What our cricketers can learn from Major League Baseball
Proper allrounders in cricket are just about extinct, but in the US they’ve unearthed a ‘two-way’ phenomenon
A nice young man is scaring the bejaysus out of Major League Baseball (MLB). His name is Shohei Ohtani and — make sure any kids who play Little League are out of the room if you’re reading this aloud — he hits as well as he pitches.
That’s right: he hits as well as he pitches, a fact that is causing shock, horror and not a little amazement from California to Connecticut.
Thereby hangs a lesson for cricket, which is decades behind its American cousin in how to get the best out of its players.
In cricket, Ohtani would not be a phenomenon purely because he is what baseball is calling, quaintly, a “two-way” player. Closer to the truth is that cricketers who are able to bat as well as they are able to bowl have always been rare. Of all the 2,899 men who have played Test cricket, Garfield Sobers is the only genuine, unarguable, bulletproof article. Wasim Akram? Bowler. Jacques Kallis? Batsman.Fewer allrounders are produced now than ever because T20’s reliance on players who are jacks of all disciplines and masters of none has the equal and opposite effect of making Test cricket invest more heavily in specialists, if only to set itself apart from the terrible infant. One of these decades, if that trend continues, the poles of cricket’s core skills are going to be as far apart as baseball’s.
The 2018 MLB season, in which each team plays at least 162 games, was only 16 matches old on April 17. But in his first US campaign Ohtani, at 23 already a household name in Japan, where he played for the Nippon-Ham Fighters, is attracting the kind of attention reserved for World Series stars.
He has made a decent beginning as a starting pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels, winning two of his three games and allowing eight hits and six runs in 15 innings.
So far, so understandable — for Americans. What’s startling them is that Ohtani has also had 11 hits, three of them home runs, in his 30 plate appearances for an average of .367.
The context of all that is that pitchers don’t bat at all during the regular season in the American League (AL), where the Angels play, because they spend so much time and effort pitching and practising pitching that they invariably make awful batters.
Since 1973 in the AL, instead of the pitcher going down looking at or swinging at strikes, a “designated hitter”, or DH, has batted on their behalf in the nine-strong line-up.In the National League (NL), where pitchers still bat, Jacob de Grom, a right-handed starter for the New York Mets, was at the plate more times than any other pitcher in 2017. But 273 of all the 509 players who took a swing in the NL batted more than De Grom. That’s more than half. Forty-six players didn’t bat at all. They were all pitchers.
Starting pitchers will often take five days’ rest after they play a game, and rarely fewer than three days.
Scandalously, on some of what should be his rest days, Ohtani serves as the Angles’ DH.
Not since Babe Ruth strode the diamond has something similar happened with any seriousness. Ruth arrived at the Boston Red Sox in 1914 as a pitcher who could bat a bit. A bit became a lot, and by the end of the 1919 season he was no longer pitching regularly — mostly because the Sox could put more bums on seats if Ruth played every day as an outfielder rather than once or twice a week as a pitcher.Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees before the 1920 season, and in the next 15 years as “The Sultan of Swat” built his legend as the home run king, he pitched only 31 innings. In his six years in Boston, he had hurled 1,190.1.So Ohtani is challenging 99 years — the difference between 1919 and 2018 — of how things have been done in baseball.It’s early days yet, but his batting average is significantly better than that of last season’s AL batting champion, the Houston Astros’ José Altuve, who averaged .346.
If you know anything about big league ’ball, you know what Ohtani is doing is not unlike Galileo daring to suggest the Earth isn’t flat.
Such is baseball’s belief in specialists that Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher the game has seen, was paid $169.6-million over the course of his 18-year career. That’s good money for anyone, much less a player who threw an average of only 14.8 pitches per game as a reliever between 2002 and 2013.
American high schools aren’t short of baseball players who can bat, can pitch, can field. But that’s how the scouts figure out who has the raw talent to make it to the majors.
After that, it’s each into their own pigeonhole: as pitchers or position players, and position players are parsed further. Outfielders and first-basemen are expected to do the bulk of the hitting, and next in that order come the middle infielders — second-basemen, shortstops and third-basemen.
Middle infielders especially but also outfielders need plenty of pace around the bases, particularly if they don’t carry big bats.
Catchers are almost as specialised as pitchers, some of whom will only pitch to their “personal catchers”.Imagine Kagiso Rabada bowling only when Quinton de Kock is behind the stumps, and Heinrich Klaasen strapping on the pads for everyone else.
That’s difficult to fathom, but South Africans who remember when sport had seasons and players had real jobs know it used to be feasible to play more than one sport to a high level.
Exhibit A: Errol Stewart, the former South Africa and Dolphins wicketkeeper-batsman and Sharks centre. He is the most recent example in a club that counts Herschelle Gibbs, Peter Kirsten and Gerbrand Grobler among its many members.
But rampant professionalism and specialisation has changed all that, and made the allrounder extinct in that sense and endangered in others.
Much more of that, and one day the kids will have to be sent out of the room before we can talk about that outrageous youngster who bats No 6 and bowls first change.
Scary stuff, isn’t it.