Baseball's Division Playoffs Down To Single Games

Robert Siegel talks with Mike Pesca about Major League Baseball's postseason.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It has been as much as any baseball fan could ask for. The divisional playoffs, all four series, have come down to a final game. The Yankees eked out a win against the Baltimore Orioles this evening. The Washington Nationals will soon take on last year's world champs, the St. Louis Cardinals. The Yankees will play the Tigers and we'll know soon who will move on to face San Francisco.

This year's post-season play has been full of surprises. Every series has gone the distance, five games, with some dramatic extra-inning wins. As NPR's sports correspondent, Mike Pesca says, Major League Baseball is thrilled.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Yes, maybe not the schoolteachers of Baltimore, where bleary-eyed boys and girls who stayed up late watching a four-and-a-half hour affair last night. But yeah, all these games, so there's a maximum of 20 games played in this round, and they're playing 20 games. What are the odds of that, you ask, or I assume you're going to ask, or I'll put it in your mouth?

Colin Wires(ph) of Baseball Prospectus calculated it as being a 2.56 percent chance. But I calculated it as a 1.9 percent chance, and I asked Colin about my calculation. He said it was a good calculation. So we can agree it's around a two percent chance that something like this would happen.

SIEGEL: Two big surprise teams this far in the post-season, the Nationals and the Orioles. Last year, neither team finished with a winning record. The Orioles were last in their division last year. One thing that strikes me is each team has a terrific manager - Buck Showalter in Baltimore and Davey Johnson in Washington.

PESCA: Yeah, and I would also put the A's as a surprise team, though they've been eliminated.

SIEGEL: Now they're eliminated, yeah.

PESCA: Right, (unintelligible). So here's the thing. I'm always fascinated by managers. I subscribe to the theory that a lot of people who have studied baseball subscribe to that managers actually don't make that huge a difference. Bobby Cox(ph) was - there was once a study that says Bobby Cox, a great manager, won his team maybe three or four extra games a year beyond what an average manager would do.

SIEGEL: That was with the Atlanta Braves.

PESCA: Yeah, and this is why managers, if you don't believe me, how much are managers paid? They're paid about the same as a good middle reliever, who will maybe win a team three or four games a year. But the interesting thing about it is I think that managers aren't - when managers do something notable, that's not where their real value is.

So when they put on a hit and run or decide to bunt, everyone looks and discusses if that was the right strategy. They can't affect a game that much doing that. But I do think their comportment over a season, how much confidence they instill in the players, the tone they set, really does matter.

And Davey Johnson is great at that. He's long in the tooth, but he had tons of experience. Buck Showalter certainly gets his guys playing better for him, and in that way those two guys are very important to their teams.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about the San Francisco Giants. They've done something to stay alive in this post-season that no team has ever done before.

PESCA: Yes, it's that they believed, and they dug deep, and they never say die, no way.

(LAUGHTER)

PESCA: Every team that's come back...

SIEGEL: They also lost at home and then won on the road.

PESCA: Yes, so here's the thing that the Giants did, and they were only able to do it because of how this post-season is structured. They went down two games to none in their series, but they came back to win three in a row. That has happened before. It's happened seven out of the 65 times that teams have been down two and 0. But the Giants did it all on the road.

And this post-season started, this division series started with one team hosting two games, and then the other team would host three in a row, and so the Giants are the only one who had the chance and the only one who converted.

SIEGEL: You're so full of metrics today, Mike. Given that this is the...

PESCA: I'm like Ryan and Biden in the debate, right?

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Given that this is the first year where they've had two wild card teams in each league, and they had a one-game playoff, I assume that the format is - it's considered a great success?

PESCA: Well, ratings for the first couple games, those wild card games, were pretty good. They were better than they were last year, but, you know, they didn't beat, what, the normal wrestling that TBS puts on.

(LAUGHTER)

PESCA: But I will say that these games have been very exciting. The ratings are getting and better. Can't compare baseball to football in terms of ratings, but MLB has to be really pleased.

SIEGEL: NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca. Thank you, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome.

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