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MLB Season Turns Predictions Upside Down

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Time now for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: We are midway through July, and that means it's the halfway point in the regular baseball season. Mike Pesca is here to tell us that we are living in confusing times. Things we took to be fundamental truths in this world - you know, things like the Houston Astros being one of the worst teams in the league - these things are not as they were. Baseball has turned us and our expectations completely upside down, so I hear. Mike Pesca of Slate's The Gist podcast is on the line. Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hey. I always heard the cliche about death and taxes. But you're right. The Astros being terrible should be in there. They've lost a hundred games for three seasons in a row. And last year, they lost 90-something. But this year, they're good. They're really good. They had a recent losing streak, but they're one of the best teams in baseball.

MARTIN: Why? What happened?

PESCA: You know, I think they have great pitching. Dallas Keuchel, that guy could win the Cy Young. But their hitting is very good in an interesting way. They have a couple hitters who strike out at tremendous rates, Chris Carter and Colby Rasmus. And in the new way of thinking about baseball, strikeouts are not nearly as shameful as they once were. So the fact that these guys can hit with power, that's why they're in the lineup. So you'd think, OK, so the Astros are a team that don't care about strikeouts - nuh-uh. They have another guy, Jose Altuve, who's all of 5-foot-6 - I really think he's 5-foot-5 - who strikes out almost never. He has the second-lowest strikeout rate in the league. And he gets over 200 hits a year. And I think it's to their credit that they don't have one exact way of doing things. If you want this tiny little guy who almost always gets on base, yeah, let's do it. If you want a big slugger who almost always hits fly balls, they have a guy named Luis Valbuena who has a third of his hits go for home runs. Sure, I'll take it. So this makes the Astros a good and interesting team.

MARTIN: Something for everyone, OK.

PESCA: Exactly.

MARTIN: Any other surprises?

PESCA: Yeah, I'm not going to go through the whole league and say, this is a great team. This - you know, the Tigers are underperforming. The Cardinals are doing well. But I want to talk about the Toronto Blue Jays. Why the Blue Jays? I mean, they're a team that's one game below 500. But if you look at them, they're of such a good offense. And they've scored almost 500 runs this year. And yes, they've given up a little bit more than 400 runs. But when you have a run differential nearing a hundred, you should be a lot better than you are. So I just look at that one stat, and I say, this is a team that could very much surprise. Also, they've gone the longest without being in the baseball postseason. They've gone 21 seasons. I don't know, for some reason no one cares about the Blue Jays here in America. It's almost like they're foreigners or something. But I think the Blue Jays will be a surprise team in the second half.

MARTIN: OK, another surprise. If you're a Philly sports fan, you're surprised because you're sad.

PESCA: Yeah, the Phillies were supposed to be bad. They're so much worse. They're going to be the worst team in baseball. And I looked at it. Over the last hundred years, 16 teams have finished with a winning percentage of 30 percent or below. And 9 of those 16 teams were teams from Philadelphia, either the Athletic or the Phillies. This year, the Phillies won't be as bad as that. But man, they're bad. And when you add into that the fact that the Philadelphia 76ers were terrible, all the non-shoulder-pad-wearing teams in Philly have been terrible this year. Sorry, sorry, Philly.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Mike Pesca, his podcast is The Gist. Thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.