Races come into focus on Memorial Day
Good chance division leaders will claim a postseason berth
If you are celebrating your favorite team's first-place record in the backyard over hot dogs and hamburgers today, there's a chance you'll be celebrating a postseason berth at the end of the regular season.Since 1995, about 60 percent of the teams leading the division or Wild Card on Memorial Day qualified for the postseason, revealed an MLB.com analysis. Of 116 teams in first place, or leading the Wild Card race on the last Monday of May, 70 made it to the postseason.
Yes, it's early but Boston (26-18), Detroit (24-18), and Texas (26-17) all lead their respective divisions in the American League. Toronto (27-20) leads the pack for the AL Wild Card.
Is this a preview of October? Can the teams hang on?
"I think everybody will be in it, top to bottom," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "We'll probably beat each other up. It'll probably end up where whoever plays best in September probably wins it. I don't expect anybody to run away. It's kind of a neat division, really. It's pretty well-balanced, a very good division."
In the National League, Philadelphia (24-18) and Los Angeles (30-15) lead their divisions while St. Louis and Milwaukee are tied atop the NL Central and Wild Card races with 26-18 records. Atlanta, Cincinnati, and the Mets trail in the NL Wild Card by 2 1/2 games
Brewers general manager Doug Melvin says it's too early in the season, and it's too tough to predict what is going to happen at the end.
"The thing with surveys is that two weeks from now, things could change," Melvin said. "That type of number is not as big as 90-percent and things change so much from year to year. For me to take it serious, it has to be 80-percent or greater. Right now, it's not far from being a flip of the coin."
The Brewers led the NL Central with a 28-23 record on Memorial Day in 2007 but did not make the postseason. Coincidentally, not one of the four teams leading the pack in the National League that year (Mets, Brewers, Dodgers/Padres and Braves) qualified for the postseason but the Phillies, Cubs, Arizona and Colorado all did.
In the American League in 2007, Cleveland, the Angels and the eventual World Series champion Red Sox all led on Memorial Day. The Yankees were 21-28 on that day, 13 1/2 games back in the AL East, but roared back with a 73-40 record after May 28 to win the AL Wild Card.
When the Brewers won the NL Wild Card last season, the club was 24-27 and six games behind the NL Central-leading Cubs on Memorial Day.
"I'm just more concerned with the play on the field," Melvin said.
The question remains: is there a connection between Memorial Day and the playoffs or it just a coincidence?
On Memorial Day in 1997, the Braves, Houston and San Francisco all led their respective National League divisions with Florida on top of the NL Wild Card standings. All entered the postseason in the same position and the Marlins won the World Series.
A year later, the Yankees led the AL East, the Indians led the AL Central and the Rangers led the AL West. The Red Sox had the top spot in the AL Wild Card. All four teams qualified for the postseason in those spots.
In 1999, the same four teams led on Memorial Day with the Yankees as the Wild Card leader and the Red Sox on top of the AL East. The Yankees would go on to win the division, while Boston took the Wild Card.
Last season, the Rays led the AL East, the White Sox led the AL Central, the Angels led the AL West and the Red Sox led the AL Wild Card race on Memorial Day. They entered the postseason in the same positions.
Stats aside, it's impossible to predict what will happen after Memorial Day. Nobody would have guessed the Giants, trailing the Diamondbacks by eight games in the NL West, would have gone on a 74-40 tear after the holiday to win the division in 2000. Oakland went on a 78-35 run after Memorial Day in 2001 and an 80-33 run the next year to earn postseason spots after trailing in the standings on the holiday.
The Marlins won the World Series in 2003 despite sitting 11 1/2 games behind the Braves in the NL East and 9 1/2 games back in the NL Wild Card chase on Memorial Day.
And in 2005, the Astros were 15 games back in the NL Central and 10 1/2 games back in the NL Wild Card race on Memorial Day, but charged back with a 71-41 record to earn a postseason berth and eventually a spot in the World Series. Two years later, the Yankees trailed the Red Sox by 13 1/2 games in the division on Memorial Day but still qualified for the postseason as the Wild Card.
The message: leading the race on Memorial Day matters. That is, until it doesn't.
In the end, the day's true significance isn't lost on Rangers manager Ron Washington. Memorial Day is special because it honors the men and women who have died serving the nation.
"They gave us an opportunity to do what we're doing for a living," he said. "That's something we should be joyous about. I'm glad to be a part of celebrating people who gave their lives for us and our country."
For the record, the Rangers led the AL West on Memorial Day six times (1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2005, and 2006) but qualified for the postseason three times ('96, '98, and '99).
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.