August 27, 2014

Bowlers and pitchers: divided by a common cause

Baseball and cricket - throwing and bowling. We sort out the differences

Nolan Ryan: the all-time strikeout champion whose career extended over 27 seasons, he also has the fastest recorded pitch in baseball history © MLB Photos via Getty Images

To bowl is to pitch. The aim is the same: to get batsmen out. The means, moreover, are identical - pace and swerve, flight and guile, intimidation and deception; catches, air shots and run-outs. Differences nonetheless run deep. And not simply because bowlers form an attack while pitchers are part of the defense (forgive US spelling).

At the heart of these differences lie the number of games in a US major league season (162 plus playoffs), the mode of delivery (all pitchers are bent-armers), the fact that baseball batters cannot hit behind the wicket (or even square) and the relative (un)importance of the playing surface. Unless the batter swings and misses, a valid pitch must reach the batsman before bouncing (while invisible, the strike zone extends vertically from the batter's chest to his knees). In other words, all legitimate pitches are full-tosses.

The most prized baseballers are starting pitchers: in cricket parlance, they take the new ball but never share it. Instead, they shoulder the entire workload until they tire, get injured or clobbered, or the game ends - whichever happens first. Yet pitching remains a team effort: when the starter is finished, relievers step up.

Nor should too much be read into the fact that both games are played over a prescribed number of innings. In any one of baseball's nine regulation innings only three batters need be dismissed (making 27 outs in toto). An individual at-bat averages around four pitches, and it is anything but common for a pitcher to face all nine batters in a single frame.

Because they operate in short bursts (seldom more than two innings, sometimes just a single at-bat), relievers are closest in spirit to bowlers in that they may be called upon every day. For the most part the closer, the key reliever, is only deployed if there is a slender lead to protect late in the game. If the scores are level, the contest goes into extra innings, placing even greater pressure on pitching resources.

The starter's value is compounded by the fact that batters face arguably the most taxing task in sport: hitting a small ball with a tubular bat. If he makes productive contact 30% of the time he is doing bloody well.

Other contrasts abound:

During the regular season, starters only play every five games, sometimes six; come the playoffs, managers must decide whether to ask their "ace" to work on just three days' rest, risking a decline in effectiveness.

Pitch counts are strictly monitored. A strong showing by a starter will see him make upwards of 80 pitches over six or more innings; once he reaches three figures, however, managerial concerns rise and a replacement becomes increasingly likely. Anything in excess of 20 pitches in an inning indicates that the pitcher is struggling.

For swinging deliveries read curveball or slider; for carrom ball read knuckleball; for spitballs read ball-tampering

The growing reliance on relief pitchers has meant that complete games - where the starter accounts for all 27 outs - are vastly less common than they were even two decades ago. The all-time record is 75, by Will White in 1879; the last to throw 30 was Catfish Hunter in 1975; in 1998, Curt Schilling recorded 15; last season's chart was topped by Clayton Kershaw's five.

In 2013, 41 starters pitched 200 innings or more but none managed 242. While the Major League Baseball (MLB) seasonal record is 680 by White, again in 1879, the most since 1945 has been Wilbur Wood's 376-and-a-bit in 1972; not since Steve Carlton in 1980 has anyone managed 300.

Last year's regular season saw the four most frequently used starters play 34 games; even if we throw in his five playoff outings, Adam Wainwright's final tally of 39 matches that of the third busiest international bowler, Junaid Khan, and trails Ravindra Jadeja by one, but still pales besides the output of Saeed Ajmal (50). And all three cricketers had their fair share of domestic duties to boot.

Surprisingly perhaps, speeds are comparable. Sure, 90mph pitches are nothing special, but while all pitchers vary their velocity, precious few dip below 60mph. The most rapid active thrower, Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds, has been clocked at 106mph; the all-time peak, 108.1, was recorded in 1974 by Nolan Ryan, one of just two men to supersede Chapman.

All the same, to describe all pitchers as hurlers (as custom dictates) is to define them, wrongly, by speed. Multi-faceted arsenals are as common to them as to bowlers, often more so; in some respects the only difference is terminology.

Until the past decade, which has seen the change-up (slower ball) and slider (thanks, Shane) drafted into the cricket commentator's handbook, the lone common denominator, spiritually if not quite lexically, was the fastball. Broadly speaking, for swinging deliveries read curveball or slider; for carrom ball read knuckleball; for spitballs read ball-tampering.

While yorkers and bouncers are clearly undesirable on the diamond (although the rising fastball can have a similar impact to the latter), split-fingered fastballs (ball drops alarmingly at the last) are not crickety in any way whatsoever - though that may yet change.

Dale Steyn's bowling average would be obscenely expensive in baseball © International Cricket Council

Modern bowlers usually place greater store by economy and strike rate, but averages are still the biggest deal for a pitcher, even more than wins (or, for a reliever, saves, i.e. wins preserved). The lower the earned run average (ERA - runs conceded per nine innings, discounting those stemming from fielding errors), the higher the esteem, the thicker the pay packet. All you need to know about the relative value of a run is that a brilliant ERA is equivalent to a tenth of Dale Steyn's Test average.

Aside from being nursed so assiduously, the chief advantage the pitcher enjoys over his cricketing counterpart is the fact that he has no run-up. Careers thus last appreciably longer: some of the most celebrated have been brilliant in their 40s, most notably three of the most ferocious throwers the game has ever seen.

No major leaguer of any persuasion has enjoyed a lengthier career than Nolan Ryan, the all-time strikeout champion (5714), who retired in 1993 after 27 seasons, aged 46.

Standing an intimidating 6ft 10in, Randy Johnson, second to Ryan in strikeouts (4875, the most by a left-hander), was also 46 when he retired in 2010.

In 2004, the 23rd of his 26 major league campaigns, Roger Clemens was 42 when he won the last of his unmatched seven Cy Youngs (awarded to the season's leading pitcher in each league); the following year he won his seventh ERA crown; in 2012, now 50, he even made a decent comeback in the (professional) minor leagues.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His book Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport is out now