7 exciting leaderboard battles to watch

August 28th, 2019

The calendar is about to turn to September, which means the postseason chase is entering the home stretch.

But there are individual accomplishments at stake as well. A look at the American League and National League leaderboards reveals numerous statistical categories in which two or more players are fighting it out to finish first.

Here is a look at seven of the most interesting battles to watch over the final month:

NL home runs
Top contenders: Cody Bellinger (LAD), 42; Pete Alonso (NYM), 42; Christian Yelich (MIL), 41

Like the NL MVP race, this would be a duel between “Belli and Yeli” -- except that Alonso has crashed the party. The Mets slugger already has broken Bellinger’s NL rookie record (39 in 2017) and on Tuesday broke a tie with Carlos Beltran and Todd Hundley for the single-season franchise record. Bellinger and Yelich are chasing franchise records as well -- Shawn Green’s Dodgers mark of 49 and Prince Fielder’s Brewers mark of 50, respectively. Will their relative wealth of big league experience win out over their rookie competitor? The result could have significant implications for the NL postseason picture -- especially for the Brewers and Mets -- and for awards season.

AL strikeouts
Top contenders: Justin Verlander (HOU), 243; Gerrit Cole (HOU), 238

They are co-aces of a rotation that appears poised to lead the Astros deep into October. And they are in a close race for the AL Cy Young Award, per MLB.com’s latest poll. So it’s no surprise that Verlander and Cole are all over the AL leaderboards, both ranking in the top five in ERA, wins, WHIP, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and FanGraphs’ WAR. In strikeouts, they have separated themselves from the pack for the second year in a row, with the injured Chris Sale (218) currently ranking third. Verlander (290) and Cole (276) already finished 1-2 in this category in 2018. This season, Verlander is just five strikeouts ahead of Cole after his abbreviated start Tuesday, with Cole set to follow him today.

AL doubles
Top contenders: Rafael Devers (BOS), 48; Xander Bogaerts (BOS), 45

Speaking of teammate pairs at the top of leaderboards, these two Red Sox infielders also are joined in the AL’s top five by Andrew Benintendi and Mookie Betts (38 apiece), with Nicholas Castellanos’ trade to the NL helping to clear the way. Like many Boston hitters before them, they have made Fenway Park a doubles haven, with Devers (31), Benintendi (27) and Bogaerts (26) ranking first, second and third in the Majors in two-baggers at home. Devers is not only trying to hold off his teammate Bogaerts, but also still has a shot at MLB’s first 60-double season in more than 80 years. Even if he doesn’t get there, Boston could become just the third team with multiple 50-double players since 1947, joining the 2000 Rockies (Jeff Cirillo, Todd Helton) and 1996 Mariners (Edgar Martinez, Alex Rodriguez).

NL batting average
Top contenders: Bryan Reynolds (PIT), .332; Jeff McNeil (NYM), .330; Yelich (MIL), .330; Anthony Rendon (WSH), .327

What an interesting combination of competitors in a tight race. Yelich is the reigning NL batting title champion (not to mention MVP winner) and one of the game’s most visible stars. McNeil has done nothing but hit since the Mets called him up last July, forcing his way into a regular job with an aggressive, contact-oriented approach that stands out in today’s game. Reynolds didn’t even begin the season in the Majors but could be the first rookie since Ichiro to claim a batting title. Rendon is quietly enjoying another monster season, with a chance to also lead the NL in doubles and RBIs as he heads toward what should be an extremely lucrative free agency. Before that, he could become the first Nationals player to earn a batting crown.

NL stolen bases
Top contenders: Ronald Acuña Jr. (ATL), 31; Trea Turner (WSH), 29; Jarrod Dyson (ARI), 27, Yelich (MIL), 25

Turner is the defending champ here, but his six weeks on the IL early this season helped open the door for Acuña, who has ramped up his efforts of late. After notching 13 steals through June, Acuña has swiped 18 in the past two months to cross the 30-30 mark and give himself a legitimate shot at becoming only the fifth member of the 40-40 club. Barring a huge power surge for Acuña or a burst of speed of Yelich, neither will become the first player since 1932 to lead his league in both homers and steals. Even so, both have a shot to join Matt Kemp (2011) as the only players in the past 40 years to place in the top three in both categories.

AL batting average
Top contenders: Michael Brantley (HOU), .337; DJ LeMahieu (NYY), .333; Gio Urshela (NYY), .330

Brantley entered Tuesday batting .367 in the second half, including .420 in August, to grab a solid hold on the No. 1 spot. The veteran is enjoying what may be his best season in his first year in Houston. LeMahieu has shined in similar fashion after changing teams. Should he overtake Brantley, he would become the first player in the modern era to claim a batting title in both leagues. But it’s LeMahieu’s teammate, Urshela, who is the best story of the bunch. A .225 hitter in 167 MLB games entering 2019, the 27-year-old had been dumped by both Cleveland and Toronto since the beginning of 2018 and perhaps only got a chance in the Bronx due to injuries. He seized that chance and now just has to get enough plate appearances to qualify.

AL hit by pitch
Top contenders: Mike Trout (LAA), 15; Shin-Soo Choo (TEX), 14; Alex Gordon (KC), 13

OK, so this isn’t the sexiest category. But the point is that Trout is leading it, having already blown past his previous career high of 11. That’s one reason he has the AL’s best OBP, although the Angels undoubtedly would be happy if he never got hit by another pitch. In any case, Trout already has led the AL in OBP (three times), slugging (twice), OPS (three times), OPS+ (five times), walks (three times), intentional walks (twice), runs (four times), RBIs (once), and steals (once), not to mention WAR (five times). Barring injury, he is on track to lead in homers for the first time this year, as his 43 put him seven ahead of Kansas City’s Jorge Soler. Holding off Choo and Gordon in HBPs would spread black ink further across a stat page that is growing more historic by the year.