The American baseball season has just started what they call Spring Training. All 30 teams are based either in Florida or in Arizona where the weather is no longer wintry. Players come together to prepare for the long season ahead. Each team’s management must evaluate up to 100 players to decide which 25 players to bring to the beginning of the season in April.
The Premier League has also just kicked off so the two sports offer an interesting contrast to sports bettors.
Baseball is Statistics Driven
Baseball is the most “stationary” of all sports save chess, checkers, and the like. On the field at any one time are the nine defenders plus the “batter” who may be the sole player from the offence on the field at any given time. The batter may be joined by up to three “base runners” at first, second, and third base each trying to reach “home” and score a “run”.
All of these players are essentially standing around as the pitcher prepares to throw the ball toward the batter in a manner resembling cricket bowling. Then the pitcher throws the ball at speeds approaching 160 kph! The batter has the most meagre fraction of a second to decide if he should swing or not.
If the batter hits the ball, at least one defender may have to go from standing still to full speed running immediately!
Because baseball is so stationary, there is a wealth of statistical material that goes into evaluating players and by extension teams. This makes betting on baseball intriguing and challenging.
By contrast, football is a perpetual motion sport in which there is relatively little to differentiate teams aside from the obvious talents of the teams’ individual players. In football, speed, coordination, team play, passing, dribbling, and kicking skills are evident but cannot be codified well enough to make a statistical record strong enough to use in betting on games.
Just because the players are standing still in between pitches doesn’t mean that there is no action going on. Each team employs a team of evaluators and statisticians who are quickly trying to determine the best strategic course of action for that coming pitch!
On each pitch, the defensive team must decide where to place defenders, which type of pitch to throw, and many other subtle decisions based on every statistical factor from the players’ past history! All of this makes baseball the most subtle and most cerebral of all the team sports.
New Defensive Approach
This all leads to the interesting development in Premier League football in which managers have adopted a “revolutionary” new defensive alignment.
Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola led the revival of the three defender alignment that was once thought finished as a strategic setup. At the end of the century, the three defender set was thought to be dead as teams looked to mid-fielders to co-ordinate offensive thrusts.
Football players have changed in the past twenty years and now the centre-back has taken on the responsibility of both playing stellar defence but also setting the team on its newest offensive course.
Some fans may remember how a single hockey player, Bobby Orr, revolutionized hockey by controlling games on offence from his position on defence! This happened around 1970 in North American hockey. It led to the offensive-minded defenseman and to the influx of hockey players from Europe to the North American leagues. The pure defensive defenseman in hockey is the true dodo bird of that sport.
Football about to Experience Massive Development
The three defender set may be the biggest strategic change in football in decades. It relies on extraordinary skill on the part of the centre-back. A centre-back who can control the game from that position will stand out against all other players in the same way that Diego Maradona so clearly stood out from the rest of the players on the pitch during the heyday of his career.
The three defender set began as a way of defending against the two striker alignment. The third defender was called the sweeper as he swept the ball away from his goal and began the offensive move. A great sweeper was able to stretch the field as the opposing side had to immediately fall back into its own defensive alignment. Confusion often led to goals.
When teams went to a single striker set, it made the third defender redundant. It was still used by some teams in Italy but was moribund on the rest of the continent. The change in the modern three defender set is that the role of the sweeper is now the responsibility of the wing-backs.
When a team begins moving forward on offence led by a wingback, there are as many as eight passing lanes for the back. The defending team must communicate well to defend all eight lanes else the offensive team will make quick inroads into the team’s defences.
The visual chaos that often occurs on a football pitch has been compared to the chaos that occurs in slots at online casinos. There the chaos is handled by the Random Number Generator which determines every outcome. Baseball more resembles blackjack where the decisions are not random and the thinking goes quite deep.
At the outset of the seasons of two wildly different sports—football and baseball—it pays to renew our understanding of the sport we feel that we know so well whilst educating ourselves to appreciate the immense subtleties of the sport we admittedly know far less well.