The National League Pennant Race Heats Up
Is the National League Wildcard race already decided?
As the final month of the MLB regular season arrives, fans of the Giants, Mets and Dodgers look forward to the division rivalry portion of the schedule. Not just because of the great rivalries, but this marks a break on the schedule from having to play three teams from the National League Central who have established themselves as National League powers this season. As the month of August winds down, the San Francisco Giants are the sixth place team in the National League while trailing the Chicago Cubs in the wildcard hunt, and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the race for the National League West division title. This leads us to a variety of questions that will be answered in the final month of the season, with the most compelling races being for the National League Central and West division titles. The Giants' pursuit of the Cubs for the final wildcard berth in the National League is also a race for baseball fans to keep an eye on. Will the San Francisco Giants reverse their recent trend of missing the postseason in the year directly following one of their championships? Do the Chicago Cubs have enough pitching to hold onto a playoff berth throughout the final month of the season? Will the Pirates' starting pitching hold up well enough for them to make a significant run at the National League Central division crown? Can the Cardinals' pitching continue to get batters out with runners in scoring position at such a high rate?
Cardinals at the top heading into the final month
The answer to the final question from the series of questions above, will likely be the biggest factor in determining the winner of the National League Central division title. The Cardinals young power arms in the rotation have been the key for St. Louis posting such dominant pitching numbers this season. Neither Carlos Martinez or Michael Wacha have experienced any significant stretches where struggles or fatigue have been evident in the way they have pitched. Veterans John Lackey, Lance Lynn and Jaime Garcia have consistently made their pitch in key at bats this season, when the opposition has had scoring opportunities against them. All of this has led to the Cardinals pitching staff being the toughest in baseball to collect a hit with runners in scoring position against them.
Even though the Cardinals have featured only a slightly above average offense this season, through run suppression, they have been able to accumulate a run differential of better than positive 130. Great relief pitching and strong defense have helped the cause for the Cardinals, as their pitching staff has produced at a historic rate. However, without striking out a high percentage of the batters taking at bats against them with runners on second or third base, it may be impossible for them to continue to get the opposition out at such a high rate in those situations. Heading into the final month with a substantial lead for the top spot in baseball, the Cardinals are in great position provided that Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha do not experience significant struggles as they head into uncharted territory with their single season innings total mounting.
What batting average will the Cardinals hold their opposition to with RISP in the season's final month?
Will the Mets hold onto the National League East lead?
The Mets head into the final month of the season with a 6.5 game lead over the Washington Nationals for first place in the National League East. The Nationals entered this season as heavy favorites to take a second straight National League East division crown, but despite Bryce Harper's best efforts, their team has fallen short of expectations to this point in the season. As disappointing as the Nationals have been, the Mets have been that surprising or even more so. Led by a great pitching staff through the first four months of the season, the Mets were able to overcome multiple significant injuries before adding star outfield Yoenis Cespedes at the non-waiver trade deadline. The addition of Cespedes has been the key to the Mets recent power surge that has helped them to build their advantage on the second place Nationals.
The Mets pitching staff has been led this season by two young starters who have already established themselves among the game's elite. Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey are two of the top starting pitchers in the National League this season, due to their ability to generate swings and misses, along with limiting walks issued. Despite losing Zack Wheeler for the season in spring training, the Mets rotation received a significant boost after the debut of top prospect Noah Syndergaard. Fellow top prospect and rookie Steven Matz, was also able to put brilliant pitching on display in the two starts he made for New York so far this season. The combination of great pitching and resilient offense, has the Mets in great position to wrap up their first National League East division title since 2006.
Will the Pirates' starting get it done?
While the Pirates await the return of A.J. Burnett, they have been getting solid production from a five man rotation that includes Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton, J.A. Happ and Jeff Locke. Gerrit Cole has been the Pirates ace all season long, while Liriano has struggled some in the month of August, following four great months of baseball at the top of the Pirates rotation. Charlie Morton was able to produce four quality starts in six starts made in the month of August, while J.A. Happ has given up two runs in his last four starts for the Pirates. Jeff Locke's ability as the Pirates fifth starter has been right around the league average for a back of the rotation pitcher, which should allow the Pirates to remove him from the rotation once Burnett is able to make his return in the middle of the coming month.
For the first three months of the season, Gerrit Cole was very much in the running for the National League Cy Young Award. Even though his performance has fallen off some since the all star break, he still has a 2.75 earned runs average despite a 2-4 record over those eight starts. Gerrit Cole is the best starting pitcher on either the Cardinals or Pirates roster, and this could allow him to sway the division race in his team's favor. Reaching the 200 inning mark in 2013 as a rookie, allows Gerrit Cole to be comfortably stretched out to pitch a full season and beyond for the Pirates. While questions about possible regression exist, for starting pitchers who have performed well so far in the National League Central, improvements in strikeout to walk ratios have all the Pirates starters pitching to a level that is not likely to include significant regression. With a strong bullpen to lean on, the Pirates are in good position to finish strong in the final month, even though Gerrit Cole is the only starting pitcher among their starting five, who is a threat to consistently pitch deep into ballgames.
How many wins will the Pirates finish with this season?
Giants or Dodgers? or both?
Both the Giants and Dodgers remain in the hunt for a postseason berth entering the final month of the season. The Giants face an uphill battle in the final month, with two options for the postseason still within their reach. Being 4.5 games behind the Dodgers in the National League West, and 4.5 games behind the Cubs in the National League Wildcard race, allows the Giants the opportunity to reverse a recent trend they have developed following their most recent championship wins. With the Dodgers having Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke pitching 40 percent of their games the rest of the way, it seems unlikely that the Giants will be able to catch them in the standings with only one ace starting pitcher in Madison Bumgarner. This presents a likely scenario where the Dodgers wrap up the National League West division title in September, and the Giants are left to pursue the Cubs for the final wildcard berth.
The Giants playoff hopes in the wildcard chase, are set at a similar disadvantage to their National League West division title hopes. The Cubs have top of the rotation starters getting the job done for them down the stretch run of the 2015 MLB season. The Giants do have capable veterans on their pitching staff this season, but their playoff hopes will likely hinge on the performances of breakout players Brandon Crawford, Matt Duffy and Joe Panik in the final month of the season. Veteran outfielder Marlon Byrd has provided the Giants with a significant boost due to his recent power surge after being traded to the team, but Buster Posey and Brandon Belt need help from their teammates in order to get the job done offensively. San Francisco has put newfound power on display this season, however that likely will not be enough to get them back to the postseason in 2015.
Will the Giants miss the playoffs for a third straight time following a championship win?
Do the Cubs have enough pitching to clinch a playoff berth?
Under normal circumstances, Jon Lester would be the ace of the pitching staff when producing at his career norms like he is doing this season. However the Cubs have the best pitcher in the division ahead of him on the pitching staff, and quite possibly one of the top three starting pitchers in the National League. Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester help the Cubs to form a formidable one-two punch at the top of their rotation, with other useful starters filling out the rest of the staff. Kyle Hendricks has pitched well above the average for a number five starter this season, while both Dan Haren and Jason Hammel are producing seasons in line with what solid middle of the rotation starters typically produce. Jason Hammel's elite strikeout rate actually puts him in competition with Jon Lester for the second spot in the Cubs' rotation, despite the fact that he does not have the same track record as him.
The answer to the above question is quite clear, the Chicago Cubs have more than enough pitching to clinch a playoff berth. With Jake Arrieta being better than Madison Bumgarner this season, along with both Jon Lester and Jason Hammel holding the edge over the Giants' second best starting pitcher, the Chicago Cubs should be able to hold off the Giants without significant difficulty. Provided the Giants are able to give the Cubs a significant battle in the race for the final wildcard berth, that could prevent the Cubs from lining up Jake Arrieta to pitch the wildcard game. The likely scenario is that the Cubs are able to clinch a playoff spot early in the final week of the season, while getting the opportunity to line up their ace to pitch the 2015 National League Wildcard game.
Will Jake Arrieta win the National League Cy Young Award this season?
Who holds the advantage?
A quick look at the standings would suggest that the St. Louis Cardinals have a significant advantage in the National League. Some Cardinals fans may even be waiting just to see who their American League opponent will be in the World Series. However, the depth at the top of the National League leaves plenty to be decided when the postseason arrives. A very young Chicago Cubs team have the ace to hold the advantage in the wildcard game, and the pitching depth to make a postseason run if they pass a significant test in the first round. The National League division series could feature pitching matchups of Matt Harvey against Clayton Kershaw, and Jacob deGrom against Zack Grienke. If 2015 is going to be a postseason where offensive stars steal the show in the National League playoffs, the St. Louis Cardinals may be the least likely of teams to have one player step up to carry the team on his back. In St. Louis, Jason Heyward has plenty of star power, but players like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Yoenis Cespedes, David Wright, Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Adrian Gonzales and Yasiel Puig, all bring as much or more than Heyward.
The St. Louis Cardinals have their stars on the pitching staff this season, but every other team in position to qualify for the National League playoffs this season, has at least one huge star at the top of their starting rotation. The Mets, Dodgers and Cubs have multiple stars at the top of their rotations, and the offensive depth to back it up. With so many of the game's top players being on the rosters of the five teams holding the advantage in the National League playoff races right now, the team that gains an advantage may need to turn to something beyond just star power on their roster. Strong displays of defensive fundamentals, smart base running and grind it out at bats are likely to be what separates the good from the great this postseason. In typical fashion for their franchise, the Cardinals have excelled in all of these areas again this season. That is why they should hold an advantage in the 2015 National League postseason.