How important is it to be in first on June 1?

June 1st, 2019

With the baseball season entering June, it really feels like we’re hitting the part of the season where contenders distinguish themselves from pretenders. At this point when we see a team go on a long winning streak or pull off a bunch of blowout wins, we tend to anticipate seeing that same team play deep into October. It’s no longer “early in the season” and breakout seasons may actually be for real.

Something else that opens the door to? Analyzing the standings in depth. At this point, we can probably expect our division leaders to contend all the way down the stretch and likely play into the postseason.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what it means to be in first -- or last -- place in a division entering June, plus check in on where we’re at with various trends, regarding strikeouts, home runs and hits, to decipher how the game is being played this season.

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 -- 81 of 138 eventual division champions held at least a share of their division lead entering June 1. That’s 59 percent of division winners.

Last year, we saw a June 1 division lead be particularly valuable -- the only eventual division winner that didn’t have at least a share of the lead entering June was the Dodgers, who got off to a slow start, but rode their comeback from that shaky beginning all the way to a World Series appearance. The team that was leading the division at the time, the Rockies, still made the playoffs -- and fell just a game shy of the division, losing in Game 163 to the Dodgers.

Since 1996, 13 of the 23 World Series winners led their divisions entering June, including each of the past three. The most recent World Series winner without at least a share of first place in its division entering June was the 2015 Royals, who trailed the Twins by half a game entering the month. They’d go on to capture sole possession of the division lead for good after their game on June 9, and wouldn’t cede it again, winning the division by 12 games at the end of the season.

The defending-champion Red Sox are not in first place entering June, just as they were not 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, just seven found themselves in first place through May the subsequent year. It happened as recently as 2017, when the Brewers, not the Cubs, were in first place in the NL Central entering June.

Home runs on pace to break record, hits just barely outpace strikeouts

Let's take a look at how the game has been played, too.

League-wide, we saw more home runs this May than in any other May in Major League history. The previous record for May was 1,069 homers in May 2000, and we finished this month with 1,135 long balls, smashing that previous record.

Not only did that blow all other months of May out of the water, but it was the most homers in any calendar month -- ever.

Most home runs in calendar month, MLB history
1) May 2019: 1,135
2) August 2017: 1,119
3) June 2017: 1,101
4) May 2000: 1,069
5) May 2017: 1,060

This is the second straight month that the 2019 season has set the calendar-month home run record, which also happened in April. In the record-breaking home run season of 2017, when there were 6,105 homers after we had never seen more than 5,693, neither the April nor the May home run records were set. In other words, we’re on quite the pace so far.

Speaking of that pace, there have been 2,279 home runs so far this season. That puts us on pace for a whopping 6,507 home runs in 2019. That would break the current record, set in 2017, by more than 400 home runs.

And as we’ve often seen in conjunction with an increase in home runs, the rate of strikeouts has risen, too. There were 7,137 strikeouts in May, most in any month in Major League history. The strikeout record for the season has been set each year beginning with 2008, and '19 is on pace to continue that trend.

One trend we’ve seen lately that did not happen in May 2019 was having more strikeouts than hits. Before the 2018 season, there had never been a full calendar month where there were more strikeouts than hits. Then it happened last April, June and September -- as well as being true for the entire 2018 season as a whole. In April 2019, it happened again.

May 2019 just narrowly missed the cut. We finished with 41 more hits than strikeouts for the month on the whole. For the year, however, there have still been 488 more strikeouts than hits.