams are good or bad. Only two teams — the Rangers and Angels — are on pace to win between 71 and 86 games. The NL, in the meantime, is a parade of 71-to-86-win teams — seven at the moment, with two or three others threatening. It is the year of two distinct leagues.
Olney: It’s incredible how bad the bottom of the American League is. The Seattle Mariners dumped a bunch of salary and have devoted themselves to a rebuilding/tanking strategy; they might finish the year with a run differential of minus-150 — and there are four teams below them in the standings. The Detroit Tigers’ run differential could end up at minus-300 or worse. Too much of the AL schedule is just not competitive, and a lot of baseball executives think it’s a problem.
Miller: It’s how great the best records are. There are four teams on pace to win 100 games (and a fifth, the Atlanta Braves, on pace for 99), and three are on pace to win 104. The latter has happened only once (in 1942), and the former has never happened, which gives this whole season a mere-prelude-to-the-postseason feel to it.
2. Which pennant race are you most excited to watch over the final month?
Doolittle: The NL Central race should be the best of the bunch. Unless the Cubs or Cardinals collapse between now and Sept. 19, it’s going to go down to the wire. Beginning that day, Chicago and St. Louis will play four games at Wrigley Field, then meet again at Busch Stadium for three games to finish the season. It’s two old rivals, and though both will likely make the playoffs, the race to avoid the wild-card game will keep the stakes high.
Olney: I’ll jump on the NL Central bandwagon because there’s nothing better than to see two rivals fighting for the same crown — and in this case, the Cardinals and Cubs play each other in seven of the final 10 games, meaning that a second-place team can quickly reverse a deficit — and the first-place team will apply pressure immediately. The year kicked off with Kris Bryant joking about how boring St. Louis is, a quote that will be repeated many, many times this month, no matter what happens.
Passan: Does a wild-card race count? Because the teams in the only clear pennant race to speak of, the National League Central, have spent the last five months fighting as much to show who doesn’t want to win the division as who does. The AL wild card, on the other hand, is a wholesome bit of baseball fun. Three teams, in Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Oakland, that share the build-from-within ethos on account of low payrolls. All deadlocked today with 58 losses. And only two spots to be had, with the winner of that tussle moving on to face whoever prevails in the Yankees-Astros fight for home-field advantage, which has a chance to be a doozy of its own.
Miller: The choices are awfully few, so the answer has to be the AL wild card — especially if the Boston Red Sox could rip off eight in a row and really make this thing fun. But I’ve started paying attention to the Dodgers, Astros and Yankees bidding for the best record. Home field doesn’t shift that many postseason series, but these are three incredibly good teams that have been playing historically great seasons under the tepid stakes of 10- and 15-game division leads. I’d like to think these 162 games had them racing against somebody other than themselves.
3. How many playoff spots would you consider locked up right now?
Doolittle: I don’t know about locked, but the five NL teams that are currently in playoff position are the five I think we’ll be seeing in October. They are the five best teams in that league. In the AL, we can bank on the Yankees, Astros and Twins, but there is plenty of drama left in the wild-card race. Any combination of the Athletics, Indians and Rays could get in and it wouldn’t surprise me, and I think the Red Sox have one more run in them, though the teams they are chasing are probably too good to catch from five-plus games behind.
Olney: Five in all: the Yankees and the Astros in the AL, and the Braves, Dodgers and Nationals — Washington as a wild-card team in the NL.
Passan: Locked up, as in stone-cold, wouldn’t-dare-bet-against-it, send-it-to-the-bank locks? Four: Yankees, Astros, Dodgers, Braves. I’m also exceedingly confident that the Twins, Nationals and Cardinals will play in October, but “lock” is a touch strong.
Miller: I think seven of the 10 teams — the division leaders plus the Nationals — are essentially certain to make it, and of those seven teams, six — all but the Cardinals — are essentially certain to win the playoff spot they currently hold. There’s a small possibility that the Cardinals lose the NL Central and a slightly larger possibility that the Cubs lose the wild card, but the tension has whoopee cushioned out of those races. Just two spots — the AL wild cards — are wide open.
4. Which team currently in the playoff hunt do you think is most likely to miss the postseason?
Passan: Cleveland. Losing Jose Ramirez to a broken hamate bone for the remainder of the regular season hurt. Likewise, Tyler Naquin, who was having a sneaky-good season, was lost to a torn UCL. This is not to say the Indians aren’t making the playoffs. On the contrary, not only do they have a good shot at the wild card, they’ve got an advantage over Tampa Bay and Oakland: They’re still within striking distance in their division. But if it’s a question of the Twins, Rays and A’s beating the Indians, or the Phillies, Diamondbacks, Mets or Brewers topping the Cubs — well, sorry, Cleveland.
Doolittle: Take your pick from whoever is holding on to the AL wild-card spots at the time this piece goes to press. They will have a really good third team bearing down on them. Whether it’s the Rays, Indians or Athletics, you can just pick one of those clubs out of a hat.
Olney: It would be too easy to pick one of the AL wild-card contenders, so I’ll say the Cubs. They’ve been so erratic this season, and given the concern about Anthony Rizzo and all of the games remaining against the Cardinals, I think there will be some drama as they try to fend off the pack of second wild-card wannabes — the Brewers, Phillies, Mets and Diamondbacks.
Miller: The Phillies’ final 26 games include 17 on the road and 20 against winning clubs. They aren’t a good enough team to overcome that.
5. Who will get home-field advantage in the AL: Astros or Yankees?
Doolittle: Astros. They are simply the better team. The Yankees will probably land the second seed, but don’t sleep on the Twins challenging them for that slot.
Olney: The Astros. Jeff Luhnow got some attention in other front offices for saying that he expects Houston to beat the Dodgers and Yankees for the No. 1 overall seed, but everything he said is right on the money. Their rotation is that good.
Miller: The Astros, who have the tiebreaker. Because they have the tiebreaker.
Passan: Astros. The teams’ records are the same, at 90-49, a 104-win pace. They’ve got the same number of off-days left. The extenuating factor in favor of the Astros: home games and competition. Both of these teams are otherworldly at home, with 51 wins apiece there. Houston plays 13 of its final 23 games at Minute Maid Park. New York plays eight of its 23 at Yankee Stadium. And outside of a four-game slate against Oakland at home, the Astros don’t play a single game against an over-.500 team from this Thursday through the end of the season.
6. Who will be the first to 100 wins, and when will the team get there?
Doolittle: I’ll rule out the Dodgers because their September swoon from a couple of years ago is still embedded in my mind. It’s still one of the most inexplicable slumps I’ve ever witnessed, and I prefer to have no stakes in their current game. I actually think the Yankees might have a tepid September. You’d figure that if they get healthier and start to get the roster they envisioned up and running before October, they might keep it rolling. But I think returnees such as Giancarlo Stanton, Dellin Betances, Luis Severino and Edwin Encarnacion will have an acclimation period, and some of the overachievers are due for regression. Houston’s upcoming schedule is fairly soft, so the Astros seem like a good bet to hit 100 first — say, Sept. 18 against the Rangers.
Olney: The Dodgers. They had a rough weekend in Arizona, but I think they’ll be reenergized by their return this week to Dodger Stadium, where they never lose, and after six games against the Rockies and Giants, they’ll have a series in Baltimore. I’ll say Sept. 20 against Colorado (in a pick sure to go wrong).
Miller: The Yankees have six more games against winning teams. The Dodgers and Astros have just five apiece. Which means they could all get there in about two weeks, with two weeks to spare. I’ll go with the Yankees to be first, on Sept. 18.
Passan: This is a fun one. The Yankees sandwich two games against Texas and three at Detroit around four at Boston. You know the Red Sox want to play spoiler — and preserve their thin playoff hopes. The Astros have it pretty easy, as their only potential roadblock is Oakland. The Dodgers’ schedule doesn’t look bad — they host Colorado and San Francisco, travel to Baltimore and the Mets, return home for Tampa Bay and Colorado — but the cross-country flight can be a drain. Head says Houston … but heart says Dodgers. The perks of private air travel.
7. Who will be first to 100 losses, and how quickly will the team get there?
Olney: If this makes sense … the bad teams in baseball are closer to being terrible than the best teams are to being great. The Tigers could lose their 100th within a week, but let’s say Sunday in Oakland. Detroit has been losing about three-quarters of its games since the All-Star break.
Passan: Detroit. It feels like the Tigers are there already, and while the next few days against Kansas City could provide a slight respite, they’ll hit the magic number Sept. 12 at home against the Yankees.
Doolittle: The Tigers aren’t there already? Give ’em 10 days.
Miller: Oh, yes, the flip side to the four 100-win teams: Four teams are going to lose 100 for only the second time in history. (And quite likely all will lose at least 102 or 103). The Tigers will get there first; they won’t make it out of their Yankees series on Sept. 12.
8. Who will be the first player to 50 home runs, and when will he get there?
Doolittle: The momentum seems to be slowing for some of the leaders, and the hottest of the 40-homer guys is actually the Reds’ Eugenio Suarez. He has gone deep more than anyone else since the All-Star break. But the current big league leader is Mike Trout, and when he’s leading in something, you have to anticipate that he will retain the lead. Trout will hit 53 homers this year and knock his 50th circuit clout on Sept. 19 at Yankee Stadium. He’ll get there first.
Olney: Mike Trout. Because he’s Trout. And it’ll be on Sept. 19 at Yankee Stadium. He’ll go oppo.
Passan: Pete Alonso, on Sept. 18, in the final game of his first trip to Coors Field, where he will hit No. 50 with a swing that breaks the space-time continuum, or at least prompts the question: If Pete Alonso were a Rockie, would Barry Bonds’ single-season record be in trouble?
Miller: I want to stretch and say Ronald Acuna Jr. will have a huge September — 14 isn’t at all unprecedented for the month! — but even in the unlikely event that he does, he won’t be first. It’ll be Cody Bellinger, who has three games in Baltimore and that aforementioned run of bad opponents; he’ll get there Sept. 21.
9. Which individual award or stat race are you most excited to watch over the final month?
Olney: Easy: the teammates competing against each other for the AL Cy Young Award, Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander. The pitcher who will be the most coveted free agent in the upcoming offseason vs. a guy who could retire today and earn unanimous election to the Hall of Fame. And if the voting in recent seasons provides some precedent, it’ll probably come down to who is trending better in the second half. Right now, that’s Cole, though some voters might lean toward Verlander because of his no-hitter, if their statistics are close.
Passan: There are plenty. Verlander and Cole in the teammate duel for the AL Cy Young. Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger duking it out for the NL MVP. The complete question mark that is the NL Cy Young. But the most intriguing is the MLB home run crown. Forget about league titles. Practically every team and season-long home run record has fallen this year, and hitting more than everyone else crowns you king of the home runningest season in history. There are four clear candidates: Bellinger (44), Alonso (43), Trout (43) and Yelich (43). Throw Suarez (40) in the mix, especially if his hand injury after getting hit by a pitch doesn’t sideline him long. Might as well add Freddie Freeman (38) too. With this ball, it’s not just a race for 50. It may take 55 to capture the crown.
Doolittle: This might be a little esoteric, but Cody Bellinger has a chance to lead the National League in both runs created (the FanGraphs version based on wOBA) and defensive runs saved. I’m pretty down on defensive metrics these days, but this still strikes me as exceedingly impressive. You can’t get much more well-rounded than that. The only thing bad about the pursuit is that you won’t really know if he gets it while watching the game. You have to wait until the final leaderboards are published. That’s one reason you can only go so far rooting for WAR, WPA, DRS, RC, etc. — you don’t know a unit of any of these things when you see it, as opposed to traditional counting measures.
Miller: Even before his no-hitter Sunday, Justin Verlander‘s push for a second Cy Young has been incredible to watch. He has finished second for the award three times but could arguably have won all three. Now, at 36, after his decline seemed irreversible just a few years ago, he’s having the best season of his career in a wonderful twist on the inevitable story of aging.
10. What’s one under-the-radar thing you’ll be following the rest of the season?
Passan: The continuing marginalization of the fastball. In 2002, pitchers threw fastballs 64.4% of the time and at an average velocity of 89 mph, according to FanGraphs. Today, those numbers are 52.6% and 93.1 mph. Baseball is close to the point where a fastball is an on-speed pitch and off-speed offerings are the norm, and as the clown cars of September pitching empty on a nightly basis, it will be interesting to see whether the annual watering down of the game in the final month of the season has any effect on overall numbers that as much as anything signal baseball’s rapid evolution.
Doolittle: Well, I’ve been following Albert Pujols’ RBI count all season. Let me preface this by acknowledging that none of this would mean that Pujols’ presence in the Angels’ lineup for 500-plus plate appearances is helping them all that much. But I am a sucker for history, even when it involves counting stats that the dogmatic set will invariably decry. Pujols has a chance for 100 RBIs, which would mark his 15th season getting there. That would break the record he currently shares with Alex Rodriguez. He needs 18 more RBIs, and you have to assume this is his last best chance. This record might mean a little more now that it appears very unlikely that Pujols will chase down Hank Aaron for most career RBIs — not if he’s going to retire after two more seasons.
Olney: The possible staff changes — front office or manager — that could be looming. The Phillies have had a disappointing season, and owner John Middleton has been monitoring the organization after spending a lot of money on Jake Arrieta and Bryce Harper the past two winters. Folks around baseball wonder if the Red Sox might really consider moving on from the accomplished Dave Dombrowski, as Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy suggested last month. Also, whom will Farhan Zaidi hire to replace Hall of Fame manager Bruce Bochy after this season?
Miller: Yu Darvish‘s revival is not that far under the radar, as Jesse Rogers wrote about him this week and pointed out that Darvish might be in line to win Comeback Player of the Year. But the Cubs’ ace (finally) is one of the big postseason stories in the rest of the regular season. Without Darvish, it’s hard to take the Cubs seriously as playoff contenders or even as one-game challengers against Max Scherzer in the NL wild-card game. But we’ve all seen Darvish at his best before, and he’s a no-hitter waiting to happen. He’s also a great redemption story after two terrible starts in the 2017 World Series.