NPR

Surprise Teams Round Bases To MLB Playoffs

The Oakland A's are headed to the playoffs for the first time in six years, and Washington's Nationals brought the pennant home for the first time since the Senators did it back in 1933. NPR's Mike Pesca talks about the surprises, the end of the baseball season and the outlook for the playoffs.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Major League Baseball's regular season wraps up tomorrow as baseball fans are well aware. For the first time in six years, the Oakland A's will live to play on in the postseason. The Washington Nationals clinched their division for the first time since the club moved south from Canada. The New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles are going down to the wire fighting to win the American League East. All that and there's this new one-game wildcard playoff system to think about, and that's going to make things very exciting.

So many reasons to envy fans whose teams are actually going on, and then there's my team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who set a new record for futility - 20 losing seasons in a row maybe and counting. We are not going to talk about that with NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca, but he will be here in a second to talk about baseball from every other angle he wants to. What surprised you about this baseball season? 800-989-8255 is our number. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website.

If that's best for you, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. NPR correspondent Mike Pesca joins us from our bureau in New York. Mike, welcome to the program.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Thank you. And, you know, when I'm not a dispassionate observer of this grand old game, I do pull for the Mets, and I am in largely your boat, David, although I didn't have the brief surge of - actually, the Mets were pretty good, but they collapsed a lot earlier than the Pirates, so.

GREENE: You knew you were done early in the season. You didn't have to go through this emotional rollercoaster that...

PESCA: We were OK. We were OK - I say we. The Mets were OK at the All-Star break, but, you know, at least they have this knuckleball pitcher, R.A. Dickey, who is probably slightly the favorite for the Cy Young. He's pitching tonight.

GREENE: Yeah.

PESCA: And that's one great thing about baseball - terrible team but one good player, you're still tuned in to watch.

GREENE: Is that the mark of a good sports fan when we say we to describe your team?

PESCA: No. That's the mark of a bad journalist, actually.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Well, can we talk about the Oakland A's?

PESCA: Let's.

GREENE: They're still - I mean, they're still chasing the Texas Rangers maybe for to win the A.L. West.

PESCA: Yeah.

GREENE: And (unintelligible) I mean this might not just be a wildcard for them. This could be a division title. Did anyone expect this from the A's this year?

PESCA: No. This is crazy. This is the, I think, the biggest story of the season. The Orioles give them a close run for their money, especially because the Orioles are in the very tough division of the East. But, you know, Oakland has been doing it with spare parts and, you know, Billy Beane savvy. They've even made a movie about it - "Moneyball." So here's a guy who know he's going to get outspent and is getting more outspent these days than he did when the events in the book "Moneyball" took place, when he knew that - I can't quite say the whole quote - but here's the Yankees, here's a pile of excrement, and here's us, you know? Yes.

GREENE: Oh, my.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Well, you know what...

PESCA: So the A's have this great pitching staff. There are so many of them. They have a player, a Cuban defector named Cespedes, Yoenis Cespedes, who - here's a good stat: Of all the teams in the American League, the player who has the highest winning percentage in games he plays in is Yoenis Cespedes.

GREENE: Wow.

PESCA: So I think that he's not going to win the MVP, but he couldn't be more valuable to that team.

GREENE: Well, let's take a call from California right off the bat. The calls are already lighting up. You know what happens when you talk baseball. Vincent from Fresno, California, you're on TALK OF THE NATION. Welcome.

VINCENT: Hi. I'm an A's fan from Fresno, and first off, I'd like to say I think that the A's really did fantastic this season, and I think you really have to attribute that to the management of Bob Melvin and to how well Billy Beane managed his team, especially with his budget. But my question really is, is it a long-term sustainable team because you have so many rookies, you have so many very young players that aren't on long-term contracts?

GREENE: Well, we'll post that question to Mike Pesca. Vincent, thanks for the call.

PESCA: Yeah. So here's how Billy Beane does it. You know, one of the best teams in the National League, one of their best pitchers is Gio Gonzalez. And Gio Gonzalez was a young guy on the A's, and Billy Beane traded him. He didn't trade him in the year his contract was up. He didn't even use Gio Gonzalez for the length of the term that he could have. He got maximum value, traded his really great young players and got a lot of good players in return.

So there are a lot of teams that if they find out they're not in contention, they'll trade a player who might be of value. The A's with the lowest - possibly the second lowest - I mean, they're within a few thousand dollars of the Padres for having the lowest payroll in baseball. They take this to the extreme. And if there's anyone with any value, they'll trade that guy for prospects.

You know, everyone in Oakland is talking about a move to a new stadium. And without that, can they ever have the economics to sustain this long term? Or maybe Billy Beane can work his magic in a series of trades of promising, young players over the short term and just getting better players in.

GREENE: The Washington Nationals might surprise everybody. I mean, first winning season since moving to the nation's capital, very close to finishing with the best record in the league. But they have decided to take their best pitcher out of the lineup for the playoffs and hold on to make sure he's healthy in the long term. How far can they go?

PESCA: Well, they would probably do better - I mean, the statistics and, you know, logic would say that within a Stephen Strasburg in the rotation for the playoffs, they'd probably do better. But management has decided his health is more important. It's not that he was injured, but he is coming off Tommy John surgery, so sit him down, putting an innings limit on him. And let's see how they could do in the playoffs.

You know, the players are a big crapshoot, and that is the virtue and also the detriment of Major League Baseball because when you play 162 games - and the cream really rises over that amount of time. And yet, the playoffs, it's all compressed, especially this year with the one-game playoff. I mean, this is a coin toss where maybe you can wait one end of the coin slightly more than another. Fans of the teams don't want to hear that, but a one-game series in baseball is really, you know, not much of a series at all.

So, yeah, the Nationals can do good. They could do well, I should say. I think that they're trying to establish themselves as not a team that will win it this year, though stranger things have happened. But a team that will contend for, you know, a decade to come.

GREENE: All right. Let's take one more call. Dallas from Grand Rapids, Michigan, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

DALLAS: Hey, how it's going?

GREENE: Good. How are you doing?

DALLAS: Excellent. So, obviously, being from Michigan we're pretty stoked yesterday to watch the Tigers pull through. And I just don't think that we're getting nearly enough love nationally. I think that we're kind of being written off even though Verlander, probably as the starting pitcher has been phenomenal, Cabrera is probably the MVP. I mean, really, our full starting rotation - and I know that it was rough around, you know, the All-Star break, but we've just been killing it, and I think that we're going to just absolutely destroy everybody.

GREENE: Well, your record is not as good as the other division winners, though, as I understand it. But you think that - you think you have what it takes to go on?

DALLAS: Absolutely. I'm talking like if you look at the actual stats, our record should be a hell of a lot better than it is right now. (Unintelligible), but now the people are looking healthy. I think we should be pretty solid.

GREENE: All right. Thanks for the call, Dallas.

PESCA: Well, that's why - but that's why you didn't get the love because they had underachieved for all this time. They were a division winner last year. They went out. They signed Prince Fielder, best - one of the best - maybe him and Pujols are the best free agent first basemen. So they added offense, and then they were bad. They were bad for much of the season. So, of course, they're not going to get talked about. When they caught fire and became good towards the end of the season, now, they're competing with a lot of other stories, you know, stories like the teams we were talking about. So they get lost a little bit in the conversation. It doesn't matter. The conversation has no effect on Justin Verlander's fastball as I understand it.

GREENE: Mike, we're going to go to Drew(ph) in Dayton, Ohio. Drew, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

DREW: Hi, David. I just have a question. I'm a big Cincinnati Reds fan. And from what your previous caller, it seemed like they, even though having one of the top records in the league, aren't quite getting quite the respect that other teams have gotten in the past. So how can small-market teams like the Cincinnati Reds be able to compete against these huge-market teams, like the Yankees and teams like that who really end up with a much better record? Yet, you turn on ESPN and things like that, and it's all about those big-market teams. And the Cincinnati Reds that have done so well all year long aren't quite getting the airplay. So how does that affected the game of baseball with the small-market teams doing such a fantastic job?

GREENE: Yeah, it's a good question. Mike Pesca, talk about the small-market teams. Are they getting the love that they deserve? And is there a feeling that in the playoffs the big-money teams will prevail in the end and the small-market teams, you know, won't actually have the tools to do well when push really comes to shove? Or could one of this small-market teams win the World Series?

PESCA: No. So the big-market teams, it just - it must be stated. ESPN give them attention because they are from big markets, markets - television markets, meaning...

GREENE: It's all about money.

PESCA: Sure. If you put, you know, ESPN pays so much attention to the Yankees, and they're always accused of an East Coast bias because they're near Hartford, but it's just because they know that more people will tune in to see the teams that have the big fan bases. If you look at the history of the playoffs, yes, there is a correlation between the amount of money you spend on a team and wins, a rough correlation, and a correlation that's becoming less strict or less correlative in the last few years. And then when it comes to the playoffs, you do see this crapshoot, this roulette wheel. And so the amount of payroll or even, I'm going to say, the overall quality of a team is not necessarily as important as it is during the 162-game season. Luck often prevails, so do a couple of other things: having one or two dominant starters who could pitch fastballs, having a really good closer.

So I don't know if the Reds - yes, they're a small market. Cincinnati actually only has around 300,000 people. If you look at the metropolitan statistical area, Cincinnati is not a big town. But they've got some of the - they've got a great closer. They've got great starting pitching. And the batting, that's a little more variable. If they get hot at the right time, of course, they can win the World Series.

GREENE: Let's talk about luck or at least what seems like luck. The Baltimore Orioles this season have had all the success in extra innings. They've won 16 straight extra inning games. And as I understand it, it's the most for one team in a season since the Braves won 17 in 1999. Here's the call from a few of those games.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NEWS)

JIM THORNE: Line drive back field, that ball is a perfect one. The Orioles pull it out in 14 and forwarded them 4.5 to first place. (Unintelligible) in the air to right field, back at the wall, and it comes off the wall. The Orioles win it 5-4. A new franchise record, nine consecutive extra inning wins. (Unintelligible) game in a two-run shot. In 13 the Orioles win it.

GREENE: That's Orioles' announcer, Jim Thorne, from Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, really sounding like a broken record in many ways.

PESCA: Yeah. It's so boring when they win these exciting games (unintelligible).

GREENE: Yeah, they must hate it in Baltimore.

PESCA: Yeah.

GREENE: What is Orioles manager Buck Showalter done with this lineup to get all these last-second wins?

PESCA: Well, obviously, he's been mediocre during the first nine innings.

(LAUGHTER)

PESCA: So...

GREENE: One way to put it.

PESCA: Yes. So the theory is that, is it just luck or is there some special magic in Baltimore? I will say this, they have a great bullpen, and that's - those are the pitchers that are pitching in extra innings. So they do have an advantage. But if you look at Buck Showalter's career, he's managed in a lot of other stops: the Yankees, Diamondbacks, Rangers. Not a good manager in extra innings. Most managers aren't, and almost everyone is about .500 in extra innings over a long length of a career because there's not seen as any way to get better in extra innings. But if anyone has done it, maybe the Orioles have done it. Not only do they have good relief pitchers, they're using their relief pitchers in the right circumstances. They are using them in what's called high-leverage circumstances. So that's good.

You know, a lot of teams just don't manage that smart, I have to say. You get really smart managers. I put Buck Showalter in that category. I certainly put Joe Maddon who manages the Rays in that category. They're not going to make the playoffs, but Joe Maddon's intelligence has certainly won them a few extra games. But there are a lot of managers who just kind of go by the book and will only put their closer in, their best relief pitcher in when - in the ninth inning, when they have a lead by one to three runs. It's probably not the best way to do it.

You add it all up I would say this, and I have said this on NPR and Orioles fans don't like that I say it, and it's not just me. Everyone is talking about luck and saying that the amount of wins - the number of wins that you would expect for the Orioles given what they've put together is much higher than the - sorry - the expected number of wins is lower than the number they actually have. So if you're an Orioles fan, think of it like, good, it's up - it's us against the world. It's the stat guys against what we're seeing every day. And wouldn't you want an exciting team that's pulling it out in overtime again and again and again? I think this is the best, most exciting team in baseball to be a fan of, especially because it's coming on the heels of about a 20-year drought.

GREENE: We're talking sports with NPR's Mike Pesca. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, Mike, let's - before I let you go, get to my Pittsburgh Pirates. Twenty years losing seasons straight, the most of any North American professional sports franchise, do I, do other Pirates fans have anything to look forward to?

PESCA: I don't know. How's your breaking ball, David?

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Not funny.

PESCA: I was reading a Sports Illustrated article which tried to make the case that they're getting better. And one of the arguments was this year's collapse occurred at a later point in the season than last year's collapse. That, I mean...

GREENE: That's the positive here?

PESCA: That's what you're grasping onto. The Pirates have a lot of good, young talents. That is true. They have guys who are coming into their own and who will only get better. They made a number of good signings in terms of pitching like - actually, it was a trade for A.J. Burnett. We'll see what the off-season has to offer. I think that except for the fact that they've lost 20 in a row, there's no reason to think they won't be a winning team next year.

GREENE: Well, you have given us all a reason to hope. Mike Pesca, thank you for talking sports and baseball with us and enjoy the playoffs.

PESCA: My pleasure. I shall.

GREENE: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular