By Gretchen Reynolds / New York Times News Service
The new Fox drama “Pitch,” about the first female pitcher in Major League Baseball, proclaims that it is “a true story on the verge of happening.”
The heavily promoted show, which premiered Thursday, is already drawing praise for its groundbreaking premise. But it also raises questions about just how true and how on the verge the storyline really is. Could a female pitcher make it into the major leagues anytime soon? And, if so, why hasn’t she yet?
From a scientific standpoint, the answer is yes, she can. While there are some physical obstacles to a woman’s pitching in the major leagues, they are not insurmountable. The larger challenges may be social and cultural, as girls struggle to find opportunities and acceptance in what has traditionally been a boys sport, and boys struggle with the social consequences of being struck out by a girl.
“The opportunities for a girl in this country to play baseball after about age 12 are so incredibly limited,” said Jennifer Ring, author of “A Game of Their Own: Voices of Contemporary Women in Baseball” and a professor of political science at the University of Nevada. “Guys tend to throw bats after a woman strikes them out, and their teammates tease them.”
Although few people are aware of it, women already do play baseball in the United States at elite levels. The U.S. national women’s baseball team, which is part of USA Baseball, just returned from the Women’s Baseball World Cup, held this month in South Korea. The U.S. went 6-1, although for the first time in international competition, they did not win a medal. Last year, at the Pan American Games in Toronto, where both men’s and women’s baseball are among the contested sports, the U.S. women won gold.
Last year, one of that team’s ace pitchers, Sarah Hudek, 18, of Sugar Land, Texas, became the first woman to be awarded a collegiate baseball scholarship. She joined the men’s varsity squad at Bossier Parish Community College in Louisiana, a program that has sent dozens of players to professional teams. In her first season, Hudek, the daughter of former National League reliever John Hudek, went 2-1 with a 4.95 ERA and struck out 12 in 20 innings.
But to date, no female pitcher outside of scripted television has signed an MLB contract.
There is, however, no biological reason a woman could not pitch to major league hitters, said Glenn Fleisig, the research director for the American Sports Medicine Institute and a medical adviser to USA Baseball, and who has studied the pitching mechanics of both male and female baseball pitchers.
“A female pitcher will likely throw a fastball with lower velocity than a male pitcher,” he said. “But that is not going to disqualify her from pitching in the majors. If you watch Major League Baseball, you will see that there is a wide range of fastball velocities among pitchers there. And there is no obvious correlation between those who pitch the fastest and those who are the most successful pitchers.”
Like professional male pitchers, female pitchers would need to perfect multiple types of pitches, he said, including a reliable curveball, a change-up and a knuckleball (although that last, slow, loopy pitch requires long fingers and large hands, which some women may not have).
But in general, pitching like a girl is little different from pitching like a boy, Fleisig said. In a 2009 study of the biomechanics of elite (but not professional) male and female pitchers that he conducted with colleagues, the female pitchers produced slightly less force throughout their fastball pitching motion, from the cocking of the arm behind the back to the stride forward and through to the release of the ball itself, than did the male pitchers. Consequently, the top velocity of the pitches by the women was a few miles per hour slower than among the men.
Female pitchers might even have a slight physical advantage because their physiology may insulate them from some of the worst physical effects of high-speed pitching, said Dr. Steve Jordan, an orthopedic surgeon at the Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine who treats many professional and amateur baseball players.
“Women tend to have somewhat more laxity in their tendons than men,” he said. “They are more limber.” That looseness, combined with the slower overall velocity of their pitching speed, “could mean that women would be less likely” to suffer the kinds of soft-tissue injuries in their shoulders and elbows, he says, that often fell male pitchers and result in season- and even career-ending operations.
“It will take a special athlete and someone with good off-speed pitches,” Jordan said. “But, physically, sure, a woman could pitch in the major leagues.”
The more insurmountable obstacles to a woman living the “Pitch” premise are not physical. Women’s baseball is not a high school sport in the United States, although it is in other countries like Canada and Japan. In this country, girls are directed to softball, which is a women’s sport at the high school and collegiate levels.
“If a girl here wants to play baseball, she almost has to play with the boys, and the pressure to switch from baseball to softball can be overwhelming,” she said. “People will tell her, ‘You’re missing out on college scholarships’” and may also suggest that she is hurting both her body and possibly male opponents’ egos if she sticks with baseball.
Playing elite baseball also can be profoundly lonely for a woman, said Hudek.
“For so long, I thought I was the only one,” she said, “because I didn’t know any other women” playing competitive baseball.
But a few years ago, she tried out for and was accepted onto the women’s national team and discovered her tribe.
“It was so wonderful to suddenly be part of a team with other women,” she said. “The guys I’ve played with have been great and really supportive.” But she did not feel fully integrated into those all-male squads. “I was always the different one,” she said. “I was always ‘the girl’ and not just me.”
Hudek had moments of success in college — she was brought in as a reliever in a game against the nation’s ninth-ranked team, struck out three hitters and earned the win.
Despite those successes, she decided to play only one year with the men’s team. This year, Hudek accepted a scholarship to switch from baseball and instead take up Division I softball at Texas A&M, where she will be an outfielder, not a pitcher.
“I still love baseball, and I plan to keep playing,” she said. She added that she hoped to pitch for the U.S. national team whenever her college schedule allowed. “But for what I want out of sports right now,” she said — camaraderie and acceptance, and opportunities to be on the field regularly — “I can find that in softball better than in baseball.”
But for some young women, baseball remains their sole focus, whatever the difficulties.
“It’s all I’ve ever wanted to play,” said Olivia Bricker, a 16-year-old left-handed pitcher in Owensville, Ohio. Last year, Bricker pitched on the varsity boys baseball team at her high school, recording a 90 percent strike rate and hitting near the top of the team’s order.
Her father, a pitching coach, operates a baseball academy, and when Bricker was a toddler, “I would take naps right next to the batting cage,” she said. “I knew then that it was baseball for me. People keep trying to push me into softball, but I just say no.”
Today she can throw a credible fastball at more than 70 mph, as well as a change-up, a curveball and a knuckleball, and has plans, she said, to continue pitching until she reaches the majors.
“Why not?” she asked. “I may not throw a fastball as hard as some 6-foot guy.” She is 5-foot-5 and 125 pounds. “But if you can throw a breaking ball, you don’t really need that much speed,” she said.
And her breaking ball, Bricker said, is “pretty good.”