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Baseball's Small-Market Teams Vie For Playoff Berths


The Oakland A's, with one of the smallest payrolls in Major League Baseball, faced the big-spending Boston Red Sox on Sunday with hopes of capturing their ninth straight victory. And as you can hear from KGMZ radio in San Francisco, the A's won 6-2.


GREENE: OK. So, a small market team doing pretty well late in the season. And they are not alone. So does that mean all the big spending teams are totally wasting their money this year? I'm talking to you, Philadelphia Phillies.

Sports correspondent Mike Pesca is on the line.

Mike, the Phillies opening day payroll, $174 million, second only to the Yankees. They're now fighting for last place in their division. Are they wasting a ton of cash?

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: When they said the Fighting Phils, that's not what they meant. Well, sure. Yeah. This year, obviously, things didn't go well for the Phillies. Things didn't go well for the Red Sox. So, yeah, the big spending teams still have an advantage.

But, you know, it hasn't really been the case that in baseball the small market teams have no chance. That's been said for a long time. But if you look at, for instance, the teams that make the World Series, there's a greater diversity in baseball than in the other sports. Sports which have, you know, more rigid rules to ensure parity.

So I think the reason why people think small market teams just have no shot - one, the Yankees have so much money and they're always in the post-season, and they're probably going to make the post season this year. And the other thing is there have been a couple of textbook small market teams - the Kansas City Royals and the Pittsburgh Pirates - who have been awful for so long. But even the Pirates, as you know, David - are doing really well this year.

GREENE: They're doing really well. They are my team. But I do want to dig a little deeper into exactly why the small market team can do well. The Oakland A's, $55 million in payroll - second lowest in baseball - they're in the playoff hunt this year. And there was a movie, that I'm sure you saw as a sports nut, "Moneyball" that captured the A's trying to defy the odds back in 2002.


GREENE: So the A's were using some high tech method called Sabermetrics in 2002 to try and get the right mix of players together with not a lot of money. Is that what you generally see when small market teams do well?

PESCA: Well, they do have to play a little smarter. And it's not the A's that epitomize "Moneyball" thinking these days. It's the Tampa Bay Rays, which actually have less money than everyone. And they really are the smartest team in baseball.

And the insights that the A's were using a couple of years ago, kind of everyone's caught up with that, for instance, on base percentage being more important than batting average. But the thing the Rays are doing - and the things and the defensive shifts and how they evaluate players - that really does make a difference.

But I do have to say, in all of this, luck plays a tremendous part. There are instances where, you know, good insights will get you good players. I don't know how many teams - let's take one player on the Tampa Bay Rays. Their closer, Fernando Rodney, he's going to have a record setting season this year in terms of ERA.

Everyone thought that Fernando Rodney was just a washed-up player. And I don't know that the Rays thought he was a very good player, but they said, eh, let's take a chance. He's not worth that much, the kind of guy who pays huge dividends if you get lucky with a lottery ticket.

GREENE: All right. So, I mean, Mike, we're almost to the playoffs. Is one of the big spending teams like the Yankees just going to win or could we see a surprise?

PESCA: Well, when you get to the playoffs all bets are off. And we have seen surprises so far. I mean, just the fact that Baltimore is in a position to get a wildcard spot. If you go by some advanced statistics - Bill James, the baseball genius who was in the center of "Moneyball" invented a formula to predict how many wins a team should have. The Orioles are outperforming that prediction like no other team ever has.

So Baltimore is in the lower half of payroll. So are the A's. So are the Rays. So are the Pittsburgh Pirates. But, you know, the Dodgers might make the playoffs and they're not. And the Yankees probably are going to make the playoffs. And they, of course, have about a $200 million payroll.

GREENE: All right. NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca, a man who's worth every cent. Thanks as always.

PESCA: Thank you.

GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.