I like to think I came of age during baseball’s last golden age. The first memories I have of the sport are the 1982 World Series, and for the next five years I lived and breathed the game. This was after the 1981 strike so labor relations weren’t a concern, and it was before performance enhancing drugs ruined the sport for a generation. (There were plenty of drugs in 80s baseball, don’t get me wrong, but they were rarely the injections of whatever nasty stuff Roger Clemens and his ilk were filling their arms with a decade later.)
Not only did I get to see young players that would become legends cut their teeth, but I also got to see the last years of the same of the great players from the previous generation. Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski, to name two outfield players, and some of the greatest pitchers to ever play the game: namely Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan. Pitchers that had debuted in 60s when the game was still old, and the mound still high. Grizzled veterans who scuffed the ball up and made it move. Strike out pitchers. Like three Kerry Woods who never got hurt.
All three were first ballot hall of famers. And Seaver’s and Carlton’s legacies are solidified: everyone agrees they were great, and great for a long time.
Ryan’s legacy is a little more difficult. He struck out more guys than anyone ever, but he also walked a lot of people, and the on-base-percentage of people facing him was over .300, which is definitely not the case for most pitchers in the Hall of Fame. There are some critics who say that while Ryan was a good pitcher, he was not great, he was just able to stay healthy and pitch for a very long time. They call it “compiling,” which I have always thought is a little boorish. But in some ways, they are right. If you stay healthy, and if you are above average, you are going to put together a lot of stats, good and bad. Does that make you one of the greats? It’s a debatable question for sure.
When I first started writing this blog, I compared cricket and baseball quite a bit. Looking back, it’s a little embarrassing. I wasn’t comparing the two like I do now, talking about the games in a more atmospheric sense, but in a nuts and bolts way, with stats and numbers. After a while it became clear that while the games are similar in a couple not insignificant ways, ways that cannot be entirely discounted, they are far too different in too many other ways to compare and contrast them.
There’s a software I use at work — Salesforce Marketing Cloud, an email service provider (ESP) — and when I am training new people on it I tell them that its biggest difference from other ESPs is that everything is at the send level, rather than at the email level. It sounds like a small difference, but it affects how work is done in every possible way.
After a few years — and I am sheepish it took so long — I noticed the one fundamental difference between cricket and baseball: in baseball, the pitcher is on defense; in cricket, the bowler is the attack. Once I saw this, something clicked, and I never looked at cricket the same again, and I definitely stopped comparing the two from a statistical angle, especially pitchers versus bowlers, that just no longer made any sense to me.
But I am going to do it right now anyway. At least kind of.
When Jimmy Anderson got his 600th wicket, I immediately thought of the three pitchers above, and their long, successful careers. But is Anderson more of a Steve Carlton? Or a Nolan Ryan? What will his legacy be when he hangs up the bowling boots? That of great player with a long career, or a good player who just played a lot of cricket?
Personally, I don’t think there is any doubt that Anderson is one of the best cricketers of his generation, and while, yes, he has played a lot of cricket, and that helped him get to the 600 wicket plateau, you simply can’t label him as a “compiler,” though I am sure there are writers out there doing it as I type this. And with some justification, honestly. His average is 26.79, which is high when compared to the other big haul wicket takers: McGrath is at 21.64; Hadlee 22.29; Muralitharan 22.72, etc. And more than half of his 600 wickets came on comfortable English soil (100 of those at Lord’s alone). And only eight other players have played more Tests than he has. And he has the most deliveries ever by a Test pace bowler.
People are surely calling him a compiler, but I don’t agree with that. Yes, the argument can be made, but they made same argument against Sachin Tendulkar — as he was chasing his 100th 100 you couldn’t turn around without someone mentioning how many of them came against Bangladesh — and I think both arguments are incorrect. Anderson is a great bowler who bowls a lot of deliveries, and gets a lot of people out; and Tendulkar was a great (possibly the greatest?) batsman who scored a helluva lot of runs.
There is no such thing as a compiler in professional sports. The games are too hard, played at too high a level. If you are good, and you have a long career, you are simply great.
One baseball writer wrote of Ryan that the strikes (pun intended) against him are boring to talk about (on base percentage, walks), while the stats in the positive column are interesting and long lasting (no hitters, strikeouts). I think the same can be said of Anderson. In 20 years, people won’t think about how much cricket he played, or how he was medium fast and not fast, they will think about his wickets against India at home in 2011, and they will think about number 600 in a pandemic bubble in Southampton. Anderson is fun to watch, an old school bowler in a brave new world. He just gets people out, and gets them out a lot, and that’s his job. And that alone makes him one of the greats.
And 20 years from now, when I am thinking back on my time as a cricket fan, Anderson will be one of the players that I am thrilled that I got the chance to see play, and not just for a year or two, but for going on 13 years now. And that seals it for me there. I want the greats to not burn out, but fade away, to let us enjoy their brilliance for years and years. Whether they be Nolan Ryan and Jimmy Anderson, compile away, because it’s a joy to watch.
Steve Carlton though. Watch that slider move. Unbelievable. Those 80s Phillies teams were pretty special.