As well as being a cricket fan, over the years I’ve occasionally dived deep into baseball, particularly Major League Baseball (MLB) in the USA.
I’m drawn to baseball’s similarities as a bat and ball team game, and its parallel fascination with history, tradition and statistics.
In the last year or so, I’ve got back to following MLB more closely. As a change-up from debates about Test selections, averages and meaningless runs, I thought I would offer some comparisons between baseball and cricket.
This article focuses on how the two games are played. A follow-up article will look at wider issues like money, umpiring, traditions, controversies, and these sports’ place in the wider world – perhaps more interesting topics.
Some of this may be old hat to Roarers familiar with baseball, but I hope it adds a few points of interest, and some perspectives on cricket as well.
Cricket is a batter’s game – baseball is a pitcher’s
Batting in cricket isn’t exactly easy, but it’s often called a batsman’s game thanks to rules that tip the balance in favour of the batter, notably the LBW law.
Batting is tougher in baseball in large part because if a batter hits the ball into fair territory, he (it’s still a male preserve at top level) has to run and try to make it to base before being thrown out. Fair territory is limited to a 90-degree quadrant between the first base and third base lines, compared to the 360 degrees available to a batsman in cricket. Also, the stumps are a lot harder to hit off the pitch than directly aiming at the baseball strike zone.
Almost any ball hit within reach of the infield is expected to be fielded and thrown accurately to first base before the batter makes it. It’s harder to deliberately pierce the infield accurately with a rounded baseball bat, compared to the flat surface of a cricket bat.
Despite the fact that the baseball reaches the batter on the full, it’s a lot harder to hit: pitchers not only hurl faster than bowlers – they make the ball do a lot more through the air, both sideways and up and down, thanks to a big dual seam and because a new ball is used for every pitch. Pitchers have a wide arsenal of balls to get the batter to mistime or miss the ball: curveballs, sliders, cutters, change-ups, as well as fastballs mostly in the 150-160 kilometres per hour range.
A few numbers capture baseball’s low scoring. The average number of runs scored in an MLB game is only nine, across nine innings each of three outs for each team. The most scored in any one game was 49 in a 26-23 result in 1922, but the most common scores are like a football match – 3-2 and 4-3. The lowest is 1-0 (in the event of a tie, they play extra innings).
Baseball batting averages, measuring how often a player hits the ball safely, underline how hard it is to get on base, let alone score runs. If a really good career average in Test cricket is somewhere above 40, in baseball it is around 0.300, which means getting on base three out of ten times at bat, while getting out seven times.
So a baseball batter needs to learn to deal failure even more – a lot more – than in cricket. On the other hand, they have four or five chances at bat in a game to make their mark. They don’t have that threat hanging over a cricketer of the next ball being the last for some time. Batters get hit more often in cricket and the ball is deliberately aimed at them more often. But they have more protection, so you tend to see more injuries to batters in baseball.
Fielding is a bigger deal in baseball
Catches can win matches in cricket and dropped catches can lose them. But there may be a long interval between fielding dismissals: catches, stumping and run outs happen a total of about seven times in an average Test innings lasting seven hours. Because the batter in baseball has to run if the ball goes in play, fielders are in the game all the time.
There is no room for a weak fielder in an MLB team, and fielding errors are an important statistic. Venezuelan Omar Vizquel has the best fielding percentage of all time – 98.5 per cent – of any shortstop, the most important position. That means he only misplayed 1.5 per cent of all attempts in nearly 3000 games between 1989 and 2012. One author estimated that the best Test teams miss 20 per cent or more of all chances.
Catches in baseball rarely reach the heights of the best slip catches or one-handed juggling efforts on the boundary. But while baseball catches may look easier because fielders have mitts, mitts are worn on the weaker hand, some running catches are taken over 100 metres from home plate and even jumping above the fence. And the baseball is often hit a lot harder.
The highlight of baseball is often the ground fielding and throwing in the infield, especially when it involves double plays – forcing out two batsmen in one play, usually at second and first base.
Cricket has more nuance and style – especially batting – but pitching is craftier
Cricket batting has a great variety of distinctive shots executed in a 360 degree arc, going onto the front or back foot, in defence or attack, with vertical or horizontal bat. The baseball batter’s swing looks a lot more one-dimensional. It is also based on a fixed stance, without footwork.
Bowling actions and run-ups are also a lot more diverse and full of idiosyncrasies compared to the pitchers’ one-step wind-up and fling, even though their actions can be quite distinctive.
Changes in line and length also add to the variety of deliveries in cricket, while the pitcher aims at a fixed target zone. The range of pitching speeds is also narrower, mostly in the 140-160 kilometre per hour range. While a lot of the interest and challenge in cricket comes from the ball deviating off the pitch, the baseball moves and deviates more, both up and down and side-to-side, and keeps doing it throughout the game.
Part of the rich texture of cricket is how pitch conditions vary from ground to ground, and during the course of a match. This isn’t a factor in baseball, given a fair pitch reaches the batter on the full. Nor does the amount of movement in the air vary much. But it’s harder to pick up the movement of the baseball as a spectator. The baseball spectacle is more about power and fielding than variety and nuance – although use of tactics is an exception.
Baseball is more tactical
Unlike cricket, where decisions are made by the captain on the field, a baseball team is run by the manager in the dugout, who has more levers to pull and micro-manages players to a greater degree.
An MLB manager has 17 bench players he can use as replacements for any of the nine starters, usually for tactical reasons, such as when a pitcher is judged to be in trouble or running out of steam; to bring in a particular pitcher for a certain batter, or vice versa, bringing in a pinch hitter, or to bring in a fast pinch runner to replace a batter who has made it on base. A lot of these moves are made in the latter part of the game, particularly when the score is close.
The manager also makes decisions like when a batter should put down a sacrifice bunt or fly ball to move the runners around the bases, or when a base runner has license to steal a base. Baseball uses statistics and analytics a lot more.
The variety of fielding placements in a 360-degree field is one area where a cricket captain has more strings to pull. But overall, the limited number of bowlers available at any one time and lack of substitutes in cricket make baseball more of a chess match at the end of a game.
The baseball goes harder and farther
The hardest throwing pitchers hurl the ball several kilometres faster (over a similar distance) than Jeff Thomson or Brett Lee (160 kilometres per hour), plus nearly all throw their fast ball over 145 kilometres per hour, with no deceleration off the pitch. There are no slow pitchers (apart from rare knuckle ballers in the past).
While the longest hits in a Test or T20 competition seldom fly beyond 105 metres, the longest hits in an MLB season are usually around 500 feet (150 metres), with the all-time record variously ascribed to New York Yankees legends Babe Ruth (175 metres, 1921) and Mickey Mantle (172 metres, 1953). The average distance from home plate to the centre field wall in MLB is 122 metres, compared to the maximum boundary of 82.3 metres now set for Test matches. Speeds off the bat are regularly recorded, with the fastest measured at about 180 kilometres per hour.
There are no all-rounders in baseball – except in 1919 and 2021
Unlike in cricket, it’s extremely rare for a baseballer to be good enough to get a regular MLB spot as a front-line batter and pitcher (pitchers do have to bat in one of the two divisions, the National League, but they bat like tail-enders).
Only two exceptions stand out in the last 110 years. Babe Ruth began his career as a successful pitcher with the Boston Red Sox, winning three World Series. In 1919, Ruth showed his potential as a power hitter as well, bashing an MLB-leading 29 home runs, while having a good though not outstanding pitching record. The following season he joined the New York Yankees, gave up pitching, and the rest was history – over the next decade he set long-standing records for home runs and big hits and won four more World Series.
Baseball had witnessed nothing like Ruth’s 1919 season until this year. Shohei Ohtani from Japan, of the Los Angeles Angels, has stunned experts and fans by not only performing as one of the top pitchers in baseball, but also one of the best hitters, knocking in 45 homers (third in MLB) and lots of extra-base hits. Think of a combination of Rohit Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah in the same player, or maybe Mark Waugh and Jason Gillespie.