What it means to be in 1st place entering August

August 1st, 2022

It’s August, the beginning of the stretch run. The Home Run Derby and All-Star Game have passed, the Trade Deadline is Tuesday and playoff-implication baseball is about to take center stage.

It might feel like if a team isn’t in playoff position right now, it could be time to be worried. But is that true? For teams hoping to win the division, it’s definitely getting close to crunch time.

Let's take a look at what it means to be in first place entering August 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 -- 111 of 150 eventual division champions held at least a share of their division lead entering August. That’s 74% of division winners.

Take note, Yankees, Twins, Astros, Mets, Brewers and Dodgers fans -- those are the teams that currently lead their divisions.

Last season, five of the six division leaders on Aug. 1 went on to win their divisions. In the American League, the Rays, White Sox and Astros each won their divisions. In the NL, the Brewers and Giants each won their divisions, but the Mets, who led the East entering July, missed the playoffs.

Since 1996, 14 of the 25 World Series winners, excluding 2020, led their divisions entering August. 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.

Comebacks and those 2021 Braves

What about the potential comebacks? Just two teams have gone on to win the World Series after being below .500 entering August -- the 1914 Boston Braves, who were 44-45, and the 2021 Braves, who were 52-54. That means that the 2021 Braves’ .491 winning percentage entering August was the lowest of any eventual World Series champion.

Before ‘21, the lowest winning percentage entering August to win the World Series in the Divisional Era (since 1969) was .528 (57-51) by the 2011 Cardinals.

And if we look at simply making the playoffs? The lowest winning percentage for a team entering August that went on to make the playoffs in a non-strike-shortened season was .436 (44-57) by the 1973 Mets, who went on to win the National League pennant and showed everyone that ‘Ya Gotta Believe.’ (Again we are excluding 2020 with both of these notes).

Overall, 13 teams have made the playoffs in a non-shortened season where they entered August below .500.

This year’s leaders and competition

Of this year’s current division leaders entering August, each has had at least a share of that lead entering August at least once in the prior two full seasons, too.

Three teams lead by at least 10 games entering August this year: the Dodgers (12 games), Astros (12 games) and Yankees (11 1/2 games). It’s just the third time since the split to three divisions per league that at least three teams had a 10-or-more-game lead entering August.

It also happened in 2017, with the Astros (16 games), Nationals (14 games) and Dodgers (14 games). And in 1998, with the Yankees (15 games), Cleveland (10 1/2 games), Braves (14 games) and Padres (13 games).

In addition to the Dodgers, Astros and Yankees, the Mets also previously had a 10-game lead. It’s the third season in the Divisional Era (since 1969) where four or more teams had 10-plus game division leads at some point before Aug. 1, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. It also happened in 2019 (HOU, LAD, MIN, NYY) and 1998 (ATL, CLE, NYY, SD).

What’s next

October is quickly drawing closer, but there’s still baseball left to be played. Fans of the six division leaders can take some comfort in knowing that, historically, almost three quarters 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 74% of these teams go on to win their divisions, that means 26% do not, too. The 2021 Braves’ successes should provide plenty of hope.

Now, we all get to watch and see what happens.