It is August, the beginning of the stretch run. The Home Run Derby and All-Star Game have come and gone, the trading deadline has expired, and baseball with the playoffs is now the focus.
It might feel like it’s time to worry when a team isn’t in the playoff position. But is that true? For teams hoping to win the division, it will definitely get close to crunch time.
Let’s take a look at what it means to be number one in a division in August and what the playoff field might look like.
What it means to come first (or not be there)
Since 1996 – the first full season with at least one wild card in each league after the ’95 campaign was limited to 144 games due to the players’ strike that began in 1994 – 105 of 144 subsequent division champions have held at least a share of their division leadership kicking on August 1 on. That’s 73 percent of the division winners.
And of course, the season didn’t start until the end of July last year, so those numbers ran out through 2019. The last time we played a full season, in 2019, all six division winners had at least part of that August lead. The Yankees, Twins, Astros, Braves, and Dodgers each held the lead. The Cardinals, who won the NL Central, were tied with the Cubs for division leadership in August. But St. Louis fell by the wayside 34-21, third-best in the NL as of August 1, while the Cubs were only 27-28 and the cards won the division. The Cubs finished third in the division and missed the playoffs, while the Brewers, who faced eventual World Series champions Nationals in the NL Wild Card Game, ended up in second place.
The 2019 season was only the fourth time in this period that all six division winners had at least part of that lead at the start of August, and that hadn’t happened in a long time. The other seasons it appeared on were 1999, ’97 and ’96.
Since 1996, 14 of the 24 World Series winners, excluding the start of the season in 2020, led their divisions in August, but not the youngest during that period: the 2019 Nationals. Before them, the 2014 Giants were the youngest World Series winners without at least a share of first place in their division in August, who were three games behind the Dodgers in August and reached the playoffs via the wild card.
What about possible comebacks? Only one team has won the World Series after falling below .500 in August – the 1914 Boston Braves, who were 44-45 years old. The lowest win odds in August to win the World Series in the Divisional-era (since 1969) was .528 (57-51) on the 2011 Cardinals.
What if we just look at making the playoffs? The lowest win rate for a team that entered August and made the playoffs in a non-strike shortened season was .466 (44-57) from the 1973 Mets, who won the National League pennant and showed everyone that, ‘You have to believe. ‘ (Again we are excluding 2020 with these two comments).
This year’s leaders and the competition
Of this year’s current division heads, who took office in August, everyone has had at least one share in this leadership since 1996 (again excluding 2020), with the exception of one. The Rays, who are half a game ahead of the Red Sox after a win on Saturday, will lead for the first time in this period in August.
The Mets, who currently lead NL East, have not led since August 2007 when they would miss the playoffs despite a seven-game lead with 17 games to play.
The White Sox last led the way in August 2012 when they finished second behind the Tigers. The Brewers last made it in 2014 when they finished third. The Giants were last at this course in 2016 when they were the second wild card course. This is the fourth full season in a row that the Astros led the AL West in August.
October is approaching – and fast – but there is still baseball to play. But fans of the six league leaders can take comfort knowing that historically nearly three-quarters of these teams have won their divisions. And for fans of teams that aren’t in the playoffs, there’s still a lot of hope – while 73 percent of those teams win their divisions, that means 27 percent don’t win either. Now we can all watch and see what happens.