The season that nearly never was is into the home stretch. One hundred and thirty-seven days since the end of the strike that threatened to cancel the 2022 campaign, Major League Baseball is out of the All-Star break and into its pennant races.
Here, Sportsmail assesses the state of play, and looks ahead to the chase for the playoffs. (All stats are correct entering Monday)
WHO’S WORLD SERIES-BOUND?
The New York Yankees (66-31) have been the runaway pace-setters for some time, since an 11-game winning streak in April and May that put a slow start firmly behind them.
They’ve scored the most runs, led by Aaron Judge (37HR, 81RBI) and his chase for a historic home run total (and contract), with strong contributions from Anthony Rizzo (135 OPS+, 35 percent better than the league average) and Giancarlo Stanton (24 HR). But their dominance is founded on a stellar starting rotation and lights-out bullpen, with breakout seasons for starter Nestor Cortes Jr. (2.48 ERA) and closer Clay Holmes (1.26 ERA, 17 saves) meaning they have also conceded the fewest runs per game.
Aaron Judge has been the standout player in baseball this season, with the most home runs
The New York Yankees’ 13-year World Series drought feels more like 130 in the Bronx
A 13-year World Series drought feels more like 130 in the Bronx, but this club is as close to ending it as any since their last title in 2009.
But don’t write off the Houston Astros (64-32), who don’t have the record of the Yankees but took their season series 5-2, including a no-hitter at Yankee Stadium.
Yordan Alvarez is, perhaps, the most feared hitter in the league, the pitching staff is as good as any in baseball and rookie shortstop Jeremy Pena has more than made up for the loss of Carlos Correa in free agency. The Astros have a kind schedule the rest of the way, and their biggest fear is that they’ll head into October undercooked after clinching the AL West with weeks to spare.
The Dodgers are also flying high this year and are the class of the Senior Circuit again
Yordan Alvarez is the most feared hitter in the league and could take the Astros to glory
In the National League, the Los Angeles Dodgers (64-30) are the class of the Senior Circuit again, overcoming a bumpy June with a 17-2 record in July to distance themselves from the pack.
This is a club where first-ballot Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw might be the fourth-best starter in their rotation; where a star-studded offense can underperform for months and still be the NL’s best, led by a fearsome top three of Mookie Betts, Trea Turner and Freddie Freeman.
Closer Craig Kimbrel’s struggles are a concern, but they remain on pace to win 108 games with starters Walker Buehler, Dustin May and Blake Treinen all yet to return from long-term injuries. As you will have read for much of the last decade, the Dodgers are the team to beat.
The New York Mets (59-37) are right there with the Dodgers even without Max Scherzer for long stretches and Jacob deGrom for more than a year. Their offense has yet to fully fire, but expect billionaire owner Steve Cohen to delve into his cavernous pockets at the trade deadline to find a power bat and lighten the burden on Pete Alonso (25 HR, MLB-leading 82 RBI).
But the Atlanta Braves (58-39) are far too close for comfort, having led the reigning champions by 10.5 games at one stage. But the Braves went 21-6 in June, are 14-6 in July, and sit 1.5 back with a relentless offense led by MVP candidates Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley.
Don’t write off the New York Mets’ World Series chances, with Pete Alonso (L) and Jeff McNeil
THE AWARD FRONTRUNNERS
Judge was cruising the AL MVP race until the last few weeks, when Houston slugger Alvarez began to take the league apart. He doesn’t play the field as often as Judge but both grade out roughly average defensively in advanced metrics, and Alvarez has been the more complete hitter.
His .668 slugging percentage and 1.075 OPS lead the major leagues, and he’s crept up on Judge in the home run race, too, with 14 in his last 30 games. Of course, while Shohei Ohtani is doing what he’s doing as both a pitcher and hitter in Anaheim, he’ll never be out of the running.
The NL MVP is a little more clear-cut. Paul Goldschmidt has long been a quiet superstar, leading teams in Arizona and now St Louis as a model of robotic consistency. And after five top-10 MVP finishes, this looks to be the year he takes home the top prize.
His batting slash line is an absurd .335/.417/.619 with 24 home runs and 77 RBIs, while playing his usual Gold Glove defense. An MVP award may be the final piece in cementing the 34-year-old’s Hall of Fame case.
Shohei Ohtani is having a brilliant year and has MVP numbers at the plate and on the mound
Even Babe Ruth didn’t pitch and hit to this level at the same time – Ohtani is a sensation
For the Cy Young awards, Tampa Bay’s Shane McClanahan leads all pitchers in ERA, opponents’ batting average and WHIP.
The 25-year-old lefty is unheralded outside of Florida but deserved his All-Star Game start as a sophomore, and is slicing through the big bats of the AL East. Tampa’s pitching pipeline has been unearthing diamonds for some time, but most of them shine for a year or two and only an inning at a time. In McClanahan, they have a genuine ace.
The best pitcher in the NL in 2022 is a man who doesn’t conform to the trends of 2022, where starters’ innings are limited and more are learning to pitch to contact rather than striking everyone out. . But Marlins righty Sandy Alcantara is from the old school. His 144.1 innings lead baseball by a distance, throwing at least seven innings in 13 consecutive starts – with a 1.31 ERA in that span. Alcantara makes up for a lack of strikeout pitches with a demon changeup that darts away from barrels to induce weak contact, and has allowed him to elbow his 6-foot-5, 200lb frame into the conversation for best pitcher in the sport.
Paul Goldschmidt has long been a quiet superstar and is the main man for the Cardinals
Shane McClanahan leads all pitchers in ERA, opponents’ batting average, and WHIP
The AL Rookie of the Year race was billed as one of the most star-studded in years, but Mariners outfielder Julio Rodriguez has taken the contest and run away with it. He’s already hit 16 home runs and swiped 21 stolen bases, putting him on pace for the third-youngest 30-30 season in history. JRod, who doesn’t turn 22 until December, is a huge part of Seattle’s recent resurgence, and his showing in the Home Run Derby last week was just a taste of the fame to come.
In a less crowded NL field, Atlanta’s moustached, 102mph-throwing fireballer Spencer Strider is the frontrunner. The 2020 draft pick moved from the bullpen to the rotation at the end of May and has put up a 3.03 ERA with 114 strikeouts in 74.1 innings. He’s only 6-foot-0. but is overpowering on the mound, mixing his blazing fastball with a sharp 88mph slider.
THE BIGGEST SURPRISES
The Baltimore Orioles. A team that lost 333 games in the last three full seasons is on the brink of a play-off spot. In the strongest division in baseball, the Orioles (47-48) followed up June – their first month with a winning record for five years – with a 10-game win streak in July, their longest since 1999.
They’re probably still a year ahead of schedule, but the extra wildcard spot brought in this season is just four games out of their reach. They are 31-24 since the long-awaited call-up of Adley Rutschman, who has been a revelation behind the plate and an above-average hitter at the age of 24.
Their outfield of Anthony Santander, Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins is top five in baseball, Ryan Mountcastle continues to produce, and closer Jorge Lopez was an All-Star.
Suddenly, there’s more positive questions on the horizon. Should they call up the top pitching prospect in baseball, Grayson Rodriguez? Should they hold on to Trey Mancini’s expiring contract at the trade deadline, and hold all calls on Mullins? Should they buy at the deadline? And are they really going to go from a 110-loss season last year to the play-offs this term?
The Baltimore Orioles have had a more impressive year than anticipated in the AL East
The AL Central. The Twins employ perhaps the sport’s most talented player and signed last winter’s most coveted free agent, but so abysmal were they last year that their three-game lead is a surprise. Byron Buxton is slugging .531 with 23 home runs and staying on the field just long enough to showcase his all-world ability. Carlos Correa has been good enough (133 OPS+). But the story of the team is Luis Arraez, the pudgy infielder hitting a major-league best .341.
The Guardians are a surprise package in their own right, somehow above .500 with the youngest roster in the majors. They continue to churn out quality young pitchers, and Jose Ramirez (.932 OPS, 78 RBI) is still the most underrated player in baseball.
As for the White Sox, when does this become their level? They are 83-79 in their last full season’s worth of games. The Blue Jays got rid of manager Charlie Montoyo two weeks ago while in a play-off position, and while White Sox skipper Tony La Russa’s ties to ownership are obvious, how long can he stay out of the firing line?
This has been a brutal season for Detroit and Kansas City, who were meant to be taking their first meaningful steps back to contention. They have exciting young players – Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson, Bobby Witt Jr. – but the veterans have let them down.
For Detroit, $140m free-agent signing Javier Baez is lost at the plate and $77m add Eduardo Rodriguez is lost altogether, not having spoken to his team since going on the restricted list for a marital issue last month. But at least that’s just one player gone AWOL – the Royals were without 10, including their lone All-Star Andrew Benintendi, for the recent trip to Toronto, as they all refused to get vaccinated.
Javier Baez, Detroit Tigers’ $140m free-agent signing, looks lost at the plate in recent months
Shohei Ohtani is getting… better? MVP voters tend to avoid repeat winners, due to tacit fatigue with a player’s greatness. But Ohtani has something that no other player in baseball has – MVP numbers both at the plate and on the mound. A year after hitting 46 home runs at the plate while going 9-2 on the mound with a 3.18 ERA, Ohtani has gone to another level as a pitcher to make the case that as long as he’s doing something never seen before – even Babe Ruth didn’t pitch and hit to this level at the same time – can you give the MVP to anybody else?
Last month, Ohtani had his first 8 RBI game as a hitter against the Royals. The next night, he set another career high with 13 strikeouts over eight shutout innings. Read that again. It began a run of x consecutive starts with double-digit Ks, lowering his ERA to 2.80 – all with an .832 OPS as a hitter, 35 percent above league average.
He’s doing the impossible – again – and what makes it all the more agonizing is that his team-mates just cannot keep up. The Angels were 24-13 on May 15, and two months later they’re 11 games out of first place in the AL West. On track for their worst season since 1999, is it finally time for the Angels to cut their losses, commit to a rebuild and admit that with one year of Ohtani’s deal left, their window to win with him may have gone?
DIVISIONAL PREDICTIONS (*wildcard)
AL EAST: Yankees, Rays*, Red Sox*, Blue Jays, Orioles The Yankees clinch early but only finish seven ahead of the surging Rays.
AL CENTRAL: Twins, Guardians, White Sox, Tigers, Royals
The Guardians finish above .500, but the White Sox don’t – and they say goodbye to La Russa before the playoffs begin.
AL WEST: Astros, Mariners*, Angels, Rangers, Athletics
The Mariners end the longest postseason drought in American sports, while the Angels finally commit to a teardown.
NL EAST: Braves, Mets*, Phillies*, Marlins, Nationals
DeGrom is slow to find form for the Mets in his return, and those filling his place buckle under the heaviest workload of their careers. Philadelphia ends its 11-year postseason drought.
NL CENTRAL: Brewers, Cardinals, Pirates, Reds, Cubs
The Cardinals just don’t have the depth to knock the Brewers off their perch, or claim a playoff spot.
NL WEST: Dodgers, Padres*, Giants, Diamondbacks, Rockies
The Dodgers claim the NL’s best record and the Padres get the second wildcard.
WORLD SERIES PREDICTION
Astros over Mets in six games. The Yankees and Dodgers are undone by the fearsome starting pitching of the Astros and Mets, who finally get deGrom up to speed by October. Scherzer more than earns his record $43m salary by going 3-0 in the NLCS against Atlanta, as both championship series go to seven games. It sets up a Fall Classic that Alvarez and World Series MVP Kyle Tucker take by storm.
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