In the 20 years of the expanded postseason playoffs, 17 World Series winners have either been division leaders or in position for a Wild Card berth on July 31, or as we now know it, the non-waiver Trade Deadline.
In fact, making up ground to even reach the postseason after July 31 is not a particularly promising proposition, although it is far from impossible. Of the 166 teams that reached the postseason over the past 20 years, including those who qualified via the recently expanded Wild Card berths, 122 (73.49 percent) were in postseason position at the end of July. That leaves an average of slightly more than one in four openings for teams currently on the outside looking in.
World Series odds are more seriously stacked against those teams not in qualifying positions at the Trade Deadline. Still, the three exceptions were glorious upset-makers, making improbable dreams into reality. The 2003 Florida Marlins went 32-22 after July 31, which didn't appear to be a world-beating performance but was good enough to take the National League Wild Card spot, because the Phillies, who held that spot at the end of July, went 26-29.
The Marlins went on to come back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Cubs in the NL Championship Series, and then defeated the Yankees in six games in the World Series.
The most storied postseason comeback was accomplished by the 2004 Boston Red Sox, who were down 3-0 in the American League Championship Series, but then beat the Yanks four straight. But the Red Sox had already been coming back. They qualified for the postseason as a Wild Card, but to do it, they went 42-18, the best record in baseball over the last two months of the season.
Maybe someone should have seen them coming. They encored from being the first team to come back from a 3-0 deficit in the postseason to sweep the World Series from the Cardinals. That St. Louis club had won 105 games in the regular season, so Boston's first World Series victory in 86 years was hard-earned on every postseason level.
Ironically or not, the third team to win a World Series after not being in qualifying position at the end of July was the Cards, in 2011. They came from way back to pass the Braves for the NL Wild Card spot, then beat Philadelphia and Milwaukee in the postseason, and won the championship with another comeback in a seven-game thriller against Texas.
The 2002 Angels were on the edge of this category. They were tied with Boston for the Wild Card lead as July ended. The Angels won the Wild Card, and went on to win the World Series over another Wild Card team, the Giants.
The limited turnover in postseason qualifiers after July obviously fluctuates from year to year, but it is remarkably consistent between leagues. From 1995 through 2014, 62 of 83 AL teams that were in postseason qualifying positions at the end of July went on to reach the playoffs. In the NL, the corresponding number was 60 of 83 teams.
The single most volatile example of late-season change was the NL in 2007. Only one of four teams in position to reach the postseason on July 31 actually made it.
The Mets led the NL East. They were overtaken by the Phils. The Brewers led in the Central. They finished behind the Cubs. The Diamondbacks in the West were the only team to hold onto the division lead.
But in the Wild Card race, the Dodgers were overcome by the Rockies, who had a big finish (36-22 after July). Colorado stayed on a roll through the postseason, sweeping the Phillies and the D-backs, but the Rockies were swept themselves in the World Series by the Red Sox.
The bottom line? Any team outside the postseason qualifying position at the Trade Deadline faces considerable odds. But as the Deadline draws nearer and the deals are pondered more intensely, there is always hope. And as these exceptional cases illustrate, there is always the considerable difference between the improbable and the impossible.