What does it mean to be in first on July 1?

July 1st, 2021

It’s July, which means it’s All-Star month, and it certainly isn’t too early to start trying to project what the October postseason field will look like. Are the current division leaders for real? Let’s take a look at those current leaders and try to ascertain what the playoff teams could look like.

What it means to be in first place

Since 1996, the first full season with at least one Wild Card, 96 of 144 eventual division champions held at least a share of their division lead entering July. That’s 67 percent of division winners. Take note, Red Sox, White Sox, Astros, Mets, Brewers and Giants fans -- those are the teams that currently lead their divisions.

And, of course, the season didn’t start until late July last year, so those numbers are through 2019.

The last time a full season was played, in 2019, five of the six division leaders on July 1 went on to win their divisions. In the American League, the Yankees, Twins and Astros all won their divisions. In the NL, the Braves and Dodgers won their divisions, but the Brewers and Cubs, who were tied for the NL Central lead entering July, did not win it, with the division instead being won by the Cardinals. The Brewers did make the playoffs, though, as a Wild Card -- losing to the eventual World Series-champion Nationals.

Since 1996, 16 of the 24 World Series winners, excluding 2020, led their divisions entering July. Each of the eight before the 2019 Nationals did not, snapping that streak. The Nats were seven games behind the Braves entering July, and ended up in the playoffs without a division title, anyway. The most recent World Series winner without at least a share of first place in its division entering July before the Nationals were the 2010 Giants, who trailed the Padres by 5 1/2 games entering July and went on to win the division on the final day of the season.

Speaking of the NL West, the D-backs entered the month 29 1/2 games behind the first-place Giants in the division. There have been just three prior teams in the divisional era (since 1969) to enter July at least that many games behind in their division, according to Elias. The D-backs’ deficit is the largest for any NL club.

Most GB in division entering July since 1969

2018 Orioles: 32
2019 Orioles: 30 1/2
1979 Blue Jays: 30 1/2
2021 D-backs: 29 1/2
2006 Royals: 28
1997 Phillies: 28
1993 Mets: 28

This year’s leaders and competition

Of this year’s current division leaders entering July, each has had at least a share of that lead entering July since 2012, prior to 2021, except for one. The Mets last led their division entering July in 2007, when they would go on to miss the playoffs despite a seven game lead with 17 games to play.

The White Sox last led entering July in 2012, when they went on to finish in second place behind the Tigers. The Astros have been in this spot each year since 2017 and in all but one since ‘15, excluding 2020. The Red Sox last led the AL East entering July in 2018, when they won both the division and the World Series.

This is the fourth straight year the Brewers have had at least a share of the division lead entering July, excluding ‘20. The Giants were last in this spot in 2016.

What’s next?

Even three 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, there’s still plenty of hope -- while 67% of these teams go on to win their divisions, that means 33% do not, too. Only time will tell.