What it means to be in 1st place entering May

May 1st, 2021

With April coming to a close, we are a full month into the 2021 season -- which means the events of the past month are worth analyzing. Sure, it’s just one month into a six-month regular season, but plenty of trends have already begun to take shape. We can take a look at current division leaders and try to project what the postseason field could look like come October.

What it means to be in first (or last) place

Since 1996, the first season with at least one Wild Card, 77 of 144 eventual division champions held at least a share of that division lead entering May 1. That’s 53 percent of division winners. Take note, Red Sox, Royals, A’s, Phillies, Brewers and Giants fans -- those teams are our current division leaders heading into May.

Of course, the season didn’t start until late July last year, so those numbers are through 2019. If you’re curious about the 2020 trends, of the six teams leading their divisions through August last year, five of them went on to win that division. But at that point, there was just a month left, and as of today we have five months left -- so it’s more likely that anything could happen.

The last time we played a full season, in 2019, four of the six division leaders on May 1 went on to win their divisions. In the American League, the Twins and Astros won their divisions, while the Rays did not, but still made the playoffs as a Wild Card. In the NL, the Cardinals and Dodgers won their divisions, but the Phillies, who led the NL East on May 1, missed the postseason entirely.

Since 1996, 15 of the 24 World Series winners, excluding 2020, led their divisions entering May. But the 2019 Nationals, who were infamously 19-31 through 50 games in May, did not -- snapping a streak of six 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 May before the ‘19 Nationals was the 2012 Giants.

The defending champion Dodgers are not in first place entering May. How rare is that? Not as rare as you might think. Of each of the 23 teams to win the World Series since 1996 and play in April the next year, nine 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, after the two prior World Series winners -- the Cubs and Astros -- had been in their respective reigning seasons.

What about the last-place teams? There’s plenty of season left, and it’s worth keeping up hope. The last teams to be in last place entering May and go on to make the playoffs were the 2015 Blue Jays and Rangers, both of which went on to win their divisions. Overall, 11 teams have had at least a share of last place in a division, then gone on to make the playoffs that season. Of those, six were division winners and five were Wild Cards.

This year’s leaders

As with any year, the 2021 season has brought its fair share of both favorites and surprises. The Red Sox may not have been a popular pick this year, but they’ve been in this position, leading the AL East entering May, as recently as in 2018, when they went on to win the World Series.

The AL Central-leading Royals are where we get into an even bigger surprise. The Royals entered Friday leading the Majors for the best record for the fourth straight day, before dropping below the Red Sox after Friday’s games. That four-day run was the Royals’ longest stretch leading the Majors in winning percentage this late in a season since doing so for 33 straight days in August-September, 1980, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The last time Kansas City led its division entering May was 2015, when the team went on to win it all.

In the AL West, the A’s leading wouldn’t have been much of a surprise entering the year, but after the first week, it might have been. Oakland lost its first six games of the season, and things were looking dire. But then, after a win and another loss, the A’s reeled off 13 straight wins -- becoming the first team in MLB history to start 0-6 and then win that many straight at any point in a season. The last time they led the AL West entering May? That would be 2014, when they went on to make the playoffs as a Wild Card, losing to the Royals in the single game.

The Phillies, at .500 on the year, lead the NL East. They led their division entering May the last time it was possible, in 2019, as noted above -- but failed to make the postseason that year. In the NL Central, the Brewers lead, marking the first time they’ve led the division through April since 2014. They went 62-72 the rest of the way and missed the playoffs.

In the NL West, it’s the Giants -- not the Dodgers, who have won eight straight division titles -- that lead. The last time the Giants led the NL West entering May was 2016, when they were tied with the Dodgers at this point. The Giants went on to make the playoffs as a Wild Card, defeat the Mets in the single game, and then lose to the Cubs in the NLDS.

What’s next

There’s plenty of baseball yet to be played, but fans of the six current division leaders can take some solace in the fact that historically, about half of those teams will go on to win those divisions. And for fans of non-leading teams? Well, just about 50/50 means there’s plenty of room for a different team to take these division crowns, too.