- The Yankees, Twins and Brewers have some work to do if they are going to eclipse the first place teams in their respective divisions.
As the U.S. experiences its first total eclipse since 1991, it's worth pondering what it would take for the leaders of the three division races still in play—namely the Red Sox in the AL East, the Indians in the AL Central and the Cubs in the NL Central—to be eclipsed atop the standings. It doesn't take an advanced degree in orbital physics to consider the possibilities, though a look at the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds, which account for remaining schedule and projections for available players, can help.
Red Sox (71-52), 78.0% chance of winning division
Yankees (66-57), 21.8%
In the first competitive race between these two arch-rivals since 2011, New York has already squandered some golden opportunities to close the gap, dropping two of three games against Boston each of the past two weekends and splitting a four-game set in mid-July. Some of that blame belongs to $85 million closer Aroldis Chapman, who blew saves and took losses against the Sox on July 14 and Aug. 13, then turned a one-run deficit into a three-run one on Friday, which at least temporarily cost him the ninth-inning job. The Yankees can't undo what's done, however; they have to make the most of what's in front of them, which includes the final regular season meeting between the two teams, a four-game series in the Bronx from Aug. 31 to Sept 3.
Getting Chapman right is one thing that would help their chances, but given their bullpen depth—which now includes deadline acquisitions David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle as well as All-Star setup man Dellin Betances—that's a secondary priority. The biggest one is restoring the punch to an offense that bashed out 5.55 runs per game before the All-Star break but has managed just 4.14 since, including 3.84 this month. The swing that made Aaron Judge one of the game's brightest new stars in the first half has gone missing; he's hitting just .169/.329/.355 since the break and has now struck out in 37 straight games, a record. Thought he 25-year-old slugger downplayed it, a shoulder problem could be a factor, but whether or not that's the case, he's not the only hitter who is suddenly struggling. The returns of Aaron Hicks and Jacoby Ellsbury from long, injury-related absences haven't helped, though both have had some big moments. Todd Frazier hasn't produced as much as New York hoped (.221/.348/.389) either, though at least Chase Headley's shift across the diamond has shored up their gaping hole at first base. Getting Starlin Castro and Matt Holliday—both of whom began rehab stints on Friday—back from the DL in healthy and productive form would be a boon as well.
The Yankees' cause would be aided if a couple new additions to the Red Sox lineup, veteran Eduardo Nunez (.345/.374/552 in 91 plate appearances) and rookie Rafael Devers (.350/.416/.700 in 89 PA), would come back to earth already, and likewise for fellow rookie Andrew Benintendi (.367/.435/.667 in 69 PA in August). Some regression from AL Cy Young favorite Chris Sale, who leads the league in all three pitching triple crown categories as well as WAR, would be welcome, too. The Yankees did solve him in a 4-3 win on Saturday, touching him up for four earned runs and two homers, both unprecedented in his previous 13 outings against New York, in which he had a 1.18 ERA and 0.35 HR/9. As the Yankees look to that end-of-month series, they'll almost certainly have to rough Sale up again to have any chance at the division title.
Indians (68-54), 97.0%
Twins (63-59), 2.1%
Royals (62-61), 1.0%
Though their five-game division deficit is the same as New York's in the East, the BP odds aren't nearly as optimistic about Minnesota coming from behind. That's likely due to a few factors: the stark contrast in run differentials, the Twins' poor projections in general and their lousy run prevention to date. Whereas the Yankees (+111 runs) have actually outscored their opponents by a greater margin than the Red Sox (+99), the Indians (+130) have the league's second-best run differential while the Twins (-42) are not only in the red, but the league's sixth-worst. Cleveland is allowing fewer runs per game (3.80) than any AL team, while Minnesota (5.08) has the league's fifth-worst rate.
After they lost seven out of eight from July 23 to Aug. 1, the Twins—who traded starting pitcher Jaime Garcia to the Yankees and releiver Brandon Kintzler to the Nationals—appeared dead in the water, but they've gone 13-5 since then thanks to strong but probably unsustainable offense from Brian Dozier, Eddie Rosario, Jorge Polanco and Byron Buxton. To catch Cleveland, they'll need those guys to stay hot, but the bigger issue is the pitching. Outside of Ervin Santana (3.33 ERA) and Jose Berrios (3.99 ERA), their rotation is in ghastly shape. Yes, Bartolo Colon has pitched better than he did in Atlanta, but only two of his seven starts have been quality starts (not counting his nine-inning, four-run complete game victory on Aug. 4, which isn't included in the definition of the stat), and his 5.66 FIP since joining the team suggests things can get much worse. Sending Kyle Gibson (6.05 ERA, 5.40 FIP) to the hill just isn't working, and no, the Yankees aren't going to return Garcia, so some kind of trade before Aug. 31 is necessary. Likewise for the bullpen, where Glen Perkins, who just returned from a 16-month absence due to labrum surgery, can't be expected to reclaim his closer duties.
Of course, it would also help Minnesota's cause if the Indians stopped playing .600 ball, as they've done in the second half. Cleveland’s rotation has improved its ERA and strikeout rate in every month since May, including a 2.56 ERA and 11.0 strikeouts per nine thanks to the rebounds of Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar.
As for the Royals, who are the longest of longshots here, arresting their own 7-12 August slide—during which they've allowed 6.37 runs per game—is imperative if they're going to surpass the two teams ahead of them. If there's good news to be had for Kansas City, it's that it has seven games apiece against the Indians and Twins, though all of them against the former are in Cleveland. Progressive Field is also the site of the remaining three games between the Indians and the Twins.
Cubs (66-57), 74.6%
Brewers (65-50), 9.7%
Cardinals (63-61), 15.1%
Now, here's a genuine three-way race, with the Cubs holding a two-game lead over the Brewers and a 3 1/2-game lead over the Cardinals. Note that the BP odds still see Milwaukee as having the toughest road of the three; not only does it have the worst run differential (+20, compared to +48 for St. Louis and +54 for Chicago) but it also has by far the toughest schedule; via Baseball-Reference, the weighted winning percentage of the Brewers' remaining opponents is .512, compared to .472 for the other two teams. In addition to seven games remaining against the Cubs and five against the Cardinals, the Brew Crew has four games against the Nationals (at home) and three against the Dodgers (in Los Angeles) on their docket, while neither of the other teams faces the two runaway division leaders.
Both trailing teams can start by hoping that the defending World Series champions cool off from the 23-12 run they've been on since the All-Star break. Youngsters Willson Contreras, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell have all been far more productive than they were in the first half, producing OPSes of .900 or better. Contreras and Russell are both on the DL due to hamstring and plantar fasciitis, respectively, and likely won't be back until September. Perhaps managers Craig Counsell and Mike Matheny and their respective rosters can send best wishes for thorough but slow recoveries. On the other hand, they might hope that Jon Lester, who was tattooed for nine runs 1 2/3 innings on Aug. 17 and has managed just a 5.87 ERA since the start of July, hurries back after being sent to the DL due to shoulder fatigue and lat tightness.
Both trailing teams need much better starting pitching than they’ve received lately. The Brewers have rebounded from a six-game losing streak by winning six of seven (which alas didn't gain them any ground in the division race), but Jimmy Nelson, Brent Suter and Matt Garza have been lit for ERAs of 5.63, 8.16 and 9.16 in a combined 11 starts this month, and Suter is now on the DL with a rotator cuff strain. He's been replaced by Chase Anderson, who returned from a seven-week DL stint with a strong outing against the Rockies on Sunday. Prior to the July 31 deadline, the Brewers explored dealing for Jose Quintana and Sonny Gray; they probably can't land a difference-maker now, but any kind of reinforcement would help.
As for the Cardinals, they rode an eight-game winning streak into a tie for the division lead at the close of play on Aug. 12, but since then, they've dropped five of seven while allowing 50 runs, including at least six in all but one game (a 5-4 walkoff loss to the Red Sox). The rotation that formed their firewall throughout the first four months of the season, when their offense and bullpen often worked against them, has suddenly collapsed, delivering a 5.47 ERA this month. Adam Wainwright, who has struggled to a career-worst 5.12 ERA, just received a platelet-rich plasma injection in his elbow and won't be back until sometime in September. Fill-in Luke Weaver may well outdo him, but Michael Wacha and Mike Leake, both of whom had rebounded from subpar 2016 performances, need to regain form; they've combined for an 8.20 ERA with just one quality start apiece.
Of the three races, the NL Central offers the best hope for some kind of change over the next six weeks. And you won’t need special glasses to see it.