How important is it to be in first entering August?

August 2nd, 2019

Welcome to the beginning of the stretch run. We’re past All-Star Week, the Trade Deadline has passed, and now it’s the dog days of summer -- which means plenty of postseason implication-laden baseball.

It seems like if you aren’t in playoff position right now, it might 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 in a division entering August and evaluate where we’re at right now with some other trends, too.

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 -- 99 of 138 eventual division champions held at least a share of their division lead entering Aug. 1. That’s 72 percent of division winners.

You may recall that last year featured two Game 163s in the National League -- between the Dodgers and Rockies for the NL West title and the Cubs and Brewers for the NL Central title. That’s a good reflection of the change that occurred in the National League after August began last year. None of the three teams leading their divisions entering August -- the Phillies, Cubs and Diamondbacks -- actually went on to win their divisions. It’s the only time in this span since 1996 that none of the teams in one league went on to win the division after holding at least a share of the lead entering August.

Not only that, but two of the teams noted above -- the Phillies and Diamondbacks -- failed to make the postseason entirely. The Phillies went 21-34 from Aug. 1 on, finding themselves out of first place by mid-August. The Diamondbacks were tied for the division lead as late as through the games of Sept. 1, but went 8-19 in September and found themselves on the outside looking in.

Since 1996, 14 of the 23 World Series winners led their divisions entering August, including each of the last four. The most recent World Series winner without at least a share of first place in its division entering August was the 2014 Giants, who trailed the Dodgers by three games entering August and went on to make the playoffs via the Wild Card.

Speaking of the World Series, we know that the Dodgers are still searching for their first title since 1988. This year, they entered August with a 15-game lead in the division. So, is a World Series victory what’s next?

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Dodgers are the seventh team to lead their division by at least 15 games heading into August. Of the previous six, three of them went on to win the World Series, including the most recent team to do so before 2019 -- the 2017 Astros, who defeated the Dodgers in the World Series.

Largest Lead Entering August - Divisional Era (Since 1969)
2001 Mariners: 19 games
1995 Indians: 17 ½ games
2017 Astros: 16 games
1986 Mets: 15 ½ games
2019 Dodgers: 15 games
1998 Yankees: 15 games
1969 Orioles: 15 games

2017 Astros, 1986 Mets and 1998 Yankees won World Series

What about just looking at a team’s record? Just one team has gone on to win the World Series after being below .500 entering August -- the 1914 Boston Braves, who were 44-45. 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.’

Home run pace is still record-breaking

Through July, there were 4,478 home runs hit across the Majors. That puts us on pace for more than 6,700 home runs this season, which would shatter the single-season record of 6,105 from 2017. The 4,478 hit this season already rank as 23rd-most in any season all-time.

The home run record for a single month was broken in May, and then again in June. The same didn’t happen in July, but the July record was indeed set. There were 1,057 home runs hit in July 2019. There had never been more than 961 in a single July.

We’ve seen 1,000 or more home runs in each complete calendar month this season -- that’s four months with 1,000 or more home runs. That ties the 2017 season for the most 1,000-homer months in a season. And we still have two months to go.