“I want to throw like a girl” read the posters in Williamsport, Pa., when Mo’ne Davis, the 5' 4" righthander from South Philly, fastball’ed her way into America’s heart during the Little League World Series. Even after her team, the Taney Dragons, lost in the U.S. semifinals, Davis’s performance left a question standing on the mound: Could the first girl to pitch a shutout in the LLWS become the first woman to pitch in the majors?
“I wouldn’t say it’s impossible,” says former SI senior writer David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. But Davis is already behind in the count. Starting in the womb, Epstein explains, boys develop with a genetic advantage specific to pitching: their forearms grow longer in proportion to the rest of their arms, creating a more forceful throwing whip. With the onset of the “natural steroid cycle” of puberty, as Epstein calls it, that trait is only exaggerated. Plus boys generally grow taller than girls, and at the top level the size of an athlete’s pitching stride correlates closely to pitch velocity. Besides the science, there is the reality that there are plenty of boys who can throw a 70-mph fastball like Mo’ne but never get near the majors, let alone the minors.
But don’t count her out, Epstein says. Davis is doing at least one thing right. Along with baseball, she participates in soccer and basketball, and says her dream is to play college hoops for UConn. Counter to the prevailing notion that early specialization is key to a pro career, studies show that future elites actually practice less on average in their eventual sports than near-elites and that most U.S.-born big leaguers play multiple sports through high school. “Mo’ne looks like she’s shaping up along the path that elites typically take,” Epstein says. “She’s going about it perfectly.”