The Boston Red Sox today find themselves in a very good and ultimately very fortunate position, leading the American League East by eight games on May 14. Based on my quick research, only six other teams in the history of Major League Baseball have ever led by 7.5 games or more after the finish of May 13’s schedule of games.
It’s a rare feat. It never happened before 1955, and that was the only year before divisional play that it occurred. Early in the game’s history, the season started later, so it turned out to be impossible to lead by so many games in the middle of May. In fact, in the 1880s, teams in the National League had often only played eight games by May 13.
With the proliferation of more divisions — thus providing fewer teams for a dominant team to hold off during the regular season — the event has occurred more often, roughly once a decade. That’s still pretty rare. Usually, enough teams start off hot to make it difficult to take any kind of substantial lead before June, as is pretty clear from the historical record.
Here’s how those teams fared the rest of their respective seasons.
- 1955 — Brooklyn Dodgers, 8 games ahead of the New York Giants. The Dodgers started 1955 with an obscene 23-4 record. They cooled off the rest of the way, going "just" 75-51, ultimately winning the NL pennant by 13.5 games over the Milwaukee Braves. They then defeated the Yankees in the World Series.
- 1971 — San Francisco Giants, 8 games ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The 1971 Giants started 25-9 while the Dodgers stumbled to a 17-17 record, but the Giants barely played .500 ball the rest of the season (65-63), while the Dodgers rolled to a 72-56 record. Still, that wasn’t enough, as San Francisco won three of its final four games to hold off LA by a game. They promptly lost to the Pirates in the NLCS.
- 1977 — Los Angeles Dodgers, 10.5 games ahead of the Cincinnati Reds. The Dodgers carried a 24-7 record into May 14, while the Reds were in second, at an abominable 13-17. The clubs played nearly even the rest of the way, with Cincinnati actually gaining half a game. But that was it. The Dodgers took the NL West by 10 games, beat the Phillies for the NL pennant, then lost to the Yankees in the World Series.
- 1984 — Detroit Tigers, 7.5 games ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays. The Tigers mauled the AL East with a 26-5 record in their first 31 games, and still won 78 more to easily take the division by 15. Toronto started decently, with a 19-13 record, and didn’t end up with a bad season, but no one was catching that world champion Tiger team.
- 1990 — Cincinnati Reds, 7.5 games ahead of the San Diego Padres. The eventual world champions took advantage of their own hot start (21-7) and everyone else’s mediocre ones (the Pads led the pack at 15-16) to win the NL West by six games over the Dodgers. The Reds were just six games over .500 the rest of the way — 5.5 games worse than the Giants — but it was enough.
- 2001 — Seattle Mariners, 11 games ahead of the Anaheim Angels. The remarkable 116-win Mariner team started off 28-9 while the rest of the West limped to a sub-.500 record. Take away that hot start, and the Mariners still nearly won 90 games, going 88-37 the rest of the way. Amazingly, the Oakland Athletics nearly matched them, finishing one game off that pace. Unfortunately for the A’s, they were 13 games back on May 13. Unfortunately for the M’s, they couldn’t even make it to ALCS Game 6 against the Yankees.
- 2007 — Boston Red Sox, 8 games ahead of the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles. The Red Sox have started 25-11, the worst record of the seven teams to mount such a large lead this early (more a function of the number of games played at this point). The Yankees and Orioles are each two games below .500.
It would certainly be historic for the Sox not to win the division — no one’s ever been this far ahead at this point in the season and failed to finish first. That said, the Red Sox seem to have a penchant for historic collapses, and if any team could be the first to rally from so far back, I’d put my money on the Yankees, particularly once their lineup clicks, their starters get healthy and Roger Clemens returns.
Considering how close the Giants came to blowing it, count me among those who will continue to check the standings every day, even if the history makes me a little more optimistic.