Now that the calendar has officially flipped to September, it might be tempting to shift the focus over to the gridiron, rather than the diamond. But make no mistake, the MLB playoff races are just heating up.
With August in the books, the “dog days” of summer are officially over, and the sheer weight of a long and grueling regular season has taken its toll on players and coaching staffs alike.
The New York Mets looked like they were going to make a dramatic entrance into the National League Wild Card picture after winning nine of their first 10 games to start the month, but they faded at the end of August.
Meanwhile, franchise players like Chris Sale and Joey Votto suffered debilitating injuries, and MLB fans around the country were robbed of another month of brilliance from Fernando Tatis Jr.
The hunt for October is officially on, but first let’s look back and break down the winners and losers in the MLB in the month of August:
The National League East
The build-up during Spring Training was that the NL East would be one of the best divisions in baseball, and it certainly lived up to the hype in August.
Sure, the Mets may have dashed their playoff hopes by losing six straight games at the end of the month, but they were also easily one of the most exciting teams to watch last month, and a 17-11 record (with a +35 run differential) is certainly nothing to frown about.
Meanwhile, the Phillies also had one of the wildest months in baseball. Their August was littered with terrible series defeats at the hands of the White Sox, Padres and Marlins, but also included a sweep of the Cubs that was punctuated with a memorable walk-off grand slam from Bryce Harper:
Philadelphia’s season has been a bell curve, but one consistent has been the utter wretchedness of the injury-ridden bullpen unit that has become too much even for J.T Realmuto to deal with:
Ok, enough with the Phillies content.
Washington had their best month of the season, going 19-7 with a +70 run differential, yet they only picked up a single game on the Braves, who went 19-9 as Josh Donaldson continues to look like one of the best bargain signings of this past offseason.
In fact, remember all of the panic that surrounded Atlanta when Shane Greene spontaneously combusted in his first few outings after the trade deadline?
Well, Braves relievers ranked second in fWAR from Aug. 17 to Aug. 31 and posted a 2.30 ERA during that period. If Atlanta figures out the bullpen, they could pose a serious threat to the Dodgers come October.
It really is a shame that these two clubs never met head-to-head in August, but they will square off seven times in September. Check your TV listings.
Oakland’s “no name” crew
The Oakland Athletics continue to win in spite of their low payroll and both Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino falling apart at the seams after career years in 2018.
Sure, Matt Chapman had a .907 OPS in August and is finally starting to get some of the recognition that he has deserved for years, but he still was not Oakland’s best player last month.
Rather, the Athletics have watched Mark Canha blossom from a fringe starter to one of the most dangerous hitters in the lineup. Canha ranked 12th among position players in August, posting a 1.036 OPS and 176 wRC+ value.
Canha had one of the best ten-game stretches of anyone in baseball when he hit .452 with five homers and a 249 wRC+ between Aug. 14 and Aug. 26, helping the Athletics go 7-3 during that span:
Best OPS, all-time, AL players with 10+ games at CF and 1B in same season:
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) August 30, 2019
Meanwhile, shortstop Marcus Semien was also raking, clubbing eight homers and driving in 21 runs while still playing one of the best defensive shortstops in the game. First baseman Matt Olson hit .297 in August and might just be the best first baseman in the American League.
Oakland may not have the kind of star power possessed by divisional rivals like the Houston Astros or the Los Angeles Angels (well, that is to say Mike Trout), but they nonetheless have boppers in the lineup, and they could be primed to upset the Astros or Yankees if they can sneak into the playoffs.
Jack Flaherty and the hard-charging Cardinals
Given the start that the Mets got off to in August, most of the talk surrounded the stellar performances of aces like Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard.
While the Mets faded at the end of the month, however, the St. Louis Cardinals jumped into pole position in the National League Central? A key figure in their resurgence has been the dazzling performances strung together by flame throwing right-hander Jack Flaherty.
Flaherty was picked by a number of writers as a potential dark horse to win the NL Cy Young, but he was hammered in the first half. Through his first 18 starts, Flaherty had a 4.64 ERA, and opponents had a .744 OPS as Flaherty lacked effectiveness with his secondary pitches.
In the second half, however, Flaherty has showcased the kind of stuff that makes him one of the brightest young arms in all of baseball and a future ace. In six August starts, Flaherty went 4-1 with a 0.71 ERA and 11.1 K/9, while opponents had a paltry .444 OPS against. Flaherty led all starting pitchers in ERA for the month, and he ranked second in fWAR behind Mike Clevinger of the Cleveland Indians.
As Flaherty has ascended, so too have the Cardinals. St. Louis had their best month since April, going 18-9 with a +50 run differential.
Despite Paul Goldschmidt’s surprisingly persistent struggles at the dish (.just a .705 OPS in August), other players have stepped up to make the lineup more dangerous. Second baseman Kolten Wong had a 1.020 OPS and 170 wRC+ for the month, while Cardinals mainstay Yadier Molina returned from injury to hit .333 with a .995 OPS.
The Redbirds may have lost young closer Jordan Hicks for the year, but they still managed to post the lowest bullpen ERA of any team in the bigs last month.
Considering how poorly Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter have been hitting as well as the continued struggles of guys like Mike Mikolas, it stands to reason that the Cardinals could be one of the most threatening teams in the National League if things round into shape.
Bash brothers in Washington and Houston
Shall we return to the Nationals for a second? Suffice it to say: the Juan Soto hype is most certainly warranted, and Anthony Rendon is having the kind of season that will secure him a massive payday this winter.
Washington scored 180 runs in August, which is an average of nearly seven runs per game. Rendon drove in 29 runs by himself while also slugging .712 and posting the second-highest fWAR among all position players. As for Soto, the 20-year-old(!) hit 10 homers and had a ridiculous .404 isolated power metric.
Both Rendon and Soto had wOBA values over .450 and wRC+ values over 180, and were one of the most dynamic duos in baseball in the month of August. The only duo that may have been superior was that of Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel in Houston.
Gurriel put the league on notice with a massive July in which he hit .408 with 12 homers and 31 RBI, and his August proved that it was more than a mere hot streak. Gurriel slashed .344/.423/.677 with seven homers, 29 RBI and a 186 wRC+ in August, and his walk rate increased to 10 percent.
Bregman might otherwise have been distracted by a move to shortstop when Carlos Correa went down with another industry, but not even Sandy Koufax could have gotten Bregman out in August.
The 25-year-old posted a ridiculous slash line (.404/.487/.747) to go along with a .499 wOBA and 224 wRC+. Bregman drove in 31 runs and led the majors in fWAR for the month, and he continues to prove that he is indeed one of the very best players in baseball.
Where on Earth would this Cubs team be today without Castellanos’ insane production in August? After Chicago acquired the former Detroit Tiger in a last-minute deal at the trade deadline, Castellanos went on a tear, mashing 11 homers and slugging .713 with a 177 wRC+ value.
But Castellanos has brought far more than just production to the Cubs, he has provided the clubhouse with a different level of energy and intensity that the team has seemed to lack all season long. Heck, he even replaced the “bat flip” for the “bat slam:”
Nicholas Castellanos redefines the game every day. pic.twitter.com/BVqLPcV8vD
Castellanos has been so charismatic and productive that Cubs social media has been buzzing with calls to re-sign him this winter when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
Whether or not Chicago has the payroll flexibility to get a deal done, Castellanos certainly made quite the first impression in the Windy City.
Speaking of first impressions, how about a rookie out of Cincinnati breaking just about every home run record in the book?
Aquino went on an absolute tear when he was called up to the big leagues at the beginning of the month, becoming the fastest player to reach 14 homers (27 games) while slashing .320/.390/.767 with a 184 wRC+ value for the month. He led all players in slugging in August, and had a stretch of six homers in four games capped by a three-homer night against the Cubs:
Cincinnati’s lineup has proved to be an extremely disappointing from a holistic standpoint, but the arrival of Aquino has given Reds fans another reason to be excited about the 2020 season.
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox were still in the playoff picture at the end of July, but they experienced more setbacks in August that essentially ensured that the defending champions will not be playing in October.
While Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers continue to produce the best seasons of career, Boston’s pitching staff simply has not been able to get their act together. Red Sox starters posted a 5.80 ERA and ranked 26th in fWAR for the month of August, almost totally negating a bullpen unit that actually rebounded.
Things were made worse when Chris Sale was shut down for the remainder of the season, although it was revealed that he will not need Tommy John surgery.
To make matters worse, Boston’s continued slide out of the playoff picture has only ramped up trade talks surrounding superstar outfielder Mookie Betts, who will be a free agent after next season and has yet to show any indication that he is open to signing an extension.
Dave Dombrowski is going to be in a very tough place this winter, and things are starting to look dire in Beantown.
After the Indians went 18-6 in July, it seemed to be a matter of time before they caught the Minnesota Twins atop the AL Central. However, Cleveland stumbled in August.
The Indians were still respectable (16-13 with a +31 run differential), but there a number of injuries and poor performances put a damper on the month.
Closer Brad Hand was atrocious in August (5.73 ERA and .880 OPS against), and both Jose Ramirez and Tyler Naquin went down with injuries that will sideline them for the remainder of the regular season (Naquin will be out for an extended period with a torn ACL).Yasiel Puig got off to a torrid start with his new club, but he has since cooled down significantly.
The return of Carlos Carrasco is one of the best sports stories of the year, but it has not made up for the fact that the Indians lost ground on the Twins and might have to battle just to make the playoffs as a Wild Card team.
Interestingly enough, the Tigers actually won nearly as many games in August (eight) as they did in May and June combined (10). Still, Detroit continues to be the laughing stock of baseball in 2019.
The Tigers had a -61 run differential in August (their second-worst of any month this season), and they had to watch as Nicholas Castellanos took flight with the Cubs after criticizing Tigers management and Comerica Park. Yikes.
Fortunately, Detroit has one of the best farm systems in baseball. Until some of that talent arrives at the major league level, however, the Tigers are going to be perennial losers.
Whereas Aquino made the best kind of impression during his first month with the Reds, Bauer was one of the worst pitchers in baseball this past month.
The mercurial right-hander had the worst ERA among all starters in August while also ranking towards the bottom of the pack in fWAR, going 1-4 with a .951 OPS against in six starts:
Cincinnati gambled on Bauer at the trade deadline with the hopes that he can be a major rotational piece alongside Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray in 2020, but the early results have clearly not been positive.
Bauer is going to make somewhere close to $20 million in arbitration next season before he becomes a free agent, and this could be one of the worst trades in Reds history if he cannot round into form and provide quality starts next summer.
Heyward has been one of the most scrutinized players on this Cubs roster. After signing a eight-year, $184 million contract with Chicago prior to the 2016 season, Heyward produced just 4.1 fWAR in his first three seasons on the North Side and failed to eclipse 100 wRC+ in any single season.
However, Heyward was having one of the best seasons of his career through the first few months of 2019. At the end of June, Heyward was slashing 271/.362/.473 with 14 homers and a 114 wRC+ value after a month in which he slashed .326/.379/.589 with six homers. After years of criticism, Heyward was suddenly the catalyst of Chicago’s offense, and Joe Maddon moved him to the leadoff spot.
Though the 30-year-old saw a decrease in slugging and OBP in July, he still hit .309 for the month. But Heyward had a precipitous falloff in August. He slashed a woeful .156/.276/.311 last month and had just two hits in his last 27 at-bats in August:
Jason Heyward in 2019:
Leadoff: .167/.264/.342 (29 games)
Not leadoff: .296/.376/.478 (92 games)
I mean … it might be time.
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) August 29, 2019
Cubs manager Joe Maddon has since moved Heyward out of the leadoff hole, but as of Wednesday he was still hitless in September, and his batting average has fallen to .249 for the season.
If Heyward continues to struggle, he risks losing out on playing time to the likes of Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist as the Cubs look for more consistency in the lineup.