It’s crunch time in MLB.
Rosters are about to expand as the calendar turns to September, and we’re one month away from the postseason proper — that means the end of the summer doldrums. There’s a month and a half in there, from the All-Star Break through the end of August, where you can be forgiven for tuning out and waiting for the games to matter again — or, if your team is out of the playoff hunt, to wait for September to roll around. Interesting young players come up and give fans a reason to watch a team that’ll end up with 65 to 70 wins.
For those of us not watching to see which prospects might get called up around the end of May or beginning of June next year (after suspiciously not being ready for the big leagues until their Super Two window has passed), there is still a bunch of drama on offer from MLB that doesn’t necessarily involve the teams fans follow. These are the three most prominent storylines across the league as we burn into the last month of the season.
How many more will Giancarlo Stanton hit past 60?
The Miami Marlins are surprisingly back in contention — sort of. They have absolutely no shot at the National League East Division crown, but they’re only 5.5 games out of the second NL wild card spot going into Thursday’s games, which is downright encouraging for a National League team (5.5 games out in the American League would mean they’d have six other teams they’d need to leapfrog first). How has a team that should have sold at the non-waiver trade deadline a month ago managed to drag itself back into something approaching contention?
Giancarlo Stanton has had one of the most historically awe-inspiring home run streaks in major league history over the past two months.
Going into July, Stanton had hit 21 home runs — seven each month in April, May, and June, showing remarkable consistency and putting him on track for a 40-home run season. That’s hardly pedestrian, and better than any single-season total Stanton had accrued to date, but not particularly eye-popping considering these are the very best years of a top talent’s career. His problem had always been staying on the field, not hitting.
Since July 1, Stanton has hit 30 home runs: 12 in July, a ridiculous 18 in August. It is almost unthinkable now, barring injury or an extreme cold streak, that Stanton won’t reach the 60-home run milestone. The big question, therefore, is how high will he go?
Who will win the National League Central?
I won’t lie to you: It’s probably the Chicago Cubs, but the NL Central is the only divisional race in MLB that’s still worth paying attention to in any respect, and it’s interesting not only because it’s very much up in the air, but because of emerging turmoil. While both NL wild card spots have been held the whole season by the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies — who are merely very good teams and can’t keep up with the historically dominant Los Angeles Dodgers — the Rockies are starting to falter, and whoever doesn’t win the Central in the three-way race among Chicago, Milwaukee, and a fading St. Louis team might get the second wild card. The Cardinals would have to really turn things around in September to make a full go of it, but that’s precisely the ability to annoy which they’ve shown in years past — and they have some of the most exciting younger players in the division.
Which two teams will emerge from the American League murder-hole?
We could refer to it as the wild card chase, but it would be much more honest to call the hunt for the two final playoff spots in the American League what it is: a murder-hole. Eight teams enter, one team eventually leaves — and all it gets for the trouble is the reward of facing (probably) the Houston Astros, with (probably) a healthy lineup and rotation, in an immediate five-game series where all of Houston’s advantages play up, and their disadvantages (mainly starter depth) don’t come into play at all.
That said, all eight teams currently clutching shivs and eyeing each other across the muck will gladly take those playoff gate receipts, at the very least. The New York Yankees continue to head the pack, but they’ve faltered in recent days; the Minnesota Twins have surged in August, but they’re probably not a good enough team to continue this push through September.
The Los Angeles Angels have the two best players in the American League this year by value over time played: Mike Trout and Andrelton Simmons. However, they have a weak roster otherwise that’s coasting on some lucky pitching. Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Texas, Seattle, Kansas City — these are all highly flawed teams that nevertheless could catch fire for any reason — or no good reason at all — in the last four weeks of the season.
Eventually, we’ll get a wild card winner out of the bunch… but not before a lot of ugly games, seesawing moves through the standings, and if we’re really lucky — really, truly lucky — a three or four-way tie on the last day of the season, not leading to just a mere playoff, but a round-robin elimination tournament played over the course of a few days with the most slapdash scheduling possible.
Now that would be a storyline.