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September Baseball Preview: What to Watch for in the Regular Season's Final Month

Among the top story lines down the stretch are the wild-card standings, the NL Cy Young race and, of course, Shohei Ohtani.

Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning you’ll get a fresh, topical column to start your day from one of SI.com’s MLB writers.

Wednesday marks the final month of MLB’s regular season. In four weeks, we’ll know the final standings, playoff picture and contours of the award races. Now? We don’t know just how much we don’t know. Here are some of the storylines to look out for down the stretch:

(Editor's Note: All stats are updated through Aug. 31.)

Will the Padres and Red Sox make the playoffs?

Two months ago, this wasn’t much of a question at all. At the time, FanGraphs gave the Padres a 97.1% chance to make the postseason; the Red Sox, 87%. Now … the situation looks much different. Boston's playoff odds sit at 72.9% after it hit a painful skid through late July and early August. Among other reasons, San Diego has struggled due to its lack of pitching depth, and its odds have fallen to a woeful 32.7%.

First Half Win %Second Half Win %

Red Sox

.604

.465

Padres

.570

.450

Both are holding onto spots for now—the Red Sox have a one-game lead over the A's for the second wild-card berth in the AL. The Padres are tied with the Reds for the final spot in the NL, with a few games of breathing room over Philadelphia and St. Louis—but both have reasons for concern. San Diego has the toughest remaining schedule in baseball: 10 games against the first-place Giants and six against the Dodgers, while the Phillies have the easiest path forward. As for the Red Sox, they’ve dropped three in a row, and they’re now facing down some more bad news. A COVID-19 outbreak will sideline some of their key pieces for the foreseeable future: shortstop Xander Bogaerts, outfielder Enrique Hernández and several members of their bullpen. It’s hard to imagine a worse point in the season for them to face such a situation.

Neither team’s October chances are shot (yet). But for two clubs who held such steady control over their position through the early summer—their chances are looking grimmer than anyone would have expected when it comes to fall.

Aug 18, 2021; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani (17) watches his home run during the eighth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park.

Shohei Ohtani admires his 40th home run, which he hit in the eighth inning against the Tigers at Comerica Park on Aug. 18. Remember, he's also one of baseball's best pitchers.

Just how remarkable will Shohei Ohtani’s final stat line be?

Ohtani’s season has been an exercise in doing things we previously thought were impossible. He leads the majors in home runs. He has a 3.00 ERA in more than 100 innings. He’s just the third player in history to reach 40 homers and 20 steals by September. (The other two are Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey, Jr., incredible company for any hitter, let alone one who’s also his staff's ace.) There’s almost no question that he’ll be the AL MVP. But there is room to wonder about just how incredible his year will end up being.

Will he be the first player to record 50 home runs and 25 steals? Can he lower his ERA to start with a 2? Can he boost his OPS back above 1.000? It’s wild enough that we can ask these questions at all in September. It’s even more so that yes seems like a valid answer to any (or all!) of them.

How will the NL Cy Young race shake out?

This isn’t to say that there won’t be any intrigue for the AL Cy Young award. While Yankees ace Gerrit Cole has gained some breathing room with White Sox righthander Lance Lynn’s recent trip to the Injured List, there’s still Toronto's Robbie Ray, probably a bit too close for comfort to Cole. But a two-man race is nowhere near as compelling as what's going on in the NL. Sure, there’s a clear favorite in Walker Buehler, with his 2.05 ERA. Yet he’s one of the league's six qualified starters with an ERA under 2.75.

Aug 3, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Walker Buehler (21) reacts following the top of the sixth inning against the Houston Astros at Dodger Stadium.

For now at least, Walker Buehler is the favorite to win the NL Cy Young award amid a loaded field of pitchers.

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The others are Corbin Burnes (2.27), Brandon Woodruff (2.35), Kevin Gausman (2.49), Max Scherzer (2.51), and Wade Miley (2.74). Buehler has the best case for the award as September begins; of these six pitchers, he leads in innings pitched (176), ERA and ERA+ (193). Still, it’s not hard to sketch out the basics of an argument for almost any of those other five guys. Burnes has the lowest walk rate (4.8%) and the highest strikeout rate (34.6%). Scherzer leads in WHIP (0.88).

And this group of six doesn't even include Philadelphia's Zack Wheeler, whose recent skid has bumped his ERA to 3.01. He leads the majors with 182 2/3 innings and 6.1 WAR (Baseball Reference's version), and ranks second in the NL in expected ERA (2.76), FIP (2.69) and FanGraphs' WAR (6.0)—behind Burnes in the latter three stats.

Also not included is Jacob deGrom, who through 15 games was having the greatest pitching season ever before a right forearm/elbow injury sidelined him for the last two months.

It’s likely Buehler’s to lose. But with this much competition right behind him, and a few starts left from each, anything can happen.

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Who will have baseball's best record?

The Rays and Giants enter September tied with MLB's best record at 84–48. For Tampa Bay, it’s another year of consistency from its machine-like system as it tries to make back-to-back trips to the World Series. For San Francisco, it’s a surprising breakout from a club who wasn’t expected to reach this level so soon. So who has the best chance of coming out on top? Here are some of the numbers:

Team OPS+Team ERA+Run Differential

Rays

111

107

171

Giants

103

128

141

Which really doesn’t tell you much beyond the obvious: These are two really, really good teams, and either one could end up heading into October as the best in MLB. They’re built notably differently—the Giants have the oldest lineup in baseball and the Rays have one of the youngest; San Francisco's pitching strength is its rotation while Tampa Bay's is its bullpen—but both have ended up in the same place entering the final month.

And, of course, it ultimately might not be either of them: Don’t forget the Dodgers, who sit only a half-game behind.

What will September call-ups look like?

This one isn’t too flashy. But it’s still worth taking note: This is the first full season under the new rules for September rosters. (The new protocol was announced before the 2020 season, but there were, you know, just a few things that made last year different than expected.) Instead of rosters expanding from 25 men to as many as 40, like they previously did, they’ll go from 26 to just 28.

That (probably) means goodbye to September games where teams use 12 pitchers in one night. It also means goodbye to matchups between one team with, say, 29 players on the roster and one with 36. Those changes should be net benefits for the game—but they might also meaningfully change just who gets called up. With only two extra spots available, easing the burden on exhausted areas of the roster will likely take precedence over calling up a player simply to give him some exposure to major-league pitching, or giving a life-long minor-leaguer a chance just because you can. Is it a big deal in the scheme of things? Not particularly. But it’s still a new structure, and probably a new vibe, for September baseball.

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