With all due respect to the Junior Circuit, there just isn’t a whole lot of excitement going on in the standings. We still have a little more than a month of games left, but there just aren’t that many opportunities for major upsets. Only the Mariners, who are 4.5 games back from Oakland for the second Wild Card spot with seven head-to-head games left, have any sort of realistic chance to actually mess things up. The little bit of intrigue we have pretty much consists of shuffling around current playoff positions.
In terms of the divisional races, the A’s have been one of the best stories in baseball this season, and they’re still only a couple of losses behind Houston. That belies the fact that Houston has dealt with serious issues in its lineup this season, with Jose Altuve, George Springer and Carlos Correa all missing significant amounts of time recently. Unfortunately for the A’s, they’re all back now, which, combined with Oakland’s one-run and extra-inning game luck, their success against teams that and the fact that Houston has a slightly easier schedule the rest of the way, all points to Houston’s ability to hang on to the division. It’s close and there’s a lot of baseball left to play, but if you bet against the Astros winning the division, you’re betting against the house.
And that’s pretty much it for excitement in the AL. While AL East shares one of the aforementioned issues (with New York finally getting healthy), Boston is already 6.5 games ahead and enjoys a slightly easier schedule the rest of the way. And I guess we have to at least mention the Central, where the Indians have an 18-game lead and the easiest schedule of any team currently in realistic playoff position, thanks to the fact that they play in one of the worst divisions of all time.
But, while there is only one truly interesting race in the AL, the National League has come to the rescue this year and offers a veritable cornucopia of tantalizing scenarios. There are eight teams still clearly in the mix, all with somewhere between 57 and 62 knocks in the loss column. Everyone is bunched so close together, and with so many games against other contenders, that a single sweep could have drastic ramifications for both teams’ chances. We could be looking something like a truly glorious five-way tie come the end of the season. Or we might have forgotten about how close things were in a week or so. Let’s take a look at who’s still here.
- NL East
With the Nationals throwing in the towel, we’ve now officially got a two-way race with plenty potential for intrigue, thanks in no small part to scheduling.
70-62, 4.5 games behind Atlanta Braves, 2.5 games back of a Wild Card spot
Number of Interest: .333
Since they started August with a four-game sweep of the Marlins, the Phillies have gone 7-14 for a .333 winning percentage that has helped the Braves take sole possession of first place. While they’re still just 2.5 games out of a Wild Card spot and there’s still plenty of time to make it up, they’ve basically been playing .500 ball since mid-June. The bullpen has been extremely overworked, but that’s certainly could be cured by September roster expansion.
Player of Interest: Jose Bautista
He started the year in Atlanta and was awful, went to the Mets where he was pretty much OK and was on the move again yesterday, to his third team in the NL East this season, to see if he can help his new team retake the lead from his first team. He’s been pulling the ball more than ever before and has basically been a replacement level on the year. Still, he’s had some important at-bats in postseasons past, and he’ll bring a veteran presence to a young clubhouse.
74-57, 1st in division
Number of Interest: 7
That’s the number of times that the Braves play the Phillies before the season is over, all during the last 11 days of the season. That could go a very long way to determining the outcome of the East. Atlanta also has one of the hardest schedules among all the contenders, while the Phillies have the easiest. Despite all of that, though, they have a run differential of +102, versus +1 for Philly, and have simply looked like the the better team for most of the season. While the sheer number of times they play each other could shake things up late, my money is still on Atlanta to create a little separation before we get to that point.
Person of Interest: Ronald Acuña
- NL Central
Now things get even more interesting.
77-53, first in division
Number of Interest: 5.7
Chicago’s rotation has not been anything approximating good this season. Their collective 5.7 fWAR lands them in the 23rd spot in all of MLB in the middle of a big ol’ pile of teams that are already out of it. Their division rivals in Milwaukee (7.5 fWAR) are the next lowest team that’s still reasonably likely to play into October their division rivals, and they clock in at 17th.
The Cubs’ most valuable pitcher by bWAR has actually been Cole Hamels, which speaks volumes about the other pitchers since he’s only been with the team since August 1. Hamels has been pitching like a true ace again, which is great, but everyone else on the staff has failed to perform to their expected levels. The Cubs’ rotation has walked the second most hitters in all of MLB (3.82 BB/9). Yu Darvish had a rough 2018 and is shutdown for the season due to an elbow injury. Tyler Chatwood’s 2018 has been even worse, and he working his way back from the DL as well.
The Cubs might have had the most well-rounded offense in MLB this year, and they’ve certainly had the best defense. The rotation has needed every bit of that help and there’s not really a heck of a lot of reason to believe that things will get better moving forward. They might still be the favorites to win the division, but this is certainly not the rotation that won the World Series just a couple of seasons ago.
Person of Interest: Dillon Maples
The temptation to just put the whole rotation here was a powerful one, but we’ll go with a likely call-up instead. Maples has already been called up last season and a couple of times this season, but he’ll likely get another look once rosters expand. He has a 100-mph fastball and electric stuff, striking out 42% of the hitters he’s faced in AAA this season. But he also comes with some serious control issues (9.16 BB/9 over that same period). September will mean bullpen reinforcements and a likely return of Maples to the major league roster. And any pitcher with those sorts of strikeout and walk numbers definitely meets the definition of a “person of interest.”
St. Louis Cardinals
74-58, 4 games behind Cubs, in possession of 1st Wild Card
Number of Interest: .692
Since getting rid of Mike Matheny and handing the keys to Mike Shildt on July 14, 2018, the Cardinals have gone 27-12, the best record in MLB since that date. The rotation has been rocked by injuries all year, and yet here they are, with Mike Mikolas seemingly coming out of nowhere to be the Cardinals’ best pitcher and in possession of a postseason spot. While that is extremely in line with the Cardinals’ brand, they have has the toughest remaining schedule in their division, so Shildt will need to continue working his magic to keep the Cards in this extremely tight race.
Person of Interest: Daniel Poncedeleon
The Cardinals could certainly use some pitching help. Look deep into your heart and you know it’s coming once September rolls around. Poncedeleon seems like as good a bet as any. A 26-year RHP who has consistently outperformed his FIP throughout his time in the minors. Why not?
73-60, 5.5 games behind Cubs, in possession of 2nd Wild Card
Number of Interest: 5.05
That’s the bullpen’s ERA in the second half, and it is the fifth worst in all of MLB. That’s quite a turnaround, considering that the bullpen’s 3.33 ERA in the first half was the sixth best mark. Bullpens are fickle creatures, but Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress have been the only reliable arms as of late. There are some reasons to think things should improve even if rosters didn’t expand, given that their FIP in the second half (4.32) ranks a much more respectable 13th overall. There’s also the fact that the bullpen’s collective BABIP has jumped from .292 in the first half to .322 in the second.
Person of Interest: The Whole Outfield
I was confused by their unrelenting focus on improving the outfield last offseason, but it turns out that having Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich in the same outfield seems to be working pretty well out for them. If Ryan Braun was the player he was in his heyday, this might be the best outfield in all of baseball. As it is, it’s the best in the NL and one of the biggest reasons that Milwaukee is still in the mix.
- NL West
In which things stay interesting, and might get even moreso.
72-60, tied for division lead, 0.5 games out of a Wild Card spot
Number of Interest: -14
Colorado’s run differential is the worst among any of the still-contending teams. It’s worse than a bunch of teams who are all but mathematically eliminated from a postseason appearance. And, yet, they’re tied for the division lead. Thanks in large part to one of the best records in one-run games in MLB (22-13), Colorado has one of the biggest positive differentials between their expected record and actual record by both Pythagorean (+7, 2nd in MLB) and BaseRuns (+5, 3rd in MLB).
The bottom line is that Colorado has won quite a few more games than they should have. Of course, there isn’t any law that says that they will immediately regress towards the mean and start losing more games. There’s also such a relatively small amount of baseball left that they may have built up enough of a bank of wins that they’ll coast in regardless, but the rest of their division certainly won’t make things easy on them.
Person of Interest: Matt Holliday
While Peter Lambert looks like an interesting September call-up, the nod here is going to a player the Rockies drafted way back in 1998, one who just returned to the team for the first time in a decade but who is nonetheless one of the franchise’s best players. Holliday is 38 years old and it seemed he might be done with baseball after he went through last offseason unsigned. But he’s back with his original team, signed to a minor league deal at the end of August. His AAA numbers (.346/.452/.596) earned him a roster spot and he’s been back with the team for a week. If the seven-time All Star has one-to-two months of his former glory left in his bat, it could go a long way towards helping the Rockies ensure they stay in it.
72-60, tied for division lead, 0.5 games out of a Wild Card spot
Number of Interest: -0.94
Arizona’s relievers have a 3.13 ERA, which is the best mark in the NL. They also have an FIP of 4.07, which is much more pedestrian and also makes the difference between their collective ERA and FIP, -0.94, the largest (of the negative and disheartening variety) in all of MLB. Closer Brad Boxberger (3.55 ERA/4.32 FIP) is a big part of the problem. He’s striking out players at an impressive clip (12.42 K/9), but both his walks (4.73 BB/9) and home runs (1.58 HR/9) aren’t where he or his team would like them.
While the Diamondbacks’ success doesn’t feel quite as fluky as their division lead cohabitating Rockies, they’ve certainly had other issues besides the bullpen. They have some holes in their lineup most notably at catcher (0.0 fWAR) and right field (-0.7 fWAR). The rotation in general has fared fairly well, with Patrick Corbin (3.15 ERA/2.39 FIP) and Zack Greinke (2.93 ERA/3.58 FIP) leading the pack, and Clay Buchholz (2.07 ERA/3.41 FIP) undergoing a remarkable resurgence. But there have been some negative surprises in the rotation, too, which brings us to...
Person of Interest: Robbie Ray
Ray broke out last year (2.89 ERA/3.72 FIP), but has regressed quite a bit this year (4.73 ERA/4.66 FIP). He’s been having trouble find the strike zone with his fastball all season and has seen his walk rate jump quite a bit to 5.04 BB/9. Opposing hitters have also been making more contact with pitches outside the zone, which has doubled down on the damage. If Ray is simply able to make a minor tweak to his fastball and locate his pitches more effectively down the stretch, Arizona’s rotation might be good enough that a little bullpen regression and a couple glaring lineup holes simply won’t matter.
Los Angeles Dodgers
71-61, 1 game behind in the division, 1.5 games back of a Wild Card spot
Number of Interest: -8
While the Rockies have been one of the luckiest teams in MLB, the Dodgers have been on the other end of the spectrum. They have a -8 win difference between their actual record and both their expected Pythagorean and BaseRun records, which are tied for last in MLB and 29th in MLB, respectively. While they don’t have drastic splits in one-run or extra-inning games that teams often do when they severely underperform their expected records, they have another luck-related problem.
As pointed out earlier this week by Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs, Dodger hitters have been historically unclutch. The lineup’s inability to get hits in high leverage situations is the worst that MLB has seen dating back to 1953. Corey Seager, Chris Taylor, Manny Machado, Austin Barnes, Justin Turner, Yasiel Puig, Joc Pedeson, Yasmani Grandal, Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy are all posting negative Clutch scores. Muncy, Bellinger and Grandal hold down the third through fifth worst Clutch scores in MLB.
We shouldn’t necessarily make too much of this going forward (after all the number one and two spots belong to Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Trout), but there certainly seems to be something in the home team’s water at Chavez Ravine this year. While it would be foolish to assume that this won’t improve given enough time, the time left is finite and so many of their hitters have managed to perform poorly at the most inopportune times all season. The Dodgers have, however, the far easiest remaining schedule in the West, so at least they have that going for them.
Person of Interest: Kenley Jansen
It’s not just the hitters that have been having problems with their Clutch scores, it’s also the bullpen, who collectively rank 28th in MLB. They’re 17th by fWAR (2.2) and 26th by xFIP (3.80). Jansen missed time in August due to an irregular heartbeat, but he’s back now, and the month has not been kind to him, as opposing hitters have a .355/.394/.742 slashline against him since the end of July. Jansen isn’t the only problem in the Dodger bullpen, but, if he can’t be counted on to get outs, he’s going to be the biggest one.