By Jared Diamond, Wall Street Journal
Kieran Powell, a 25-year-old outfielder from the Caribbean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis, has received worldwide recognition for his ability to react to a ball traveling at 90 mph and hit it ridiculously far with a wooden bat.
In light of that, it might not sound all that surprising that he was invited to work out for the Mets at their training facility in Port St. Lucie, Florida last weekend.
What is surprising is that in Powell’s world, the bat is flat, the ball bounces before he swings and pitchers and catchers give way to bowlers and wicket-keepers.
After nearly a decade playing high-level cricket, Powell has decided to pursue a career in professional baseball, in the hopes of one day making the major leagues. If he succeeds, it would make him a pioneer: Though baseball and cricket appear similar, there has been virtually no overlap between the sports in the elite ranks.
“Hopefully I can be the face of change for both sports,” said Powell.
Powell has never played organized baseball, but he has shown enough potential to generate attention from MLB talent evaluators. He has already worked out for the Milwaukee Brewers and the Mets. On Wednesday, he will hold a tryout session for scouts at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Representatives from around a dozen teams—including the Chicago Cubs, Detroit Tigers and Pittsburgh Pirates—are expected to attend.
Following a contract dispute with the West Indies team, Powell’s agent sent footage of Powell to major-league teams, catching the eye of scouts from the Los Angeles Dodgers. They arranged for Powell to spend eight weeks last summer training in Southern California with two former Dodgers players to start the process of dropping his “cricket habits” and learning the nuances of baseball. (Powell declined to reveal which ex-players worked with him.)
From there, Powell moved to IMG, where he had to convince the coaches to take him on. Dan Simonds, a former minor-league catcher and the director of IMG’s baseball academy, said he was initially “a little skeptical” of Powell after watching film of him swinging a baseball bat. But after seeing another tape of Powell taken two or three weeks later, Simonds changed his mind.
“At that point I said if he made that kind of progress in that amount of time with a limited amount of coaching, if we could get our hands on him, maybe we could help him and he would become a legitimate prospect,” Simonds said.
For the past five weeks, Powell has been training extensively at IMG. He has worked on hitting with John-Ford Griffin, who appeared in 13 games for the Toronto Blue Jays from 2005 through 2007, and defense with former Baltimore Orioles outfielder Tim Raines Jr. He has also spent time with Miami Marlins infielder Dee Gordon, who trains at IMG in the off-season.
Powell initially thought of himself as a right fielder, but the Brewers recommended he try center field to emphasize his speed. Simonds said Powell’s 60-yard dash times of around 6.6 seconds are above average. In cricket, Powell said players often warm up with baseball gloves, but field in matches barehanded.
“You can’t question my defense,” Powell said. “They give you a big glove and go tell you to go catch a ball with a big extra glove.”
Hitting presents a greater challenge, as Powell must reconstruct a left-handed swing tailored for cricket into one suitable for baseball. Cricketers swing with more of an uppercut, while the baseball swing is traditionally on a level path. But Simonds said that Powell’s proficiency in cricket proves that he at least has the hand-eye coordination and hand strength to handle baseball, if nothing else.
The question is whether the skill set will translate.
Ed Smith, a former professional cricketer in England, spent a week at spring training with the Mets in 2001, while writing a book called “Playing Hard Ball,” which explored British and American cultural identities through the lens of cricket and baseball. He said that while certain aspects of cricket are transferrable to baseball, the mechanics of the swings are different.
That said, Smith suggested that the two swings are closer now than ever before. The advent of Twenty20 cricket—a version of the game that shortens matches to about three hours from as long as five days—has emphasized power. As a result, cricketers have started to adopt a swing more similar to baseball’s, relying on lower-body torque.
“It would present major technical challenges,” Smith said of switching sports. “I’m not saying he can’t. The games are converging technically from quite a wide distance.”
Thus far, Powell has mostly worked against pitching machines throwing in the upper 70s and low 80s. He hasn’t seen much live pitching, which Simonds called “the true test.”
Even if a team does sign Powell, he faces a tough road. He would have to start at the bottom rungs of the minor leagues and, at age 25, he’s already old for a baseball prospect to enter the system.
Yet Powell remains undaunted. “I don’t expect to walk in and be the star of the show,” Powell said. “I just want the opportunity, and I believe a team will have a major-league player in two or three years from a market they never expected.”