MLB September predictions: Playoff races, MVP and Cy Young awards, and more surprises

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

The end of Major League Baseball's 2022 season is quickly approaching, with one month left to play.

Which of the current contenders will be headed to the playoffs come October? Which teams will have narrowly missed the cut? How will the division races shape up? Who will reach the Fall Classic? Who are the favorites to win the MVP and Cy Young awards? At the end of his historic season for the New York Yankees, will Aaron Judge break Roger Maris' American League record for most home runs in a single season? And what else might happen down the stretch?

To discuss what the final month of the regular season might bring, we asked a panel of 17 ESPN baseball experts some of the game's biggest questions, covering September and beyond. We also asked a number of them to explain their answers -- particularly those who went against the grain.

Below, you'll find our picks for the postseason, major awards and more, including a few surprising answers and some bold predictions about what's next.

How many games will the Los Angeles Dodgers win?

110: 6 votes

111: 4

112: 2

109: 2

107: 2

106: 1

The highest number of wins picked was 112. Take us through how they'll get there. Getting to 112 wins is hardly bold. It means they'll continue to play at precisely the same level, just shy of a .700 winning percentage. Why would the Dodgers let up? They just got Clayton Kershaw back. Next is Blake Treinen. It's the deepest team in baseball. Freddie Freeman wants a batting title. Tony Gonsolin wants a Cy Young. The schedule is only tough if the Padres play better, which they haven't, and the final six games are home against the Rockies. The Dodgers are driven. They don't let up. Man, 112 wins might be conservative.-- Eric Karabell

You were one of six experts to pick 110 wins. Why's that the magic number? That's about what the Dodgers' win pace is at this point. It's actually a little above that, but I assume my colleagues interpret the dynamic similar to how I see it, which is that the Dodgers will likely have the No. 1 seed in the National League clinched with at least a week to go in the season. So they might spend a period of time easing up on the accelerator and shifting their full focus to getting everybody up to speed for the postseason. So yeah, the Dodgers seem like "only" a 110-win team because they might be able to coast at the end of the regular season. Not a bad position to be in. -- Bradford Doolittle

Who will be the No. 1 seed in the AL: the Yankees or Astros?

Houston Astros: 17

New York Yankees: 0

Why are the Astros the overwhelming favorite here? There is a lot to like about their pitching. They keep the ball in the ballpark, so it is hard to quick-strike them with runners on. It might come down to controlling the "slug," and they have done it in a small ballpark (given up the fewest HRs in MLB). Impressive. This with an explosive offense when they are in sync. And Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker got hot. They've also got a two-way catcher at the trade deadline inChristian Vazquez. Look out. -- Doug Glanville

New York once had a big lead for the No. 1 spot in the AL and are now battling just to stay atop the AL East. What happened?The Yankees faced their fair share of injuries, but the lack of consistency in the lineup has been at the heart of the team's slump in the second half. Joey Gallo carried the brunt of this criticism for the team in much of the first half, but now that he's playing for the Dodgers, the spotlight turns to Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Aaron Hicks, who have not lived up to expectations at the plate. The struggles of the trio have forced the Yankees into a position where they need to depend on rookies such asOswald Peraza and Oswaldo Cabrera heading into a crucial run down the stretch. Aaron Judge can't single-handedly carry this lineup deep into October.-- Joon Lee

The 2022 World Series matchup will be ... ?


Houston Astros: 11

New York Yankees: 3

Tampa Bay Rays: 2

Toronto Blue Jays: 1


Los Angeles Dodgers: 9

New York Mets: 5

St. Louis Cardinals: 2

Atlanta Braves: 1

Astros-Dodgers was our most-picked matchup. Why will these two teams meet in October? One of these is easy: The Dodgers are far and away the best team in baseball, and as good as the Mets and Braves can be, and as much of a threat as the Cardinals and Padres could pose, and as up in the air as short series actually are, picking against a team that is on pace to win 113 games is a hot take for hot-taking's sake. The AL is a different beast. The Astros are the class of the league, yes, and among their excellent rotation, lineup, bullpen and gloves, they show no apparent weakness. And yet the difference between them and a full-strength Yankees team -- which admittedly seems like a pipe dream these days -- isn't big enough to suggest Houston is infallible. This is, very simply, a chalk pick -- and one, as October nears and teams heat up or cool down, that's subject to change. -- Jeff Passan

Our runners-up in each league were the Yankees and Mets. You picked both. What makes you think they're the teams to beat? It's less that I think either is the "team to beat" than that baseball has a degree of randomness to its postseason. It's usually a handful of teams in either league that make the most logical sense as its champions (both certainly qualify), and sometimes natural baseball storylines find a way -- Subway Series are so rare, and with the Mets now the bigger story of the two teams in New York, it just feels right for a rematch 22 years in the making. The Mets make the easier case among prospective league champions -- Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer will be tough to beat in a short series -- and as for the Yankees, I feel like Judge is this kind of guy who could take hold of a series and single-handedly steer his team. WhetherGerrit Cole the ace shows up will also have a lot to say about the Yankees' October chances. -- Tristan Cockcroft

There were seven different teams chosen as potential World Series contenders, and you were one of two Rays voters. What does that number say about this season? It means only one of us will be right! And that the Yankees' two-month slide means the AL is wide open. I'll admit, part of my confidence in the Rays is that I picked them to reach the World Series in the preseason. That, admittedly, was before the Rays' never-ending list of injuries throughout the season. Somehow, they've not only hung in there, but they now have a legitimate chance to steal the AL East from the Yankees -- after being down by as many as 15.5 games. The Shane McClanahan injury is certainly problematic, but the Rays still have Corey Kluber, Drew Rasmussen, Jeffrey Springs, a deep bullpen (check outJason Adam's stats) andTyler Glasnow's possible return. Offense? The Rays find a way to scrape across enough runs. None of this is pretty, but it works. -- David Schoenfield

The 2022 AL and NL MVPs will be ... ?


Aaron Judge: 17


Paul Goldschmidt: 15

Nolan Arenado: 1

Mookie Betts: 1

Judge was unanimous among our voters; what makes him a standout in the MVP race? He stands out because he's not JUST a home run hitter. He leads the league in walks, has a high batting average based on a 61% hard hit rate -- and he's not even leading the league in strikeouts. He has been a complete player AND he might hit over 60 home runs. -- Jesse Rogers

Why does Goldschmidt deserve this award? Goldschmidt should be the MVP because he leads the league in virtually every important offensive category, and he is a Gold Glove defensive first baseman. He has a legitimate shot to become the first NL player since Joe Medwick in 1937 to win the Triple Crown. And he's doing it for a team that is likely to win its division. -- Tim Kurkjian

Only two people didn't vote for Goldschmidt, and you chose Betts to win it over him. Why? He has an uphill climb, no doubt, but I was operating under a pretty simple premise: When Betts is playing at the top of his game, nobody in the NL is better. Betts has been basically himself since returning from a rib injury in July, but he took things to another level in August, finishing with an OPS of 1.081. Goldschmidt, Arenado and Manny Machado can match Betts' defensive prowess but not his impact on the bases, and so it wouldn't be a surprise to see Betts overtake the lead in fWAR by the end of the regular season. It's a sleeper pick, sure, but given the way Betts has been hitting lately, I wouldn't put it past him. -- Alden Gonzalez

The Cy Youngs will go to ... ?


Justin Verlander: 13

Dylan Cease: 2

Shohei Ohtani: 2


Sandy Alcantara: 16

Aaron Nola: 1

What makes Verlander's and Alcantara's Cy Young campaigns so dominant? At the risk of being labeled the oldest of olds, I will defer to earned-run average to answer the question. Verlander's 1.84 is the best in baseball. Alcantara's 2.36 is second best in the NL -- and he has thrown 25% more innings than the guy ahead of him. Their expected ERAs and fielding independent pitching figures, though, illustrate that neither's ERA is some defense-driven mirage. Verlander's grip on the award is far more tenuous because of his calf injury, which leaves a lane for Dylan Cease -- who has a 2.13 ERA in 156 innings, with Verlander having thrown 152 -- to thieve it. Barring a slew of starts like his last one in which he allowed six runs in five innings, Alcantara's lead is big enough that not even Zac Gallen's 41.1-inning scoreless streak is much of a threat. Alcantara's 190.2 innings are 20 clear of anyone else's, his four complete games are more than every other team and he's unquestionably the unanimous choice -- Passan

Alcantara got every vote but yours. Make the case for Nola. I had it as a toss-up between Nola and Alcantara, but I leaned to Nola because I think he'll close a little better. Nola's ERA estimators, strikeout rate and walk rate are all better, but those are more predictive of future outcomes than reviewing who has been better thus far. Alcantara's actual ERA is better and the Cy is mostly, if not completely, a backward-looking award, so outcomes matter. He's also thrown 20 more innings than Nola. Nola starts Tuesday to close that gap (and match the total games started), he'll be in a pennant race down the stretch, and I think he'll outperform Alcantara enough to edge him out in the end. -- Kiley McDaniel

You voted for Ohtani. Why does someone other than Verlander deserve this award? Ohtani is essentially having a better all-around season than he did in 2021, and it'd be a shame to see him shut out on awards simply because Judge might pass Maris, while guys like Verlander and Cease pitched a little bit more often than he did. Is Ohtani for the Cy really that big a stretch? His WAR is slightly behind that of either Cease or Verlander -- the latter is on the injured list, providing an opportunity for that all-important innings pitched gap to close -- and has a better FIP than either. I think this is a closer award race than most do. Ohtani has been outstanding over the past three months (1.87 ERA, 110 K's in his past 13 starts), and he's finally starting to pitch regularly on five days' rest. Maybe the writers truly will make this an only-pitching-stats matter -- and arguably that's what they should do, by the award's definition -- but if this race is razor thin come Game 162, might his two-way status provide a subconscious advantage? We shall see. -- Cockcroft

How many home runs will Judge hit?

62: 9

59: 2

61: 2

60: 2

64: 1

63: 1

We had a majority vote that Judge would reach 62, breaking Maris' record of 61. Why do you think he'll do it? Judge will hit 62 because he has had a terrific season, he's a better hitter than he has ever been, he is the strongest man in the game and, for some reason, he is not being pitched around. Also, there is some magic involved with No. 60. Ruth. Maris. Judge. And Judge has had a magical season. -- Kurkjian

You said Judge will hit 64, which was our highest total. Tell us how he'll get there. Throughout the course of his career, Judge has been relatively consistent month to month when it comes to home run production, and his relative consistency has been the backbone of the Yankees' lineup throughout this season. As it currently stands, Judge is on pace to hit 63 home runs, which has not been skewed with one outlier month during the season. With the Yankees needing to turn things around, I think Judge will continue his home run march at the pace he's been at all season long. -- Lee

Who will be the wild-card teams in the AL?

Seattle Mariners: 17

Toronto Blue Jays: 15

Tampa Bay Rays: 13

New York Yankees: 3

Baltimore Orioles: 3

Our most-picked teams were the Mariners, Blue Jays and Rays, and you had all three. What makes them the favorites? That trio has held those spots for so long that it's hard to remember that those spots are actually still in play. There's a gap in run differential between Seattle, Toronto and Tampa Bay and the next tier of contenders, such as Baltimore, Minnesota/Cleveland and (I guess) Chicago. The standings are close enough that I wouldn't want to bet my house on the race remaining status quo, but all things considered, that seems like the most likely outcome. Those are solid teams that have built up to win now. -- Doolittle

What scenario would lead to the Yankees ending up in this position? The idea seemed ridiculous a month ago, but with each passing series it becomes more realistic that the Yankees' late-season collapse will conclude with them opening the postseason in the wild-card round. They hit Labor Day with a five-game lead over the Rays, more than 10 games fewer than it was on July 8. They lost two of three to the Rays over the weekend and face them for three more this weekend. They travel to Toronto to play the rejuvenated Blue Jays -- winners of seven of eight who now sit just 5.5 games behind the Yankees -- at the end of September. Everything is trending down: Andrew Benintendi might be out for the season; Matt Carpenter, who helped fuel the team's pre-August surge, might be also; Aroldis Chapman's tattoo infection gummed up the gears in the bullpen. The Jays and Rays play each other nine -- nine! -- more times this season, and if one of those teams dominates the other, the pressure on the Yankees will be ramped up. A total collapse would take a wild series of events, but it has taken a few wild turns to reach this point. What seemed impossible is now at least conceivable.-- Keown

You were one of three votes for the Orioles. How do you think they'll do it? The same way they've been doing it since early July: enough offense, just enough starting pitching, good defense and a shutdown bullpen. Oh, and now toss in rookie call-up Gunnar Henderson to add a spark to the lineup (he's already started at three different infield positions and hit fifth in the lineup). The Orioles have been as good as any team in the AL the past two months, and with a bunch of head-to-head games left against the Blue Jays, they can deliver a knockout blow to Toronto. -- Schoenfield

Will the Braves or Mets win the NL East?

New York Mets: 15

Atlanta Braves: 2

What has made the Mets so dominant this season? The depth and experience on the roster. Both Francisco Lindor and Edwin Diaz admitted at points that they struggled with the transition to New York, but things have clicked for both of them, while Scherzer has continued to look like a future Hall of Famer. Sure, deGrom hasn't been healthy this season, but the team has been able to make up for that with depth in the rotation from Chris Bassitt to Taijuan Walker, while the lineup has seen contributions up and down from Brandon Nimmo to Starling Marte to Jeff McNeil to Mark Canha. -- Lee

Yet, you have the Braves stealing the division. Why? Yes, Timmy Trumpet sounded fantastic the other night at Citi Field, where there is such a tremendous energy these days. Owner Steve Cohen's club is doing everything the old Mets didn't -- and it's been a joy for the team's long-suffering fans. That being said, let's see them fully shed the "same old Mets" label by staying healthy and holding off the defending champion Braves, two things they couldn't do last year. Then, maybe, it'll be time to truly believe. -- Matt Marrone

Who will win the AL Central?

Cleveland Guardians: 10

Minnesota Twins: 4

Chicago White Sox: 3

How did the Guardians end up in this position? Cleveland has nice balance, can push the envelope on the bases and hasn't made as many self-defeating mistakes that a lot of young teams make. It's just a solid team, with a youthful roster, in a weak division. It doesn't hurt to have Jose Ramirez leading the way while talents in Minnesota -- such asByron Buxton -- or Chicago -- such asLuis Robert-- are in and out of the lineup. -- Rogers

Why do you think the Twins will take the title? Geez. It's a pick I make without a strong degree of conviction, which makes it a hunch, and I hate to defend those. Anyway, I guess Minnesota strikes me as a club that has actually underachieved despite being near the top of the division all season, while Cleveland might be playing a tad bit over its head. The Guardians are baseball's youngest team, and the Twins have a number of key contributors who have a "been there, done that" aspect to their careers. Flip a coin and I could defend it either way.As for the White Sox, it's hard to know what to say about them. Every time it seems like it's time to write them off, they reel off a few wins at the same time the Twins and Guardians hit a skid. But we've seen this year's White Sox flop in the face of prosperity too often for me to pick them at this point.But it's really close-- Doolittle

And you were one of the few who chose the White Sox. Why Chicago? I, like many, spent the entire year waiting for the White Sox to get going and have been thoroughly disappointed throughout, so I certainly don't love this pick. At this point, they're simply a below-average team, as illustrated by their subpar run differential. But they have far and away the most talent and depth in that division, and those things have a tendency of winning out over a long season. They're due a hot month, perhaps more so than any other team. And it might be September.-- Gonzalez

How many career home runs will Albert Pujols finish with?

700: 5

699: 4

698: 4

697: 3

701: 1

Pujols has been on a tear lately, and you think he'll reach that legendary 700 number. How will he get there? Pujols will hit 700 homers because, in some ways, he has been the best individual story of the season. I thought he had no shot at 700 when the season began, but he just finished a 34-game stretch with a .387 average; the last time he did that was 2008. There is destiny at work here. Seven hundred on the final day of his regular-season career seems appropriate. -- Kurkjian

You were one of several people to say he'll finish shy of the 700 club. Why? Let me preface this by saying that betting against Pujols to do anything is a fool's errand. His rate stats in August were the best in all of baseball -- and he whacked eight home runs. So who's to say he can't hit six more? Well, his last month with at least six home runs before the most recent came in August 2016. He hit five homers in a month eight times in the six years in between, so he was close. It's clear manager Oli Marmol has figured out the proper times to deploy him -- Pujols is hitting .370/.412/.790 against left-handed pitchers this year -- but this is more a wager on history than the man himself. And a wager I hope I lose.-- Passan

Make one bold prediction about the final stretch

In the American League ...

The Blue Jays and Orioles will enter the final day of the season tied for the final wild-card spot. Cavan Biggio homers in the ninth inning at Baltimore to give the Jays the lead and Jordan Romano saves it for the win. Then, the Jays beat the Guardians and Yankees before losing to Houston in the American League Championship Series. -- Karabell

The Orioles, with 15 of 27 games left at home and a 39-27 record at Camden Yards this season, ride the easiest schedule in the AL East to the unlikeliest (non-COVID-19 season) playoff appearance in at least a decade. -- Passan

The White Sox will find a way to win the AL Central. --Gonzalez

In the National League ...

The Brewers catch the Phillies for the last wild-card spot, while San Diego sweats it out and barely sneaks in. -- McDaniel

The Padres melt down for the second straight season and miss the playoffs, losing to the Phillies on the head-to-head tiebreaker (the Phillies took 4 of 7 meetings), leading to utter chaos as many fans become aware of the elimination of the "Game 163" tiebreaker. Thankfully, this results in enough outrage that MLB rightly reinstates the traditional tiebreaker for 2023. -- Cockcroft

As for individual players ...

Judge hits two home runs on the last day of the season to finish with a record 62. -- Schoenfield

While Judge's chase for 60 will, rightfully, dominate discussion over the final month, five additional players will get to at least 40 home runs this season. The lesson? Even in a season in which so much time has been spent talking about the decline of offense, the biggest sluggers in the game are still thriving. -- Dan Mullen

Nationals lefty Patrick Corbin, who sits at an MLB-leading 17 losses on the season, will not reach 20. -- Kurkjian

Mets right-hander Edwin Diaz's walk-up song "Narco," which has gone viral in recent weeks, will be streamed over 1 billion times by the end of the season. -- Glanville

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