7 races to watch down the stretch

August 31st, 2021

It’s almost September, and plenty in baseball is yet to be decided. There are playoff races heating up, awards that are still anything but clear-cut and competitions to be atop stat leaderboards.

Sure, we’re pretty certain Shohei Ohtani has AL MVP locked up barring something unforeseen. But what about the Cy Young Award in the AL? How about the NL?

Here’s a look at seven races we’re excited to see down the stretch.

1) AL Cy Young

The American League Cy Young conversation, at least through late August, has clearly centered on Gerrit Cole and Lance Lynn. Not just because they’ve both been excellent -- it also makes for an appealing narrative. Two old-school workhorses with the personalities to match? It’s incredibly fun viewing.

Cole leads qualified AL pitchers in K/BB (6.3), WHIP (0.99) and strikeouts (200). He’s compiled 5.3 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference, and is second in the American League in win probability added as a pitcher. Lynn, even after his clunker against the Cubs on Saturday, leads qualified AL pitchers in ERA (2.59) and opponent batting average (.203) and has 4.5 WAR.

Cole has the highest average fastball velocity among AL starters; Lynn very much does not. And yet both four-seamers are among the most valuable in the league, Lynn’s with a run value of -10 and Cole’s at -19. In fact, they each have two pitches that have been worth -10 runs or fewer thus far in 2021. Only 84 pitches have been that valuable, and only eight pitchers other than Cole and Lynn also have two of them.

And yet somehow, despite splitting almost every category between them, neither Cole nor Lynn is the leader in pitching WAR in the AL. That’s Robbie Ray at 5.7 entering his Monday night start. That probably has something to do with him having -- entering Monday -- the third-best fastball by run value (-20) in the Majors, third-lowest opponent batting average among qualified AL pitchers (.210) and the second-best WHIP in the AL (1.03). When Cole became the first American League pitcher to reach 200 strikeouts on the season, it was Ray he leapfrogged. He’s flying under the radar on a fourth-place team that’s fallen out of contention, but Ray is back in 2017 form and leading that Blue Jays rotation.

At this point, one could make the case for any of these three winning the AL Cy Young -- this race is well worth keeping an eye on down the stretch.

-- Shanthi Sepe-Chepuru

2) MLB HR race

As we enter the final full month of the regular season, this year’s home run race has basically come down to a final four: Shohei Ohtani, Salvador Perez, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. And no matter who wins the crown, something historic will happen.

What else is there to say about Ohtani? He leads MLB with 42 homers and is having arguably the greatest season of any player ever. Winning the home run title while still ranking among the top 20 in Baseball-Reference pitcher WAR would just be yet another Ohtani accomplishment that leaves your jaw on the floor.

No slugger is currently hotter than Perez, who is breaking records with every ball he sends over the wall and was just named AL Player of the Week. He has homered in five straight games and 12 times this month; each number ties a Royals franchise record. His most recent dinger was his 38th of the season, the most ever from any American Leaguer who played at least 75% of his games at catcher. Johnny Bench was 22 years old in 1970 when he set the AL/NL mark for home runs by a catcher with 45. The 31-year-old Perez has a decent shot of surpassing that.

Speaking of Bench, he is one of seven players in AL/NL history to record at least 42 homers in a season prior to his age-23 campaign. If Guerrero or Tatis keep it going, that small club will have another member, or even two. Guerrero (38 homers) tied Salvy on Monday night and Tatis (36) is a little further off the pace. Few others hit the ball with more authority so consistently.

-- Brian Murphy

3) The NL stolen base race

This isn't really one race, it's two. It's not just the NL stolen base race, it's the NL stolen base and home run race. And it's not just the NL's stolen base and home run race, it's Fernando Tatis Jr.'s stolen base and home run race. The Padres phenom has a chance to win both and become the power-speed king of the National League.

Tatis leads the NL with 36 home runs and ranks second with 24 stolen bases. Only one player in the live-ball era has ever led his league in both categories: Chuck Klein in 1932, who had 38 homers and 20 steals for the Phillies. But of Tatis' two league-leader quests, the stolen base race is the one that's a must-follow down the stretch. Because he looks like he's going to run away with the NL home run crown -- Tatis is six ahead of second-place Pete Alonso. But in the stolen base race, he's back-and-forth with Dodgers speedster Trea Turner, who's ahead right now with 26 steals. Watch and see if Tatis can chase down Turner over the final month.

-- David Adler

4) The AL East race

The Yankees finally lost two games over the weekend, but even with their 13-game win streak over, this is the most fascinating race if only because of the schedule. That is: Are the Rays and Yankees both better teams than the Giants and Dodgers? Probably not. Do they have a fraction of the long-term history that their cousins out West do? Absolutely not. But the AL East race fascinates us because of the pure theatre it might be setting us up for, in that the Giants and Dodgers finish off their head-to-head matchups on Sept. 5 … while the Rays and Yankees finish off with three in the Bronx on Oct. 1, 2 and 3. It’s absolutely the marquee matchup of the final weekend. It might be the most important matchup of the season. The Yankees don’t need to be in first place after 159 games. They just need to be within striking distance.

--Mike Petriello

5) NL Cy Young

Remember back in May, when this was the runaway Jacob deGrom award? Alas, deGrom’s injury status throughout the year changed that narrative -- but it’s also brought so many other standout NL pitching seasons into the spotlight, for good reason. There's the Brewers, with three candidates in Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta. There’s Zack Wheeler, who’s shown the Phillies and all of baseball why the team committed $118M to him in free agency entering 2020. There’s Walker Buehler, who has fully assumed the ace role after being Clayton Kershaw’s ace-in-waiting in Los Angeles. And speaking of L.A., let’s not forget Max Scherzer, who, at age 37, is turning in one of his best seasons in a while.

And we also shouldn't overlook Kevin Gausman, who has lived up to the qualifying offer with the Giants and then some, and Wade Miley, who has led a Reds rotation that’s now in the postseason hunt.

This race has been fascinating because it seems to change start-to-start. One bad outing down the stretch could be the difference between a first-place finish and perhaps third or lower, with how close this has been.

-- Sarah Langs

6) The NL West

Wow, what a race it’s been in the NL West in 2021, the Dodgers and Padr-- wait a minute. We were supposed to see an epic battle between the reigning World Series champs -- not to mention winners of eight straight NL West titles -- and the exciting young Padres featuring Fernando Tatis Jr. and company for division supremacy. We didn’t get that, but what we did get is exciting nonetheless: the renewal of a historic rivalry that dates back more than 70 years and spans three cities.

The Giants and the Dodgers. Think the “Shot Heard ’Round the World” in 1951, the heated brawls of the early 1960s, Joe Morgan’s homer to knock the Dodgers out of postseason contention in ’82, a rookie Mike Piazza launching two homers to sink the Giants’ playoff hopes in ’93, Brian Johnson’s dramatic walk-off homer in ’97, the epic showdown between Barry Bonds and Eric Gagne in 2004, Steve Finley’s walk-off grand slam to clinch the division later that year ... and the list goes on.

The Dodgers are supposed to be here. The Giants aren’t. The Dodgers won it all last year. The Giants are trying to begin an odd-year dynasty after winning championships in 2010, ’12 and ’14. It’s tight out west, and the two titans will meet for a huge three-game series at Oracle Park this weekend. This is the good stuff.

-- Manny Randhawa

7) The AL RBI crown

I know, I know, RBIs … yawn. But there’s one reason to be interested in this race, and it’s reigning AL MVP Award winner José Abreu. You probably remember that Abreu took home the AL RBI crown last year en route to that MVP. Do you remember that he also led the AL in 2019? Did you even know he’s leading the Majors right now?

Here’s why all that matters: Back-to-back-to-back RBI champions just don’t come around that often. In the AL, that has happened precisely once since RBIs were adopted as an official statistic in 1920:

AL/NL players with three consecutive league RBI titles, since 1920
Cecil Fielder (AL, 1990-92)
George Foster (NL, 1976-78)
Joe Medwick (NL, 1936-38)
Rogers Hornsby (NL, 1920-22)

Big Daddy Cecil, George “Yahtzee” Foster, Ducky Medwick and The Rajah. That’s a pretty cool list that “Pito” could join, but he’s got some work to do; Abreu holds a slim five-ribeye lead over Rafael Devers, Salvador Perez and others.

So what if one of Abreu’s RBI titles came in a pandemic-shortened season? It’s in the books as an official season, and by now there’s no disputing (certainly not among White Sox fans) that Abreu is someone you want up in a big spot in the game.

-- Matt Kelly