An expanded postseason has not equaled expanded drama. With less than three weeks left to play in the regular season, seven of the 10 playoff spots are virtual locks, leaving six teams for three spots in the American League as our last chance for true drama. (The NL Central includes jockeying only for position, not a postseason ticket.)
Here’s hoping baseball’s terrific idea of a true finish line—every game on the last day of the season begins just after 3 p.m. Eastern time—still means something. Maybe we’ll get the daytime version of The Night of 162 in 2011, or a version of the comebacks of the '09 Twins (three out with four to play), '07 Phillies (seven out with 17 to play) and '07 Rockies (14–1 finish). In the meantime, from the historic to the arcane, here are the storylines to watch when you’re not watching the standings.
• Dodgers righthander Zack Greinke (1.61 ERA) is in line to get four more starts, assuming a truncated tuneup start in Game 162 that keeps him in line for NLDS Game 2. He has a chance to post the lowest ERA since the mound was lowered in 1969, a distinction that Dwight Gooden (1.53) has held for 30 years. Greinke would get to 1.52 by allowing two earned runs over 25 more innings. He is the Cy Young Award front runner, but Jake Arrieta and Clayton Kershaw are still in the mix.
• Until this year, only six players had hit 30 home runs in their age-39 season or older: Barry Bonds and Steve Finley (2004), Darrell Evans (1987), Willie Stargell ('79), Hank Aaron ('73) and Cy Williams ('30). Now David Ortiz (34 homers) and Alex Rodriguez (31) both have done it. Ortiz needs five RBIs to become only the second player with 30 homers and 100 RBIs in his age-39 season or older. The other was Bonds (45, 101) in 2004.
• Astros lefthander Dallas Keuchel is 13–0 at home. He has two home starts remaining: Sept. 21 vs. the Angels and Sept. 27 vs. the Rangers. He could set a major league record for most wins at home or on the road without a defeat. He is tied with Tex Hughson of the 1944 Red Sox (13–0 at home), Boo Ferriss of the '46 Red Sox (13–0 at home) and Greg Maddux of the '95 Braves (13–0 on the road).
• Kershaw (2.12) is headed for his fifth season with an ERA better than 2.50. Only two pitchers in the Live Ball era (since 1920) had more than five such seasons: Juan Marichal and Maddux.
• Though Bryce Harper of the Nationals (.333) is closing the gap on slumping Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers (.339 after a 4-for-33 slide), Cabrera could become become only the fourth righthanded hitter to lead the majors in hitting for a third time. He would join Hall of Famers Rogers Hornsby, who did so four times, and Roberto Clemente and Nap Lajoie.
• The Phillies and Braves begin a huge three-game series Friday. The Phillies have a half-game lead on the Braves for the worst record in baseball—a fight for the first pick in the 2016 draft. Philadelphia has picked first overall only once: 1998, when it selected outfielder Pat Burrell. Atlanta has had the first pick twice: 1978, when it took Bob Horner, and '90, when it took Chipper Jones.
• It’s not your imagination: pitchers are pounding the strike zone. Walks are down slightly from last year, continuing to plumb record depths. Pitchers are issuing the fewest walks per game (2.86 per team) since the mound was lowered in 1969. That rate would leave these three seasons as the lowest walk rates in the past 93 years: 1968, 2015 and 2014.
• Where has all the athleticism gone? The rate of stolen bases per game (0.52 per team) is the lowest in 42 years.
• It’s about to become official: Batting average is overrated. The Cubs (.243) could become the first team ever to make the playoffs with the worst batting average in baseball. They are, however, 14th in on-base percentage and 16th in runs per game—near MLB averages in both cases.
• Four losing teams from last year hold a playoff position: the Astros, Mets, Cubs and Rangers. Such turnaround teams have turned up in the postseason in 19 of the 20 years with the wild card, accounting for one-quarter of all playoff teams. Four such turnarounds would equal the most in one postseason (1998 and 2012). The baseball world turns over so fast that if the Blue Jays, Astros, Mets and Cubs hang on to their dance tickets, 26 of baseball’s 30 teams will have appeared in just the past seven postseasons. The longest droughts would fall to the Mariners (2001), Marlins ('03), Padres ('06) and White Sox ('08)—all of whom “won the winter” with an active off-season, only to flop.
• If the Cardinals finish 11–8 or better, they will become the first team to win 100 games since the 2011 Phillies, ending the longest such drought in the history of the 162-game schedule. But two words of warning: St. Louis has lost eight of its past 11 games, and, with the gauntlet of an expanded postseason, 100 wins do not a great team make. Only two 100-win teams won the World Series in the past 28 years: the Yankees of 1998 and 2009.