The weather is heating up and the baseball season is starting to take shape. It’s time to take a look at the standings. Sure, there’s plenty of baseball left, but some trends that began in April have solidified further in May. Close to 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. Note, all stats below exclude the shortened 2020 season and instead look at full seasons for the impact and postseason implications.
What it means to be in first place
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 -- 88 of 150 eventual division champions held at least a share of their division lead entering June 1. That’s 59 percent of division winners.
Pay special attention, Yankees, Twins, Astros, Mets, Brewers and Dodgers fans -- those teams are our current division leaders heading into June.
Last season, three of the six division leaders on June 1 went on to win their divisions. In the American League, the Rays and White Sox each won their divisions, while the A’s, who led the AL West entering June, missed the postseason entirely. In the NL, the Giants won their division, but the Mets and Cubs, who led the East and Central entering June, missed the playoffs.
Since 1996, 13 of the 25 World Series winners, excluding 2020, led their divisions entering June. But neither of the last two winners in full seasons – the ‘21 Braves and ‘19 Nationals – did. The Braves first took sole possession of the NL East in mid-August, while the Nationals were a Wild Card team.
The defending champion Braves are not in first place entering June. That's not as rare as you might think. Of the 24 teams to win the World Series since 1996 and play in May the next year, just seven have found themselves in first place through May that subsequent year.
New York, New York
One thing that stands out quickly on the standings page is that the two New York teams each lead their respective divisions. This is just the third time since divisions began in 1969 that the Mets and Yankees each had at least a share of their division’s leads entering June.
The last time it happened was in 2006, when the Yankees were tied with the Red Sox atop the AL East and the Mets led the NL East by 4 1/2 games. Both New York teams went on to win their divisions that year, finishing with identical, MLB-leading, 97-65 records. The Yankees lost the ALDS in four games to the Tigers, while the Mets fell in seven in the NLCS to the eventual-champion Cardinals.
The other instance was in 1988, when there were just two divisions per league. The Yankees led the AL East by 2 1/2 and the Mets led the NL East by 4 1/2. The Yankees entered June at 33-16, but proceeded to go 52-60 the rest of the way, finishing fifth in the division. The Mets, on the other hand, won the division handily – by 15 games over the Pirates. But they lost in seven games to the eventual-champion Dodgers in the NLCS.
That large lead in Flushing
Before finishing off a sweep of the Nats on Wednesday afternoon, the Mets led the NL East by 10 1/2 games, the largest lead of any team entering June this season. That’s tied for the third-largest division lead entering June since divisions began in 1969.
Largest division leads entering June, divisional era (1969):
2001 Mariners: 14
2017 Astros: 11
2022 Mets: 10.5
2019 Twins: 10.5
1971 Giants: 10.5
2007 Red Sox: 10
1999 Cleveland: 10
Good news, Mets fans: each of the six prior teams to lead by at least 10 games at this point in the season went on to win that division. The ‘17 Astros and ‘07 Red Sox went on to win the World Series, while the 2001 Mariners lost in the ALCS and ‘71 Giants lost in the NLCS. The ‘19 Twins and ‘99 Cleveland each lost in Division Series.
For the Mets, the lead is also the club’s largest entering June in franchise history, dating prior to ‘96 as well. Their previous best mark entering June was a six-game lead in 1986, when they went on to win a team-record 108 games and the second, and most recent, World Series in franchise history.
This year’s leaders overall
Of this year’s current division leaders entering June, each has had at least a share of that lead entering June at least once since 2018. Each of the six current leaders has won its division at least once since 2019 – except for the aforementioned team with the biggest lead. The Mets last won the NL East in ‘15, when they lost in the World Series.
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. That’s why they play the game – and we get to follow along.