Let the Race Begin! Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander Among Best Storylines as Playoffs Approach
- The final month of the season is here! Will Clayton Kershaw still be one of the best after his injury? How will Justin Verlander fare in Houston? These are your biggest storylines as the season winds down.
As the 2017 regular season enters its final month, at least three of the division races appear to be sewn up, but even the teams leading those division—the Astros in the AL West, the Nationals in the NL East and the Dodgers in the NL West—have plenty at stake. So to do the teams in wild card hunts that could get particularly wild this year, and some wide-open awards races as well. With all of that in mind, here are 10 story lines that figure to be at the forefront in September.
Clayton Kershaw's return from the disabled list and the Dodgers' run at history
For the second year in a row, Kershaw's quest for a fourth Cy Young was derailed by a back injury, but this time it was merely a lower back strain instead of a herniated disc, and instead of missing 2 1/2 months, the 29-year-old southpaw will have missed just five weeks when he takes the mound against the Padres on Friday. The Dodgers didn't miss him as much as you might think, going 23–10 without him and putting themselves in position for an historic win total (they're on pace to set an expansion-era NL record with 112 wins). But to capture their first championship since 1988, they'll need their ace in top form.
Giancarlo Stanton's home run heroics
Thanks to a binge of 30 homers in 50 games, Stanton became the sixth player to reach 50 before the end of August and tied Tigers slugger Rudy York's 1937 record with 18 homers for the month. Based on his full-season output, he's on pace for 63 home runs, and if he continues at a pace closer to his recent one he'll wind up with more, though probably not enough to surpass Barry Bonds' 2001 record of 73. Still, not only will any final total at this level stand as a remarkable feat, it might earn Stanton the NL MVP award.
The Cubs' bid to repeat their long-awaited championship
At the All-Star break, the Cubs were just 43–45, 5 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the NL Central and bearing scant resemblance to the team that steamrolled the NL and outlasted the Indians to win the franchise's first championship in 108 years. They kicked off the second half with a trade for Jose Quintana and a six-game winning streak, and enough has gone right for them to go 30–15 in the second half, tied with the Nationals for the NL's second-best record, and good enough to swing the division lead by nine games, to up 3 1/2 on the Brewers. Neither their lineup (which is currently without Willson Contreras and Addison Russell due to injures) nor their rotation (which is without Jon Lester) is at full strength, but they may have just enough to claim another division title and then take their chances in October.
Newly-acquired Justin Verlander tries to bolster the flagging Astros’ rotation
In a last-minute, waiver-deadline move, the 34-year-old Tigers ace agreed to waive his no-trade clause and join the Astros. Houston couldn’t afford to stand pat at the August 31 deadline given its 12–19 slide since July 28 that threatens their standing as the AL’s top playoff seed. That’s particularly true given the clubhouse commotion over general manager Jeff Luhnow’s failure to add significant upgrades at the July 31 deadline, and perhaps the understandable desire to give a region devastated by Hurricane Harvey a welcome distraction. While Verlander isn’t the dominant force that he once was, his second-half splits (2.41 ERA, 3.69 FIP, 10.4 K/9) make him a welcome addition to a rotation in which Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. had delivered ERAs of 5.35 and 6.25 since June 3 and spent far more time on the disabled list than on the active roster. The Astros (80–53) lead the Angels (69–65) by 11 1/2 games in the AL West but have just a 3 1/2 game lead on the Indians (76–56) for the league’s best record.
The upgraded Angels vie for a playoff spot as Mike Trout scrambles to make up ground in the AL MVP race
When Trout went down with a torn ligament in his left thumb on May 28—interrupting a career-best start—it appeared to sound the death knell to his chances for repeating as MVP and bringing home his third award overall. At the time, the Angels were just 26–27, not to be taken seriously as wild card contenders. Lo and behold, the team stayed afloat during Trout’s six-week absence and is now 1 1/2 games behind the upstart Twins for the second wild card spot.
Trout is hitting .327.459/.667, leading the league in the last two categories via the phantom at-bat rule, meaning that even with an 0-for-26 (to reach the minimum number of plate appearances to) he would still be ahead of Jose Altuve's .414 OBP and Aaron Judge's .575 SLG, and likewise for his 200 OPS+ with respect to Altuve's 169. Even with the absence, his 5.8 WAR is third in the league behind Altuve and teammate Andrelton Simmons. With the Angels having added leftfielder Justin Upton and second baseman Brandon Phillips in separate deals on Thursday, they’re clearly in it to win it, and if they succeed in securing a wild card spot, it could turn the narrative in Trout’s favor.
Aaron Judge's second-half slump and the Yankees' attempt to return to the postseason
The 25-year-old Judge was the toast of baseball during the first half, hitting .328/.448/.691 with an MLB-high 30 homers while leading the league in on-base and slugging percentages as well as WAR (5.3), then capping that with a Home Run Derby win. While he's still likely to bring home AL Rookie of the Year honors, he's been unable to shake a second-half slump (.179/.346/.354, 7 HR, 35% K/PA). With Gary Sanchez rounding into form and others such as Chase Headley and Didi Gregorius helping to pick up the slack, the Yankees own a 1 ½-game lead over the Twins for the top wild card seed and have a 90.6% chance of returning to the playoffs—either by wild card or overtaking the Red Sox, who lead them by 5 1/2 games—for just the second time since 2012 according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds. But their chances of doing more than another one-and-done appearance would be much higher if Judge could recover his first-half form.
Bryce Harper's race against the clock
With a 15-game lead in the NL East, the Nationals are coasting to their second straight division title and fourth in six seasons, but if they hope to advance past the Division Series for the first time, they'll need Harper in working order. The 24-year-old slugger was in the thick of the NL MVP race (.326/.419/.614, 29 HR, 4.7 WAR) when he slipped on a wet first base on August 12 and suffered what at first appeared to be a season-ending left knee injury.
The diagnosis wasn't so severe, a hyperextension and a significant bone bruise, and the team expected him to return this season, but didn’t offer a timetable. Two and a half weeks later, manager Dusty Baker described Harper as frustrated and said he was "a long way from running," while Harper himself said that he's also dealing with a calf strain in the same leg. All of that rules out a rehab assignment, since the team's farm clubs' seasons will be over after September 4, and while that still leaves nearly a four-week window of otherwise low-stakes Nationals games for him to return to, any setback could be costly.
A potential triumph for Team Entropy
Despite the three runaway division races, there's suspense to be had with regards to the playoff participants, which increases the odds of maximum end-of-season baseball. Late in the 2011 season, I coined the phrase "Team Entropy"—taking a page from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that all systems tend toward disorder—to describe the phenomenon of rooting for scenarios that produced chaos in the form of tiebreaker scenarios and maximum baseball. Since the dawn of the two wild card format in 2012, there's been just one Game 163 play-in, compared to three straight from 2007–09, but every year, the races have gone down to the wire. With eight AL teams—the Yankees Twins, Angels, Orioles, Mariners, Rangers, Royals and Rays—separated by only five games for the two wild card spots, things could get particularly crazy. It will take a bit more good luck for the NL race to produce similar chaos, as the Diamondbacks, Rockies, Brewers, Cardinals and Marlins are separated by eight games, but if that race tightens up, the NL Central could as well.
Chris Sale and Corey Kluber going down to the wire in AL Cy Young race
A few weeks ago, it appeared that Chris Sale was well on his way to his first Cy Young award, as he led the league in the three Pitching Triple Crown categories (wins, ERA and strikeouts) as well as innings, FIP and the Baseball-Reference version of WAR. Even so, 2014 AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber was amid a spectacular 13-start run since returning from a lower back strain, preserving his chance at claiming a second award. Since then, Kluber has kept up the great work while Sale has been drubbed twice. The Indians' ace owns a 1.90 ERA in 17 starts since coming off the DL, and an AL-best 2.63 mark overall, while Sale is up to 2.77; Kluber also has the lead in WAR, 6.0 to 5.3. Sale still leads the league in strikeouts by a wide margin (264 to Chris Archer's 225 and Kluber's 215) and is on pace to be the first AL hurler to strike out 300 since Pedro Martinez in 1999.
The NL awards races remain competitive
With Harper's candidacy on ice and Stanton’s chances perhaps linked to the Marlins staying relevant late into the month, the strong seasons of Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto and Nolan Arenado—all of whom currently rank among the top four in WAR behind Stanton—could compete for voters' attention. The Cy Young race is interesting as well, with Max Scherzer vying for his third award, leading in strikeouts (230) and tied with teammate Gio Gonzalez for the league lead in WAR (6.6) but having twice been sidelined in August due to neck tightness. Even with time missed, there's a case to be made for Kershaw, who's tied for the league lead in wins (15), leads in ERA (2.04) and is fifth in WAR (4.3); a strong comeback combined with the further absence of Scherzer could make things interesting.