Will a woman ever break through in Major League Baseball?
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As part of a roundtable discussion last week with seven reporters who cover Major League Baseball, I asked the panel whether we would see a woman play major league baseball sometime in the next 50 years. Their answers were illuminating and I saved the responses for today’s column. I also wanted to add some thoughts from one of the smartest people I know on sports science: ProPublica reporter David Epstein, my former Sports Illustrated colleague and the author of New York Times-best seller, The Sports Gene, which examined the science of extraordinary athletic performance.
Epstein said he believes it’s likely we'll see a woman in the MLB in the coming decades, and he put the time horizon at less than 50 years if it indeed happens.
“I think she's more likely to be a position player than a pitcher, Epstein said. “If you look at some of the biomechanical differences between men and women, throwing is one in which men have particularly large advantages. A team of scientists from Texas and Australia actually studied native populations in Australia that were not using agriculture—they remain hunter-gatherers—where both boys and girls grew up learning to throw for both hunting and combat. The researchers felt this could shed some light on the nature of throwing differences between boys and girls and men and women. What they saw was that the throwing power gap was much less pronounced than between American boys and girls, but the boys generally still threw significantly harder than the girls, even though the girls were taller and heavier by virtue of their earlier maturation.
“However, I don't think that means by any stretch that we can't see a woman pitcher. It's just that if you think of the ability distribution as overlapping curves, the big leagues are looking for people only at the very far right tail, and so any shift in the average changes dramatically the number of people at the tail. So it's probably going to be rare—but certainly not impossible—that you find a woman who overlaps the right tail of the male distribution. Just like it's rare to see a woman who overlaps the right tail of the male height distribution—7-footers and up—except the average throwing speed difference is quite a bit larger than the average height difference. Then again, I wouldn't be terribly surprised to see a female knuckleballer in the game very soon.”
“In any case, women, like men, can clearly develop the anticipatory skills to hit speeding objects—the transit time of a fast softball pitch is not far off from that of a Major League fastball,” he said. “So I think we'll see a position player or DH sooner. But I don't think even with infinite time the number of men and women in the majors would be equal or even near equal, because of the suite of physical advantages that men have.”
Here’s how the MLB panel responded to the following question:
Will we see a woman play major league baseball in the next 50 years? Why or why not?
Shi Davidi (Sportsnet, Canada): It's highly unlikely, simply because once you get past how exceptional an athlete a woman would need to be to overcome the physical differences at such an elite level, you'd also need a very, very special person with a supreme inner fortitude to overcome all the outside challenges she'd face.
Derrick Goold (St. Louis Post-Dispatch): Makes sense that we will. Pitching is such a valuable commodity that teams are looking anywhere and everywhere for a reliable, healthy arm, as they should. Fifty years is a long time, and if we see athleticism and pitching advance at the pace we have over the previous 50 years this seems more than likely.
Jeff Passan (Yahoo! Sports): No, for two reasons. The first is biomechanical. Most people in baseball believe the best chance a woman has to make the major leagues is as a pitcher. The problem is, puberty sends boys' velocity on a steep trajectory, whereas girls peak in their early teens. A study showed the physical differences between boys and girls are profound, and overcoming those would take an outlier of multiple standard deviations. The second reason is sociological. Let's presume the people are wrong, and a woman shows a proper set of tools—speed, bat control, glove, arm—to place herself on scouts' radars. Is she going to play baseball? Doubtful. The infrastructure for girls playing baseball barely exists. What does—and what offers full scholarships to college—is softball. So the best baseball player would have to forgo a free education to chase what amounts to a lark. It's possible. I'd love to see it. I fear too many things conspire against it.
Marly Rivera (ESPN Deportes): No. I just don't see a path for women in the sport, at least not in my lifetime. I hope I am wrong.
Ken Rosenthal (Fox Sports): Yes. In fact, Fox is developing a pilot right now on that subject, “The Pitch.” I’m sure some fans will find the idea to be preposterous. But barriers keep falling in every walk of life. Why not this one?
Susan Slusser (San Francisco Chronicle): It's hard to imagine. Certainly there are some left-handers who don't throw all that hard, and there are light-hitting infielders. It's not a sport in which strength or height is paramount. But the sheer level of MLB is so, so high, the talent is just off the charts. Top players come from other countries and can't crack the majors. There are amazing college players who don't get to the big leagues. There are blue-chip, first-round picks who never get the call. I'd love to see it, of course. What a tremendous story it would be. Given that only a handful of women have played college baseball and none at an elite level, it seems highly improbable.
Jayson Stark (ESPN): I’m going to say yes. I was talking to a scout before the draft last year, and he said, “I saw a high school game last week where one of the teams had a closer who was a girl.” And while he didn’t think she was big-league material, he did think she had enough stuff and velocity to pitch in college. So why wouldn’t we see a woman pitching at some point? Ever seen Jenny Finch throw a softball? One of these years, I bet we’ll see a sidearming situational left-hander who’s a woman. Or something like that. That would be awesome.
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. I thought Karl Ravech, Eduardo Perez and Doug Glanville did a terrific job interviewing President Barack Obama during ESPN’s broadcast of the Rays playing the Cuban National Team in Havana on Tuesday. Where others might have tried to yuck it up with the President given the setting, the trio adeptly mixed substantive questions with more fun stuff, such as Obama’s White Sox fandom. Obama addressed his meeting with Cuban dissidents and his reasons (which many disagree, obviously) for why his Administration changed course on Cuba and did not shy away from discussing human rights violations in Cuba. He also addressed why he was at the game hours after a terrorism attack in Brussels. It was a quality interview given the setting and props to the commentators and coordinating producer Phil Orlins. This was ESPN at it’s treat-the-audience-like-adults best.
1a. On Wednesday HBO Sports announced that the Rams, back in Los Angeles after 22 years, will be the NFL team assigned to its “Hard Knocks” property. "Hard Knocks with the Los Angeles Rams" will debut its five-episode run on Tuesday Aug. 9. The show will air each subsequent Tuesday through the Sept. 6 season finale.
2. Robert Flores said he was about 90% sure he would not be re-signing with ESPN last year, as his contract was coming up with that network. The former ESPN-er has moved on to a very nice gig: He’ll be hosting MLB Tonight and NHL Tonight for the MLB Network and NHL Network. He’ll also have a digital role for SportsonEarth.com that will be determined in the future. The sportscaster declined to discuss how free he felt while working at ESPN to express his opinion on ESPN-related things, as well as whether he was given the roles he wanted at ESPN, but he is clearly excited about his new employers.
“Before I first met with the people here, I really didn't know it was the right fit for me,” Flores said. “However, the pitch by [MLB Network president] Rob McGlarry and [senior vice president of production for MLB Network] Dave Patterson was so compelling and impressive that they made me feel comfortable and confident that it was the right place for me. Rob and Dave made it clear that I could play a significant role on these platforms. I also love the format of the shows on these networks—a lot of free flowing conversations and jumping around from ballparks and arenas all over the two leagues. Also, the SportsonEarth.com possibilities really excited me as well.”
3. Episode No. 47 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features ESPN NBA analyst Hubie Brown, who has worked in NBA broadcasting for more than three decades.
In this episode, Brown discusses his broadcasting style and how he watches a game, who he learns from in today’s game, what his preparation is like for a broadcast, how he feels about the advanced metrics in the game, his relationship with the late Dr. Jack Ramsay, why the 1975 Kentucky Colonels—featuring Hall of Famers Dan Issel, Louie Dampier, and Artis Gilmore—are perennially underrated, how he handles travel at age 82, his favorite broadcasters to work with and much more. In one of the best parts of the podcast, Brown goes in-depth on what he would do as a coach to try to slow down Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at me.
4. Per Sports Business Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp: CBS, TNT, TBS and truTV have averaged 8.5 million viewers through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, down from 8.8 million viewers last year and 8.9 million in 2013. In contrast, Karp reported through Sunday there had been 56 million live video starts and 12.8 million live hours of video consumption on March Madness Live -both all-time records.
4a. Per SportsTV Ratings.com: Indiana-Kentucky led all NCAA basketball broadcasts last week with 10.486 million viewers followed by VCU-Oklahoma (8.262 million) and UConn-Kansas (6.208 million).
4b. Last Saturday’s Warriors-Spurs game on ABC averaged 5.171 million viewers and peaked at 7.101 million viewers from 10:45-11 p.m. ET. ESPN said it was the second-most watched NBA regular-season game (non-Christmas) in more than three years.
5. ESPN’s Dan LeBatard, writing for the Miami Herald, on the pain he feels witnessing Barack Obama's trip to Cuba. Vice Sports’s Eric Nusbaum offered a different perspective.
5a. Employers should take note of this from Aaron Gleeman.
5b. New York Times writer Richard Sandomir on NBC Sports Premier League host Rebecca Lowe.
5c. Some honest words from Dickson Liong, who has cerebral palsy.