The season is only several weeks old, but the stretch run of September is already here.
A short season with new rules played amid a pandemic and leading to a 16-team postseason is unlike anything in baseball history. Might as well get ready for a wild, unpredictable September.
September will have more games with playoff implications than ever before. It almost surely will lead to ties for playoff seeding that will be broken by a series of tiebreaker rules (first: intradivision record). It will be packed with doubleheaders. It will be greatly influenced by COVID-19; as the days dwindle, there is even less room to make up games when outbreaks occur.
To prepare you for the mad dash in what already is a sprint of a season, here are the most pressing questions as we enter a September unlike any other:
1. What was the overriding theme of the trade deadline?
Opportunity. Several teams saw an opening in a short season with expanded playoffs that otherwise would not be there.
Take a look at the biggest winners at the trade deadline:
1. San Diego Padres. They added eight players to a team already riding momentum. They fixed a dreadful catching situation with Jason Castro and Austin Nola (Padres catchers were hitting .136) and landed Mike Clevinger, the best pitcher traded. Is it risky to add eight players with 27 days left and make all the pieces fit? Sure. But the net effect is the Padres are a better team than if they didn’t take the risk.
2. Toronto Blue Jays. A team with only five wins from its rotation added three quality arms in Robbie Ray, Taijuan Walker and Ross Stripling. It doesn’t make them a World Series threat, but it puts them in contention for a playoff spot.
3. Miami Marlins. They landed the best position player traded, Starling Marte, a bona fide dynamic offensive player. Miami had the third worst slugging percentage among major league outfields. Remarkably, given how a COVID-19 outbreak derailed the start of their season, the Marlins are a .500 team with a real shot at a postseason berth.
4. Cincinnati Reds. Archie Bradley will help a bullpen that ranked 27th in ERA.
5. Oakland A’s. They needed a starter and got one in Mike Minor. Now they must hope that Minor found something in his last start. His velocity and spin rate on his four-seam fastball have been noticeably down from last year.
2. What do the trade-deadline winners have in common?
Padres: No playoff appearances in 13 years. No playoff series wins in 21 years. Never won the World Series.
Blue Jays: No playoff appearances in three years. No World Series appearance in 26 years.
Marlins: No playoff appearances in 16 years. No World Series in 16 years.
Reds: No playoff appearances in six years. No World Series in 29 years.
A’s: No playoff series wins in 13 years. No World Series in 29 years.
In a pandemic-altered season, these teams seized the opportunity.
3. Will this be the first season we see a playoff team with a losing record?
At the start of this week, three National League teams were in playoff position with a losing record, so it’s entirely possible. Not that it means much once the playoffs start, given the unprecedented nature of this season. The Dodgers, for instance, as a reward for being the best team in the league, could face a three-game series in which they draw Jacob deGrom of the Mets or Sonny Gray, Trevor Bauer and Luis Castillo of the Reds—with no fans in the stands at Dodger Stadium to create a home-field advantage. The World Series winner needs to win 13 games. The postseason never has been less advantageous for the best teams.
4. Could the Yankees finish third in the AL East?
It’s unlikely but possible, given their injuries and what happened at the trade deadline. The Rays are legit and now here come the Blue Jays as a threat. Toronto plays all 10 of its games against New York in the final three weeks. And now the Jays have three quality pitchers they didn’t have if they played the Yankees earlier.
5. Will this be the first season in nine years Mike Trout does not finish in the top four in MVP voting?
Trout is very much still a premier slugger, but he is hitting a career-low .268 with a .359 OBP. He is not among the top 10 AL players in WAR.
He has not played a meaningful game due to the abysmal season of the Angels. Albert Pujols, Shohei Ohtani and Justin Upton have combined to hit .186 in 280 at-bats.
6. Will Mookie Betts join Frank Robinson as the only players to win the MVP in both leagues?
Two of the most exciting players in baseball, Betts and Fernando Tatís Jr., are atop a crowded NL MVP race, with Trevor Story, Mike Yastrzemski, Juan Soto, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado in the mix.
The AL MVP race is wide open, with no clear-cut favorite among Brandon Lowe, José Abreu, Tim Anderson, Nelson Cruz and Luke Voit.
7. Will Gary Sánchez snap out of his slump?
The Yankees catcher hit the franchise’s first pinch-hit, grand slam walk-off on Sunday, but the pitch was a fastball. Sánchez has had huge problems recognizing and hitting breaking pitches.
On 157 breaking pitches this year, Sánchez is 2-for-34 (.059) with 19 strikeouts and no extra-base hits. He misses breaking pitches 41% of the time when he swings at them.
Over the past three years he has hit .178 against breaking pitches, and .204 overall–the worst for a Yankee through ages 25-27, below the previous low of .214 by Joel Skinner and .222 by Jerry Kenney.
The Yankees once thought Sánchez was their best pure hitter in their system as he drew comparisons to Mike Piazza. Over the past three years Sánchez has been another Kevin Maas.
8. Who is Jesse Winker, and why does he have an OPS of 1.117?
Winker, 27, was a first-round pick by Cincinnati in 2012. Like Matt Olson, who was taken in the same draft, he seems to have benefited from some old-school development tracking. Winker logged almost 2,500 plate appearances in the minors over more than 500 games. He was a good hitter in the minors (.846 OPS) but has been even better in the majors (.877).
Winker was hitting .087 on August 3. Reds manager David Bell stuck with him, and his patience has been rewarded. In 25 games since Winker has hit .397 and slugged .859. Here is the money stat on Winker: He has hit 21 fly balls this year, and 10 of them have gone out of the park.
9. Are there scheduling quirks that will come into play besides all those Yankees-Jays games?
• The Cardinals play the Brewers 10 times in the final 14 days.
• The Mets probably need to go 15–10 to make the playoffs in what appears to be the final season of the Wilpon era. They play their final 10 games against the Braves, Rays and Nationals.
• The Astros have 20 games remaining against teams that have packed it in: the Angels, Rangers, Mariners and D-Backs.
• The White Sox play their final 14 games against contenders: the Twins, Reds, Indians and Cubs.
10. Are there any “records” we should be keeping an eye on?
Remember when Charlie Blackmon was hitting .500? That was August 11. He is hitting .197 since. Yankees infielder DJ LeMahieu still needs a few more plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, but he enters Tuesday with a .398 average. Even so the odds are no one will hit .400, not with the kind of pitching and fine-tuned defensive alignments in the game today.
It’s far more likely somebody makes a run at Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA (purely as a statistical quirk, not as a recognized record). Shane Bieber (1.20), Yu Darvish (1.47) and Max Fried (1.60) are the leading candidates.
If you’re really into the esoteric stuff, we have four teams trying to go through an entire season without a sacrifice hit: the Brewers, Reds, Braves and Diamondbacks. The all-time record for fewest sacrifice hits is four, set last year by the Angels.