Baseball Breakdown: What's Left In MLB

Only 12 days left of Major League Baseball. Host Scott Simon looks at the numbers with baseball historian Bill James.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Only 12 days left of the regular Major League baseball season - four wild card teams, magic numbers, wins, losses, games behind. Know what we need? Someone to look at all those numbers, tell us what they really mean. You know, a Bill James type. Hey, what about Bill James? The baseball writer, historian and statistician who transformed the game with his sabermetrics joins us from his home in Lawrence, Kansas.

Mr. James, so nice to have you with us. Thanks so much.

BILL JAMES: Thanks for having me on, Scott.

SIMON: So what do you see at this point in the season that those of us who are mere mortal fans might not?

JAMES: That's asking quite a bit. But I guess we're all looking forward to seeing how the new wild card experiment works out. Whether it works out as it was dreamed of working out, where more teams have a chance to win, or works out as a nightmare where the Orioles go into the last two games of the season desperately trying to lose so that they get a better matchup in postseason play.

SIMON: Mr. James, what's your assessment of how expanding the number of wild card slots might work out?

JAMES: My first guess is that it will do what it was designed to do, which is make it a lot more difficult for the wild card to actually win the whole thing. We've had an unusual number of wild card teams that've won the World Series in the last seven or eight years. And I think that's going to be a lot more difficult going forward because the wild card teams face a one-game elimination in which they will either have to use their best pitcher or be in a position where they can't use their best pitcher. One or the other.

Not that many wild card teams probably in the next 10 years are going to be able to succeed in postseason play. I think that's a good thing to put us back in a position where winning your division means something rather than just making the playoffs.

SIMON: Was it also done to let smaller market teams have a bigger chance of making it to the playoffs?

JAMES: I would - well, in the next few years that's going to happen. The economics of the game are changing and people haven't really focused on the - the economics of the game are changing so that the big imbalance in the payrolls that we have seen in the past 10 years isn't going to be there five years from now. And that's a good thing.

SIMON: Why is the payroll imbalance going to disappear? I didn't know that. Are the Yankees just going to stop spending money?

JAMES: Well, for several reasons. In the details of how the money is split from the new TV contracts there are penalties for exceeding certain payroll levels that are more meaningful than the caps we've had in the past. And also the new streams of revenue are split more equitably. And both of those things will reduce the economic disparity.

SIMON: You still are of counsel to the Boston Red Sox, I gather, right?

JAMES: You make it sound like I'm a lawyer, which I'm not. But I still am on consult with the Boston Red Sox. Yes.

SIMON: Well, I think millions of Red Sox fans across the country would like to ask what the hay happened.

JAMES: Yeah, the Red Sox have not had the best season.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Sorry. I'm laughing with them not at them. Yes. OK.

JAMES: We've discovered that when you combine a large number of injuries with a large number of bad decisions, you don't get a very good outcome. We made a large number of mistakes in how we constructed the team, spent quite a bit of money unwisely. And it's been a difficult year.

SIMON: Mr. James, can I get you to tell us what two or three teams you're looking for to go deep, deep, deep into the playoffs?

JAMES: Well, the Rangers haven't won it yet. But the Rangers have been one of the best organizations in baseball for two or three years. I think the Washington Nationals are an extremely solid team. No matter what pitcher's on the mound, he's pretty good. No matter what reliever comes out of the bullpen, he's pretty good. No matter what part of the lineup you're in, there's some danger they're going to score a run.

They haven't been in postseason play before. And we don't know whether that means anything or not, but just in terms of how the team stacks up, they look very good.

SIMON: So it sounds like if you were going to pick one team to make it to the Series, it might be the Nats.

JAMES: It might be the Nats. But, you know, the Cincinnati Reds are an extremely good team, too. Joey Votto is perhaps the better hitter in baseball. He leads the National League in on-base percentages every year. And Johnny Cueto's a wonderful pitcher. The Giants play at a world-leader level for two weeks and then they play like not the same team for the next two weeks. And if they're on a good two weeks, they could win it again.

SIMON: Baseball writer, historian Bill James.

Mr. James, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JAMES: Thanks for having me on, Scott.

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