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The Big Mo

So. England is the Top Nation for Test Cricket. There’s a formula of some kind for deciding who is Top Nation; the ICC does the math and presents a exceedingly goofy mace to the Top Nation, and England’s captain should be wielding that thing for a few months, at any rate.

The India-England series this summer has been in some ways a letdown just because India has seemed like a shambles. Their best bowlers have been unfit, and their best batsmen (who have been the best batsmen in the world for ever so long) have looked old and unfit. And the whole feeling of the series has been of a team that couldn’t summon up enough fire.

Your Humble Blogger is scarcely a stathead, you know. But in baseball, my feeling is with the sabremetricians. When people talk about team chemistry, or about momentum, or about coming through in the clutch, or about the intangibles, the mystique and aura of a winning team, the importance of a loose clubhouse, I think that’s all bullshit. It’s often fun bullshit, and I’m in favor of sitting around bullshitting about baseball, but in point of fact, there aren’t teams that know how to win. The better team wins, usually, but baseball being baseball, the worse team wins pretty often, too. Players have bad days, pitchers come to the mound with no stuff at all, guys lose focus in the field—those things really do happen, but that’s all in the stats already, and you don’t actually need intangibles and chemistry to talk about them. And as for momentum… it’s not that I don’t believe in momentum, it’s that momentum switches from one side to the other in one bounce of the ball, one hanging curve, one swing, one close play. My Giants can have momentum for six innings and lose it for three, and get it back in the tenth. Just because the momentum is going one way doesn’t mean shit about who is going to win the game—your best bet, in fact, is to ignore momentum and expect that the team that is better at scoring runs will score more runs, and the team that is better at keeping runs from scoring will have fewer runs scored against them.

In other words, if I can have only one of Momentum and Matt Cain, I’ll take Matt Cain. I’d rather have Albert Pujols than have all the intangibles in the world.

And when people write about cricket, and talk about momentum, and keeping the pressure on, all that intangible stuff, my reaction is to assume it’s bullshit for cricket just as much as for baseball. Cricket seems to have some cultural similarities to baseball, including an instinctive conservatism that goes along with a love for the history of the sport, as well as a fondness for statistical records and averages. I have read some fairly minor essays about the possibility of using sabermetric-style tools to improve a teams outcomes, but I haven’t seen much of the kind of dissemination of stats-minded tropes and tricks that I have seen on the baseball side over the last decade. Things like a preference for On-Base Percentage rather than Batting Average as a gauge of how much good a batter is doing, and of WHIP or K/BB rates over ERA (or certainly W-L-S) as a predictor of a pitcher’s future. Of course, there’s the odd situation that the most common stats in baseball for a hundred years were oddly designed and didn’t line up well with talent, contributions or predictions. Perhaps Cricket’s stats—runs, strike rates, economy, wickets taken—are just better stats, and need less updating. Or the record-keeping may not be up to snuff in (f’r’ex) separating a bowler’s skill from his mates’ fielding; it appears that a few teams have put some effort into improving fielding in the last few years, and that seems to have made a difference. Certainly England looked much, much better in the field than India, but how to quantify that? Particularly, when the difference on a single ball in cricket can mean the best player goes out for ten instead of a hundred?

Well, anyway, what I was saying is that I react, these days, to talk of momentum and pressure and all with skepticism, not that such things exist but that they really have an effect on the game. I do wonder, though, whether it’s true for cricket. I mean, I have been wondering about the game anyway—the difference, as I say, between being dropped at ten or going on to a hundred is so huge, and so many factors are involved. In baseball, the difference between the bat missing the ball entirely and barely grazing it can be huge (a pop-up on the first pitch of the at-bat being about as bad as an at-bat can be, while the swing-and-miss leaves open the possibility of a home run) but can often be not all that huge (I could look up the WPA difference in different circumstances, but I won’t). As far as I can understand, though, there really is no limit to how big one player’s time at bat can be to a game. Two hundred runs? Two hundred fifty? Three hundred? It’s all happened. If Dravid and Tendulkar had batted for two days and collected the draw, it would have been awesome, but not well within the realm of the possible (as various worried England supporters kept saying)—so whatever takes their wickets is huge. All a baseball batter can do is hit a home run, only one. If there’s no-one on base, and you are two runs behind, you cannot do it alone, not even in theory. In cricket, you can eliminate a hundred run deficit all by yourself, at least in theory, and in practice, too often enough.

Does that leave more room for intangibles? Does the sight of a batter in his eighth or ninth hour at the crease make a difference? I don’t know, and I do wonder. Perhaps it’s just that I haven’t read, and maybe nobody has yet written, the equivalent of the BABIP and FIP stuff that changed the way I look at baseball. Or maybe it’s just that different a sport.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

Great stuff Kevin Pieterson and Ian Bell for their respective test centuries against India - way to go guys! It must have been educational for India merely to be there to experience it :-)


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