10 statistical races that could go down to the wire

September 5th, 2022

With about one month remaining in the regular season, some individual statistical races are already decided. Nobody is catching Aaron Judge in home runs, for example.

But many other categories are shaping up to be a fight to the finish, with two or more players jockeying for leaderboard position. Here is a subjective look at the 10 most intriguing battles to watch down the stretch.

1. NL home runs
Top contenders: Kyle Schwarber (PHI) 36, Austin Riley (ATL) 35, Paul Goldschmidt (STL) 34, Mookie Betts (LAD) 33, Pete Alonso (NYM) 32

Not only is this a crowded race, but the stakes are high. Goldschmidt is looking to win the first NL Triple Crown since fellow Cardinal Joe Medwick in 1937, and he currently leads the batting race while sitting one ahead of Alonso in RBIs. But he is behind in homers -- albeit within striking distance of Schwarber. Goldy will have to blow well past his career high of 36 long balls (2013 and ‘17) to get the job done, and he will have to contend not only with Schwarber but also some other stiff competition.

Top contenders (via Baseball-Reference)^: Aaron Judge (NYY) 7.9, Shohei Ohtani (LAA) 7.6

The WAR chase is always undercut a bit by the fact that it is less clear than your more traditional categories. There is more than one version (Judge is a bit further ahead, according to FanGraphs), and the formula is complex.

But with that being said, there is something fascinating about the Judge-Ohtani showdown. It’s not just that they are clearly the top two AL MVP candidates. It’s also how they have arrived at those numbers, with Judge putting together a historically great power-hitting season and Ohtani being roughly a top-10 hitter and a top-10 pitcher at the same time.

^Through Saturday

3. NL hits
Top contenders: Freddie Freeman (LAD) 168, Trea Turner (LAD) 164, Paul Goldschmidt 158 (STL)

While Turner did lead the NL in hits just last year after arriving in L.A. at the Trade Deadline, would you believe that no player who spent the entire season with the Dodgers has accomplished that since Steve Garvey in 1980? Well, it’s almost certainly happening in 2022. But the question is: Which Dodger will do it?

Turner and Freeman have battled all year in this category, and it’s been fun to watch, especially for Dodgers fans. This would be the second NL hits title for Freeman, while Turner could become the first to win three straight NL crowns since the Reds’ Frank McCormick (1938-40).

Top contenders: Justin Verlander (HOU) 1.84, Dylan Cease (CHW) 2.13, Shane McClanahan (TB) 2.20, Alek Manoah (TOR) 2.48, Shohei Ohtani (LAA) 2.58

It looked like Verlander was running away with his second career AL ERA title, until a calf injury sent him to the IL last week. Now the question that looms largest is not so much whether the 39-year-old can avoid a late slide, but whether he will return in time to pitch at least 10 more innings, thereby reaching the 162-inning mark to qualify for the title at season’s end.

For that matter, the same applies to McClanahan, who also just hit the IL with a shoulder issue and still needs 14 2/3 innings to qualify. If neither of the top two can reach that threshold, it should clear the way for Cease, who also is making a serious, last-minute Cy Young Award push.

Top contenders: NL ERA: Julio Urías (LAD) 2.29, Sandy Alcantara (MIA) 2.36, Zac Gallen (ARI) 2.42, Max Fried (ATL) 2.48

A couple of months ago, this didn’t look to be much of a race. On July 10, Urías gave up five runs to the Cubs, bloating his ERA to 3.01. That same day, Alcantara blanked the Mets for seven innings, dropping his to 1.73. But in nine starts apiece since then, those numbers have flipped (1.13 for Urías, 3.73 for Alcantara), with Urías jumping in front on Saturday.

More contenders lurk. That includes the red-hot Gallen and his 41 1/3-inning scoreless streak, as well as three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, who has a 2.26 ERA but currently does not have enough innings to qualify (he also exited his last start after five innings with side fatigue). If Scherzer makes five more starts for the Mets, he would need to average just under 7 innings per outing -- only a bit above what he has done since returning from the IL in early July.

6. NL doubles
Top contenders: Freddie Freeman (LAD) 43, Matt Olson (ATL) 41

Sometimes, the narratives write themselves: The former Atlanta cornerstone first baseman and the younger version brought in last offseason to replace him, going head to head. While all that maneuvering caused a lot of emotional upheaval, it also has worked out for all involved, with both players enjoying strong seasons and both teams soaring toward another postseason.

If Freeman can hold off Olson, he would become the first player to win at least three doubles titles in either league over a five-year span since Don Mattingly went back to back to back in the AL from 1984-86.

7. NL saves
Top contenders: Kenley Jansen (ATL) 31, Josh Hader (SD) 30, Taylor Rogers (MIL) 30, Edwin Díaz (NYM) 29, Daniel Bard (COL) 28

The first thing you notice here is that two of these pitchers (Hader and Rogers) were traded for each other before last month’s Deadline. But that hasn’t done wonders for their chances in this race, with the pair combining for three total saves with their new teams, and Hader in particular enduring some mighty struggles.

That might mean that this ends up as a race between Jansen and the dominant Díaz, one that would play out alongside their teams’ duel for the NL East crown. Perhaps it will even come down to the final head-to-head showdown, Sept. 30-Oct. 2 in Atlanta.

8. AL stolen bases
Top contenders: Jorge Mateo (BAL) 30, Cedric Mullins (BAL) 29, Randy Arozarena (TB) 27, Bobby Witt Jr. (KC) 26

The Orioles are shaping up to be one of the most fun teams to watch down the stretch -- an up-and-coming, ahead-of-schedule club with a nothing-to-lose attitude. One of Baltimore’s strengths is baserunning (fourth in MLB in FanGraphs’ baserunning runs metric), and two of its best are Mullins and Mateo, who also ranks in the top 10 in the Majors in sprint speed.

Of course, it’s not just a two-Oriole race. And if Mullins or Mateo winds up tied with Arozarena, it would be reminiscent of 2007, when Baltimore’s Brian Roberts and Tampa Bay’s Carl Crawford did the same.

9. NL strikeouts
Top contenders: Carlos Rodón (SF) 201, Corbin Burnes (MIL) 200, Aaron Nola (PHI) 190

Even if Burnes doesn't repeat as the NL Cy Young Award winner, this is another box he could check. That would be significant for Milwaukee, which is one of four franchises (along with the Marlins, Royals and Rockies) to never have a pitcher lead the AL or NL in K’s. Two of those, Miami and Colorado, are more recent expansion teams.

It won’t be easy, though. Nola is trying to help pitch the Phillies into their first postseason since 2011, while Rodón is sharpening a case to be one of the offseason’s most coveted free agents, assuming he opts out of his contract.

10. NL on-base percentage
Top contenders: Paul Goldschmidt (STL) .417, Juan Soto (SD) .411

This one is interesting mostly because it’s an extreme example of how to players can arrive at roughly the same stat in wildly different ways. Goldschmidt has raked this year, piling up 158 hits -- a whopping 51 more than Soto. But Soto is blowing away the rest of the MLB field with 117 walks -- 48 more than Goldy. The result is similar OBPs, despite more than an 80-point difference in batting average and nearly a 150-point gap in slugging.