Reading The Baseball Tea Leaves
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
It's time to talk sports.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFE IS A BALL GAME")
SISTER WINONA CARR: Life is a ball game being played each day. Life is a ball game...
WERTHEIMER: It's mid-September and for fans of Major League Baseball that means only a couple of weeks are left before playoffs get underway.
But before the games begin, NPR's Mike Pesca has been stacking up the baseball stats and he's here to share his findings. Hi, Mike.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: They're about to topple over just now.
WERTHEIMER: So as you puzzle over the numbers, what patterns emerge?
PESCA: Well, I was really looking for some unusual stats, some outliers, maybe guys who will set records either of the good kind or the bad kind. And I did come across something that I do think explains the phenomenon. There is a relief pitcher. He's the best relief pitcher in baseball. His name is Aroldis Chapman, plays for the Reds.
He's been taking a break. His arm is a little tired, which means for Aroldis Chapman, uniquely in baseball history, his maximum pitch velocity is around 96 miles an hour. Now, there's no such thing as having a decreased pitch velocity - that's 96 - but with Aroldis Chapman, it could reach 105. It is. And the stat that I was looking at is he was on the pace to set the record for the best what's called K per nine - most strikeouts per nine innings. Now, for a month there in July, he was striking out 56 percent of the batters he faced. That is amazing. No one ever strikes out more than half of the batters they faced. Dropped off a little. He was striking out only about a third of the batters. So that's the sort of thing that maybe a manager would look at and say, yes, even though it's one or two miles per hour, it's having a big impact and that's why Aroldis Chapman is taking a little bit of a break to try to get his arm strength back.
WERTHEIMER: Other team stats that caught your eye?
PESCA: A pitcher on the Angels named Ervin Santana has just been giving up home runs at a horrific rate - about 1.9 per nine innings, which means that you go see Ervin Santana pitch and if you're a fan of the home run, you're probably going to get one. And what's important about this is it's not just a bad pitcher. It does sort of explain why the Los Angeles Angels have underperformed.
WERTHEIMER: There are other pitchers on the Angels team that have been doing well. I mean, you can't throw the whole roster out just because of Santana.
PESCA: No, but this is important. Everyone pays attention to their pitcher, Jered Weaver, who might win a Cy Young, and they pay attention to Zack Greinke, who they got in a trade. But the fifth guy or the fourth guy in a rotation pitches just as often as those aces, and that's often a hidden explanation for why a team doesn't do well. I was talking baseball on MORNING EDITION and someone wrote in, when I mentioned some of the disappointing teams, and it was a Detroit Tiger fan, he said sort of funnily, how dare you call the Detroit Tigers a somewhat disappointing team. And they are, and I think it's a sort of reason why the Angels are a little disappointing. The Tigers signed Prince Fielder in the offseason. Prince Fielder has done really well and the Tigers were good last year. You take that set of facts, you say to yourself, oh, the Tigers are going to be good this year. It's the other guys on the roster, guys like Johnny Peralta or Alex Avila, guys you don't think about - when they underperform from last year, that has an impact on the whole team. Baseball's one of those sports where the eighth guy in the line-up is just as important as the slugger who everyone talks about. The fourth guy in the rotation is just as important as the ace of the staff.
WERTHEIMER: So, do you have a stat that explains the inexplicable, like how good the Orioles are?
PESCA: It seems mostly to be fortune, although I do have to say that the Orioles have good relief pitching and an extra innings relief pitching, and using their relief pitching wisely is one of the things that correlates to success. But for all these stats and for all these numbers, sometime fortune comes into play. Orioles fans should be basking in the success of their season and know that so far the gods have been smiling upon them.
WERTHEIMER: Mike, you have a curveball for us?
PESCA: I do. Past couple of weeks I've been reviewing some movies for Backstage magazine and I decided to merge my day job into that. I saw a movie called "Knuckleball!" which is weird 'cause knuckleballs don't really come with exclamations. They come with maybe a dot-dot, an interrobang, which is the question mark exclamation point. And why I recommend this movie is it merges the myth and the history of the knuckleball with some great graphics. So, you see archival footage. You see the knuckleball dancing in air, and it's just sort of nice to see a sports documentary that doesn't just trace a team but traces a pitch. And also there's lots of physics involved. It's a well-done movie.
WERTHEIMER: NPR's Mike Pesca. Mike, thanks.
PESCA: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFE IS A BALL GAME")
CARR: (Singing) You know Jesus is standing at the home plate, he's waiting for you there. Well, you know life is a ball game, but you've got to play it fair.
WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.