Unusual Outliers In Baseball

Guest host David Greene talks with NPR's Mike Pesca about his take on the baseball news of the week.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFE IS A BALL GAME")

SISTER WYNONA CARR: (Singing) Life...

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yes, it is time for sports with NPR's Mike Pesca, but, you know, this week I wanted to hear another song. Let's hit it...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE FAMILY")

SISTER SLEDGE: (Singing) We are family, I've got all my sisters with me. We are family. Get up everybody and sing.

GREENE: Mike, are you there?

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Yeah.

GREENE: Do you recognize this song?

PESCA: Well, a couple of things. Yes - Sister Sledge, right?

GREENE: Sister Sledge, the Pittsburgh Pirates' song of 1979. We'll get to that in a minute. I...

PESCA: I can't believe you did the record scratch to show...

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORD SCRATCHING)

PESCA: There you...

GREENE: There it is, there it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORD SCRATCHING)

GREENE: Ouch. You did a report on these at one point, I think.

PESCA: Yes. The canon of record scratch reportage starts with one of my pieces, yeah.

GREENE: Oh, you love Mike in here. Well, "We Are Family" was the song of the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates, the last time my Pirates won the World Series. They haven't had a winning record in almost two decades. But the Pirates and the Washington Nationals in Washington, D.C. both having great seasons so far. Can these two teams finally make a playoff run?

PESCA: Yeah, I think they can. And let's just say - these aren't just teams that are usually bad. You could make the case that either are the worse teams in North American franchise history because the Pirates have had more consecutive losing seasons than any other team in team sports in North America.

GREENE: Thanks.

PESCA: And the Nationals have never had a winning season, you know, since they came over from Montreal. So, can they do it? Yeah, I think they can. I think Pittsburgh has good pitching, very good relief pitching, which is really important and underrated. Their big problem is they have one hitter, Andrew McCutcheon, who's fantastic. Last year's NL MVP, Ryan Braun, refers to McCutcheon as the frontrunner for this year's MVP. But after him they have problems. And though they hit home runs, they don't get on base a lot, they have really bad plate discipline, meaning, you know, not a lot of walks. Things like that will, I think, hurt them as we go forward. Nationals are a little bit of a different boat in that they have some players who are dealing with injuries, like Ryan Zimmerman, who's usually injured, and Jason Worth. Maybe he'll be getting off the DL in time for the playoffs. But, you know, they have this design on their stud pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, not to pitch him over a certain number of innings - the thought being young pitcher, don't tax him too much, ruin his arm for the future. And that's true, and I would be conservative, you know, in a general sense. But if you're going to make the playoffs, I mean, the reason you want to keep young arms healthy is so that they'll help your team get into the playoffs.

GREENE: Yeah, a lot of Nationals fans are probably thinking the future is now. Pitch the guy.

PESCA: Yeah, do it right. So, don't kill the guy. Don't, you know, have him have two starts with 130 pitches in a row. But I think you maybe have to pitch him over 200, 210 innings, including the playoffs. Hey, they'd like the opportunity to go deep and pitch him a lot, I think.

GREENE: Well, I think fans in both the cities, Pittsburgh and Washington, are probably praying that we didn't just jinx them by talking about their playoff chances. Well, you...

PESCA: Well, don't you think their, like, entire history up to this point would jinx them a little more?

GREENE: Yes, touche. Well, you always throw us a curveball each week. What is it this week?

PESCA: This week it is pretty random. I was watching a little bit of Freddie Garcia. He's a 35-year-old pitcher pressed into service with the Yankees 'cause they've been dealing with some injuries. And, of course, he's a fine pitcher. In fact, it seemed that his career was over and he got healthy again. And he has this one pitch. I was on a blog called the Yankee Analysts and they noticed this pitch. And I'll describe it to you. It leaves his hand - it's about eye-level. By the time the batter tries to swing at it, it's maybe shoulder level. And by the time the batter finishes his swing it's in the dirt.

GREENE: Wow.

PESCA: And the pitch moves unusually, so unusually that physicists have actually studied this pitch. A baseball expert named Mike Fast called in an expert from Australia who's a physicist, knows a lot about cricket. He realized this pitch acts a lot like a specific cricket pitch. He collaborated on a paper with a physicist from the University of Illinois. The answer has a lot to do with the Magnus Effect. I won't bore you with it, partially because I don't really understand it. But I just think it's really cool that his batters are flailing at this pitch. It's also being cited in scientific journals.

GREENE: Incredible. Who knew that baseball had such scientific possibilities. NPR's Mike Pesca, let's end this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORD SCRATCHING)

PESCA: Oh, my God. I can't believe you did that again.

GREENE: We'll talk to you next week.

PESCA: All right. Fine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE FAMILY")

SLEDGE: (Singing) We are family, I got all my sisters with me...

GREENE: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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