25 things we're watching in final 25 days of MLB regular season

I love September, with those perfect late-summer afternoons and cool, pleasant evenings. The leaves beginning to turn. The final month of baseball's playoff drive before the drama and magic of October begins. My one pet peeve: Halloween displays in stores. Can we at least finish the regular season before we start getting Halloween shoved down our throats?

As a reminder that the regular season still has plenty of important things to decide--- and that Halloween is still almost two months away -- here's my September special: 25 questions to consider for the final 25 days of the regular season.

1. When will the home run record fall?

Al Davis, the longtime owner of the Oakland Raiders, famously once said: "The quarterback must go down, and he must go down hard." That's what will happen to the single-season home run mark. It will go down and it will go down hard. In 2017, teams hit a combined 6,105 home runs. Entering Tuesday, teams had already hit 5,786 home runs. With each team averaging 1.40 home runs per game, that means we're 114 games away from breaking the record, which puts a projected date of Sept. 11 to break the 2017 total. It should come in one of the early games, and we have the Yankees playing the Tigers that night and Matthew Boyd -- who leads the majors with 36 home runs allowed -- is the scheduled starter for Detroit. Perfect. DJ LeMahieu will hit the record-setting home run off Boyd in the sixth inning.

2. Will Cubs at Cardinals on the final weekend matter?

Our best division race is the National League Central, where the Cardinals hold a three-game lead over the Cubs. The Cubs haven't actually been as horrible as everyone is acting -- they went 16-12 in August -- but the Cardinals pulled ahead by going 16-9 in July and 18-9 in August, with an impressive plus-50 run differential in August. The clubs have two series remaining, four games at Wrigley Field on Sept. 19-22 and then the three in St. Louis to end the season Sept. 27-29.

A three-game lead at this point is rather significant, so FanGraphs gives the Cardinals a 63.4% chance of winning the division compared to 35.5% for the Cubs. The Cubs lead the season series 7-5. Since July 1, the Cardinals have allowed 3.60 runs per game while the Cubs have allowed 4.40. The bullpen ERAs are even more striking (no surprise to Cubs fans); the Cardinals have an MLB-best 3.03 bullpen ERA since July 1 and the Cubs are at 4.28 (entering Tuesday).

But the Cubs only have to stay within three games for that final weekend to matter. Other than the two series against the Cardinals, it's a pretty soft schedule in September for the Cubs. I say those final three games will decide the division.

3. Will we get a three-way tie for the American League wild card?

One of these years, we'll get what I like to call tiebreaker chaos. We had two tiebreaker games last season, but those were both for division titles in the National League, with the losers both dropping into the wild-card game. Fun, but a simple resolution. Our best chance at a minor form of chaos this year is probably a three-way tie among the Rays, Indians and A's for the two AL wild-card spots. Here's how that would get resolved:

The teams are given A, B and C designations based on head-to-head records. The A's went 5-1 against Cleveland and 4-3 against Tampa Bay, so they won both season series. The A's get first choice on their designation. Tampa Bay went 6-1 against Cleveland, so the Rays get second choice.

In the tiebreaker scenario, Team A hosts Team B. The winner of that game is one wild-card team. Club C would then host the loser of the first game to determine the second wild card. I would think the A's would choose Team A -- you get to host the first game, but if you lose you get a second chance. Then after all that you have to play the wild-card game.

Got all that? Now, if the Red Sox storm back to make it a four-way tie, then we would have two tiebreaker games, with the winners advancing to the wild-card game.

4. Who will finish with the best overall record?

Home-field advantage for the World Series goes to the team with the best overall record, so the Dodgers, Astros and Yankees all have incentive to play hard down the stretch despite cushy division leads. That doesn't mean you leave in Justin Verlander to throw a season-high 120 pitches -- oops, unless he's going for a no-hitter -- but it's certainly an incentive to keep all three teams focused (and keep in mind that when the Astros played the Yankees in the 2017 American League Championship Series, the home team won all seven games).

What happens if the two World Series opponents finish with the same record? The first tiebreaker is head-to-head record. The Yankees went 2-1 against the Dodgers, while the Dodgers and Astros did not meet. The Astros-Dodgers tiebreaker would be record within their division. The Astros are 42-15 against the AL West and the Dodgers are 40-22 against the NL West, so that tiebreaker would go to the Astros. (Seems like the tiebreaker should be the league with the better record in interleague play, but I guess that makes too much sense.)

Note: I'm not suggesting that these are the only three teams that can reach the World Series. Any of the playoff teams can reach the World Series! But the best overall record will almost certainly be one of these three teams.

5. Will Ronald Acuna Jr. get to 40/40?

That's 40 home runs and 40 steals if you're not hip with your baseball combo language. Only four players have reached both totals in the same season:

Jose Canseco, 1988: 42 home runs, 40 steals

Barry Bonds, 1996: 42 home runs, 40 steals

Alex Rodriguez, 1998: 42 home runs, 46 steals

Alfonso Soriano, 2006: 46 home runs, 41 steals

Acuña is at 36 home runs and 33 steals, so he'll have to turn on the jets a bit to get to 40 steals -- and with Atlanta holding a comfortable lead in the NL East, the Braves might put a few more stop signs on his base stealing to avoid the injury risk before the playoffs begin. A 40/40 season is a big individual incentive, however, so let's see what happens there. I checked the other four guys and if they ran more in September:

Canseco: 6 SB, 3 CS, in line with his monthly averages. He got to 40 with seven games remaining.

Bonds: 15 SB, 4 CS. Bonds clearly made the concerted effort to get 40 steals, running wild in September. He monthly totals were 7, 6, 6, 2, 4 and then 15, including 11 in his final 12 games. His 40th steal came in Game No. 161 (he sat out the season finale). Yes, whatever Bonds wanted to do, it seemed like he could do it.

Rodriguez: A-Rod was already close to 40 entering September and swiped eight bags the final month.

Soriano: He stole seven bases the final month.

6. Will Madison Bumgarner and Felix Hernandez pitch their final games for the Giants and Mariners?

Bumgarner is still going strong with a 9-8 record and 3.62 ERA. He hasn't missed a start all season and ranks among league leaders in innings pitched. He turned 30 in August and his strikeout rate has spiked back up after a couple of seasons where he missed time with freak injuries -- the dirt-bike accident and the broken hand after getting hit by a line drive. While his 3.62 ERA is a career high, his adjusted ERA+ of 117 is the same as his 116 mark in 2014, the year he had his historic postseason run.

In other words, the pending free agent is in line for a nice payday. Will the Giants want to give him one? I'd call it a 50-50 proposition. I don't know if Bumgarner would want to deal with the media blitz of pitching in New York after years of a more genteel media environment in San Francisco, but teams like the Braves and Rangers look like possibilities. The Giants' pseudo-contention in 2019 might make them more likely to re-sign Bumgarner rather than go through a complete rebuild, but don't expect another team-friendly discount like the Giants got with his most recent contract.

As for King Felix, there obviously isn't much left in the tank and his ERA is set to increase for a fifth consecutive season. The 33-year-old has said he wants to pitch next season and knows a strong finish is important for generating some interest -- whether from the Mariners or another team. After 15 seasons in Seattle, odds are a spring training invite -- if he gets one -- will come from another team.

7. How will Adam Wainwright finish for Cardinals?

Wainwright signed a one-year contract with the Cardinals for 2019 and the surprise is that he's not only stayed in the rotation all season but is having his best campaign since 2014. That was the final season of a six-year/five-season stretch of dominance (he missed all of 2011 following Tommy John surgery) when he went 92-50 with a 2.83 ERA, four times finishing in the top three of the Cy Young voting. He hasn't been the same since rupturing his Achilles tendon in 2015, but he's been able to make adjustments this season that Hernandez hasn't been able to in recent years. Wainwright, 38, has been even better of late (3.43 ERA over his past seven starts), so he could very much be part of the Cardinals' playoff rotation, meaning if this indeed is his final season, those final appearances could come in the postseason, where he has a 3.03 ERA in 89 innings.

8. Who is the Dodgers' ace and Game 1 starter?

For most of the season, Hyun-Jin Ryu had been the most effective starter in the majors, with an ERA that stood at a yes-that's-correct 1.45 just a few weeks ago. Now he's allowed seven runs in consecutive starts and 18 runs over his past 14 innings, which leaves Ryu, Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw all in contention to start Game 1 of the division series. Remember, last season it was Buehler who started the division tiebreaker against the Rockies and Ryu who started Game 1 of the division series.

Some felt that took some pressure off Kershaw -- he was no longer expected to carry the pitching staff -- but he mixed in some great starts with a couple of lousy ones, kind of his usual October performance. While the Game 1 starter in the division series isn't necessarily the same guy who starts the LCS or the World Series, the opening game of that best-of-five series is crucial. Dave Roberts has a tough decision to make, but the hottest arm in September probably has the edge.

9. Will Gavin Lux hit his way onto the Dodgers' postseason roster?

Lux is by far the most intriguing September call-up. The 21-year-old hit .313/.375/.521 at Double-A Tulsa and then pummeled the juiced MLB/Triple-A ball with a .392/.478/.719 line in 49 games at Oklahoma City. Then he went 2-for-5 in his Dodgers debut. Roberts said Lux will play second base every day the rest of the way, as this looks like a potential Corey Seager situation. Seager played 27 games the final month for the Dodgers in 2015 and hit .337, earning a spot for the postseason. Lux will do the same and the Dodgers should settle on playing Max Muncy (assuming he's OK when he comes back from his wrist injury) at first base and Lux at second in the playoffs. Don't overthink things, smart guys in the Dodgers front office. Just play your best players.

10. What do the Yankees do with Giancarlo Stanton?

A more complicated situation lies eastward, where Stanton has ramped up his baseball activities over the past week, taking batting practice and participating in defensive drills. He's had just 38 plate appearances all season, so there isn't much time left for Aaron Boone to get him in the lineup and get him some much-needed at-bats. If Stanton returns, it just adds to the roster crunch. Assuming the Yankees keep 12 pitchers (likely, given how they will rely on the bullpen for postseason innings), this could be the 13-man position-player roster:

Catchers: Gary Sanchez, Austin Romine

Infielders: Luke Voit, DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Didi Gregorius, Gio Urshela

Outfielders: Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, Brett Gardner, Mike Tauchman, Stanton

Designated hitter: Edwin Encarnacion

Choosing Stanton means leaving off Cameron Maybin, Clint Frazier or the suddenly hot Mike Ford. Maybin has hit very well, but if Stanton returns, you have to put him on the roster given his name and contract. On the other hand, playing him will be a gamble if he doesn't get the 50 or 60 at-bats he needs to get ready. Then if he goes 0-for-5 with three strikeouts in the first playoff game, Boone will face a lot of pressure not to overreact. All that is down the road, I guess. For now, Stanton has to first get back on the field and show he's healthy.

11. What are the other key injuries to watch?

A few other key injuries to watch for returns in September:

Astros: Carlos Correa, (back stiffness); Ryan Pressly (minor knee surgery in August)

Braves: Nick Markakis (fractured wrist)

Brewers: Keston Hiura (hamstring strain)

Cubs: Yu Darvish (scratched from most recent start with forearm tightness)

Dodgers: Max Muncy (small fracture in wrist); Alex Verdugo (oblique strain)

Indians: Corey Kluber (oblique strain, suffered in first rehab start after fracture in right arm); Jose Ramirez (fractured hamate bone, possibility of September return slim)

Mets: Robinson Cano (hamstring, started minor league rehab assignment)

Rays: Blake Snell, (left elbow surgery, threw bullpen session Friday); Jose Alvarado (elbow inflammation); Yonny Chirinos (finger inflammation); Tyler Glasnow (forearm strain, began minor league rehab); Yandy Diaz (fractured left foot)

Twins: Byron Buxton (shoulder, activated from injured list but can only run and play defense); Kyle Gibson (ulcerative colitis)

Yankees: Aaron Hicks (flexor strain in right arm); Gio Urshela (groin); Dellin Betances (shoulder, lat strain); Luis Severino (shoulder, lat strain, began minor league rehab)

12. Can Justin Verlander clinch a second Cy Young Award?

There's a fun stat, invented by Bill James, that Baseball-Reference.com tracks called "Award Shares" for MVP and Cy Young voting. If a player is a unanimous selection, he gets credit for 1.0 award shares. If he gets 50% of the possible points, he gets 0.50 award shares. It's a good method of tracking how a player has fared in MVP and Cy Young voting. Anyway, here's the interesting thing about Verlander. He's 11th all time in Cy Young award shares with 3.40. The 10 players ahead of him of all won at least two Cy Young Awards -- actually, all but Roy Halladay have won at least three. The first four behind him have also won at least two. Verlander, of course, has just the one, his 2011 Cy Young/MVP season.

I don't think Verlander has necessarily been screwed out of an award, although he led the AL in Baseball-Reference WAR in 2012 and 2016 (beside 2011). He finished second in the voting both of those years (as well as 2018). He lost by four points to David Price in 2012 and five points to Rick Porcello in 2016 (even though he had six more first-place votes than Porcello). So he could easily be going for his fourth Cy Young instead of his second.

Will his past close finishes help him in 2019? Probably not. I don't think voters will give him extra credit for his past if they view him as equal with, say, teammate Gerrit Cole. But he might not need help. He enters this final stretch leading the AL in ERA, wins, innings, WHIP, hits per nine, walks per nine and strikeout-to-walk ratio, trailing only Cole in strikeouts. Lance Lynn might lead in FanGraphs WAR and Mike Minor in Baseball-Reference WAR, but Verlander looks like the clear front-runner.

13. Can Cole or Verlander get to 300 strikeouts?

Yes, both have a great chance, with Cole at 266 strikeouts and Verlander at 257. The only pair of teammates to get to 300 was Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling with the 2002 Diamondbacks. Cole is chasing another record of sorts. With 266 K's in just 176 innings, he's struck out 38.7% of the batters he's faced. The single-season record for a starter is Pedro Martinez in 1999 with 37.5%. Martinez's mark, however, is more impressive when compared to the league percentage that year:

1999 American League: 15.7%

2019 American League: 22.5%

No offense to Mr. Cole, but Pedro's 1999 was on another level: 313 K's in 213 innings, 2.07 ERA, nine home runs allowed, a ridiculous 1.39 FIP. Oh, and a 23-4 record in 29 starts.

14. Can Albert Pujols catch Willie Mays and reach 100 RBIs?

Look, we all know Pujols is staggering to the end of his career. His career batting average with the Cardinals was .328; he's hit .259 with the Angels and his career mark is now down an even .300. In the context of 2019 power numbers, his 20 home runs and 83 RBIs aren't particularly impressive. Still, he has a slim chance at a couple of fun milestones. He's seven home runs from tying Mays at 660 for fifth on the all-time list. With 17 RBIs, he'll hit the century mark for the 15th time, breaking his tie with Alex Rodriguez at 14 100-RBI seasons.

15. Can Bryan Reynolds win the NL batting title as a rookie?

Only three rookies since 1901 have won a batting title, and just two in MLB history: Benny Kauff hit .370 for the 1914 Indianapolis Hoosiers of the Federal League; Tony Oliva hit .323 for the Twins in 1964; and Ichiro Suzuki hit .350 for the Mariners in 2001. Two of those fall under the "not quite the same thing," as the quality of play in the Federal League as a true major league could be disputed, and Ichiro was already one of the best players in the world when he came over from Japan at age 27. Reynolds, meanwhile, enters Wednesday seven points behind the red-hot Anthony Rendon for the NL lead. Reynolds' current .331 mark would be the highest for a qualified rookie since Ichiro and the best non-Ichiro rookie average since Ralph Garr's .343 mark for the Braves in 1971.

16. Does Anthony Rendon have a shot at the NL MVP award?

Speaking of Rendon, he hit .394 in August to climb into potential MVP contention behind Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich, at least by the FanGraphs WAR leaderboard:

Bellinger: .311/.414/.658, 44 HRs, 103 RBIs, 106 R, 7.3 WAR

Yelich: .326/.421/.672, 43 HRs, 93 RBIs, 96 R, 7.0 WAR

Rendon: .337/.417/.639, 32 HRs, 111 RBIs, 103 R, 6.7 WAR

Bellinger and Yelich remain the favorites, but Rendon has a couple of nuggets in his favor: Bellinger started off hot and has basically been a little worse each month, while Rendon has been consistent all season; the Nationals are looking at least like a wild-card lock and the Brewers might miss the playoffs, which could help Rendon. With a big month from Rendon, it could be a tight three-way vote.

17. Will Pete Alonso break Judge's rookie home run record?

The Polar Bear already has broken Bellinger's National League rookie record and the Mets' franchise record. Next up: Judge's 52 home runs in 2017. Sitting on 44 after hitting another on Tuesday, he needs eight to tie and nine to pass, with 24 games remaining.

18. Can Aristides Aquino and Yordan Alvarez keep mashing?

In his first month in the majors, all Aquino did was win NL Player of the Month honors after hitting .320/.391/.767 with 14 home runs and 33 RBIs. What a world we're living in right now. Meanwhile, Alvarez is hitting .317/.413/.671 with 22 home runs and 19 doubles in 283 plate appearances entering Tuesday. That's an OPS+ of 180. This is a rookie! Here are the highest OPS+ from rookies since 1901 (minimum 300 PAs):

Joe Jackson, 1911: 193

Jose Abreu, 2014: 173

Aaron Judge, 2017: 171

Mike Trout, 2012: 168

Mark McGwire, 1987: 164

Bernie Carbo, 1970: 164

Note: Jackson had played parts of three seasons prior to 1911, but had accumulated just 115 at-bats. He would be considered a rookie by modern standards.

19. Can Rafael Devers or Xander Bogaerts get to 60 doubles?

The Red Sox teammates are both sitting on 48 doubles, putting them on pace for 57 and thus a small chance at 60. Earl Webb's record of 67 is out of reach, but only six players have hit 60 -- all in a window between 1926 and 1936, when doubles were especially prevalent. The Cubs' Nicholas Castellanos is right behind the Boston duo with 47 doubles.

20. Will Mookie Betts score 150 runs?

Man, Betts is on pace to score 145 runs, knock out 79 extra-base hits, post something close to .900 OPS, plus he's playing his usual great defense, and it has flown completely under the radar because it hasn't been as otherworldly as his 2018 MVP season. But 150 runs would be absolutely phenomenal. Since World War II, only Jeff Bagwell (152 in 2000) and Ted Williams (150 in 1949) have reached that number. Heck, 145 would be phenomenal -- only Rickey Henderson, Craig Biggio and Sammy Sosa (all 146) have done that since 1946.

21. How many home runs will the Twins finish with?

The Twins have already broken the single-season record and are on pace to mash 318. They already have eight players with 20 home runs -- the only team to do that. C.J. Cron (24), Jonathan Schoop (21) and Jorge Polanco (20) have a chance at 25. They need one of those guys to get to 25 to match the 2003 Red Sox with six 25-homer guys. Of course, the Twins are focused on winning the AL Central, but as they keep bashing they're starting to pull away from Cleveland.

22. Will the Orioles hit their over/under of 59.5?

Since it looks like the Tigers are going to crush the Orioles for the worst record and the first pick in the 2020 draft -- really, isn't it time to institute a draft lottery, or maybe a more severe punishment like if you don't win 65 games, you drop 10 picks in the draft? -- let's see if the Orioles can get to 60 wins. OK, probably not. The Orioles are 46-93 after splitting Tuesday's doubleheader with the Rays, so they'd have to go 14-9 in their final 23 games to finish 60-102.

Maybe the more interesting race is Orioles home runs allowed versus Twins home runs hit: The Orioles are at 270 allowed, the Twins are at 271 hit.

23. Will the Marlins average 10,000 fans per game?

The Marlins are averaging 9,841 fans per game, with 10 home games remaining. The most recent team to draw fewer than 10,000 per game was the 2004 Expos -- a franchise already set to move to D.C. for 2005. Before that, the 2001 Expos averaged just 7,935 fans per game, and the most recent non-Montreal teams under 10,000 were the 1985 Pirates (9,199 per game) and 1985 Indians (8,089 per game). The Marlins will have to average 11,131 over those final 10 home games to get to a 10,000 average.

24. Can the Mets do anything more Mets-like than blowing a 10-4 lead in the bottom of the ninth as they did Tuesday?

No. RIP, 2019 Mets.

25. What will Bryce Harper's final stat line look like?

We end our list with the offseason's biggest name and what has been a surprisingly uninteresting first season for Harper with the Phillies -- other than that memorable walk-off grand slam Aug. 16. It's easy to forget the Phillies looked like pretty good early on and were 33-22 on May 29, a 97-win pace. Andrew McCutchen went down for the season a few days later, the bullpen suffered a string of injuries and the Phillies have just kind of plodded along ever since. That's kind of how Harper's season has gone. He's been better of late (and he's been good in the clutch all season), but he's just 41st in the majors in wOBA, sandwiched between Gleyber Torres and Edwin Encarnacion. Trailing Jorge Soler, Hunter Dozier, Austin Meadows and Yuri Gurriel, among others.

Still, there's time: not only for the Phillies to salvage a wild card, but for Harper to turn a good season into a really good one. How about a fantastic finish for Harper?

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