Nine things to watch in September
New faces, MVP and Cy Young races -- and maybe, just maybe, pennant races
A September without pennant races is like, well what?
Kelly without Regis? Oops. Dwight Schrute without Michael Scott? Oops. J-Lo without Marc? Oops.
OK, so every once in a while in life, we have to learn to get along without stuff we've come to take for granted. Even September pennant races. Or ANY kind of races.
The bad news is we've arrived at this particular baseball September with only one meaningful division race (the AL West) that's still closer than a 5½-game spread. Even worse, we're stuck with the least competitive September wild-card chases ever. (The SMALLEST current wild-card gap: 7½ games, Yankees over Rays in the AL.)
But the good news is we can still have a riveting, fun-filled scramble to the finish line -- in all sorts of other ways. You just need to know where to find the action. So here's our look at What to Watch for in September:
How do we know it's over before it's over?
This will be the 17th September since baseball broke into six divisions and added two wild cards back in the mid-'90s. None of the previous 16 looked anything like this.
It's the first time in all those years that we could look around on Sept. 1 and not find even ONE tug-o'-war, for any of the eight playoff spots, between teams that were separated by no more than 1½ games. Yikes. How'd THIS happen, anyway?
All right, it's true that the Red Sox and Yankees are divided by only a game and a half in the AL East. But does that count as a "meaningful race" if the loser is almost guaranteed to be the wild card? We'd vote no -- not in a traditional, win-or-else, pennant-race kind of way, anyhow.
There's one thing we should remember, though. Sometimes these races aren't as "over" as they look.
A year ago at this time, the Giants were four games out in the NL West. The Phillies were three back in the NL East. You know how their seasons turned out. In 2009, the Tigers blew a 3 ½-game lead, entering September, in the AL Central. In 1995, the Mariners came from 7½ back to win the AL West. And we're not even going to get into what happened to the 2007 Mets.
So it does happen. Just sayin'.
October Matchup Scramble: AL Edition
On one hand, thanks to the flaws in the current wild-card system, that Yankees-Red Sox race is pretty close to irrelevant. If they're both moving on, why should we care?
On the other hand, here's why we should care: Because it might not seem so irrelevant come October.
HUNT FOR OCTOBER
Percentage chance of making the playoffs (entering play on Sept. 1):
|For more info, visit Hunt for October|
The winner gets to open the postseason at home and have home-field advantage through the first two rounds. The loser gets home-field advantage in NO rounds and probably (barring a big finish by the Angels) has to kick off the postseason in Texas against a Rangers team nobody should want to mess with in October.
Not that it would be any fun to run into Justin Verlander and the Tigers. But here's why inviting Verlander to The Stadium would be a fine alternative for the Yankees: 1. They're 5-2 against Detroit in games Verlander has started since 2008 (including 2-0 this year). And 2. the Yankees have lost four of the past six postseason series in which they DIDN'T have home-field advantage, with just one of those two triumphs coming in the past 10 seasons.
October Matchup Scramble: NL Edition
Has anybody spotted a race in this league? It would be tough -- even with the Hubble Space Telescope. It's hard to believe that the CLOSEST race for any of the four NL playoff spots is six games. So unless somebody does some serious collapsing, the only drama in the NL standings this month will be the jockeying for seeding.
HUNT FOR OCTOBER
Percentage chance of making the playoffs (entering play on Sept. 1):
|For more info, visit Hunt for October|
But you don't think seeding matters to the Brewers? They have a shot to become only the fourth NL team in the expansion era to win 60 games at home -- but they have as many road wins as the Pirates. So the Brew Crew are lusting after that first or second seed.
And you don't think seeding matters to the Diamondbacks? They've scored 52 more runs at home than on the road. Their OPS is almost 100 points higher at home (.782-.683). And their road batting average (.237) is lower than the Giants' road average (.238). So besides their quest to hold off the defending champs, the D-backs have humongous incentive to catch the Brewers for that No. 2 seed and home field in the division series.
The Brewers still lead Arizona by three games on that front. But here's a tidbit to file away in case the Diamondbacks take advantage of their cushy September schedule and make this race closer: Arizona won the season series (4-3), so if the Diamondbacks and Brewers finish tied, Arizona would be the No. 2 seed.
Prospective matchups if the postseason started today: Phillies (1) versus Diamondbacks (3), Brewers (2) versus Braves (4).
Playoff preview series
Not that it will tell us anything about what lies ahead in October, but the September schedule features a bunch of potential playoff-preview series -- like these, for instance:
• Rangers at Red Sox, Sept. 2-4
• Braves at Phillies, Sept. 5-7
• Phillies at Brewers, Sept. 8-11
• Yankees at Angels, Sept. 9-11
• Phillies at Braves, Sept. 26-28
And you'll be shocked to learn that the Red Sox WILL play the Yankees again -- three more times, Sept. 23-24-25, in New York.
The MVP races
Is there even an MVP favorite in either league right now? We don't see one. And any time we can weave September plotlines into the MVP discussion, that often constitutes September theater at its finest.
In the American League, you have more than just a mad scramble. You have a wild clash of disparate voting philosophies. No starting pitcher has won an MVP award in 25 years, but if you think that's a bogus way to vote, Justin Verlander has a great case.
Toronto Blue Jays
No player from a noncontender has won since Alex Rodriguez in 2003 (for the last-place Rangers), but if you think contending is somehow overrated, Jose Bautista's numbers make him the clear choice of the sabermetrics crowd.
No Yankee other than A-Rod has won an MVP award in the past quarter century, but Curtis Granderson's potentially historic season could rewrite that nugget.
And if one of the three legit Red Sox candidates -- Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury -- separates himself in September, the correct response to all the stuff we just talked about could be: Never mind.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Over in the National League, the same arguments are swirling. It feels as though the Dodgers got eliminated on Mother's Day, but if that doesn't bother you, Matt Kemp's numbers are insane. And if we're going to welcome in all the noncontenders, toss the caps of Joey Votto, Troy Tulowitzki and Andrew McCutchen into this ring, too.
Will we figure out which Brewer -- Prince Fielder or Ryan Braun -- to vote for? September could help us sort that out. And if Justin Upton leads the who-are-these-guys Diamondbacks into October, he could render all these other names defunct.
But why do we have a feeling that the biggest MVP storyline in September might be more about how voting philosophies evolve among the baseball scribes with ballots than it will be about who does what on the field? Just a hunch.
Let out a Cy
Before we hand Verlander his MVP trophy, we also should ask: Has he already ended the Cy Young debate? Uh, Jered Weaver still leads him in ERA (2.28-2.38), so that's one guy who sure doesn't think so, anyway.
Then again, Verlander has now pulled within one-tenth of a run in ERA of taking the lead in all three categories that make up the pitching triple crown (wins, strikeouts, ERA). And keep in mind that since the invention of Cy Youngs, no pitcher has won a pitching triple crown and not won a Cy Young.
That's a little factoid that's relevant to the NL Cy Young debate, too, by the way. In case you hadn't noticed, Clayton Kershaw leads the league in whiffs, is tied for the lead in wins and is now sitting at No. 2 in the ERA race. So Kershaw has elevated himself into the thick of the NL Cy Young free-for-all with a spectacular second half (9-1, 1.18 ERA since July 7).
But Roy Halladay has obliterated the field in wins above replacement (7.2 to Kershaw's 5.8), has virtually an identical ERA to Kershaw's in a more hitter-friendly park and easily could argue he's the Cy Young of EVERY season.
Then there's Cliff Lee, who is about to reel in his second pitcher-of-the-month award in the past three months and leads the league in shutouts (five) and double-figure strikeout games (eight). He also has piled up nearly twice as many starts of zero runs/eight-plus innings (eight) as any other pitcher in the league.
Sure looks like we're in for a fabulous September pitch-off to settle that debate, doesn't it?
The return of Strasburg and new September faces
You might have heard something about this someplace, but Stephen Strasburg -- The Sequel -- is just days away. Almost exactly a year after visiting his friendly neighborhood Tommy John surgeon, Strasburg returns to D.C. on Tuesday for a month of hype, hoopla and, we'd bet, a whole lot of swinging and missing.
Strasburg punched out 25 hitters, walked three and put up a bunch of 97s and 98s on the radar gun in his first five minor league rehab starts. So he won't be reminding anybody of Livan Hernandez this month just because of a minor setback like complete elbow reconstruction. The plan is for him to start a few times in the big leagues, then shut it down. So adjust your viewing plans -- and fantasy rosters -- accordingly.
Other "new" September faces to watch:
• Brad Peacock and Tom Milone: In related Nationals developments, Strasburg won't be the only new pitcher in town. They also plan to trot out Peacock (15-3 between Double-A and Triple-A) and Milone (12-6 with 155 whiffs in 148 1/3 Triple-A innings) this month. So The Future in Washington is fast becoming The Present.
• Jesus Montero: Most September call-ups in Yankeeland are just additions to the Bronx scenery. Not this guy. He has a real shot to thump his way into meaningful DH time down the stretch and in October.
• Devin Mesoraco: Speaking of young catchers on the rise, the Reds' Catcher of the Future will be a fascinating guy to watch this month. Still uncertain how much he'll play. But remember, Keith Law ranked him as the No. 6 prospect in the sport in July -- and the much-more-heavily trumpeted Montero at No. 21.
• Leonys Martin: He actually arrived a few days ago thanks to Nelson Cruz's hamstring. But because the Rangers never traded for Lance Berkman or any other outfield bat before the Aug. 31 waiver-deal deadline, the 23-year-old Cuban -- signed in May after defecting last summer -- might sneak in there for a big September moment or two. His most big league-ready weapon at the moment: his legs. He just swiped nine bases in 11 tries in a 40-game pass through Triple-A.
• Trevor Bauer: Bauer was the Diamondbacks' first-round pick a mere 12 weeks ago. Not everybody is sold on his unorthodox delivery and routine. And the Diamondbacks still aren't sure how many more innings they want him to pitch. But seven starts into his minor league career, Bauer has piled up 43 strikeouts in 25 2/3 innings. On the other hand, he also just gave up 10 runs in 1 2/3 innings in his past Double-A start. So it will be interesting to get a read on how big league-ready he really is.
History Watch: Team Division
The first five months of every season put a select few teams in position to make history. September represents their chance to finish that job. Among the historic quests you should keep your eye on in this September are these:
• The Phillies are already 40 games over .500 after a mere 132 games. Only five NL teams in the expansion era could say that. If they go 22-8 the rest of the way, they would become just the third NL team since 1910 to win 108 games in a season. The others: the 1986 Mets and the 1975 edition of the Big Red Machine.
• The Phillies also have thrown 19 shutouts a year after spinning 21 shutouts. So they're two shutouts from twirling 20-plus in back-to-back years. How many staffs have done that since baseball lowered the mound after 1968? That would be none.
• The Diamondbacks lost 97 games last year. They're on the verge of winning the NL West this year. So how many teams have lost 97 games one year and finished first the next? Exactly two, according to the Elias Sports Bureau: the 1999-2000 Diamondbacks and the 1990-91 Braves.
• The Red Sox are on pace to win 99.6 games. Feel free to round that off to 100 if you'd like. So why is that noteworthy? Because the Red Sox haven't won 100 games in any season since 1946. And what's the big deal about that? The other teams have won 100-plus 58 times since the last time the Red Sox did it. And the Yankees have won 100 a dozen times since then. The only three teams with longer 100-win droughts than the Red Sox are the Cubs (1935), White Sox (1917) and Pirates (1909). That's why.
History Watch: Every Man For Himself Division
• There's Mike Stanton. He's 21 years old. And until Albert Pujols passed him Wednesday, he was tied for the NL lead in homers. If Stanton roars back to win that title, you should know he'll be the youngest player to lead the National League in trots -- and the third-youngest home run champ ever behind Tony Conigliaro (who won at 20 in 1965) and Sam Crawford (who was about 150 days younger than Stanton when he won in 1905). Pretty cool.
• There's Starlin Castro. He's also 21 -- and on pace to get 205 hits. Depending on when (or if) he reaches 200, it's possible that only five players since 1900 will have gotten their 200th hit at a younger age. Regardless, we know that only two other players have gotten 200 hits in a season at age 21 or younger in the past 50 years -- A-Rod (1996, at 20) and Garry Templeton (1977, at 21).
• There's Curtis Granderson. He has a chance to lead the American League in homers and triples. The only men to lead their league in both departments in the same year in the live ball era (since 1920): Jim Rice, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Jim Bottomley. Granderson also has a shot to top the major leagues in homers, RBIs and runs scored. The only men to do that, according to Elias: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and A-Rod. Ever heard of any of those guys?
• Finally, there's Adam Dunn. He's hitting .163 with 157 strikeouts and 60 hits. The record for lowest batting average in ANY season by a qualifier for the batting title is .179 by the legendary Rob Deer. So what could derail Dunn's march to history? He might not play enough in September to qualify for the batting title. But that doesn't mean he still can't make another kind of history. How many players in the history of the American League have had 100 more strikeouts than hits in a season? Uh, none, of course. And the only guy to do it in any league was Mark Reynolds (211-99) last year in Arizona. So this is a huge September for Dunn -- no matter how much he does (or doesn't) play.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is now available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst