We’re now two full months into the 2021 season, and it’s worth taking a look at the standings. Sure, there’s plenty of time left, but plenty of trends that began to take shape in April have solidified further in May. A third of the way into the season, it’s time to really consider whether our current division leaders are for real. Let’s take a look at those current leaders and try to project what the postseason field could look like come October.
What it means to be in first place
Since 1996, the first season with at least one Wild Card, 85 of 144 eventual division champions held at least a share of that division lead entering June 1st. That’s 59 percent of division winners. Pay special attention, Rays, White Sox, A’s, Mets, Cubs and Giants fans -- those teams are our current division leaders heading into June.
And of course, the season didn’t start until late July last year, so those numbers are through 2019. The last time we played a full season, in 2019, four of the six division leaders on June 1 went on to win their divisions. In the American League, the Yankees, Twins and Astros all won their divisions. In the NL, the Dodgers won their division, but the Phillies and Cubs, who led the East and Central entering June, respectively, missed the postseason entirely.
Since 1996, 13 of the 24 World Series winners, excluding 2020, led their divisions entering June. But the 2019 Nationals, who were 19-31 through 50 games in May and 24-33 through the entire month, did not -- snapping a streak of three straight World Series champs that had led their divisions entering the month. The last World Series winner without a share of first place in its division entering June before the ‘19 Nationals was the 2015 Royals.
The defending champion Dodgers are not in first place entering June, just as they were not entering May. How rare is that? Not as rare as you might think. Of the 23 teams to win the World Series since 1996 and play in April the next year, just seven have found themselves in first place through April that subsequent year. The Red Sox were not in first place at this point in 2019 either.
This year’s leaders and competition
One thing that stands out quickly on the NL standings page is that the top three records in that league belong to West division teams: the Giants (.630), Padres (.618) and Dodgers (.593). Since 1996, there’s been just one other season where the top three records in a league were all from one division entering June, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
That was in 2013, when the Cardinals (.660), Pirates (.618) and Reds (.618) had the three best records in the NL entering June and all resided in the Central. All three made the playoffs, in the second year of the Wild Card Game format, with the Pirates defeating the Reds in that game and then losing to the Cards in the NLDS.
Another takeaway from the standings page? None of these division leads are particularly large. The largest division leads are 3.5 games, by the White Sox and the Mets. The last time that no division leader had a lead of more than four games entering June was 2008, according to Elias. In 2008, four of the six division leaders entering June went on to win their divisions.
Of this year’s current division leaders entering June, each has had at least a share of that lead entering June since 2014, prior to 2021, except for two. The White Sox last did this in 2012, when they did not ultimately make the playoffs. And the Mets last had a share of the division lead entering June in 2007, when they, too, failed to make the postseason -- after having a seven-game division lead with 17 games to play in September.
Another note on the White Sox -- their crosstown rival Cubs are also leading their division. The only other season since 1996 where both Chicago teams had at least a share of the division lead entering June was in 2008. Good news for the Windy City: both teams won their respective divisions that year.
Even two months in, there’s still plenty of baseball left to be played. But fans of the six division leaders can take some comfort in knowing that historically, more than half of those teams have gone on to win their divisions. And for fans of teams that aren’t in playoff position, seeing how close all of the races are is solace in and of itself. And while 59% of teams with a share of the division lead entering June win that division, plenty do not. Only time will tell.