Friday, December 9, 2022

MLB’s top 10 September storylines: Historic home run chases, Mariners and Phillies aim to end droughts, more

September has arrived. It feels like Opening Day was just two weeks ago, at least to me it does, but the season’s final month is here and there is still so much of the 2022 baseball story to be told. Division titles and wild-card spots — all six of them — remain up for grabs and the awards debates are beginning in earnest. A lot will be decided in these next five weeks.

These would be the postseason brackets if the regular season ended today, which of course it does not:

American League

BYE:
Astros and Yankees

WC1: Blue Jays at Guardians

WC2: Mariners at Rays

National League

BYE:
Dodgers and Mets

WC1: Padres at Cardinals

WC2: Phillies at Braves

What does the final month of the 2022 MLB regular season have in store? Lots of good stuff, including more than one milestone chase. Here are the top 10 storylines heading into September.

1. Pujols chasing 700 home runs

One of the greatest to ever do it is approaching one of the baseball’s most hallowed milestones. Thanks to recent binge that has seen him go deep eight times in his last 19 games, Cardinals legend and future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols has a chance to become the fourth player in the 700 home run club. Here’s the all-time home run leaderboard:

  1. Barry Bonds: 762
  2. Hank Aaron: 755
  3. Babe Ruth: 714
  4. Alex Rodriguez: 696
  5. Albert Pujols: 694 and counting

Pujols would almost certainly have 700 homers already if not for the shortened pandemic season in 2020. Alas. Adding intrigue to the 700-homer chase is the fact Pujols, who turns 43 in January, is planning to retire after the season. He said so when he re-signed with St. Louis in spring training and he reiterated it two weeks ago. From USA Today:

“I’m still going to retire, no matter whether I end up hitting 693, 696, 700, whatever,” Pujols said. “I don’t get caught up in numbers. If you were going to tell me 22 years ago that I would be this close, I would have told you that you’re freakin’ crazy. My career has been amazing.”  

“No, I’ve had enough,” he said. “I’m glad I made the announcement this was it when I signed. Really, I wouldn’t change a thing.”  

Pujols remains a lefty masher and the Cardinals have platooned him heavily in recent weeks. But, with the NL Central lead up to six games and a favorable (on paper) September schedule, would the Cardinals start giving him more playing time against righties to maximize his at-bats and thus his chances at 700 homers? You know fans will want to see it. As long as the division race isn’t much of a race, I say do it. Think of the ticket sales, Cardinals!

Either way, milestone or no milestone, we’re in for a glorious home run chase in September. Pujols needs six home runs in the team’s final 31 games. It is within reach.

2. Judge chasing 61 homers

Pujols is not the only player chasing a historic home run milestone. Yankees slugger Aaron Judge is on pace to become only the sixth player in history to hit 60 home runs in a season (it’s been done eight times), and also challenge Roger Maris’ AL record of 61 homers. Here are the eight 60-homer seasons in baseball history:

  1. Barry Bonds, 2001 Giants: 73
  2. Mark McGwire, 1998 Cardinals: 70
  3. Sammy Sosa, 1998 Cubs: 66
  4. Mark McGwire, 1999 Cardinals: 65
  5. Sammy Sosa, 2001 Cubs: 64
  6. Sammy Sosa, 1999 Cubs: 63
  7. Roger Maris, 1961 Yankees: 61
  8. Babe Ruth, 1927 Yankees: 60

Judge swatted his 51st home run Tuesday night and he enters Thursday with 51 home runs in 131 team games. That puts him on pace to hit 63 homers in 2022. He needs 11 homers in New York’s final 31 games to break Maris’ record, which seems very doable, but he is starting to get the Bonds treatment. Judge has walked 29 times in his last 29 games because teams increasingly refuse to pitch to him. Can’t say I blame them.

If you’re romantic about baseball, there’s some wonderful symmetry to this chase: Maris hit 61 homers 61 years ago in 1961 while wearing No. 9. Judge of course wears No. 99. And Judge is doing this is a contract year too. He rejected a seven-year extension in spring training and is set to test the market in a few weeks. I’m not sure it’s possible to have a better free agent year. So, thanks to Pujols and Judge, we have two historic home run chases to enjoy in the season’s finale month.

3. Goldschmidt chasing a Triple Crown

There is an awful lot of history on the line in September. Pujols chasing 700 home runs and Judge making a run at the AL’s single-season homer record are the headliners. Paul Goldschmidt is not to be overlooked though. The Cardinals first baseman has a shot to win the National League’s first Triple Crown since Hall of Famer Joe Medwick with the 1937 Cardinals.

There have only been 16 Triple Crowns in AL and NL history and each of the last six were American Leaguers: Miguel Cabrera (2012 Tigers), Carl Yastrzemski (1967 Red Sox), Frank Robinson (1966 Orioles), Mickey Mantle (1956 Yankees), and Ted Williams (1942 and 1947 Red Sox). Here’s where Goldschmidt sits in the Triple Crown categories entering Thursday:

Christian Yelich came close to a Triple Crown in his 2018 NL MVP season — he won the batting title but was two short in homers and one short in RBI — so it hasn’t been that long since the last time an NL player made a run at the milestone. That doesn’t take away from what Goldschmidt is doing though. He’s having a historic season and has a chance to do something that hasn’t been done in more than 80 years.

“Listen, if something like that happened it would be a miracle,” Goldschmidt told MLB.com about potentially winning the Triple Crown. “To think that’s realistic is probably pretty far-fetched. Like I said, if something like that did happen, it would be pretty amazing, but to think that’s a goal for anyone, that’s a crazy standard.”

4. Can the Dodgers win 110 games?

The Dodgers are so good it’s obnoxious. The enter Thursday with a 90-39 record overall, and a 45-11 record in their last 56 games. Los Angeles has baseball’s best record by seven games and they’re currently on pace to win 113 games. Here are the six teams in MLB history to win 110 games in a season:

  1. 1906 Cubs: 116-36 (.763)
  2. 2011 Mariners: 116-46 (.716)
  3. 1998 Yankees: 114-48 (.704)
  4. 1954 Cleveland: 111-43-2 (.721)
  5. 1927 Yankees: 110-55-1 (.724)
  6. 1909 Pirates: 110-42-2 (.673)

The 2021 Giants and 2019 Astros each won 107 games and came close to joining the list. The Red Sox won 108 games in 2018. The Dodgers, during what we’ll call the Andrew Friedman era (since 2015), topped out at 106 wins in 2019 and 2021. They need to win 20 of their final 33 games to reach 110 wins, and 27 of their final 33 games to set a new single-season wins record.

Two things could work against the Dodgers as they pursue 110 wins. First and foremost: injuries. Tony Gonsolin (forearm strain) recently joined Clayton Kershaw (back) and Walker Buehler (Tommy John surgery surgery) on the injured list, though Kershaw will be activated Thursday. And second: their 18 1/2-game division lead and seven-game lead for the best record in baseball. The Dodgers may take their foot off the gas in September, and rest players with an eye on being well-positioned for October. Even then, 110 wins is within reach, and that doesn’t happen often.

Please check the opt-in box to acknowledge that you would like to subscribe.

Thanks for signing up!

Keep an eye on your inbox.

Sorry!

There was an error processing your subscription.

5. Can the Yankees halt their collapse?

The Yankees went 10-18 (.357) in August, their worst month since going 9-19 (.321) in Sept. 1991. Their season record topped out at 61-23 (.726) on July 8, which is a 118-win pace. Since then New York is 18-29 (.383), one of the six worst records in baseball during that time. The Yankees went from dominating the sport to being a bottom-feeder seemingly overnight.

The AL East lead, which stood at 15 1/2 games on July 8 and 12 games on Aug. 1, is down to only six games. And, coincidentally enough, the Yankees play three games this weekend against the Rays, the division’s second-place team. Should things go sideways these next few days, New York’s division lead could be down to only three games come Monday morning.

The largest blown division lead in baseball history is 13 games by the 1951 Dodgers. The 1978 Yankees famously erased a 14-game lead to win the AL East, though New York was in fourth place at the time. The Red Sox never led the division by more than 10 games that year. So, 13 games is the blown division lead record. The Yankees, if they don’t right ship in September, will shatter it.

Incredibly, the Yankees have tumbled down the standings like this even while Judge is having not just an MVP-caliber season, but a potentially historic season with regards to home run output. The Yankees have gradually slipped from the best team in baseball to a .500 club to having their worst month in three decades. A historic collapse is suddenly in play.

6. The NL East race

The 2022 NL East is developing 2021 NL West vibes. You have two powerhouse teams — the Mets and Braves have two of the five best records in the sport — and New York’s division lead, which was as large as 10 1/2 games at one point, was recently down to 1 1/2 games. The Mets enter September with a three-game division lead.

Unfortunately the NL East race will involve a lot of scoreboard watching. The Mets and Braves have just one head-to-head series remaining: Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 at Citi Field. That is the second-to-last series of the regular season and it could offer lots of intrigue. Otherwise these clubs will have to follow the division race on the scoreboard each night. Here are their remaining opponents’ winning percentages:

  • Braves: .470 (76-win pace per 162 games)
  • Mets: .420 (68-win pace per 162 games)

Neither the Braves nor Mets are in danger of missing the postseason, though it is likely the NL East winner will secure a Wild Card Series bye, forcing the division runner-up to play an extra postseason round. That’s a rather huge disadvantage. The defending World Series champs have been in juggernaut mode since June 1 (57-24 in their last 81 games). They are not to be taken lightly.

7. The AL Central race

Unlike the NL East, the AL Central is very much a “win the division or miss the postseason” scenario. It’s not a lock the division runner-up will miss the postseason, but the cards are stacked against them in the wild-card race. At one point the Twins were 5 1/2 games up in the AL Central. Now they enter September 1 1/2 games behind the Guardians.

The fun thing about the AL Central race is the Guardians and Twins will see a lot of each other in September. They have eight head-to-head games remaining, including a doubleheader. They’ll play each other eight times in an 11-day span from Sept. 9-19. That’s the good stuff right there. Cleveland finishing itts season with six — six! — straight games against the Royals could be the difference in the division race, though any team can beat any other team on any day in this sport.

We must mention the White Sox here, though they have lost 10 of their last 13 games and are sliding right on out of the AL Central race. They enter September five games behind Cleveland. Chicago still has nine games remaining with the Twins and three with the Guardians, so the White Sox are not out of it yet, though they dug themselves quite a hole in September.

8. Mariners and Phillies trying to end their droughts

The Mariners have not been to the postseason since Ichiro’s rookie year in 2001. The Phillies have not been to the postseason since Roy Halladay’s last Hall of Fame-caliber season in 2011. Those are the two longest postseason droughts in baseball and, if the season ended today, the droughts would be over. Both clubs would make the postseason.

The season does not end today though, and Seattle and Philadelphia still have work to do to end their droughts. The AL wild-card race is rather tight, with five teams separated by five games for the three wild-card spots. Because the Braves have such a great record, the NL wild-card race amounts to three teams separated by three games for the last two wild-card spots.

Because they entered September in postseason position and because they’ve been in the race all year, the Mariners and Phillies are in “not making the postseason would be a major letdown” territory. Especially for Seattle, I think, because the club’s drought is twice as long and the team is good and fun. The Mariners and Phillies are both in a good place right now, but there’s work to be done.

(And, by the way, if the Mariners and Phillies do make the postseason, the longest postseason drought would then belong to the Angels and Tigers. They last qualified for the postseason in 2014.)

9. The wild-card races

MLB and the MLBPA agreed to a 12-team postseason format this year, giving us three wild-card spots and a new best-of-three Wild Card Series round. The extra postseason spots did not create a frenzy at the trade deadline (the Orioles traded veteran players away despite being in the wild-card hunt), but they exist, and they add intrigue to the season’s final month.

Here are the AL wild-card standings heading into September:

  1. Rays: 72-57 (+2 GB)
  2. Mariners: 72-58 (+1 1/2 GB)
  3. Blue Jays: 70-59

    —————————————-
  4. Orioles: 68-61 (2 GB)
  5. Twins: 67-62 (3 GB)
  6. White Sox: 64-66 (6 1/2 GB)

The Twins and Orioles are just trying to get in, though in Minnesota’s case, it might be easier to win the AL Central than secure a wild-card berth just because they have so many head-to-head games remaining with the first-place Guardians. Still, they’re in the wild-card race and can make like difficult for the other four clubs.

While simply getting into the postseason is the top priority, seeding does matter. The top wild-card team — the non-division winner with the best record — will host the entire Wild Card Series. Also, is it better to be the AL’s second wild-card team or third wild-card team? You have to play the entire Wild Card Series on the road either way, though one seed could present a more favorable matchup.

Using the current standings, the second wild-card team (Mariners) would go on the road to play the first wild-card team (Rays), while the third wild-card team (Blue Jays) goes on the road to play the AL Central winner (Guardians). Would you rather play the Guardians or the Rays in a best-of-three series? I think the case can be made you’d rather play the Guardians (i.e. be the third wild-card team). Then again, it’s a best-of-three series. Anything can happen.

Now here are the NL wild-card standings as we enter September:

  1. Braves: 80-51 (+7 1/2 GB)
  2. Phillies: 73-58 (+1/2 GB)
  3. Padres: 73-59

    —————————————-
  4. Brewers: 69-60 (2 1/2 GB)
  5. Diamondbacks: 61-67 (10 GB)

Barring a collapse, the first wild-card spot will go to the NL East runner-up. Either the Braves like it is now, or the Mets because the Braves pass them and win the division. The race is for the final two spots and it is tight. Milwaukee has fallen far enough behind the Cardinals the NL Central (six games) that a wild-card berth is more attainable than a division title.

The Padres went only 16-13 in August despite adding Juan Soto & Co., and they are 32-35 in their last 67 games. With last year’s stunning late season collapse still fresh in everyone’s memory, I imagine that club is feeling a little pressure entering September. Ownership and the front office have gone all-in on this group and the time needs to be now for San Diego.

Similar to the AL, would you rather be the NL second wild-card and face the NL East runner-up in a best-of-three series, or be the third wild-card team and face the NL Central winner? I’m pretty sure I’d rather be the third wild-card team and take my chances with the Cardinals (or Brewers) than have to go through the Mets or Braves. Still, the priority is just getting in, especially for the Phillies and Padres. Those two clubs are under a great deal of pressure to play in October. 

10. Prospect debuts

The new September roster expansion rules have taken a bite out of late season prospect watching (teams used to be able to activate their entire 40-man roster in September, now they only get one extra pitcher and one extra position player) but we’ll still see several highly regarded youngsters make their MLB debuts this month. Diamondbacks outfielder Corbin Carroll and Orioles infielder Gunnar Henderson, the consensus top two prospects in baseball, were called up earlier this week. Athletics lefty Ken Waldichuk and Astros righty Hunter Brown, two other top-100 prospects, are expected to be activated Thursday. Many more will get their feet wet in the coming weeks, and for fans of teams out of the race, getting a look at the future in September is about as good as it gets.

Related articles

Comments

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Share article

Latest articles

Newsletter

Subscribe to stay updated.