Major League Baseball this season has been, in a word, weird. Casual fans tuning into the final throes of the 2016 regular season just might think they’re peering into a parallel world.
Welcome to a reality in which the Chicago Cubs are not only back in the playoff hunt, but at the top of the National League. A world where the Yankees bid a strange and sudden goodbye to Alex Rodriguez. A world where one of the Red Soxs most effective starting pitchers looks like the second coming of knuckleball legend Tim Wakefield.
The Dodgers, Nationals and Rangers are all this close to clinching their respective divisions, while the Red Sox nearly have the American League East wrapped up.
Meanwhile, all four wild card playoff slots are still up for grabs. In the National League, the Mets, Giants and Cardinals are duking it out, while the Blue Jays attempt to fend off the Orioles, Tigers and Astros over in the American League.
With the playoffs set to begin October 4, here are three fun storylines to follow.
1. The Cubs! Wait, the Cubs? Yes, the Cubs!
Some believe its inextricably tied to luck, the yin and yang of a club that has crossed paths with a billy goat curse, a black cat curse and Steve Bartman. If you ask the Chicago Cubs, however, talent is the driving force behind their ascension through the NL Central this season.
Heading the rotation is a trifecta of power arms. First, there’s reigning Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta. Then there’s current Cy Young candidate Jon Lester, who himself endorsed a third Cubs starter, Kyle Hendricks, for the award on Wednesday. Together, the Cubs rotation not only ranks third-best among major league teams, but has rendered Chicago’s bullpen the most under-utilized in the league.
Back in June, Arrieta turned Wrigley Field into his personal command center, extending a win streak that dated back to July 2015 and holding opponents to three or fewer runs per game on his home turf. In September, hes been shakier on the mound, struggling to locate the strike zone and walking a disproportionate number of batters. But with Lester and Hendricks now in control of the pitching staff, having Arrieta as a third-best option is an enviable position for any major league club.
Let’s not dismiss the efforts of MVP candidate Kris Bryant, though. At 24 years old, the sophomore third baseman has already garnered comparisons to breakout stars like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. (Harper, we should mention, happens to be the reigning NL MVP.) In 2016, Bryant is the epitome of well-rounded, proving his prowess in six different defensive positions while slugging 38 home runs, the most by a Cubs player since Derrek Lee racked up 46 in 2005. (Editor’s note: All stats in this post are through Wednesday night’s games.)
Good luck finding a chink in Chicago’s royal blue armor. This year’s Cubs have it all: top-notch pitching, an electric offense, an airtight defense, home field advantage in theNational League Division Series, super-fan Ronnie Woo Woo Wickers and a favorable schedule during the final stretch of the regular season.
What they dont have is a World Series championship. If the Cubs are ever going to rewrite history and exorcise the demons of their various curses, now is the time to do it.
2. So. Many. Home. Runs.
The fences havent been moved in, nor (do we think) this is a reprise of the Steroid Era.
Still, somethings in the air this season. Whether its doctored balls or simply an inexplicable surfeit of sluggers, home runs are up across the board in MLB way up.
In 2000, major league teams set a league-wide record for the most home runs hit in a single season, totaling a collective 5,693. This year, major league teams have already logged 5,309 dingers and counting. Leading the league in team home runs is the Orioles, whose 238 are already the most theyve registered since 1996.
Not only are clubs smacking home runs at an eyebrow-raising rate, but several individual players are making their marks in the record books as well.
Rockies rookie shortstop Trevor Story’s 27 homers are already more than any National League shortstop has hit in his first career season. Likewise, Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez became the fastest rookie to reach 19 home runs, needing only 45 games to do so. Even old man David Ortiz has gotten in on the fun: with 36 home runs so far in his farewell tour, hes edged out 1986 Athletics designated hitter (and noted scumbag) Dave Kingman for most homers hit in a final big-league season.
In short, there’s hardly been a better time to buy some bleacher seats, bring your glove and hope to catch a longball.
3. The Dodgers shockingly dominant rotation
Rarely does a team lose its ace halfway through the season and stay competitive down the stretch. Its even rarer when that ace happens to be the best pitcher in baseball.
Clayton Kershaw the same southpaw who decimated National League lineups this spring with six consecutive starts of 10-plus strikeouts, the same bundle of sheer willpower and deadly curveballs that struck out 150 batters while walking just nine broke down in June.
The diagnosis? A herniated disc in his back, not quite devastating enough to be a season-ending surgery, but not so mild that he could remain a staple of the L.A. rotation, even in a limited capacity.
The Dodgers should have fallen apart after Kershaw’s injury, but improbably haven’t done so at all.
Japanese hurler Kenta Maeda, who signed with the club in January, has been dynamite with his consistency and precision. Nineteen-year-old phenom Julio Urias has been a revelation both as a starter and out of the bullpen. Hot prospect Jose De Leon arrived during roster expansion in September and promptly struck out nine batters in his big-league debut.
Meanwhile, the offense, headed by rookie Corey Seager, has already put up 294 runs in the second half, good enough to place him eighth among major league teams.
Rather than plummeting to the bottom of the NL West, where the Rockies and Padres swim with the fishes, the Dodgers have kept their heads above water since Kershaw’s injury. By mid-August, they’d overtaken their rival Giants for first place in the division. Then, with a postseason spot all but locked down, they brought back a familiar face.
Kershaw pitched three innings in his first rehab start at the beginning of September, holding the Marlins to two runs and striking out five. Hes still on the slow path to a full recovery, but the good news is the Dodgers can afford to rest their ace without compromising their position in the playoffs.
For a team that looked on the brink of failure just three months ago, its the best of both worlds. For the rest of Major League Baseball, it’s an ominous sign.