My wife is pregnant. Friends ask me, “Do you want a boy or girl?”
I answer, “It doesn’t matter. The child’s playing baseball either way.”
This is a joke, of course. I can no more force my child to enjoy baseball than my own artist father could convince me to prefer painting over mathematics. But there is a kernel of truth in there. I want all my future children to pursue athletics, especially baseball. And I do not want a matter of gender disqualifying them from the sports they like.
When I say, “I hope women will one day play in the majors,” I don’t say this with a passing fancy. I hope women play in the majors because, yes, I think it would be fun, but also I think it would be right.
Half of baseball fans are women. And they’re not there just to ogle Joey Votto‘s biscuits (and suggesting as much is offensive, so stop it, MLB apparel companies). This sport has a history of female athletes that predates the NBA and the Union of European Football Associations. Women love this sport; it is as much theirs as it is men’s.
In 2011, I wrote an article for FanGraphs suggesting that female athletes could be an untapped resource for baseball talent. To the delight of my family, the very first response to the article was an all-caps: “NOPE.”
I was less delighted by the blunt response and by the fact the proposal engendered over 300 comments of debate. I would much have preferred the idea of women in baseball had met a resounding “Huzzah!” as baseball fans around the world recognized that our fine sport is in a unique position to accommodate the athletic talents of both genders.
I realize now that I will need more work, more evidence, to convince not only the open minds out there, but myself. I had enough smart minds disagree with me that I recognized I needed to study the issue more fully.
The Matter of Testosterone
Let’s begin with what we widely believe: Men are predisposed towards greater physical ability than women. Male basketball teams shoot the ball further and dunk the ball more frequently; male golfers hit the ball further; male sprinters and long distance runners finish the races faster and hold the fastest records; male swimmers do the same. Beg for equality as much as I may, genetics (namely, the distribution of testosterone) favors the male athlete.
It is this greater muscle mass [resulting from testosterone differences] that most researchers agree gives men a distinct advantage in many sports. On average, women are about 66% as strong as men according to [Dr. Carol Christensen], with the greatest disparity being in upper-body strength (56%).
This is what primarily rules out contact sports like football, boxing and wrestling from head-to-head competition between the sexes. And even as women continue to improve their training techniques and times in other sports, there are indications that they may have done all they can to erase the inherent physiological differences between the sexes.
–The Wall Street Journal, 2012
But this is what is so great about baseball. As Greg Simons noted in December, baseball is about specialization; players do not need the same athletic talents to produce the same results:
While many pitchers fit the mold of the 6-foot-4, 220-pound flame-throwing beast, there are numerous exceptions. Bartolo Colon and David Wells have succeeded despite having the physiques of couch potatoes. Tim Collins has been getting people out as a member of the Royals bullpen for the last three seasons in spite of his listed size of 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds.
So here was my theory: Female athletes do not need to be better than the best male athletes to be viable major league candidates. They need to be better than the 25th man; they need to outplay Nick Green, not Mike Trout.
This is all thought experiment, though. The most legitimate pro female league in the world, the Japanese Women’s Baseball League (JWBL), draws from a shallow talent pool. So throwing these female players against a male baseball team would not produce much useful information. They might be around the talent level of a high school team, but the female pros have unequal physical maturity.
We do have players like Eri Yoshida, Ila Borders and Tiffany Brooks, women who have played in traditionally male independent leagues, but the sample is too limited–and perhaps more of an indication about the population of female baseball players. Many potential baseball players get syphoned into softball–whether they want to or not. So we have to look elsewhere around the world of sports for analogies, instructive examples from obliquely similar sports.
The Athletic Gap in Other Sports
I run 5Ks. Running is a sport I like and one that has direct tie-ins to baseball. According Justine Siegal, founder and head of Baseball for All, running may be the biggest physical hurdle preventing women from reaching the majors as position players.
Most players don’t get looked at if they can’t run. So that would count out most women from the beginning.
When she told me this, I was surprised. When I run 5Ks, I usually finish in the top 30 or so, and recently even finished third–though I think that was an event for kids, so imagine something like this. Anyway, there is almost always an overlap in the top group of runners. The top 20 runners have two or three women sprinkled in, or at least so it seems. Fourth place in the kids event was a female athlete.
This, I hoped, would further illustrate my point. I am not saying the average female athlete can compete in the majors; I am saying a superior, unheralded female athlete will. So I looked at track results from the 2012-13 NCAA indoor field and track season. These are finely-tuned male and female athletes competing in a sport with as few external factors as we can get in athletic competitions. Considering there are 750 players in the major leagues at any given time (and +two players for every doubleheader), surely among the top 500 male sprinters or 5K runners we’ll find a few female runners:
Wow. What a blow to my hopes. The best female time in the 60 meter dash, Aurieyall Scott’s 7.13, is still worse than the 500th male time, a 16-way tie at 7.02. Sure, some amateur female runners may finish well in my local 5K, but that appears to be a comment on the population of amateur talent, not the nearness of physical ability between the genders.
In fact, Olympic results across a variety of physical sports suggest the talent gap is about 10 percent:
A stabilization of the gender gap in world records is observed after 1983, at a mean difference of 10.0% ± 2.94 between men and women for all events. The gender gap ranges from 5.5% (800-m freestyle, swimming) to 18.8% (long jump). The mean gap is 10.7% for running performances, 17.5% for jumps, 8.9% for swimming races, 7.0% for speed skating and 8.7% in cycling. The top ten performers’ analysis reveals a similar gender gap trend with a stabilization in 1982 at 11.7%, despite the large growth in participation of women from eastern and western countries that coincided with later-published evidence of state-institutionalized or individual doping.
Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, “Women and Men in Sport Performance”
This general rule of 10 percent makes sense with what Justine Siegal told me, that 82 mph is the hardest fastball she has seen from a female pitcher, about 10 percent slower than the average major league fastball.
But running–though it is a component of baseball–is still unlike the whole of baseball. It is part skill, yes, and part mental (with regard to pacing and such), but it is largely physical. That’s why I chose to look at running, because it represents raw athletic ability more than technique.
We could perhaps move a step closer to baseball on the spectrum of talent and skill by looking at tennis. There we have the famous Battle of the Sexes–all, like, six of them–in which only once has female won (the famous Billy Jean King). And that victory now has a fresh haze of game-fixing controversy around it, deserved or not.
Tennis requires a more multi-faceted athlete than a baseball player. You cannot survive as a great server only. You still need a forehand and backhand and other tennis-type words. But in baseball, a player–Mariano Rivera–can throw one pitch and make a career of it. Darwin Barney and Neifi Perez can/could play defense well enough to keep them in the majors despite their ability to do little else.
There is a talent base that presumably could be more instructive about female baseball talents. The thriving softball culture in the U.S. does give us a solid glance at some elements of hitting ability.
Softball Talent in a Baseball Universe
This video makes several interesting points–some obvious, some more intriguing–about the differences between softball and baseball pitching. The key differences, for the present moment, are the angles (softballs literally rise; baseballs necessarily fall) and the reaction time (softball hitters have about 20 percent less time to react to a pitch).
Granted, softball bats are metal and therefore lighter–I believe–and possess larger barrels, all for aiming at a much larger target. So even though softball hitters have less time to react, they are still trying to make an easier connection. But that did not stop Jennie Finch from striking out Albert Pujols, Mike Piazza and Marcus Giles in a 2004 All-Star event, an event I witnessed with my tender TV-watching teenage eyes, an event that may have, some ambling decade ago, seeded this very article.
No disrespect to Byrne, who had five great minor league seasons and one bad one, but it is a bummer to see Finch working against only a minor leaguer in this video, especially considering Byrne had not yet reached Double-A when this was filmed.
The Professional Opinions
I spoke with a major league scout about female baseball players, and he thinks we already have seen the approximate height of female baseball.
As far as women in baseball, I think Yoshida is probably the closest thing that’s ever gonna happen. I hate to be pessimistic, but there are so many things that would have to go right for a woman to make MLB, like obvious velocity or a wicked trick pitch like a knuckleball or some speed demon that could bunt or something.
And the outlook grows dimmer when we consider that, for every female pitcher or position player in high school stuck at an 80-mph fastball ceiling or a 30-grade power ceiling, there are just as many male high school players, a population of players who have, for decades, filled the independent leagues or quit the sport after high school.
What does Yoshida have that Joe High Schooler doesn’t? That is the question we have to ask. She has a commitment to a trick pitch, if we may call the hallowed knuckleball that, but otherwise has no discrete advantage over male peers.
I polled 14 writers at The Hardball Times and our sister site FanGraphs. Seven of my colleagues felt that women would likely never reach the majors, even assuming an absence of prejudice or bias. Two writers were unsure, and the five remaining–myself included–believed women would eventually break into the major leagues.
Brad Johnson then offered an excellent perspective:
I think it just depends on the time horizon you set. I’m not confident we’ll see one within our lifetimes, but I think technology and changing perceptions will eventually allow it to happen. Assuming the world doesn’t implode first.
Which brings forward a great point: the changing universe of sports technology and medicine. A hundred years ago, it would have been unthinkable to have players throwing 100 mph regularly. It would have been impossible to rip a tendon from somewhere else in the body and stuff it into a pitcher’s elbow and keep his career alive.
Sports technology is changing. Baseball is changing. Both are moving targets. The ancient farmer, I’ve heard it said, never asked for a tractor. He asked for a stronger mule. We cannot anticipate what is coming next and how it will obliterate the old ways.
A New Dawn for Specialization
The story of Jackie Mitchell is an important one. She was a sidearm lefty who famously struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig during an exhibition game in 1931–the veritable heights of both men’s careers. The game may have been either farce or fact; it’s hard to say. John Thorne, whom I respect with every ounce of Super Respect I own, claims the event was more vaudeville than authentic.
Conversely, Tim Wiles at the Hall of Fame, says (rightly) that Ruth was also a strikeout king, and he facing a soft-tossing lefty with a hard sinker. As a lefty himself and having just seen a more traditional pitcher, it is not inconceivable that Ruth would have struggled against Mitchell. In the same way, we have found teams struggle to regain their rhythm after facing the Knuckleball Prince, R.A. Dickey.
The game is changing, and so is the means of preparing for it and healing from it. Although it is unlikely female athletes will ever find a workaround for the 10 percent testosterone gap–or, rather, find a workaround that male athletes themselves can’t also utilize–other factors could render the issue moot anyway.
Smaller stadiums may mean a female hitter–smashing a ball 10 percent shallower than her male counterparts–could develop into a legitimate home run hitter. Perhaps lowering the mound or narrowing the strike zone will suddenly render a hitherto unnoticed advantage to shorter position players.
Or maybe, just maybe, a girl is going to force her way onto a roster like a baseball breaking through a chain link fence. Maybe Chelsea Baker will take her continued high school success (19 IP, 9 K, 3 BB, and a 0.74 ERA on the muscled back of Joe Niekro’s non-twirler) into the collegiate sphere. Maybe Yoshida, still just 22 years old, will find her strike zone as a member of the Ishikawa Million Stars (where she is a teammate of Charles Nading and Derrick Loop, and a student of Shinji Mori). Perhaps outfielder Iori Miura will someday manage to translate her 2013 success–a .407/.515/.536 slash and 27 of 30 stolen bases–from the JWBL to an independent league with greater pitching talent. She already has nine doubles, six steals and a 1.815 OPS in 36 plate appearances this JWBL season.
The great frustration of this idea, this adventurous notions of baseball for everyone, is that it’s just an idea right now. Yoshida is bouncing around unheard-of independent teams, Baker is still a universe away from the minor leagues; and Miura is a name you have read for the first time today.
All our projections and all our estimations of female baseball abilities mean nothing every time a high school coach takes a chance on an aspiring female athlete. When a girl steps into a batter’s box, all that will matter is the game and what she does with the next pitch. Until then, we can estimate that the road is difficult, but it is not impossible. It can’t be.
As Justine Siegal told me: “If Tim Wakefield can pitch with a 72 mph fastball, then anything is possible.”
J.P. Howell has an 86-mph fastball and a seven-figure salary. Mark Buehrle has clocked around an 84 mph fastball these last few years, and he and his near-60 RA9 wins (and counting) may just saunter on down to Cooperstown if he ever decides to retire. Also: Jamie Moyer. Q.E.D.
Can a woman make it to the majors? Yes. Too much about this game is changing in unpredictable ways for us to ever close a door like that. Will she look like that typical male baseball player? No. She will not hit homers. She will not throw 100 mph. Not unless something big changes.
Is she playing right now? Is the first female major league player out there somewhere? I don’t know. Maybe she is playing softball. Maybe she is not born yet. Maybe she is named Eri, Chelsea or Iori.
Either way, I will be rooting for her.
References & Resources
- A big thanks to Justine Siegal, Brad Johnson, Greg Simmons, and the MLB insiders who entertained my questions on this topic.
- “Women and Men in Sport Performance: The Gender Gap has not Evolved Since 1983,” by Valérie Thibault, et al., in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine
- “Taking Aim at an Old Debate: Can Female Athletes Compete Against Men? In Shooting, Yes—But Not in the Olympics,” by Mark Yost in The Wall Street Journal
- “Chelsea Baker proves talent trumps gender on baseball diamond,” by Kelly Parsons in the Tampa Bay Times
- “Gender Differences in Sport Injury Risk and Types of Injuries: A Retrospective Twelve-Month Study on Cross-Country Skiers, Swimmers, Long-Distance Runners and Soccer Players,” by Leena Ristolainen, et al., in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine
- “Age-Associated Changes In Vo2 and Power Output – A Cross-Sectional Study of Endurance Trained New Zealand Cyclists,” by Stephen J. Brown, Helen J. Ryan and Julie A. Brown in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine
- “‘…If I Had a Choice, I Would….’ A Feminist Poststructuralist Perspective on Girls in Physical Education,” by Laura Azzaritoa, Melinda A. Solmonb and Louis Harrison Jr. in the Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport
- “Family Socialization, Gender, and Sport Motivation and Involvement,” by Jennifer A. Fredricks and Jacquelynne S. Eccles in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology
- “Ng Disappointed at Lack of Women in MLB,” by Alex Remington at FanGraphs
- “Women Are Coming to Baseball, Like It or Not,” by Alex Remington at FanGraphs