In five weeks, we’ll be watching playoff baseball. Because of the new 12-team postseason format, this is the first year in which there will be four best-of-three Wild Card Series, two in the AL and two in the NL, as opposed to the single one-and-done game in each league.
This sets up for one exciting first weekend of the playoffs, with four games Friday and Saturday, back-to-back-to-back-to-back, and if we are lucky, four consecutive win-or-go-home Game 3s on Sunday.
I’ve written in the past about how much I loved the one-game wild-card round, because it gave fans two immediate high stakes matchups to begin the playoffs. One of the biggest problems that casual fans have with baseball is the length of the season and the lack of marquee events. Having elimination games to start the playoffs was the easiest way for MLB to manufacture two major events right away.
That said, the setup for the expanded postseason is great for baseball, because having two or three straight days with four games gives MLB the type of all-day events that other sports use to their benefit. Look at the buzz surrounding the first Thursday and Friday of March Madness or the first weekend of the NFL playoffs; that’s what MLB is hoping to replicate. Granted, those feature only elimination games, whereas the baseball postseason is made up of series, but given the choice of having two nights of single one-and-done games or multiple days packed with four games, I think I’d rather take the latter.
We’ll get to enjoy that first MLB wild-card weekend soon enough, but in the meantime, let’s run through five story lines to follow over the final month of the regular season.
The 700 Club
That’s right, Albert Pujols is looking to become the fourth player ever to hit 700 home runs and the first since Barry Bonds in 2004. Entering this weekend, Pujols has 694 career homers, with nine of them coming since the All-Star break. Some quick math here. The Cardinals have played 37 games in the second half of the season, so in that span, he is averaging one dinger per every 4.1 of his team’s games. St. Louis has 31 games left, so at his current pace, Pujols will hit seven more home runs this season, giving him 701 to finish his career.
61, 61 years after ’61
Aaron Judge, who leads the majors with 51 home runs, is on pace to break Roger Maris’s American League record for the most homers in a single season. And with Judge’s chase of Maris comes a renewed debate about the impact of performance-enhancing drugs on the baseball record book. My take is this: the true single-season and lifetime home run records are both held by Bonds, who hit 73 homers in 2001 and finished his career with 762. We can’t erase the fact that his home runs happened. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the context surrounding the accomplishments of Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the only three players to go yard more times than Maris in a single season. They cheated. We can and should still say that with every story we write and every discussion we have as Judge gets closer to and eventually passes 60 home runs.
A few other ways to look at Judge’s historical home run barrage: If he finishes the year tied with Maris, he’d be the first player in 61 years without ties to steroids to hit that many home runs in a season. If he falls one short of Maris, well, he’d be the third player to ever hit 60 without being connected to PEDs. If he reaches 62 dingers, he’ll be the only clean player with that many. That’s remarkable, regardless of what the record books say.
Finally, some rain for these playoff droughts
The Mariners have not made the postseason since 2001. The Phillies haven’t done so since ‘11. Each team holds the longest active playoff drought in their respective leagues; Seattle’s is the longest in North American professional sports.
Both of those dry spells could soon end. With five weeks left in the regular season, the Mariners and Phillies each hold one of their league’s three wild-card spots. Entering this weekend, Seattle’s playoff odds are 97.5%, and Philadelphia’s are 85.3%, per FanGraphs.
So, pending a potential collapse from either club, which teams take up the role of having the longest postseason droughts in each league? In the NL, it’s the Pirates, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2015. Two AL teams have fallen short every year since ‘14: the Tigers and the Angels.
No, not the Eagles. I’m talking about the Orioles, who are just 1.5 games behind another bird, the Blue Jays, for the final AL wild-card spot. The playoff projection systems really don’t know what to make of the O’s. Depending on which one you use, Baltimore’s playoff odds could be anywhere from 9.6% (FanGraphs) to 48.1% (Baseball-Reference). That’s because we’ve never seen any team in MLB history have a turnaround that was this drastic from one year to the next. If you love the unexpected, you’ll surely be rooting for the Orioles over the next five weeks.
The best of the worst
The AL Central is an abysmal division, but one team is still going to win it and make the playoffs. That team would be the Guardians (68–61) if the season ended today. They hold a one-game lead over the Twins (67–62), and lurking four games back are the White Sox (65–66). In last week’s newsletter, Tom Verducci explained why Chicago has been so disappointing and likely isn’t going to go on a late run to reach the postseason. Everything he wrote is valid. However, the South Siders do have nine games left to play against Minnesota, and four more vs. Cleveland. If the Sox still have that improbable run in them, they do have the opportunities to gain ground.
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1. THE OPENER
“He chuckles, wondering what the cleaning crew must think. The ones who know his story probably understand why he needs that time: He was a second-round pick and phenom until he broke his back with the Dodgers in 2016; he has passed through eight organizations and recorded 395 major league plate appearances in the six years since. But a July trade back to Los Angeles, intended just to cover for injuries, has reignited something in the outfielder, and in only 50 games, at 31, he has been the ninth-most valuable player on the best team in baseball. He has forced himself into the starting lineup most days. He has regained his health, received help from his hero, resuscitated his career. So every day, when he arrives at Dodger Stadium, he says thank you.”
That’s Stephanie Apstein, writing about Dodgers outfielder Trayce Thompson. In her profile of Thompson from this morning, Steph details the 31-year-old’s journey back to Los Angeles, where he’s making a huge impact on the best team in baseball.
You can read Steph’s entire story here.
Trayce Thompson is Grateful to Be Back in the Land of Stars by Stephanie Apstein
Let’s run through some of our other great SI baseball stories from this week.
What History Tells Us About Aaron Judge’s Pursuit of 61 Home Runs by Will Laws
Will he break Roger Maris’s record? Let’s look at how his season compares to the other players who were on similar homer paces entering September.
Albert Pujols Is Writing the Perfect Ending to His Legendary Career by Nick Selbe
After years of struggling, the 42-year-old Cardinals slugger has returned to being one of MLB’s more productive hitters.
MLBPA’s Efforts to Unionize Minor Leagues Didn’t Happen Overnight by Emma Baccellieri
In an interview, Tony Clark discussed the players association’s monumental step to represent minor league players and what it could mean for baseball.
What You Need to Know as the MLBPA Pushes to Unionize the Minors by Emma Baccellieri
This is a monumental step toward improving working conditions for minor leaguer players, but there’s still a long road ahead.
How the Orioles Became the Most Unlikely Playoff Contender in MLB History by Tom Verducci
No team has ever had a turnaround quite like Baltimore this season. What’s the secret? Hint: It’s much more than just “Oriole Magic.”
3. WORTH NOTING from Matt Martell
Mike Trout has hit 28 home runs this season, despite playing in just 91 games entering this weekend. That works out to an average of one homer per every 3.25 games. That’s the second best rate of his career, excluding the pandemic shortened 2020 season, when he hit 17 homers in just 53 games (a rate of 3.12). His best rate came in ‘19, when he hit 45 homers, the most he’s ever hit in a single season, in 134 games (one per every 2.98 games). That was good enough to win his third MVP award.
4. W2W4 from Nick Selbe
As of this writing, the Yankees have a 91.9% chance of winning the American League East, per FanGraphs. Yet they haven’t looked invincible for a while now, going 15–24 since the All-Star break. Should that type of slide continue this weekend—when New York hits the road to take on the second-place and high-flying Rays—we could see a full-blown panic take over the Bronx (if it hasn’t happened already). The Yankees held a 13-game lead over Tampa Bay entering the second half; now, that lead is down to six.
The primary culprit for the Yankees has been the offense, which is hitting .225 in the second half (25th in the majors) and slugging .378 (23rd). In the first half, they ranked 12th in batting average (.246) and first in slugging (.445). The only one doing his part has been, you guessed it, Aaron Judge: in 38 games since the All-Star break, he’s batting an absurd .326/.477/.780 with 18 home runs. So disappointing has been the Yankees’ offense that they’re beginning to call up the kids. No. 2 prospect, shortstop Oswald Peraza, is set to make his major-league debut this weekend. Another of their highly touted prospects, utility man Oswaldo Cabrera, has been a spark since he joined the big leaguers in mid-August. Their arrival likely means some less playing time for struggling infielders Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Josh Donaldson and Gleyber Torres, not to mention outfielder Aaron Hicks, who’s already been squeezed out of the lineup.
Other weekend series with playoff implications include the Mariners and Guardians matching up in Cleveland, the Twins taking on the White Sox in Chicago and an NL West tilt between the Padres and Dodgers in Los Angeles. Oh, and let’s not forget, Angels superstar Shohei Ohtani’s next start on the hill, which is slated for Saturday at home against the first-place Astros.
5. THE CLOSER from Emma Baccellieri
With Atlanta rookie Spencer Strider’s 16-strikeout masterpiece last night, I realized that I couldn’t remember the last such game off the top of my head. Surely, I figured, with strikeout rates as high as they are, there had been one somewhat recently. But it turns out it had been more than three years since the last time a pitcher struck out 16 or more: No one until Strider had done it since Walker Buehler on June 21, 2019. That makes for the longest such gap since the 1950s. (There were four years between Herb Score striking out 16 in ‘55 and Sandy Koufax doing it for the first time in ‘59.) Which led me to something else: Sure, we’ve seen more strikeouts than ever in the last few years, but achievements like these are on the decline. Turns out the ability (or permission) to go deep into games matters just as much here as the ability to rack up Ks. The ‘10s brought fewer 16-plus-K games than any decade since the ‘50s! There were fewer from the whole league combined in the last decade (15) than there were just from Nolan Ryan in his career (16). So when we do get one? Savor it. The next one might not be coming around for a while.
That’s all from us today. We’ll be back in your inbox next Friday. In the meantime, share this newsletter with your friends and family, and tell them to sign up at SI.com/newsletters. If you have any questions or comments, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.