The Three Ways Mo’ne Davis Changed Baseball Forever

Mo'ne Davis has already changed the game (via Sean Simmers, AP/Pennlive.com).

Mo’ne Davis has already changed the game (via Sean Simmers, AP/Pennlive.com).

Mo’ne Davis, if you find yourself in this island of the Internet, all you need to know is this:

And then as soon as I run my mouth about female players, here comes Mo’ne! I’m on the bandwagon just because I want her to succeed, plus she actually looks like she’s got some serious projection–already throwing 70 at 13; she’ll fill out and add a lot of strength. How cool would it be if she made the big leagues?

That was a major league scout. The same scout that just months ago told me:

As far as women in baseball, I think [independent league knuckleballer Eri] 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.

I hope you will understand my intentions here, Mo’ne. My effort is not to steer you away from basketball, your purported first love. In fact, it is my opinion that if you never do anything else in baseball, you will have already done enough. You can disappear from our narrative, and the course of our story will still have directed down a wholly new route. And I thank you for that.

For the rest of us, let’s ask: What has Mo’ne Davis done? In a factual sense, she has broken barriers by becoming the first female to throw a complete game shutout in the Little League World Series. She led her team with stellar pitching and quality defense across multiple positions–up until they met the buzz-saw offense of Nevada’s Mountain Ridge team (which averaged an even seven runs per Little League World Series game). But more specifically, she has helped baseball in three very important ways. Let’s take a look.

1. Everyone is Talking about Girls in Baseball

Her accomplishments put a Little League athlete on the front page of Sports Illustrated for the first time in history. About five million Americans watched the game on live television. Young, aspiring female athletes packed the stands to see one of their own pitching. As much as Davis deserves recognition as an athlete beyond matters of gender, it is the matter of gender that has made her and her performance a sensation.

Consider her impact on the Google popularity in “Little League World Series”:

In this graph of Google search trends, we find that the previous high for the LLWS in Google’s trend index was a value of 74, achieved in 2006. With Davis in the headlines, the 2014 LLWS had an index value of 100–a 35 percent increase in interest over last year. And while there does not appear to be any immediate, direct impact on the interest of “women baseball” or “girls baseball,” the fact is that no other player has drawn more interest than the female pitcher who dominated all-male lineups.

With already so many artificial barriers between the genders, I do not want to encourage more by focusing on gender, and gender only. But the simple fact is that five million people watched a Little League game live not because of the pitcher. They watched because of the female pitcher. And if we try to minimize that fact, then I fear we are trying to make the very real hurdles faced by female athletes less obvious. We are pretending it’s just as easy for a female athlete to to pitch a LLWS shutout as it is for a male athlete of equal talent. That’s like failing to climb Mount Everest in order to convince ourselves the windy, cloudy cliff face is just as beautiful.

The truth is, Davis has done a wonderful thing for baseball because she has given us a real-world example. Her athletic ability has taken a topic of “What If” and made it into “So Let’s.” Just a few months ago, I was asking: What if a female pitcher could succeed at lower levels? This followed my question: What if female athletes could be a pool of yet-accessed baseball talent? And before that, Alex Remington asked: What if collusion and backward thinking stopped, and women had a fair chance at major MLB jobs?

Mo’ne Davis has ignited the interest of female baseball fans and young, future baseball players. And that means more girls will feel empowered to play baseball, a sport many of them already love. This is where progress toward a female athlete in the majors begins, excitement in Little League.

2. Women in Baseball is Less Hypothetical

Davis gives us someone to project. No, I’m not trying to figure out if she has a chance to play in the majors. Not only is that a gargantuan, high-variance projection effort, but it is also a pointless effort because I am adamantly in support of her choosing basketball over baseball if that is her preference.

So when I say she “gives us someone to project,” I mean that it is no longer a hypothetical exercise to ask: “What if a 13-year-old girl could throw 70 mph and dominate her peers?”

Before Davis hit our radar, many of us–whether inside or outside of baseball–would have said, “Sure that would be interesting, but it won’t happen.” This transition from hypothetical to Mo’ne is precisely what changed the mind of the above-quoted scout.

Is age 13 too young for an athlete to demonstrate real major league potential? I posed that question to the scouting team at FanGraphs, and the general consensus was, “Eh, maybe not.” Kiley McDaniel says though it is possible to see talent that early, we would never really give much thought to domestic talent at that age because the draft is still so far away:

Yes, it’s way too early for domestic LLWS players considering they can’t be signed until 18 and so much can happen in six years.

I know occasionally when the Venezuelan or other Caribbean teams gets deep in the tournament, international scouts will know the name of a big standout kid since they’re often known to local scouts around 12-13 and scouted in a loose sense around 14 to prepare for the 15-16 year old July 2 push.

I worked for a club one year when the [Venezuelan LLWS] team had a kid that was a lefty hitter with a bunch of homers that was a head taller than everyone else. Our int’l director said his top VZ scouts already knew about the kid and he was already with one of the top buscons.

Fellow scout Dan Farnsworth echoes these sentiments:

There’s so much physical development that goes on within just a couple years that it’s impossible to know exactly how coordinated and strong they will be at maturity. The rules on bat weight change and the fields get bigger, usually leading to a lot of overcompensating which can develop into bad habits if not corrected. Not to mention all the social reasons for kids falling off the map.

So it does not hurt to see talent at this age, but the nature of the game is changing rapidly for all the factors involved. And while it is not unreasonable to expect a Mo’ne Davis-type pitcher to improve as she approaches age 18, it is likewise difficult to assume such progress will keep her above the high-school replacement level.

Again, McDaniels:

It’s unlikely that she grows big/strong enough that her physicality can turn that arm speed into velocity like a big league pitcher. She also has to stay healthy.

I don’t know if a female pitcher has been this good relative to her peers at this late of a developmental stage before, so maybe we’re seeing the exception to the rule right now.

Farnsworth echoes those same ideas:

As for Mo’ne Davis, I think Kiley summarized my thoughts pretty well. It’s not impossible, but it is highly unlikely that she will develop physically to keep up with boys of the same age, at least from a tools standpoint. Girls have less time to grow before they mature and their bones fuse, making it likely she will have a smaller frame and muscle mass to work with. Maybe she is an exception, and is able to make up for less physicality with mechanics and makeup.

Let’s have a little thought experiment. We know that the average female is about 66 percent as strong as the average male. Let’s assume a 13-year-old male goes from throwing his fastball 70 mph to 92 mph. If a Mo’ne Davis were to develop at 66 percent his rate, what would her fastball velocity look like at different ages? Assuming a polynomial growth rate (which best mirrors the young growth spurts of the typical male athlete), we would expect something like this:

Fastball Development

The growth spurt in the 13 to 17 area would probably not happen for a female athlete, but a female pitcher throwing in the mid-80s is not unreasonable. As I mentioned in my previous article, Justine Siegel from Baseball for All has seen a female throw as fast as 82 mph. If a Mo’ne Davis-type athlete throws 85 mph, she will–to my knowledge–have the fastest fastball of any female pitcher.

Would an 85-mph fastball be enough to crack a major league pitching staff? With some snapping breaking pitches or a biting change-up–assuming those pitches offer the kind of effectiveness Davis had against her peers–then yes. I think the answer has to be yes.

3. Girls in the LLWS Needs to Become a Thing

For the same reason we might be pessimistic about Davis’ ability to throw 90 mph at age 22, we might also expect that young female athletes have an advantage when it comes Little League competitions. Females begin pubescent growth a year or two earlier than males, and are even physically larger than their male counterparts in the 11 to 12 age range, with males catching them around age 14.

And what causes the males to catch and then ultimately exceed the heights and muscle masses of their female counterparts? Testosterone. That manly-sounding sex hormone appears to be the chief cause for what I call the “testosterone gap,” the enormous difference in male and female strength and athletic achievement. Seriously, testosterone is insanely powerful.

In other words: Girls may make a better LLWS team than boys.

And if it seems unfair to compose a team entirely of girls because puberty favors them for just this narrow window of age 11 through 13, then I kindly invite you to the remaining 55 or so remaining years of American life expectancy when females will be under the burden of the testosterone gap.

The all-girl LLWS championship team may be a generation or two away, but I will be looking forward to it.

So When It Starts

The age of the “What If” is dying. Mo’ne Davis and high school knuckleballer Chelsea Baker are the great “So Whens.”

So when Davis is 18, how hard will she throw? So when the girls who watched her pitch get their turn to try out for a Little League team, who could say no? So when Chelsea Baker graduates in 2016, will a major league team take a chance on a knuckleballer with a sub-1.00 ERA?

Because this is how a population of talent shifts. It does not start with a major league All-Star. It starts with Chelsea Baker holding her own in high school and throwing BP in St. Pete. It starts with Mo’ne Davis inspiring other young athletes to play the sports they want to, not the ones they are told to. It starts with Little League and high school. It starts with Mo’ne Davis.

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Comments

  1. said...

    “Yes, it’s way too early for domestic LLWS players considering they can’t be signed until 18 and so much can happen in six years.”

    Not true. Domestic players are signable the summer after finishing high school, whether that makes them 16, 17, 18 or even 19.

    • said...

      Correct, but aren’t most in the 17 to 18 range? I’m not sure, but anecdotal evidence from my own life (and recollections from past drafts) have me thinking we rarely see a 16-year-old in the Rule 4 draft.

  2. Tom Au said...

    Supposed a “top” 13-year old boy’s pitch speed goes from 70 mph to 100 mph by age 18. And suppose Mo’ne’s pitch speed grows at two-third’s that rate. Then she’d be pitching 90 mph, fast enough for the big leagues.

    • Richie said...

      If a boy hits 100mph at 18, he pretty much always goes down from there. (velocity peaks VERY early) A boy throwing 90 at 18 basically isn’t a prospect.

      • Billy said...

        I have to question this. I’m pretty sure that plenty of pitchers add velocity during the 18-22 range due to an improvement in mechanics, not to mention they may continue to add a little muscle. Velocity peaks early, but I think it’s more 22-early, not 18-early. Barring injury, I’m guessing that the improvement in mechanics outweighs any aging that takes place during the 18-22 phase.

        I think the general point you’re making is true, but I think it’s being exaggerated a bit.

  3. cass said...

    So if a girl were a LLWS star and she wanted to go on to play in MLB, would her best bet be to start taking supplemental testosterone?

  4. Frank Jackson said...

    Jesus, get a grip. How many male LLWS hotshots have we never heard from again? For that matter, how many “can’t miss” prospects are mislabeled?

    It reminds me of an article I read many years ago (I think it was in “Psychology Today”). The theme of the article was prodigies (admittedly, mostly in math and music, not physically), as in what happens to prodigies as they get older? The answer: everybody else catches up to them. They peak early and after reaching a certain age, their advantage evaporates. They just don’t stand out from the crowd like they used to.

    So avoid the hype. A lot of it is strictly commercial anyway. The big bucks boys sniff another “marketable personality,” a la Danica Patrick. I don’t know about the affiliated minor leagues, but it is certainly possible that an independent league might be interested in a female pitcher as a curiosity to bring more fans to the park.

    Either way, it won’t be about breaking down barriers; it’ll be about making money.

    • Steven said...

      So you say, “Jesus, get a grip?” Yeah, that’s not blown out of proportions at all. But as long as you kind of have a gripe about the lack of new information (I didn’t know the exact LLWS search increase or the 66% general rule on growth), that’s fine. It’s pretty clear the author is the one who needs to take a chill pill.

  5. Bip said...

    One the one hand: If the fastest female pitchers today top out at 82, that suggests that there are women who could potentially throw much faster than that. The talent pool for female baseball players is tiny compared to male players. There are maybe 10% as many female baseball players as male worldwide? What this means is that the female Aroldis Chapman probably has never even thrown a baseball competitively. If there were as many women playing baseball as men, and they played it as competitively, and their leagues were taken just as seriously, then we would definitely find many women who would blow away the previous records for female fastball velocity.

    It’s hard to say what the maximum really is, but I would strongly bet that there are women who would be capable of touching 90 mph *if they were to grow up playing baseball*. There may only be a handful, but I bet they exist.

    On the other hand: there is so much more to being a successful major league pitcher than hitting 90 mph. How many players can throw 90? Non-prospects who never make it out of A-ball can throw 90. The worst pitcher on your favorite team probably can throw 90. Right now, the woman who can throw 90 would be something of a freak of nature. What are the chances she would also have enough life on the fastball, and good enough offspeed stuff AND good enough command to make it out of the low minors, let alone break a major league roster for an extended period of time? Sure, there isn’t a reason I know of that she wouldn’t be able to have those other traits; I don’t think there are inherent physical differences between a pitcher with good command and one with bad command. However, speaking strictly in terms of probability, the fewer women there are that can even cross the minimum velocity threshold, the lower the chance one of those few will have all the other things necessary to become a legitimate big-leaguer.

    Is there a woman out there who, if raised in the right conditions, could pitch on a major league roster? I think so, yes. Is there any significant chance that all of the things needed for that to happen will happen? No, I don’t think so. For all we know she could be in a country that doesn’t even have a baseball league.

  6. pft said...

    Come on, at age 12 you there are many girls who are more physically developed than boys at the same age, The equation changes dramatically with age. with a much lower pool of women who can compete. The odds are so low, and even if there were a few who could, conditions in the lower minors are so harsh I doubt any would want to make the effort.

    I do think its about time a woman became an ump, but they probably have more brains to even try to climb that ladder.

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