June 1 a valuable marker for division leaders

June 1 a valuable marker for division leaders

June 1 a valuable marker for division leaders
The Major League Baseball season is one full of mile markers.

The All-Star break, the Trade Deadline and Labor Day weekend all offer time to step back and to analyze. All carry weight in terms of predicting possible playoff matchups and division winners.

Then there's June 1, which obviously takes on less significance than the others because, well, it comes earlier in the season.

That doesn't make it irrelevant, however. Division races often seem like an incoherent mess for the season's first two months. But when June hits, the front-runners have established themselves, and those trailing learn who they'll be chasing.

In the past 10 years, 39 of the 60 division winners were in first place on June 1. By that math, four of the six current leaders should win their respective divisions.

In that same time frame, only six teams that weren't in first or second place on June 1 managed to pass two teams to claim the division crown, and the 2005 Yankees were the only club to come back from a fourth-place standing on June 1.

That means long odds for the fifth-place Red Sox and Phillies. Three reigning division champs in third place -- the Yankees (1 1/2 back), Tigers (five back) and D-backs (nine back) -- are all facing uphill climbs, too.

In the National League West, the Dodgers have established themselves as the team to catch, with a five-game lead over the Giants that is the largest of any division leader in the NL.

"You can go month to month, but more than anything, we're just going to try to play," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "I look at it as it's a grind-it-out [approach], get ready to play every day. Somehow, every day get ready to play, because there's going to be another one coming."

The managers and the players may look at the season as a whole, preferring not to use the mile markers. But there are plenty of statistics in favor of the June 1 division leaders.

In the past four seasons, only the 2010 Giants overcame a third-place standing at the onset of June to win their division. Of course, they went on to win the World Series.

The numbers seem to back the theory that once June 1 hits, the division races have been firmly established. The leaders have staked a claim and the chasers have found their role.

That's not to say the playoff teams are decided by June 1. Far from it.

In 2008, the Mets held a 4 1/2-game lead in the East and an 8 1/2-game edge over the eventual division-champion Phillies. That was the largest June 1 deficit overcome since the "Moneyball" A's came back from nine games behind the Mariners to win the American League West in 2002.

If anything, the size of the lead doesn't seem to matter on June 1 -- only who is on top. Fourteen teams have carried a lead of four games or more into June 1 in the past 10 years, and only seven of them went on to win the division.

This year, the Dodgers and Rangers are the only teams with division leads that large. Based on recent history, it's likely one of the two will emerge from the season without a division crown.

The Dodgers are coming off being swept by Milwaukee this week, and the Rangers are going to have to deal with the surging Angels, who seem to have found their form, despite trailing by 5 1/2 games.

"They're not going to go away," Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton said of the Angels. "They've been a leader in the division for a long time. They've got good talent."

There's also the Wild Cards to help those teams who lose their June 1 division leads. In each of the past two seasons, a division leader at the beginning of June has lost the lead by season's end but went on to win the Wild Card.

Last season, the Cardinals were in front in the NL Central on June 1, lost the lead to Milwaukee and won the World Series.

This season, the addition of an extra Wild Card in each league makes it even more likely that a club like the Angels, Tigers or D-backs could sneak into the playoffs and make noise, despite what appears to be an uphill climb for the division title.

That extra Wild Cards likely makes the June mile marker a little tougher in terms of projecting this year's playoff teams. However, the first day of June offers the first real glimpse into who the front-runners are and who will be playing catch-up.

It is by no means definitive, but it's hard to deny the standings are finally taking form.

AJ Cassavell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.