Jon Hotten

It's all in the arm angle

Baseball teaches us that deliveries that make the batsman rethink premeditated responses will succeed more often than not

Jon Hotten
Lasith Malinga bowls, Sri Lanka v India, 3rd ODI, Colombo, July 28, 2012

How hard is it to deal with a ball that comes at you from "out of the umpire"?  •  AFP

Imagine the scene: David Warner and Chris Gayle are invited to face up to the world's fastest female bowler. Their challenge is to do what they have done to many of the great male bowlers and hit the ball over the boundary. They not only fail to do so, they miss every ball in the over. Waiting in the pavilion, Kevin Pietersen refuses to come in rather than be embarrassed out in the middle.
As David Epstein describes in his wonderful book The Sports Gene, something roughly equivalent to the above did take place in baseball, and it may contain some valuable information for the development of bowlers.
Back in 2004, some of America's top MLB sluggers were invited to the annual Pepsi All-Star Softball game in California to face the fastest softball pitcher in the world, Team USA's Jennie Finch (a few months later, Finch would win an Olympic gold medal at the Athens games).
There are some key differences between baseball and softball. The softball itself is bigger, and the pitcher's mound is 43 feet from the batter's plate, as opposed to baseball's 60 feet six inches. Finch's fastball travelled at around 65mph, meaning that it arrived at the batter in around the same time that a 95mph fastball took to cover the longer distance. And to a top baseball slugger, a 95mph fastball is all part of the day job.
In practice at the All-Star game, Finch threw four pitches at Albert Pujols, a legendary hitter. He missed every one. During the game itself she struck out Padres outfielder Brian Giles and Mets catcher Mike Piazza.
Word spread. Finch took part in a TV show, This Week In Baseball, and struck out lots more top players. Then she met Barry Bonds, seven-time National League MVP, at a spring training camp. She threw 12 fastballs past him before he managed to connect, and he succeeded then only because Finch told Bonds where the pitch would go.
Another baseball legend, Alex Rodriguez, refused to face her at all.
So what was happening?
The key difference was the angle of Finch's delivery. She propelled the softball not in the slingy overarm style of the baseball pitcher but by raising her arm high above her head and then swinging violently downwards in a wide arc, eventually releasing the ball from somewhere around her knee.
A baseball, or a softball, travelling across their relevant distances and speeds, takes around 400 milliseconds to reach the plate. Because at least half of that time is required simply for the body to initiate any kind of muscular action, the batter is not simply watching the ball and then hitting it. There is a large measure of anticipation involved.
Over the course of a career, a baseball slugger has seen many thousands of fastballs, and in doing so has built up a kind of mental directory or template of what one looks like. Thus, as the pitcher's arm comes over, he already has lots of other occasions to compare it to, and the body reacts accordingly.
As Epstein points out, once the template is removed - as it was by the new angle of Finch's delivery - the batter is simply trying to produce an almost-impossible physical response.
Research has shown that the same is true in cricket - a batsman facing fast bowling is picking up a complex series of clues from the bowler's approach and delivery stride that aid in hitting the ball.
The other day in the Big Bash, Andre Russell was bowling to Luke Wright when the ball slipped from his hand and flew at shoulder level towards the batsman. Wright managed to lay his bat on it - actually it flew over the boundary - but his shot was a desperate swing, and his head was averted as he made contact.
The rarity of the beamer means that it doesn't fit into the pattern of the many thousands of other quick deliveries that Wright has faced up to, and so requires a different "template" to deal with. He was fortunate that Russell does not bowl at express pace. Bret Lee's accidental beamer to Shane Warne in the MCC game at Lord's last summer badly injured Warne's hand.
The information emanating from baseball isn't just about beamers and other fluke deliveries, though. It made me think about the low arm of Lasith Malinga, and how hard batsmen - especially those facing him for the first time - find it to pick up a ball they describe as "appearing from out of the umpire".
This is just a small change of angle compared to a baseball pro facing Jennie Finch, and yet it is hard for batsmen to have any sort of pattern recognition. Shaun Tait had a similar effect.
In a format like T20, where a handful of deliveries can have a big impact on an innings, it would be no surprise as the game develops to see bowlers introducing more radical changes of arm angle alongside other deceptions.

Jon Hotten blogs here. @theoldbatsman