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What does it mean to enter May in 1st place?

@SlangsOnSports
May 1, 2019

May has begun, and with that, the season feels like it is fully underway -- and perhaps even more ripe for analysis. Some numbers may be more than just early season flukes. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what it means to be in first -- or

May has begun, and with that, the season feels like it is fully underway -- and perhaps even more ripe for analysis.

Some numbers may be more than just early season flukes. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what it means to be in first -- or last -- place in a division at this point, plus a few trends that could provide insight into how the game has been played so far in 2019.

What it means to be in first (or last) 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 -- just 73 of 138 eventual division champions held at least a share of their division lead entering May 1. That’s 53 percent of division winners.

In many ways, last season was a perfect demonstration of both the idea that May is too early to look at the importance of being in first place, and the suggestion that maybe it isn’t.

In the American League, all three teams that were leading their divisions entering May -- the Red Sox, Indians and Astros -- went on to win those divisions. In the National League, it was the exact opposite -- the Mets, Cubs and D-backs each led, but none went on to win their division.

Since 1996, 15 of the 23 World Series winners led their divisions entering May, including each of the past six. The most recent World Series winner without at least a share of first place in its division entering May was the 2012 Giants, who trailed the Dodgers by 3 1/2 games at the start of the month.

The defending-champion Red Sox are not in first place entering May. How rare is that? It is not as uncommon as you might think. Of the 22 teams to win the World Series since 1996, nine found themselves in first place through April the subsequent year. However, the previous two World Series winners -- the Cubs and Astros -- had done it before the Red Sox found themselves out of first place to start May this year.

On Tuesday night, the Dodgers became the first team in the Majors to reach 20 wins this season. What could that portend? Well, the club that got to 20 wins the fastest or tied for the fastest (on the same day as another team) has won the World Series each of the past three years. In 2017, the Astros and Nationals reached 20 wins on the same day, and Houston went on to win the Fall Classic.

What about some hope for the current last-place teams? The most recent clubs to be in the cellar to begin May that went on to make the playoffs were the 2015 Blue Jays and Rangers, and both of them won their divisions. Overall since 1996, 11 teams have had at least a share of last place in a division and then gone on to make the playoffs that season. Of those, six were division winners and five earned Wild Cards.

Home runs and strikeouts are rising, hits got outpaced again

Those trends help us to analyze where teams are right now, but it’s worth taking a look at their play, too.

League-wide, we have already seen more home runs this April than in any other April in Major League history. The previous record for the month was 931 homers in April 2000. That was broken Sunday, when Eric Sogard hit the second homer of the day. We finished the month with 1,010 long balls, breaking the previous record -- and then some.

It’s worth noting that the record-breaking homer season of 2017 -- which featured 6,105 jacks when there had never before been more than 5,693 -- did not set the April home run record. That means we could be headed to record territory once again.

There have already been more home runs (1,010) hit in 2019 than in multiple seasons in Major League history.

As we’ve seen increasingly in the sport, an uptick in home runs usually comes with more strikeouts as well. With that in mind, we finished April with 6,799 strikeouts, breaking the previous April record of 6,656 from last season. The strikeout record for the season has been set each year beginning with 2008, and '19 is on pace to continue that trend.

Before the 2018 season, there had never been a full calendar month in Major League history where there were more strikeouts than hits. Then, last April, there were 296 more strikeouts than hits. In June, there were 136 more strikeouts than hits, and in September, there were 436 more strikeouts than hits. That all contributed to a full season with 189 more strikeouts than hits.

Now, we can add April 2019 to that list, too, as there were 426 more strikeouts than hits, making it the second consecutive April and the second straight calendar month with more strikeouts than hits.

Sarah Langs is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @SlangsOnSports.