What does it mean to be in first on Sept. 1?

September 1st, 2021

It’s finally September. Though the regular season ends on Oct. 3 this year, there’s no question that this ninth month on the calendar will be pivotal. The final complete month, before we know who’s headed to the playoffs and who will be watching from home. We’ve been keeping track all year of what it means to hold a division lead entering any month, and there’s no question that it’s of more importance now than ever.

If your favorite team isn’t leading now but still has postseason aspirations, they’d better figure it out soon or be vying for a Wild Card spot.

Let’s take a look at what it means to be in first place in a division or leading for a Wild Card entering September and what the playoff field may look like. 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 (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 -- 114 of 144 eventual division champions held at least a share of their division lead entering Sept. 1. That’s 79 percent of division winners.

There has not been a season since 1996 where none of the division leaders entering September went on to win their divisions that year. In other words, history tells us that most of the six current leaders -- the Rays, White Sox, Astros, Braves, Brewers and Giants -- will win the division. But not necessarily all of them.

What about leading the Wild Card? In the multiple Wild Card era (since 2012), there has been just one season when each team in Wild Card position entering September found itself still in the Wild Card Game when the season ended. That was in 2017, when the Yankees, Twins, D-backs and Rockies did so.

For those with comebacks on the mind, the Elias Sports Bureau tells us that the largest division lead entering September for a team that did not win that division is 7 1/2 games by the 1995 Angels, who missed out on the playoffs entirely when the Yankees won that year’s Wild Card and the Mariners won the division.

Largest division lead Entering September, did not win division (Since 1969)

1995 Angels: 7 1/2
1978 Red Sox: 6 1/2
2006 Tigers: 4 1/2
1969 Cubs: 4 1/2

For the Wild Card, the largest lead entering September for a team to not win that spot was 8 1/2, by the 2011 Braves, according to Elias. The Cardinals came back from that deficit to win the Wild Card -- and ended up winning it all, too.

What about eventual World Series winners? Since 1996, 15 of the 24 World Series winners, again, excluding 2020, led their divisions entering September. But the most recent World Series winner in a full season, the 2019 Nationals, did not lead their division entering the month nor at the end of it, instead making it as a Wild Card.

History worth noting

The main focus here is on the current division leaders, plus the Wild Card leaders in the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Reds and Padres. But one team not currently in postseason position is worth noting. The Mets entered August with a four-game division lead and now sit 5 1/2 games behind the NL East-leading Braves.

That’s the second-largest division deficit exiting a calendar month for a team that led by four or more games entering it, according to Elias. Only the 1969 Cubs had a larger deficit at the end of a calendar month they entered with such a lead, doing so in September, losing the NL East to the Mets, ultimately trailing by eight games. History, and that black cat, have a way of returning, even years later.

What’s next

There’s no longer plenty of baseball to be played. The baseball that’s left, it’s going to be among the highest of stakes. This is an entire month and three days of important games. If your team is currently in playoff position, there’s a lot of evidence for optimism. And if your team isn’t, just know that we’ve seen plenty of September comebacks, all things considered.