LYNN NEARY, HOST:
It's time now for sports.
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NEARY: In baseball, the regular season has resumed following last week's All-Star Game, and that means it's sort of the half point in the season, a good time to check in with our friend Mike Pesca from "The Gist." Hi, Mike.
MIKE PESCA: Hello.
NEARY: So David Ortiz has decided to retire at the end of the season, and yet he's having, like, a great season. What's that about?
PESCA: A great season. The Red Sox slugger leads the American League in on-base percentage, leads the American League in slugging percentage and then there's a really important stat called on-base plus slugging. I bet you could do the math and tell me that he leads the league in that too. And I was looking of the greatest final seasons of players, and his would be right up there.
The top three are Shoeless Joe Jackson and Happy Felsch, who were banned from the game - They were part of the 1919 Black Sox - then Roberto Clemente, who, of course, died while he was in his prime, and then Jackie Robinson, who was a great player but feeling the effects of diabetes in 1956. That was his final year. So Ortiz could be one of the best offensive players ever to hang them up if he indeed does hang them up.
NEARY: Oh, is there a question about that?
PESCA: Well, it's just that he's so good. Keep on going. Boston wants him back.
NEARY: (Laughter) Well, elsewhere in baseball, the San Francisco Giants have the most wins. Does that mean they're the best team?
PESCA: I don't think it does, but it doesn't really matter who the best team is, given the weird ways that baseball works. Lots of teams - or a significant number of teams, more than ever, make the playoffs. And then you get a hot pitcher. You get a hot streak, and things can happen. So the Giants are having a great season. The Nationals are having a great season, though they have a couple of players, like Daniel Murphy and Wilson Ramos, who have such good first halves. I don't know if they could repeat it.
Daniel Murphy, as a 31-year-old, is so much better than he's ever been. That almost never happens in baseball. And the other guys like that, who get a lot better in their 30s, many of them are from what we call the steroid era - not saying that with Murphy at all. I'm just saying - will be hard for him to repeat overall. Then you have two other great teams who were really interesting historically, the Cubs and the Indians.
NEARY: Yeah, because they're usually not very good. And they're good this season, right?
PESCA: Yeah, I would say that that states it correctly. The Indians haven't won a World Series since 1948. The Cubs would trade for that because they haven't won since 1908. Now, the Cubs started as such a good team that there was chatter about them being maybe the perfectly constructed team - could challenge for the modern record for most wins. They've done poorly as of late, but I still would say that they're the class of the National League and even - warning, San Francisco Giants - the team to beat.
NEARY: What about the Yankees? They're having a bad season, right?
NEARY: Yes. And, in fact, they could have a losing season. And it would be their first losing season since 1992. It goes to show what having the most money in baseball does. But sometimes what it does is it locks you into contracts with guys who are getting old and getting injured. And that's the situation they find themselves in this year.
NEARY: Hey, got a curveball for us?
PESCA: Yeah. I want to keep in the sport but go off the continent. Let's talk about the Japanese league. There's a player named Shohei Otani, and Shohei Otani is the best pitcher in Japanese baseball. We know that. But he's also one of the best hitters. He's in double digits for home runs.
And it's like the American League, where there's a designated hitter, so the pitcher doesn't have to hit because he's usually not a good hitter. He's so good that his team, the Nippon-Ham Fighters - they don't fight ham, they're sponsored by Nippon Ham - the Nippon-Ham Fighters waive the designated hitter, let Otani hit, and, in fact, he hits leadoff some games.
NEARY: Mike Pesca, host of Slate's "The Gist" podcast. Thanks, Mike.
PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.