Saturday, November 23, 2013

Someday a Woman will Play Major League Baseball

     Someday a woman will play Major League Baseball.  I don't mean as a gimmick by some enterprising General Manager to sell tickets.  I mean legitimately, based on ability, and soon, like within the next few years.  
     The most likely path, I believe, may be for a woman to make it as a knuckleball pitcher, which requires a rather unique skill set.  The most important skill is to be able to throw the darn pitch, which requires a very awkward grip, demonstrated below by legendary Hoyt Wilhelm, one of the early practitioners of the art.  

Hoyt Wilhelm had a career that seemed to span centuries, featuring the knuckleball as his main pitch.  

A good knuckleball is thrown such that it either does not rotate at all, or else rotates very slowly. When that happens the ball moves erratically and consequently is very difficult to hit.  

Although almost everyone can throw a knuckleball to a degree (watch high school players warm up, and almost for sure someone will play around with it), it is very hard to control.  Only a few pitchers can throw it consistently for a strike, but those who can do it have an excellent shot at making a living in the Major Leagues.  

Not all knuckleballs are born equal.  Some guys, like R.A Dickey, throw it hard, around 80 mph, which is the speed of a very good high school fastball. 

Others, like Tim Wakefield, throw a very slow pitch, around 65 mph.  Yet, Wakefield also threw other pitches and could change speeds very well.  A hitter looking for a 65 mph can be overmatched by a fastball coming in 10 mph faster than he expects. 

Wakefield's arm speed is within the range of many female athletes.  Put it this way:  if a person can serve a tennis ball at the professional level, that's more than enough arm strength to be a knuckleball pitcher.  

The knuckleball is not easy to throw for strikes, or everyone would do it.  But I don't know why it would be that  men would have a dominant advantage in this arcane art.    

Hence, I suspect that the right woman, armed with a knuckleball, will probably be able to make the Major Leagues.  

At the moment, not many have tried.  One pitcher, Eri Yoshida of Japan has had some success in the independent minor leagues in the US (Maui Na Koa Ikaika, which is Hawaiian for "Strong Warriors").  
Japanese knuckleballer Eri Yoshida had some success playing against the fellers in pro ball.

Yoshida, despite being only 5'1" is able to throw the knuckleball, reportedly at Wakefieldian velocity. 

Yoshida is particularly interesting because she is inspiring a legion of young admirers and imitators in baseball-mad Japan.  Without really intending to, she has become a sort of role model.  I have to think that others may follow her with even more success.  

To make it to the big leagues, a knuckleballer still has to have a glove and enough speed to cover first base on infield plays.  A slider or curve would be a big help also, even if those pitchers are not Big League calibre by themselves.    I don't see any reason why those talents would be limited to men. If I'm see we might see women pitching for Major League farm teams in the next few years.  

   Maybe someone like 16 year old Chelsea Baker, who throws the knuckleball and, believer it or not, was offered a contract for the Japanese professional league. 

Chelsea Baker was offered a professional contract in Japan when she was just 15 years old.

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