Could fast cricket bowlers cut it in baseball?
Matt Wiggins @mattwjourno
Recently, though I have started taking an interest in cricket’s long-lost American cousin. In the last month, some of baseball’s great pitchers have been duelling with batters in the playoffs.
Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum. These are all names that I have become accustomed to as I have marvelled at the skills of pitchers across the MLB otherwise known as Major League Baseball.
There are some obvious comparisons to draw between cricket and baseball. That they both use bat and ball is immediately noticeable.
More seriously, though, I have noticed that both sports require phenomenal athleticism in the field to get batters out and the batsmen themselves wow the crowds with their ability to hit the ball over the fence.
There is no doubt that certain technical ability in the two games overlap, not least in the fielding and batting aspects. However, it was while watching the pitchers that I found myself wondering of an intriguing crossover comparison. Could the two ever successfully swap roles?
Physically the act of pitching is nothing like bowling a cricket ball over 22 yards. A pitcher hurls his weapon over a shorter distance, just over 19 yards, and does so from a standing start while fast bowlers get a running start to help gather speed.
The mechanics of the arm are different too with pitchers throwing their baseballs using a bent elbow, while bowlers are forbidden in doing so by the laws of the game.
Nevertheless, the speeds the two athletes generate are similar with the fastest recorded pitch being clocked at 105mph in 2010 by Cincinnati Reds pitcher Alroldis Chapman – the quickest cricket delivery currently standing at 101mph from Pakistan’s Mohammad Sami.
While it is fair to say that speed gun measurements in both sports can often be temperamental, the best of the best in both sports regularly hit speeds of between 90 and 95mph.
Coupled with these top speeds, both bowlers and pitchers impart spectacular movement on the ball, turning what they do from a job into an art form.
Bowlers like England’s James Anderson can swing the ball in the air in either direction at high speed. Baseball pitchers like Verlander of the Detroit Tigers, on the other hand, are renowned for their ability to throw fast pitches around the 100mph mark with extreme movement at the plate.
A pitcher will typically have anything from four to six different types of pitches at his disposal. Without boring you with too much science and detail, these can range from a straight fastball to a cutter (akin to an Anderson swinger) and a changeup (a slower ball).
Surrey bowler Jade Dernbach has recently broken on to the England one-day scene because of his varying repertoire of slower balls.
Baseball is no different, with at least 12 different pitches currently on display in the game. Each of those contains degrees of subtlety and movement meaning it can become puzzling for the batters to figure out what is coming next.
Although bowlers aren’t allowed to throw the ball like pitchers, there are comparisons in the placement of their arms too. Taller speedsters like Steve Harmison and Ambrose bowl with a high arm but shorter guys like Lasith Malinga and Fidel Edwards reach their speeds with a much lower, slinging action.
The same can be said for baseball where you will find a variety of pitching motions across the league. Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants would relate to the Harmisons and Ambroses of the cricket world while Texas Rangers’ Scott Feldman could talk side winding techniques with Malinga and Edwards.
Like in cricket, the different techniques pose different problems for the batters with various release points and movement in the air to contend with making each art form even more beautiful.
While there are obvious skill set comparisons between the two sports only one cricketer has ever managed to take the field for a professional baseball team.
Ian Pont was a seam bowler, who enjoyed his best playing days with Essex. Aside from his hostile pace bowling, Pont was renowned for his strong throwing arm.
He ran out Chris Broad from the boundary with a fierce throw in the 1985 Natwest Final and is reported to have recorded the second longest throw in history while playing in South Africa. By the time the 1987 season rolled around, Pont had travelled to America and had trials with six MLB franchises as a pitcher.
The Philadelphia Phillies soon took a liking to Pont and offered him a month’s extended trial. He took to the field as a starting pitcher in one exhibition game for the Phillies during Spring Training, baseball’s pre-season, but wasn’t signed permanently.
Pont, who could pitch at 100mph, continued to play baseball alongside his cricketing career, representing sides from the UK, South Africa and Australia.
Unlike Pont, Kent batsman Ed Smith never donned a baseball uniform in a professional match but secured a spot in the New York Mets’ training camp in 2002.
Smith wanted to research his book “Playing Hard Ball”, which illustrates the similarities between the two sports from the view of someone who has monitored them at close quarters, and made some shrewd observations. He observed that while in practice he is closer to the hitters in the MLB, psychologically he has more in common with pitchers.
“You both play in the shadow of the guillotine — one mistake and you could be gone and have lost the game for your team,” he says.
It highlights the pressure that baseball pitchers come under, something that isn’t quite experienced by bowlers in cricket. In each sport home runs and wickets are the least common occurrence, making them very important on the outcome of the game.
Should a pitcher allow a home run or a batsman lose his wicket it can be crucial to their teams’ fortunes, meaning the two play under immense pressure.
Imagine then, the role of the closer in baseball. He is the pitcher charged with getting the last three outs in the final inning of the game without conceding a home run.
It’s probably the most intensely pressured role in baseball and takes a certain type of character to fulfil it, the kind of character that the San Francisco Giants have in Brian Wilson.
Wilson begun life in baseball as a starting pitcher but soon realised he could earn better stats as a closer, not to mention dodging ball collecting duties at the next day’s training.
An enigma, Wilson is the most recognisable baseball player in the world. He is possibly the most interviewed, one of the best and became an American icon in the 2010 season.
Along with fellow pitching teammate Sergio Romo, Wilson decided he would try something different to turn his teams run of bad results around. The pair started to grow their facial hair, vowing to shave only when the Giants season was over.
As it turned out, the season didn’t end as Wilson and the Giants entered the post season and climaxed with their first World Series victory since moving from New York in 1957.
While Romo has since shaved, Wilson has continued the beard which is now as thick and as bushy as something you would see on Father Christmas.
His striking facial hair, coupled with his recent World Series success, has meant that he has been a regular booking on the American talk show circuit. He appeared on one dressed as a sailor, complete with dyed grey hair, while also appearing on the Jay Leno show and many others.
Listening to Wilson’s many interviews it becomes clear that he is a man who thrives on the glare of the media, but also on the pressure that being a closer brings with it.
“You come into a game with 60,000 fans going nuts,” he says. “Everyone’s eyes are on you. Whether you’re in a visiting stadium and the masses are hoping you fail. Or you’re at your home stadium and the masses are hoping you’re the victor. Everything is amplified, you’re adrenal gland is pumping. The pressure is immense.”
His mindset during that final inning of each and every game he plays when the pressure is at boiling point is equally as descriptive.
He adds, “The only thing you start thinking about is the mind games that you play on yourself. Sometimes you start getting that cancerous thought about failure. That can take over your whole inning and the more negative thoughts you have the more negative outcomes you’ll have. In order to complete that inning you just have to have the ability to forget the negative.”
Wilson’s stats show that he is able to achieve that more often than not. He won the MLB saves championship (awarded to the closer who prevents defeat the most times in a season) in the World Series winning year and has been an All Star on three occasions.
But, everyone has an off day. Recently Wilson blew a save against the Detroit Tigers and was pulled out of the ninth inning with the game still hanging in the balance.
Showing just how much strain closers can be put under; a frustrated Wilson took out his anger in the dugout. Wielding a bat, he smashed a drinks cooler and punched a wall before returning to support his team.
Reflecting on the event, he said: “As a closer, it’s embarrassing to be taken out of the ninth inning. Your job description is to go out there and, win, lose or draw; you’re the last guy standing. Well I wasn’t the last guy standing so I was pissed off about it. I was pissed off at the fact that I didn’t get the job done. So I took 30 seconds to allow myself to completely lose it, snap a little bit and smash a water cooler. It’s no big deal; it’s made of plastic, its fine.”
With a job that requires the use of your hands for the most part, Wilson would have been wise to leave the wall alone. Not least because of the amount of injuries pitchers are susceptible to throughout a season.
The amount of strain pitchers put on their body can only be rivalled by a fast bowler, the two athletes taking the ball for their team never far away from the treatment room.
The types of injuries suffered between the two are different, though, bowlers exerting a lot of stress through their front leg and lower back while pitchers use their upper body and arm a lot more.
In fact, one particular injury became so common in baseball that the surgery was named after a pitcher. Tommy John surgery is the most common surgery for a pitcher.
It serves to replace a damaged ligament in the throwing arm with an unaffected tendon from the players other arm and can put a player out of action for an entire season.
With 162 games played in a season, and pitchers throwing up to 100 balls at 95mph in each appearance, the risk of injury is great.
Pitchers are allowed significant rest in between appearances which is a luxury that modern fast bowlers cannot afford and the two are some of the most worked athletes in world sport.
However, the level of fitness required to be an MLB pitcher is not as great as those demanded of international cricket. There is no flying around the outfield to make diving stops on the boundary and there is no real need to bat with designated hitters taking the pitches for you, so, in essence all you need to do is pitch.
That could be the reason why so many pitchers in the big leagues weigh in at over 17 stone. Heath Bell, Todd Coffey, José Valverde and Sabathia all weigh in at over 240 pounds, relying on their strong throwing arms rather than their athleticism to ply their trade while there aren’t too many beefy bowlers in international cricket with the possible exception of Bermudan spinner Dwayne Leverock.
With that in mind, it’s possible that modern day bowlers like Lee and Anderson, both known for exceptional fielding athleticism, could add a new, rarely seen, dimension to the mound; a pitcher who can make athletic defensive plays.
Close similarities in using hand and seam position to move a ball in the air mean that they could adapt to becoming a Major League pitcher and Pont has shown us that it is possible to convert.
I have seen a Surrey Second XI bowler practice his pitching in a pre-match warm up with some degree of success while it is reported that the eccentric Wilson backpacked around India during an off season, teaching cricketers how to throw a fastball.
A pitcher’s career is much longer than those of their cricket counterparts, with some pitchers continuing their mastery into their forties. A cricketer, therefore, could extend his athletic career through the major leagues as bowlers tend to wind down around the age of 34.
Big name cricketers around this age tend to defect to the hefty wage bills on offer in the IPL, but those salaries are nothing compared to the MLB.
So is there a potential career path that bowlers are missing out on? Pont may not have blazed a trail for cricketers to flood into MLB, but he is evidence that the modern day bowler could follow his lead. Even if it is 24 years later.
If you enjoyed this, then check out Matt Ogborn’s take on the NBA in “Evolution of a Big Man”