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The Rotation: Will women ever play in the majors?

With Mother's Day on the horizon, we ask the staff if we will ever see one of the last great barriers fall.

Dottie Schroeder
Dottie Schroeder
Wikimedia Commons


The Rotation #3: Women in baseball

by Steven GoldmanThe Rotation is a new weekly feature here at SB Nation MLB in which we put a question to our vast network of baseball scribes and bring you the answers. With Mother’s Day looming on Sunday (have you made your reservations for brunch yet?) and Jackie Robinson Day behind us, it seemed time to ask, Will we ever see a woman play major-league baseball?

Will a woman ever play MLB?

Anything Herrera Can Do, She Can

"To answer this question, we first need to think about the reasons why we have not already seen a female baseball player in the big leagues and whether those reasons are able to be overcome:

1. Strength/speed disadvantage: On average, you’re looking at significantly more muscle and less fat for women even compared to male athletes that are the same size. Similarly, on average men have larger hearts, lungs, and longer legs, all of which add up to increased speed and athletic ability. That’s not going to change in the aggregate, though there are many women who are better at one or both than current MLB players.

2. Lack of infrastructure/opportunities in baseball: When I was in high school, one of our rivals had a girl on their varsity baseball team and she did just fine, but she represented an extreme rarity. There are plenty of girls that could play baseball as well or better than many boys (until the physical differences in strength/speed really take hold post-puberty), but they’re funneled into softball. My sister, who plays softball at the collegiate level, is a great example. She played with the boys until her options were limited, and then she moved into softball. There are plenty of excellent athletes playing softball who could be very good baseball players. Given the remarkable social changes that have occurred in just the last 20 years, it’s not inconceivable that they might just be baseball players within 20 more years.

So given those disadvantages, what kind of female player would be most likely to reach MLB? It would probably be a player with excellent eyesight and quick wrists, a player who plays good defense and gets on base via a walk or by spraying line drives to all fields. Most likely this player would be a second baseman or utility player hitting 8th or 9th in the lineup. Will this player ever exist? Let me put it this way: Jonathan Herrera is a major leaguer. If Jonathan Herrera can do it, I think that a woman could too. Do I see it happening in the near future? No. But forever’s an awfully long time." -- Jeff Aberle, Purple Row

Taller than Tim Collins

"I believe that one day a woman will play in the major leagues, though I’m not sure if "we" will live to see it, as I don’t think we’re all that close to it happening. That said, I have my hopes, and they’re largely pinned on pitchers. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that pitchers seem to have the widest range of body types, from Jonathan Broxton to Tim Collins, and the most specialized skillset. I find it difficult to believe that there isn’t a female athlete out there who, with the proper development, couldn’t have become a reliable major league match-up reliever at the very least. The other is that women seem to be making the most inroads on the mound.

Justine Siegal, who is leading the charge to break down the door for entry for women in men’s professional baseball and has been a coach on men’s teams in college and the independent leagues, has pitched batting practice for the Indians, A’s, Rays, Cardinals, Astros, and Mets. Ila Borders spent parts of four seasons as a pitcher in the independent leagues in the late ‘90s. Eri Yoshida, the Japanese born "Knuckle Princess," is still just 21 and has pitched in independent leagues in both Japan and the United States.

Then there’s Chelsea Baker, who turned 16 on Monday, learned her knuckler from the late Joe Niekro, and already has an offer to pitch in a women’s league in Japan. It’s also worth noting that the most famous women’s softball player in the world is also a pitcher, albeit a retired one. Jennie Finch got a lot of attention for her looks, but she also went 36-2 with a 0.42 ERA across 239 1/3 innings as the ace of the U.S. National Team. I fully expect to see a woman pitcher in the major leagues one day, I just hope I live to see it." -- Cliff Corcoran, Designated Columnist

Caution: Natural Selection at Work

"I absolutely believe that yes, a woman could play professional baseball. The odds of it happening, though, are very, very small. That's not an indictment of the system or the decision-makers involved. It has to do with some cultural evolutionary trends in making MLB players. I watch a ton of high school sports for my day job. I've seen plenty of female athletes who could hang with some of the boy's teams I've watched. In fact, the fastest player I'm covering this year may be a girl.

The problem is, that girls play softball, an entire sport populated by girls. It's similar to baseball, but different. The ball is bigger, the pitcher throws differently, the bats are shaped differently to compensate. To excel in softball is no less amazing than to do it in baseball, but the skills are not transferable. That's why the odds aren't good.

To produce 500 major league baseball players, it takes a million or more Little Leaguers playing, with a smaller population then moving on to high school baseball, and a still smaller group moving to college, while a parallel group goes into the minors, with a tiny group finally making it to the top. That's natural selection in a nutshell. Only the strongest players survive. Girls, though, often stop playing baseball at the Little League level. They can and do participate there regularly, but will often get into softball at a young age. Rarely do you see a girl playing high school baseball, much less college. Without more bodies in the system, the odds drop precipitously. Outliers do occur.

All it takes is for one generational athlete to play baseball, stick with it and force teams to take notice. That's why I'm convinced a woman will play baseball in the majors. I'm just not sure when it will happen." -- David Coleman, The Crawfish Boxes

Ever is a Long Time

"Will we ever see a woman in the major leagues? Friends, ever is a long time. However, we might limit the time frame by acknowledging that Major League Baseball will not exist forever. Let us assume, however, that Major League Baseball will exist for as long as I'm aware of my surroundings. Further, let's be generous (to me!) and assume I'll be both extant and cogent for another half-century.

So now the question becomes, will a woman play in the majors within the next fifty years? While it's entirely possible, my guess is that no, it won't happen. Not because MLB wouldn't allow it; I think MLB would embrace it. Not because the proper facilities don't exist; those facilities might easily be created. I simply don't think we'll see a woman with the requisite physical abilities. I don't mean to suggest that there won't be women athletic enough to play baseball at the highest level. I'm just not convinced that one of those women will choose baseball as a vocation, and spend the years and years of training that would be required.

Essentially, you've got two incredibly small populations -- women who can throw hard enough or hit hard enough to play baseball, and women who actually have an overwhelming desire to make that their life's work -- and I just think it's unlikely (enough) that those populations will converge enough times to produce an actual major leaguer. Of course I would love to be wrong. That would give me something to live for." -- Rob Neyer, Baseball Nation

Waiting for the wMLB

"I think that the question of whether or not we'll ever see a female major league player is jumping the gun. Seriously, it's not about the major leagues. It's about inefficiency of talent identification and the sports consumer market. There very well might be a woman out there who could learn to throw a 70 mph fastball and a knuckler as good as Tim Wakefield's, but how would a major league team find her?

Players aren't drafted as wily 40 year old veterans -- they're drafted on their potential and then developed, and sometimes, if they're really lucky and really good, they turn into late career Tim Wakefield. A woman coming out of high school won't show that type of potential. She won't have a good fastball, and even if she's already dominating hitters at her level, no one makes draft decisions based on prep stats.

The only chance for a woman to prove that she's a potential major league player would be to dominate high quality opposition, and with no women's college baseball and no professional women's baseball league, there's almost no chance (the independent leagues?) for her to do that. So the real question is, are Americans (or the people of any other baseball playing nation) ready to financially support the wMLB?" -- Ian Malinowski, DRaysBay

Knuckler Knocks the Door Down

"I would be shocked if we saw a woman play major league baseball in my lifetime. I remember reading a piece from Bill James, I believe in one of his Historical Abstracts, about how there are certain indicators which signal the level of play in baseball, things such as the pitchers hitting well, and very old and very young players being able to hold their own, are generally indicative of an overall lower level of play.

Similarly, while some women may hold their own at the Pee Wee and even Little League level, as you go up the ladder and the talent level increases, women end up being surpassed. The one possible exception to this I could see -- and even this is extremely unlikely -- is a woman making the majors as a knuckleball pitcher. Of course, given how hard it is for male knuckleballers to master their craft and get a chance at the major league level, even the chances of that seem remote." -- Adam J. Morris, Lone Star Ball

Jackie Mitchell Dreaming

"I'd love to say yes, but realistically, it's no. We probably won't ever see a woman play in the MLB. When I say that, I mean actually play baseball regularly for a team as opposed to making an Eddie Gaedel or a non-competitive appearance just to make news. As a baseball fan who roots for the underdog and played a lot of Baseball Stars on the Nintendo growing up (where an all-girls team was one of the terrific Easter Eggs of the game), I would be ecstatic to someday be proven wrong. Also, God's existence would be proven if the first female MLB player's name was Wren, or Jackie (referencing either Mitchell or Robinson).

The question brings soccer to mind. When the US Women's National Team and the US Under-17 Men's National Team scrimmage, the best 17 year old men regularly defeat the top female soccer players (most recently in 2012, when the women were defeated 8-2). It's not that there isn't a lack of talent or smarts or determination or skill among female athletes, it's that puberty brings with it brute strength and speed to the boys in greater amounts than it does to the girls.

Being stronger and faster makes for a better athlete. Still, I dream for the day when another Jackie Mitchell comes along, throwing knuckles and mixing in the heat. She'd have to be a phenom and somebody groomed for the role, but if it ever did happen, it would be magical." -- Dex Bustarde, Gas Lamp Ball