The calendar says June and it is time to ask, when do the playoffs start? I mean, we pretty much already know who is going to reach the postseason, right? WRONG!
Too many people, myself included, are easily convinced of a team’s pennant chances because of a hot start to the season. It is June, but that’s still pretty early in baseball.
When can we start writing cellar dwellers off? At what point can teams feel confident that their lead in the standings will hold?
The division between contenders and pretenders is becoming quite pronounced, but history tells us change is imminent. A couple of big name free agents are still homeless, for example. That is sure to shake things up.
The 6 division winners are currently the NY Yankees, Minnesota, Houston, Philly, Milwaukee-Chicago Cubs tied, and the LA Dodgers. You’d probably call me foolish if I picked each of these teams to remain on top through the summer. So much can change, right?
I’m sure I’d also get some eye rolls if I predicted we would see 0 of these 6 teams in October. So how safe are the current leads? What should we expect? Let’s see what history tells us.
First Place in June – Predictive or Worthless?
I took a look back at the previous 10 seasons of MLB standings. I checked to see which teams were in first place on June 1 and whether or not they were still on top after 162 games.
There are 6 divisions in baseball. 10 years worth of data provides 60 division races. I wanted to answer a few simple questions. How often did the team in first place on June 1 hold their lead? How often did they blow the lead? Did teams in first place tend to grow that lead or let it shrink?
Here is what I found. Remember, this goes back to the 2009 season.
|Held lead||Lost lead||Grew lead||Lead shrunk|
Teams in first place on June 1 remain there 51.7% of the time. 43.3% of the time they actually increase their lead.
51.7% is good – better than half – but it is by no means a certainty. First-place teams blow their lead 48.3% of the time. I was curious who tended to win the division when the team in first place on June 1 stumbled.
Logic would tell us that the second-place team won the next-most often, but I wanted to make sure that’s what actually happens.
Here is the breakdown of division winners based on their place in the standings on June 1. For example, first-place teams on June 1 win the division 51.7% of the time, second-place teams 25%, and so on.
|1st place||2nd place||3rd place||4th place||5th place|
The second-place team on June 1 does have a decent shot of winning the division, but the odds for a third-place team ain’t bad either.
Even one 5th place team has come back to win their division this decade. The Dodgers were in 5th place and 7.5 games back of 1st in the NL West on June 1, 2013 and then came back to win the division by 11 games thanks to a 63.3% win percentage in June, July, August, and September.
This 7.5-game deficit was not the largest deficit overcome to win a division in the past 10 years. Here is a quick list of the top 5.
|Team (Year)||GB of 1st||Place on June 1st|
9 games is the largest June 1 deficit that a team has erased in the past 10 years. Sorry … um … every team in the AL Central that isn’t the Twins plus 9 other teams. Your odds don’t look great.
All hope is not lost for these squads. Teams have overcome double-digit deficits far later in the season than June 1. I would not advise banking on it, though.
So are teams in first place right now by only a few games a lock for the postseason? Absolutely not. Are teams in first place by 9, 10, or even 11 games safe? Not 100% safe, maybe more like 80%, but it looks pretty favorable.
Overcoming a deficit in the standings is tough even if you are equally matched or better than the team you are attempting to catch. Deficits exist for a reason. Typically, the team ahead is ahead because they are good and the team behind is behind because they are bad.
Teams that fall behind early have a tall task in front of them to close the gap, but comebacks happen more often than we like to admit. Sports fans are typically very reactionary people. We are too quick to slam the door on teams who hit a rough patch but still have a very good chance to achieve something special.
Vegas Odds to Win Each Division
It is one thing to use historical data to predict a team’s chances of winning their division, but what if we consult the experts who put their money where their mouth is each and every night? I’m talking, of course, about the Vegas odds.
Looking at the futures odds will tell us how confident Vegas is in each club to make the postseason. First race to look at – the only division with 3 legitimate World Series contenders – the AL East.
The “Odds” listed are the Bovada odds to win the division.
-210 is a very stiff line for a team with a slim 2-game lead. This speaks to how stacked the Yanks roster is. It is tempting to gain confidence in New York after seeing the odds, but remember what we learned above – first place teams in early June only hold on 51.7% of the time.
I can’t imagine that having both the reigning Cy Young winner and the defending World Series champions in your division helps your chances, either.
Up next, a division that gets no love … ever – the AL Central.
I find it hilarious that the Central is home to baseball’s best team this year (Minnesota) because this division has been a laughing stock for the past several years.
Remember earlier when I mentioned that no team this decade has come back from a double-digit deficit in the standings in June? I guess that means the Twins are in good shape.
-2500 odds mean that Vegas gives Minnesota a 96% chance to win the division.
Not a lot to say here. The Astros are very good and none of the other 4 teams in the West are. Of all the division races in the majors, I’d say this one is the easiest to predict.
As you’ll see in a moment, Vegas has Houston tied with the Dodgers for best odds to win their division, but the Rockies, Padres, and Diamondbacks scare me a bit more than the Rangers, A’s, and Angels.
Those who remember back to last season know that Philly led the East for a good stretch of 2018 but allowed Atlanta to get their foot in the door and overtake them in September.
Despite leading by the narrowest of margins, Vegas is not afraid to name Philadelphia the favorites of the division. I guess having Bryce Harper in your lineup is good for something after all.
-125 favorites have a 55.5% chance of winning.
By far the closest race, the NL Central is the only division in which I can realistically say it’s totally up for grabs.
Vegas has declined taking sides at this point, allowing us to believe that the Cubs and Brewers are even. Of course, no two teams are even. One of these teams is better, we just need more time to figure out which it is.
Let’s not forget there are 3 other teams within 5-and-a-half games of the top. Rolling a five-sided die might be the best option if you want to choose the Central winner today.
In my opinion, the Dodgers are the second-most sure lock to win their division in baseball right now (Houston being first).
The Rockies scare me a little bit. They came on at the end of last season, earned a one-game playoff in Wrigley against the Cubs, and won the game to force a full series with Milwaukee.
The Padres are unproven but they are talented and have nothing to lose. Even if they do not win the West this year, young teams like this love to play spoiler at the end of the year against teams in the hunt.
The moral: The standings during the first week of June do not mean a whole lot. Teams with double-digit leads over the second-place team are historically quite safe, but anything under 10 games is still very much in question.
Remember, teams in first place on June 1 only go on to win the division 51.7% of the time. Don’t overreact to April and May results.