Wednesday, October 22, 2008

World Series/Cricket – Mac Millings

Baseball’s World Series is here, and you should care. Why? Well, you shouldn’t need to ask, but as you are, I’ll tell you.

It’s a major sporting event, and as such, should command you’re the attention of anyone who loves sport played at the highest level. And if you’re a cricket fan, it should be compulsory viewing.

For baseball and cricket are genetically related; the two games, in their modern, organized form, shared a close-knit, if somewhat antagonistic, early history, and close comparisons in the way the games are both watched and played can be made.

Think of it like this: if, tomorrow, you moved to the United States for the rest of your life, and you were a football or rugby fan, then you’d have to make do with American football. But were cricket your thing, then, likely as not, you would fall in love with baseball.

This time around, the Series matches two teams with a shared tradition of futility – the Tampa Bay Rays, who, in their short existence, had never got close to winning more games in a season than they’d lost until this year, and the Philadelphia Phillies, who have won fewer World Series titles than the much romanticized, 100-years-without-a-championship Chicago Cubs, and in 2007 became the first team to lose a total of 10,000 games in the history of baseball.

Emphatically, this was not the Series the US media wanted, desperate as they were for a Red Sox-Dodgers match-up, with all the baggage that those teams would bring. I could go into it, but I won’t. I don’t care. They lost, the Phillies and the Rays didn’t, and baseball is the better for it.

Boston wouldn’t have dropped a game against LA, and yet another season would have ended in anticlimax. Phillies-Rays, on the other hand, looks like being as closely contested a World Series as we’ve seen for years.

Lazy journalists everywhere are calling the Rays favourites based on…well, not much, it seems. Most commonly cited is the fact that they emerged from the regular season atop the American League East, “the toughest division in baseball”, featuring the aforementioned Boston Red Sox, as well as perennial also-rans the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays, and the mighty New York Yankees.

Trouble is, the New York aren’t so mighty any more – this is the worst Yankees team in some time – and Boston, weakened by trades and injury, aren’t last year’s Sox.

The other chief, and not unrelated, reason given for the Rays favoured status is simply that they are from the American League, which has dominated the rival National League for some time. Last time I checked, however, it’s not the whole League that’s plays in the Series.

Putting aside for another day (all right, I’ll never come back to this one) the argument that the former Tampa Bay Devil Rays will win because they are being rewarded from on high for dropping the D-word from their name, one of the Rays’ real advantages lies in the fact that their line-up hits for average, hits for power, plays good defence (that is, they field well), and has good speed on the bases – in other words, they can score runs in different ways, no matter the situation. And the Phillies? Well, ditto. More importantly, both clubs feature good pitching.

There is a maxim in baseball, which happens to be true, that good pitching beats good hitting. And it’s the art of pitching that should draw cricket lovers close to this game.

We fans of the willow think of cricket as unique, the greatest game, and one of the chief reasons, I think, is the idea of the contest between bat and ball. In other sports, in football, say, or rugby, the play is fast, breathless, with physical contact, and the fans’ passion is intense and focused. Playing these sports, you don’t often get time to think, and indeed, on the occasions that you do (the full back under a swirling kick, the centre forward one-on-one with the keeper) having that time to think is often considered a curse.

Cricket, conversely, is all about the time you have to think. Because, whereas in faster sports you mostly react in an instant, on instinct, in cricket much of the time is spent waiting (in the case of a batsman) and thinking (“where am I going to bowl to him?”).

And while in football and rugby, it seems like anything could happen at any time, in cricket, only one main thing is ever going to happen; the bowler is going to bowl to the batsman. The intrigue of the game lies in waiting to see how he’s going to do it and how the batsman will react to it by finally being able to rely on every good sportsperson’s greatest talent, their innate ability to react appropriately in the moment it takes the ball to reach them from the bowler’s hand.

And that's the key to baseball as well; pitcher vs. batter, bat against ball.

It is to baseball’s advantage, I think (perhaps counterintuitively), that the options available to the hitter (and arguably, the pitcher) are even more limited than they are to their cricketing counterpart(s). The hitter, unlike the batsman, can’t just do as he pleases. 3 strikes, and you’re out. There’s a reason he’s called a “hitter” and not a “batsman”. He doesn’t have the luxury of being allowed to bat; he just has to hit. And being a good hitter isn’t just reacting to where and how the ball is thrown – making a good guess as to what’s coming before it’s thrown is a key skill.

It follows that the pitcher is always having to try and stay one step ahead of his adversary. Further, he can’t, of course, employ a tactic commonly used by bowlers – line and length. Broadly speaking, containment isn’t an option. He has to get this guy with the stick out, and quickly.

Understanding the pitcher’s place in baseball is crucial to an understanding of the game as a whole.

No single player in any team sport is as central to his team’s success as is the pitcher, not even an NFL Quarterback. The notion of “momentum”, that is, the idea that “winning is a habit”, is one that is much discussed here in the States.

Whatever its merits, there can be no doubt that the greatest momentum stopper in sport is a good pitcher – it doesn’t matter how many games in a row you’ve won if you can’t hit what this guy’s throwing at you.

Nor does he have much support. He has fielders, and his catcher, but he can’t (unlike a bowler) rely on three or four other guys to share the load. Yes, there are “relievers” in baseball - pitching teammates - but they are strictly replacements. It’s always just the one pitcher out on the mound, alone, and his team’s fortunes are in his hands (or rather, hand) and no one else’s.

And so it is the pitchers on either side who should decide this year’s (and every) World Series. In that category, I’d have to give a slight edge to the Rays.

Cole Hamels, for the Phillies, is the best pitcher on either side, but the Rays have greater strength in depth, their 2nd and 3rd starters being better than their Philly counterparts.

And yet…the Rays almost didn’t make it here at all. Cruising against Boston, they let a 7-0, 7th-inning lead slip in Game 5, and suddenly their powerful batting line-up went quiet.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Good pitching can halt momentum - I read what I wrote, you know - but the Red Sox weren’t pitching well and Tampa Bay had their measure. Simply put, the young, inexperienced Rays batters choked and it was their own pitching, in the form of an outstanding display from Matt Garza, that got them through.

So you know what? I’m going to go counter to almost everything I just wrote. Phillies to win in seven games. The greater experience of their batting line-up will hold them in good stead, and they should outscore their overeager opponents. Because in baseball, while pitching rules, you’ve got to hit the ball to win.

25 comments:

Ebren said...

Awesome piece Mac: That said, I was at the Rays Yankees game a couple of months ago, and they lost comfortably. Admittedly, there was an A-Rod grand slam in the first innings (I think - amazing how quickly you pick up the lingo) and they never really recovered.

So I'm backing the Phillies

Zephirine said...

Having tried on various occasions to persuade some Pseuds of the wonders of cricket, I'm impressed by your description, Mac - I think you may have come up with a couple of paragraphs that sum it all up. I especially like "Cricket, conversely, is all about the time you have to think".

Baseball? Until the day comes when I have to move to the US, I'll leave it, thanks:)

Mac Millings said...

Thanks, both, for the kind words.

Oh Zeph, my very own tradition of futility continues: we'll never persuade Offie of the wonders of cricket, and I've failed to persuade you of baseball's.....

andrewm said...

Interesting article, Mac, but being the curmudgeon I am, I'm going to call you on a couple of things.

"It’s a major sporting event, and as such, should command the attention of anyone who loves sport played at the highest level."

Well ... no, not really. I admire people who love sport in general, as opposed to individual sports, but most fans have plenty of sports they don't care for at all. A colleague and I were discussing the pointlessness of ice hockey this morning - it really is utterly pointless.

"Think of it like this: if, tomorrow, you moved to the United States for the rest of your life, and you were a football or rugby fan, then you’d have to make do with American football. But were cricket your thing, then, likely as not, you would fall in love with baseball."

Why would you have to make do?

Speaking of American Football, if Velvet Bear is reading this - you are missed, by me at least.

mountainstriker said...

Hi Mac - excellent piece and its good to hear that I'm not the only one who loves cricket and baseball for many of the same reasons. I think it helps that I am a bowler by trade. Batting and hitting are, as you say, two very different things.

I've dusted off the tux for Jonny and Josh tonight. My heart says Rays, head says Phillies.

Mac Millings said...

andrewm

You, sir, are a cur, and I assume the "m" stands for "mudgeon" :)

Fair points, both.

Agree about hockey - it really is just wrestling. Although if my (much younger) brother, who is an excellent ice hockey player, and even has a shot at making the NHL, is reading this - I'm only joking.

Look away now, sibling.

OK, now that he's gone - I'm not joking.

Regarding "making do" with American football - that's just me writing from personal experience (plus anecdotal evidence from one or two others). I like football, but it just doesn't hold the same fascination for me as does baseball, some of the reasons for which are in the article.

I always have a hard time with my opening statement, and that was all I could come up with. Sorry your two main sticking points were right at the beginning...hope it didn't put you off the rest of it...

mountainstriker

Thank you. By the way, off-topic, but I really enjoyed your most recent piece, about referees (actually, I've enjoyed all your work here). I might end up writing a companion-piece, that also nods towards my earlier article on the crowd's reaction to different sports. Wow, bet you can't wait. Great piece, though - the respect thing is definitely not about class.

mimi said...

OK chaps need some time for this. But Andrewm is not a cur -rather the godfather of a huge kitten. Still wondering if that cat is watching Big Cat Diary.

To be honest, I think both baseball and softball are ridiculous games played by ex-pat Americans in eg Hyde Park. Not sports and how in all we call holy, can there be a "World Series" when no other nation contests?

Jeez Louise. What a bundle of nonsense.

Mac Millings said...

mimi

you are quite correct - andrewm is neither cur nor mudgeon, and as the father of 5 cats of various sizes, I pass on my best to him and his enormous godkitten.

But I've failed with zeph, and now with you, re the merits of baseball. Not doing very well so far, am I?

As for the term "World Series", when it started 100 or so years ago, pretty much no one else played baseball to any standard, so the winners probably could properly consider themselves the best team in the world.

As time has passed, and baseball (and Major League Baseball itself) has become an increasingly international affair, I think there has been a growing realisation that the term is something of a misnomer. Of course, "Champions of the World" is still used frequently, but on the whole, I let it go. It's just a name, after all - and besides, in corporate America, to change that name would be branding suicide...

David Barry said...

There is a maxim in baseball, which happens to be true, that good pitching beats good hitting.
In what sense is it true? From The Book: Playing the Percentages is Baseball:

A .300 pitcher against a .400 hitter will result in esactly the same performance level as a .400 pitcher against a .300 hitter. Good pitchers will pull down any kind of hitter to the pitcher's performance level, as much as a good hitter will pull up any kind of pitcher to the hitter's performance level.

I can give you more stats from The Book if you're interested.

Mac Millings said...

David,

"In what sense is it true?"

Because, as the great Stephen Colbert might have it, it FEELS true....but someone always has to come and spoil everything by bringing in inconvenient stuff like facts ;)

I take your point, and as someone who has taken an increasing amount of interest in sabermetrics (albeit at the idiot level), I should have taken more pause before quoting (or deciding not to) an old school idea.

I think, though, that that sentence, and a couple of others perhaps, could safely be removed from the piece without compromising the general themes - that the contest between bat and ball, and the spaces between actions, are central to our fascination with these games; and that the pitcher is probably the single most responsibility-laden player in team sports, and perhaps the loneliest.

Ebren said...

Did someone say sabermetrics? Awesome, I can post a this link again

offsideintahiti said...

I can't remember which time I slept better. The time I tried to watch a cricket match or the time I tried to watch a baseball game (t'was the world series too, with the Blue Jays and I was in Toronto, but still, great nap).

The true feat, Monsieur Millings, is to keep my attention 'til the end of the article, which you did, so there you go, home run.

Now, Rays, I like rays. Stingrays, Manta Rays, Spotted Eagle Rays. Go, Rays!

David Barry said...

Ebren, on that old article of yours: if you or anyone else could point me to a site with possession/territory data for each match in a season, I could fairly easily check how they correlate with goal scoring/conceding.

offsideintahiti said...

Just coming back briefly to take issue with your disparaging comments about hockey. Now, that's an exciting game, and it's not "just wrestling", especially Swedish hockey, as the esteemed Reverend Greengrass will tell you and this link will confirm:

http://www.thelocal.se/15138.html

Now, in case you're wondering how I came across that one, it was Ingrid who forwarded it to me. Honest.

mac millings said...

Braddah Offside,

I take it all back. Hockey's great. Your link proves it.

It's not really hockey that I don't like, just the American version, which empahsises brutality over skill and, um, bedroom accessories.

Ebren said...

Mr Barry, I sadly, don't have that data. Which is a shame. Would be interesting to see it though.

Mouth of the Mersey said...

I went off baseball a bit when those steroided blokes were hitting 70+ homers per season, but I've enjoyed the first two matches of the World Series.

I'm certain that I would do what Mac says and fall in love with baseball.

Thanks for an excellent piece Mac.

mimi said...

I think R5live is doing some stuff this weekend, so unless it coincides with the Liverpool match, I will listen and see if I can make some sense of this strange American thing.

mac millings said...

Mouth,

Thank you.

As home run totals come down, I'm hoping that means a corresponding rise in "small ball", which is much more interesting to me than everything being about power. I enjoy a sweetly struck home run as much as anyone, but the rarer they are, the sweeter they seem; and isn't that how it should be?

Mimi

Good luck. Thank you for giving it a try!

mimi said...

Ah, but I was wrong. RFive did an NFL thing, which I couldn't listen to as it clashed with making my bacon sarnies.

So I remain ignorant of the joys of these American sports.

David Barry said...

I'd believe the juiced ball theory more than steroids for the increase in power hitting. See, eg, here, or here.

Basically home run rates went from a steady rate a bit under 3% of plate appearances, to 3.1% in 1993, then 3.7% in 1994, and they've stayed about there ever since.

mac millings said...

David,

If you don't stop it, I'm going to have to pack in relying on received wisdom...

Thank you for the links. Here's some science for you: Long articles + short attention span = bookmarked for later reading.

But read them I will. Thanks again.

Mouth of the Mersey said...

Dave - You surely don't sleep! I shall print and read those later, but if you've anything on the different balls in cricket, I'd love it.

David Barry said...

It'd be hard to study the effect of different balls because they're used in different countries, so you can't untangle the ball from all the other conditions in that country.

I don't think I ever wrote up a blog entry on boundaries, but I have some memory of seeing boundaries increasing as a proportion of total runs scored across 2000 to 2001 or something. Probably all the unpressed bats and whatnot, rather than balls. I'll look into it later this week.

mac millings said...

Well, the Phillies won. It's official. I called it.

The Election, on the other hand, I daren't call. Don't want to jinx it. I will say, however, that all the buzz about Palin 2012 is great, as that makes it sound like the Republicans have given up until 2016.

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