There Might Not Be Crying In Baseball, But There Is Aging

Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin talks to NPR's Mike Pesca about aging pitchers and the skills that keep them in the game.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTS THEME MUSIC)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Baseball - it's back. The baseball season brings hope, promise but also for some players a cruel reality. As time marches on, it tramples some aging players, including the one-great. NPR's Mike Pesca has been looking at pitchers and trying to figure out why some senior hurlers thrive and others wilt. Mike Pesca joins us from New York. Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Senior hurlers. I like it.

MARTIN: Senior hurlers. Good one, right? OK. So, you've been...

PESCA: Hello, Senor Hurler.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So, you've been looking, I understand, at Roy Halladay, 35-year-old pitcher for the Phillies. First of all, 35 years old, seriously? This is a senior hurler?

PESCA: Oh, yeah. If you can run for president, you should think about retiring in baseball. I've been looking at him 'cause he's the best. I think from 2002 to 2012 he was the best pitcher in the baseball - won a couple Cy Young Awards, has the most wins, which isn't necessarily the greatest statistic, but in his case it is. And starting into the last year, and certainly this year, he just lost it. He has had - he's just getting hit really hard and seems not like the pitcher he once was, doesn't even seem like a capable Major League pitcher anymore.

MARTIN: So, how come? Just, like, a confidence issue or what?

PESCA: Well, that's the thing - and I've been trying to work out a theory of the case, right? Why is it that some pitchers - there are old pitchers. Jamie Moyer is very old. Andy Pettitte - 40-year-old guy who pitches for the Yankees, still very good. But why when Roy Halladay, a guy who was great, turns 35 does it all fall apart? So, I know that I'm not - in working out a theory of the case, I wanted to call some of the smartest people. I called Keith Law, who's a former Major League scout and has worked in front offices and now works for ESPN, has a really good podcast called Behind the Dish on ESPN. You know, and I asked him what is it about Halladay's pitching, and he's lost some miles per hour. And that's really important. It's not just that you lose a couple of miles per hour on your fastball. At a certain threshold, if you're not throwing, like, 91 miles per hour, you can't even throw an efficient fastball. That's what Keith said to me.

MARTIN: OK. So, there are pitchers, I assume, who are older than Roy Halladay. You mention Andy Pettitte as one. But there are some good old pitchers, right, and don't pitch that fast. What's the difference?

PESCA: OK. So, first of all, what Law was saying was that if he saw a pitcher who just had the stuff coming out of his hand that Roy Halladay now has - now, we know Roy Halladay was great and he won Cy Youngs. But if you put blinders on and just saw that pitch, he would grade a pitcher of that ability as a fringe major leaguer. So, bottom line, a guy like Halladay just doesn't have the stuff right now, and then you combine that with the confidence. So, it's not just confidence but, you know, Law is positing that perhaps Roy Halladay's lack of confidence, which shows up in where he's trying to pitch and how aggressive he's being, Roy Halladay's confidence might actually be a consequence of his diminution in skills. And then I did bring up Andy Pettitte, who doesn't have a fast ball that that's different from Roy Halladay. And Keith Law pointed out a key difference. And I think we have a clip of that.

KEITH LAW: Pettitte's pitched like this for forever, where Halladay, if you're kind, you're saying he's in a transition period now, where he's got to figure out how to do this differently. Whereas Pettitte never had to go through the transition in his late 30s 'cause he went through it 10 years earlier.

MARTIN: Transition period, I like that.

PESCA: Yeah, and that's because, you know, Law worked with Halladay. Everyone respects Halladay. They don't want to be over for Halladay. Law says he fears that it is. But there are a couple of reasons why an older pitcher, such as being - it was apparent to Andy Pettitte when he was in his 20s he's not just going to be able to rear back and blow guys away. So, he developed pitches, like the cutter, that you could keep with you into your late 30s. Roy Halladay, maybe simply doesn't have that repertoire.

MARTIN: Very briefly: a curveball?

PESCA: Yes. So, we saw that Tiger Woods was involved in some drop situation. He was penalized two strokes. The history of golf is replete with these sort of penalties. But the one thing I was looking at - if you look at the history of guys who have had penalties or who have been disqualified - you know, in 1940, a guy name Porky Oliver teed off too soon and so he wasn't allowed to come in third in the U.S. Open. I just looked at the money involved. Third place for the U.S. Open in 1940: $700. A two-stroke penalty - the difference between first and third in this year's Masters - over a million dollars.

MARTIN: Whoa. It's a big difference.

PESCA: That's a thing.

MARTIN: That's a thing. NPR's Mike Pesca. Thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome.

MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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