What's Next: History favors division leaders
For contenders such as Royals, Astros, Memorial Day an important benchmark
Memorial Day is full of somber remembrance but also seasonal celebration. We honor those who gave their lives protecting the United States and its freedoms while serving in the military, but we find time to cut loose at backyard barbecues and fete the coming of June and summer proper.
And so it goes that during the course of this very American holiday, we can't escape the increasingly intriguing storylines of the summer game, which will steam right into its third month by the end of the week.
It's natural to view Memorial Day, then, as a significant baseball benchmark. Some might wonder if it's already curtains for the hometown nine that hasn't gotten it going by now. Some might continue to look at the Major League season as not even a third complete and maintain the optimism of Opening Day.
The big question, as always, is this: Can the clubs that would be postseason-bound entering Memorial Day 2015 last and make it into October?
Keep an eye on them. As of right now, they're the high-flying Royals, the surprising Astros and Twins, plus the Tigers and Rays in the American League, with the expected Cardinals, Dodgers, Nationals and Giants joined by the young and climbing Cubs in the National League.
So as we enter the ending of a long weekend and the beginning of a new week, we ponder What's Next, as in, what do these Memorial Day standings mean?
Maybe a lot, maybe not much. Looking back at the nice, round number of the last 20 seasons prior to 2015, we see that the results from the entirety of the Wild Card era might hold some clues, but baseball is hard to predict.
A good place to start might be in 2003, when the then-Florida Marlins were languishing in last place, dismissed manager Jeff Torborg on May 11, hired curmudgeonly codger Jack McKeon, and were still in the NL East cellar on Memorial Day.
The Fish, of course, caught fire and ended up winning the World Series that year.
"I've seen clubs in first place on Memorial Day and not finish anywhere near first," McKeon would say a few years later. "I've been in first place, probably with the A's, and we were in first place on Memorial Day, and we probably ended up fifth or sixth. I don't see any importance of being in first place on Memorial Day. You are just about a third of the way through the season."
But there's some math going on here that shouldn't be ignored.
Of the last 21 teams who held or were tied for the best record in baseball entering Memorial Day since 1995, 18, or 85.7 percent, ended up making the postseason. That's not bad. But only five of those clubs -- the 1998 Yankees, 2004 Red Sox, 2005 White Sox, 2007 Red Sox and 2014 Giants -- won the World Series.
Meanwhile, being in position to make the playoffs at this pivotal spot on the calendar isn't exactly a certainty, either. Teams leading their divisions or in place for Wild Card berths entering Memorial Day over the last 20 seasons have gone 103-for-173 (59.5 percent). Since the Wild Card era began in 1995, teams in or tied for first place at Memorial Day have a 51.2 percent chance of winning their division, according to Elias.
That leaves a lot of room for error on the part of the front-runners and rallying by the would-be also-rans.
Those 2003 Marlins, for example, were 11 1/2 games behind the Braves on Memorial Day, and in 2005, the Astros were 10 1/3 games back in the Wild Card race at this stage of the season and still made it to the World Series.
This year's best-record-in-ball-on-Memorial-Day darlings, the Kansas City Royals, sit at 28-15 and are three games ahead of the Twins and Tigers in the AL Central. The AL West-leading Astros are 29-16 and mere percentage points behind the Royals for top billing. But while the young Astros are a bit of a surprise, the Royals are coming off a 2014 campaign that saw them take the Giants to the seventh game of the World Series. This seems like it's not a fluky early-season showing.
"When you go out and play games you absolutely have to win, like you do in the playoffs, it changes your approach," Royals reliever Wade Davis said. "It's all about the game that day and how can we win that particular game. That's how you view the playoffs, and that's how we view every game right now."
The Astros are right there with them, as are the other teams right in the Memorial Day mix. But there's more to look out for in the week ahead.
The Texas Rangers, still afloat in the AL West, are set to welcome back outfielder Josh Hamilton. The veteran slugger is slated to play left field on Monday in Cleveland against the Indians after sitting out the entire season because of shoulder woes while acknowledging his difficulty in recovery from addiction and being traded from the Angels.
"He's swinging the bat well and he's feeling well," Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre said. "I have talked to him and he is doing well. We're happy to have him back in the lineup. We just want him to come in here and be one of the guys and enjoy the game."
The Blue Jays are in last place in the AL East, but they're set to welcome back shortstop Jose Reyes, who has been out since April 27 with a cracked left rib, when they open a series against the White Sox on Monday.