By: Brady Kas
As the leaves begin to change colors, and a cool breeze blows in the air, this can only mean one thing for baseball fans: postseason baseball is near. For any sports fan, the playoffs are always the best part, and baseball is no different. You can feel the intensity in the air as soon as you step foot into a ballpark this time of the year, and your emotions take over. You can be happy, sad, mad, excited, and confused all at once. There really is nothing like postseason baseball.
We are, however, still about a month away from the end of the regular season. Some of the playoff races this year have already been decided, like the White Sox winning the AL Central, or the Brewers winning the NL Central. The rest, for example, like the Wild Card races in both leagues, won’t be decided until the very end. With so much on the line here over the next 3+ weeks, let’s take a look at every team in the National League who is still in contention for a playoff spot, and I’ll highlight the biggest impact players for each team.
*Note that all stats are updated as of 9/10/21
Atlanta Braves (74-65): 3.5 gm. lead for division
Impact Players: Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Austin Riley
The current leaders of the NL East are the Atlanta Braves, largely thanks to the strength of their infield. This core four the Braves have with Freeman at 1st, Albies at 2nd, Riley at 3rd, and Swanson at SS, have started 128 out of the 139 possible games played this season. This is an astonishing 92% of the time. To further detail their significance to this team, Swanson and Albies became only the 5th middle infield of all time to hit 25+ home runs in a single season, and barring any injuries, all four have a realistic shot to hit 30 or more dingers this year. Riley and Freeman sit at the top with 29 homers on the year, Albies is at 27, and Swanson rounds out the list with 26. This feat has only been accomplished once before by the Marlins in 2008. This is the type of production they have needed since the season-ending injury to superstar Ronald Acuna Jr., and a pitching staff that is relatively average when looking at the primary statistics.
Philadelphia Phillies (71-69): 3.5 GB for division, 3.5 GB for wildcard
Impact Players: Bryce Harper and Zack Wheeler
In MLB history, there have been four occasions where one team has had both the MVP and the Cy Young (excluding when a player wins both), with the most recent coming in 2013 when the Tigers had Miguel Cabrera (MVP) and Max Scherzer (Cy Young). Out of these four teams, the average win total was 98, and all four teams won their division. Harper, a strong MVP candidate in the NL is quietly having one of the best years of his career. He’s slashing a strong .305/.417/.602 and has an OPS of 1.019 to go along with 30 bombs. Wheeler for his part is one of the favorites for the Cy Young since Jacob DeGrom has been injured. He’s gone a modest 12-9 on the year over 188.2 IP but has generated a 10.35 K/9 and just a 2.91 ERA. He’s striking out nearly 29% of all batters he faces and has accumulated a WAR of 6.4 on the year, second only behind Brewer’s pitcher Corbin Burnes (more on him later). So how can the Phillies have these two studs, but not win their division? The answer comes from their bullpen. The team ERA for the bullpen is at 4.56 (8th worst in baseball), but the main issue has been late in games. Philadelphia has blown the most saves in baseball this year with 30. You have to wonder how good this team could have been with a reliable bullpen shutting down games in the 9th.
New York Mets (70-71): 5 GB of division, 5 GB of Wild Card
Impact Players: Marcus Stroman and Pete Alonso
(Picture of Javy Baez from the AP)
Ahhhh the Mets. Every year I feel like there is no team and its fanbase who go through more ups and downs than the Mets do with their fans, but this year is completely different. As a fan of baseball, the relationship between the players, fans, and now with new owner Steve Cohen, has become comical for me. How could you not find this instance of fans booing the players, and the players booing them back anything but hilarious? Now I’m sure if you ask Mets fans, they won’t have nice things to say about this whole situation, but this is just another example of the Mets being the Mets.
Now that I got that out of the way, let’s actually talk about the Mets and their season. Jacob DeGrom is by far the best pitcher in baseball, but injuries and stints on the IL have dampened his season. Luckily for the Mets, Marcus Stroman has pitched and performed as if he’s the ace of the staff in DeGrom’s absence. To be honest, he’s been electric to watch this year. While he’s never been a big strikeout guy (career K/9 of just 7.45), he’s been very effective in getting outs on the ground. Over 50% of balls in play this year for Stroman have been on the ground. That’s good enough for the 6th highest clip in all of baseball among starters. On the hitting side, the “Polar Bear” has been their most consistent hitter all year. As the two-time defending Home Run Derby Champ, Alonso has provided the power for the team leading them with 32 HR’s and 84 RBI’s. To put into context how impactful he has been for them this year, the next closest in homeruns on the team is Jonathan Villar with 18, and Francisco Lindor is the next closest in RBIs with 46. The Mets have struggled, with a record of just 22-31 in the second half so far, but Alonso and Stroman aren’t to blame.
Milwaukee Brewers (86-55): 12 game lead on division
Key Players: Corbin Burnes and Willy Adames
The Brewers are legit–no other way to put it. The three headed monster at the top of their rotation with Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Freddy Peralta is probably the best in the league, and one of the best we’ve seen in recent memory. The Brew Crew is the only team in baseball to have three starters with an ERA of sub-3.00. The last time we saw this happen was in 2017 with the Nationals when Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and Gio Gonzalez all accomplished this feat. However, there’s no doubt Burnes is the star of the show. Burnes has been throwing his cutter this year more than ever before, and it has led to huge success with his command. He started the year with 58 strikeouts before his first walk, breaking the MLB record.
To wrap up on the Brewers, let’s talk about maybe the best acquisition of any team this year before the trade deadline, and that was Willy Adames. Adames came to the Brewers from the Rays, where he had been struggling. Adames was the classic case of a guy who just needed a fresh start, and a new home. His numbers at the Trop (where the Rays play their home games), were uninspiring with a .217/.275/.341 slash, and an OPS of just .616. Outside of Tropicana Field, the man is a beast. Since arriving in Milwaukee, he’s looked like an all-star with a .294/.375/.529 slash to make for an OPS of .904. He’s been a huge bat for them and has also stabilized their shortstop position.
Cincinnati Reds (74-67): 12 GB for division, 1 GB of 2nd NL Wild Card Spot
Key Players: Nick Castellanos, Jonathan India, Jesse Winker, and Joey Votto
As the Reds social media has said, “Joey Votto bangs.” The same could be said for the rest of the team too as Cincy has smashed 192 home runs on the year, good enough for fourth most in the NL. Votto, the 6x all star and 2010 NL MVP is the big name here, but Castellanos and Winker were actually the two who represented and started for the Reds in the All-Star game this past year. Castellanos is having a breakout year leading the team with a .317 BA, to go along with his 27 HRs and 79 RBIs. Winker is no slouch either, ranking 5th in all of baseball with .955 OPS on the year to go along with his team leading 15.6 K%, meaning he’s not striking out a whole lot. Even with these three all stars I just named, the most important player to this team might be India, the favorite for the NL Rookie of the Year. He’s no doubt provided a spark to this lineup at the top and has been the perfect leadoff man for the team. His 3.7 WAR trails only Castellanos on the team, but ranks number one for all of rookies.
St. Louis Cardinals (71-68): 14 GB of division, 3 GB of 2nd Wild Card
Key Player: Adam Wainwright
On a veteran-lead squad, this one player has been great for a long time, and this year has been no different. “Uncle Charlie” as Wainright is commonly referred to as, has dominated this year as he has been resurrected after a rough couple of years. From 2016-19, it looked like Wainwright’s best days may have been behind him. He had a whopping 4.58 ERA for those four years and led the league in earned runs and hits allowed in 2016. Since 2020, the ERA is back down to right above three at 3.02, much more typical of the Uncle Charlie we were accustomed to seeing. The big reason why I think we’ve seen this dramatic change in Wainwright comes from his pitch selection. Let’s compare his numbers from his worst season in 2016, to this season, and look at how using more of his off-speed pitches has translated into more success on the field.
As most pitchers do when they get older, they lose velocity in their fastball. When this happens, pitchers must either adjust, and start throwing more off-speed pitches, or before long, they’ll be out of the league. As I mentioned, Wainwright was clearly able to make this adjustment, and has had a great year for the Red Birds.
San Francisco Giants (90-50): 2.5 game lead in division
Key Player: Brandon Crawford
It’s hard to find a team not named the Dodgers in the playoffs this year with more playoff success in terms of players with a championship background in their starting lineup. Just a few remain from those championship teams of the early 2010s, but the few who do are playing a major role in the team’s success this year. Crawford, at age 34, is having his best statistical season at the plate ever. Everyone knows he will give you Gold Glove defense at short, but his bat has never been elite until this year. Here are some numbers I found intriguing from Crawford this year.
The number that jumps out to me is the SLG%. Crawford has already hit the 2nd most homeruns in his career with 20 (one shy of his career high) with a month still to play. To build off this, his Hard Hit% is 43%, which is six percent higher than his career average, and his Fly Ball% is up to 43.1%, nearly nine percent higher than his career average. For Crawford, this is how he has generated more slugging into his game by making more solid contact and getting under the ball more frequently.
Los Angeles Dodgers (88-53): 2.5 GB of division, 14.5 game lead for 1st Wild Card
Key Player: Max Scherzer
(Picture of Scherzer with the Nationals courtesy of Fox Sports)
I mean come on. How could you not be intimidated by that man. Imagine stepping into the batters box, seeing him stare you down, then watching a 97mph fastball go right by you. Good luck. In all honesty, Scherzer has been dominant in Dodger blue. Since the trade deadline “Mad Max” has gone 5-0 with an ERA of 1.05 while striking out 63 batters over 43 innings pitched. His 2.2 WAR since July 31st leads all pitchers in baseball. Dominance is really the only word to describe how Scherzer has performed over the past month, and he’ll be key for the Dodgers as they look to repeat as World Series Champions.
San Diego Padres (74-65): 15.5 GB of division, 1 game lead for 2nd NL Wild Card Spot
Key Player: Fernando Tatis Jr.
Was there really any doubt who this would be? The face of baseball has come to play this year. While injuries have been a concern for sure, when Tatis Jr. has been healthy, there is nobody more exciting in the game. He’s got 37 home runs, 86 runs batted in, 24 stolen bases, and more swagger than you and I combined. There have been just 40 members of the 30 home runs / 30 stolen base club in the history of baseball, with the most recent coming in 2019 with Christian Yelich and Ronald Acuna Jr. both doing it, and it looks like “El Niño” will be next to join them in the near future. While the Padres have cooled off here a little bit in the second half, going just 21-25 since the All-Star break, this looks like the team of the future, who could compete for many championships down the road.
This wraps up my end of the season review for the National League, and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Coming up next, my preview for the American League.