When talking a little baseball this Fourth of July -- whether it be at a backyard barbecue, while waiting for fireworks to start or even while taking in a game at the ballpark itself -- some of the key topics figure to center around divisional races. Can the Astros continue their surprise run atop the American League West? Will the Royals run away with their first division title since 1985? Will the Mets push the Nationals for National League East supremacy and what will happen with that logjam atop the AL East? Lastly, can anyone catch the Cardinals and how will the heated rivalry atop the NL West shake out?
For starters, history has proven kind to teams sitting atop their respective divisions come Independence Day, especially those with leads of five or more games, such as the Cardinals and Astros.
St. Louis enters play on the Fourth with a six-game lead over the Pirates in the National League Central. Since the start of the Wild Card era in 1995, 24 teams have entered Independence Day with a lead of at least six games and all but one (the 2003 Mariners) held on to win their division. That Seattle team watched a six-game lead slip away in '03, as the A's rallied to win the AL West by three games.
Speaking of the AL West, the upstart Astros began the holiday with a five-game lead over the Angels. They, too, are in pretty good company, as 84.7 percent of teams (33 of 39) with at least a five-game lead on July 4 have gone on to win their division since 1995.
That said, one doesn't need to go back very far to find the last time a five-game lead slipped away, as the Brewers relinquished a five-game division lead just last year. Milwaukee led the Cardinals by exactly five games at this point last season before a second-half freefall left them in third place, eight games back of the eventual division-champion Cards.
Overall, 71.7 percent of the teams (86 of 120) leading their division on July 4 have gone on to make the postseason during the Wild Card Era. Out of those 86, 76 did so by holding on to win a divisional crown, with the other 10 qualifying via the Wild Card.
Though no season since 1995 has ever seen all six Independence Day division leaders go on to win a division title, at least half have indeed held on to win one in each of those 20 years. So if history is any indicator, some combination of the Yankees, Royals, Astros, Nationals, Cardinals and Dodgers should account for at least three of this year's six division winners.
The postseason race, however, is still wide open, considering only four teams currently sit more than 10 1/2 games out of first place in their respective divisions. Even some of those clubs can't be counted out completely, especially under the current format that calls for two Wild Card representatives in each league.
Clubs in that position need to look no further than the 2012 Athletics for some inspiration. Those 2012 A's rallied from a 10 1/2-game deficit as of July 4 to win the AL West, the largest such comeback since 1995. Two other teams during that same span -- the 2010 Giants and 2006 Twins -- also rallied from a deficit larger than six games at this point in the season.
Division leaders need not fret, however, as such instances have certainly proven to be the exception rather than the rule over the last two decades.
So while there still figures to be plenty of fireworks, if you will, down the stretch, the numbers suggest there may be slightly more reason to celebrate on this Independence Day for those six teams currently sitting atop their respective divisions.