An interesting new TV series started a couple of weeks ago on Fox in America. While I am not going to review the programme – it hasn’t been shown on UK TV yet and I don’t know if it ever will be – it fascinated me because of the subject matter.
The programme is called “Pitch” and the main protagonist in the programme is Ginny Baker. Ginny makes history when she becomes the first woman to play in Major League Baseball (MLB). The character plays for the San Diego Padres (which some people might see as a punishment rather than a reward). She is a starting pitcher who overcomes her lack of ability to throw 90 mph by perfecting a rarely used pitch the screwball which people have said could get a woman into the Majors. Now as I haven’t seen the programme I’m not commenting on whether or not the programme is any good (although I hope they don’t take the clichéd route of having heroine Ginny fall in love and have an affair with one of her teammates or her team’s manager. Trust me I’ve seen it too often). But what of Pitch’s central thesis? Could a woman really play in the Majors?
First thing I’ll say is that unlike the Premier League in the UK there must be nothing in the rules of baseball or the law of the US that would prohibit a woman playing in the big leagues since MLB have co produced Pitch and allowed the show full access to the Padres’ ballpark, logo and facilities. The programme has the backing of MLB. So with that said is Ginny’s story believable? I’d say no for a couple of reasons.
First of all Ginny seems to be a one pitch pony namely the screwball. As the not happy guy who loses his place on the roster to Ginny says the 29 other professional teams will be trying to figure out her trick pitch and when they do he will get his job back and she will become the answer to a trivia question. Now a one pitch pitcher can thrive and even dominate in the Majors. The classic example being the greatest closer of all time Mariano Rivera. People said his only pitch was the cut fastball. But it was good enough to keep him in the Majors for nineteen seasons and earned him a record 652 saves which suggests that even if batters knew what was coming most of them still didn’t have a clue how to hit it. But he was a closer. I doubt very much a one pitch pitcher makes it as a starter as she would have to throw to batters two or three times in a game if she was a starter. So I think a female screwball pitcher would be more realistic as a relief pitcher or a closer – which could confuse batters as it would be a contrast to the 90 mph fastball throwers that appear in the Majors.
But even if our heroine could be a starter it is still not realistic for her to play for the Padres. The Padres are a National League franchise which means Ginny would have to hit. I really can’t realistically expect a real life Ginny to do anything against Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner and Zack Greinke…and that scary trio is just the elite pitching in the Padres own division never mind the likes of Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Stephen Strausburg, Max Scherzer, Matt Harvey, Jason de Grom and Noah Syndergaard that roam the National League’s other divisions. It is more likely that if a woman was to become a MLB starter it would be in the American League where with the Designated Hitter rule she would not have to hit. So if a female pitcher was to reach MLB it in my opinion would either be as an AL starter or a relief pitcher.
But the main reason I can’t see a woman in the Majors anytime soon is because of a lack of opportunity. As I’ve written before since 1974 girls have been eligible to play Little League – but most of them play softball. But the problem is that women’s baseball beyond Little League barely exists so any girl who wants to play baseball at High School has to join a boy’s team where she might not exactly be welcome to say the least. After High School it becomes worse. Only one woman has got a college scholarship for baseball and that was earlier this year when pitcher Sarah Hudek was awarded a baseball scholarship at Bossier Community College in Houston. No wonder girls turn to softball where they can get scholarships. No wonder 2014 Little League wunderkind Mo’ne Davis (who I suspect Ginny in Pitch was based on) has chosen basketball instead. After all she can get a scholarship in basketball and a professional career in the WNBA could occur. There is no professional career for her in baseball.
The only way I can see any hope for women making it to the Majors is if softball is rebranded as women’s baseball and the rules become the same (number of innings, style of pitching, distance between bases among other things). Baseball and softball are so totally different that skills cannot be transferred from one to an other. This is not sexism.I remember seeing on TV Major League hitters trying to hit elite softball pitcher Jennie Finch. Most of them didn’t have a clue how to hit her as the pitching was totally different from what they were used to.
So could women be relief pitchers, closers or be like small men like Dee Gordon and José Altuve who don’t contribute many 400 ft home runs but can get on base regularly and use their speed to steal bases? At the moment we do not know because women have never been given a chance to play baseball throughout their formative years. And unless women can play baseball uninterrupted they will never get the baseball education they need in their teenage years that might give them a chance.
Because of the tradition of shall we say girls being “encouraged” to play softball after Little League we do not know what women are capable of doing in baseball. Right now Ginny’s story can only be a fairytale. But if girls are given the chance to play baseball as teenagers, given baseball scholarships like Sarah Hudek has and if a women’s baseball league is ever set up who knows?