April 18, 2012

Pitcher Jamie Moyer wins at 49

Lefty hurler Jamie Moyer set the record for oldest winning pitcher in major league baseball history yesterday. At age 49, he threw 7 innings without giving up an earned run despite never reaching 80 mph on the radar gun. I can recall Moyer as an unimpressive 23-year-old rookie with the Chicago Cubs in 1986, so his remarkable career is testimony to character.

Mr. Moyer, who has earned $82 million as a pitcher despite modest physical gifts, has eight children, which I find heartening. Here's a question about heritability: do highly competent people like Moyer tend to have children who are above average in competence?

I can recall knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm being modestly effective in relief for the Dodgers at age 48 and 49 in the early 1970s, but the knuckleball is a special pitch. 

Here's another question: is it at all imaginable that a woman could make the major leagues as a knuckleball pitcher? (Moyer is not a knuckleballer, which makes his accomplishment even more impressive.)

Women aren't competitive with men in sports other sedentary sports like shooting and equestrian. But, theoretically, there is a backdoor route to major league baseball for a pitcher without tremendous arm strength who masters the knuckleball. The knuckleball is an anomalous pitch that is sort of shot-putted up toward the plate without any spin. It gets buffeted about by random air currents and can be extremely frustrating for batters (or, it can be extremely easy to hit if it happens to fly straight and slow - knuckleballers need to develop a Zen attitudes to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune). 

Still, any kind of overhand throwing is asking a lot of a woman. For example, here's a short video of Annika Sorenstam, the best woman golfer ever, throwing out a 57-foot ceremonial first pitch at Shea Stadium.

Still, a few women can bring some heat. A tiny number of young women have pitched at the lowest levels of college baseball -- I recall Caltech's baseball team being badly beaten once by a girl, daughter of a minor league pitcher, who supposedly threw fastballs in the upper 70s. That was Ila Borders, who went on to pitch for four seasons in independent minor leagues, generally with ERAs around 7 or 8 (e.g., bad, but not notably worse than the worst male pitchers in the league). She once threw 12 innings straight of scoreless ball to professional players when she had her Jamie Moyer-style junkball mojo working.

The one conceivable route to the big leagues for a woman would be as a knuckleball pitcher. Indeed, a 5'1" Japanese woman Eri Yoshida has pitched, with indifferent results, in a few low professional games in Japan and American over the last couple of years. Still, it helps to be able to throw in the eighties for two reasons: if you fall behind 3-0 in the count with random knuckleballs, can you throw a hard fastball for a strike? And, it's advantageous to throw a hard knuckleball, like Charlie Hough did.

But most knuckleballers, who are rare, started out as conventional hard-throwing prospects who switched to the knuckleball due to career setbacks (e.g., Jim Bouton in attempting his comeback in the book Ball Four). Almost no man has followed this hypothetical path of perfecting the knuckleball from youth onward to overcome sizable physical deficiencies.

My guess is that a woman might be able to make the majors if all the stars were aligned right: if she were tall and strong like the Williams sisters in tennis, and if her father was a long time pitcher who had experience throwing the knuckleball, and drilled her from an early age in that frustrating craft. But if she had the height and upper body strength to be a big league knuckleballer, why not be a woman tennis pro instead? Or basketball player, volleyball player, or soccer goalie, all of which are ways to get college scholarships.

Perhaps someday a woman tennis pro, looking for a new challenge as her career fades in her late 20s will take up the knuckleball next. Knuckleball pitchers generally don't reach their primes until their 30s and can go on for some time. The greatest knuckleball pitcher, Phil Niekro, won 50 games in the majors after his 45th birthday.

But, I think she'd really need a father who was a professional pitcher, or a retired pitcher husband (think of ballplayer Ray Knight and golfer Nancy Lopez) to teach her to be a wily knuckleball or junkball pitcher. You have to really like baseball to be a junkball pitcher and not that many women like baseball enough. So, there are a whole bunch of hoops to jump through, but I wouldn't be shocked if a woman knuckleballer / junkballer pitched a few major league games in this century.

40 comments:

John Cunningham said...

Bill James, the baseball stats guru, once asked why major league organizations did not train whole groups of minor league hurlers in the knuckleball. He reasoned that pitchers who lacked a dominant fastball could try to master the knuckler, and putting a group of guys into it might lead to one or two superior guys. there must be some flaw in this strategy, since no team has ever done it.

Anonymous said...

You have to have huge hands to throw a knuckleball correctly. The female placekicker will be in the NFL prior to a female pitcher (though both will likely never happen).

Plus women hate, hate, hate playing baseball with white betas. They'd prefer to play in the NBA with black, alpha bucks. That freak from Baylor, Brittney Griner, could play forward for the Wizards. She's 6'8" and has more testosterone than most dudes.

bgc said...

Catherine Fitzpatrick was an Australian women fast bowler in cricket, and was clocked at 74 mph

http://stats.espncricinfo.com/ci/
content/records/283875.html

Cricket bowlers have to deliver the ball without straightening their arm more than 15 degrees (i.e. they cannot throw) - but they run up to bowl.

Therefore, their speed is - on average - only about 5 mph less than a baseball pitcher - most men 'fast' bowlers deliver at about 80-85 mph, the fastest in the low nineties.

By this line of reasoning, if a women can bowl in the low-mid seventies, women should be able to pitch in the high seventies, maybe 80. Which would easily be fast enough to have a knuckle ball and a surprise 'fast ball' variation that was about 15 mph quicker.

bjdubbs said...

If you're wondering how female tennis players compare with men - Steve did mention tennis - the answer is: not much. The Williams sisters lost a couple of sets against chain-smoking German Karsten Braasch, who was known to light up during changeovers. Lindsay Davenport, who was ranked no 1 for a while, has said that she is no match for her husband, an investment banker who never played pro tennis.

Female tennis players don't/can't hit a) with heavy topspin (a few exceptions, such as lesbians Schiavone and Stosur), b) hit a kick serve (Stosur the sole exception), c) hit slice backhands (this is new - Graf and Navratilova used to hit good slice). Even strong servers such as Venus Williams can't hit kick serves, which suggests she probably couldn't throw a slider.

jody said...

i'm pretty sure it doesn't work that way.

52 year old fred couples went -2 at the master's this year. what can he do that 23 year old, in her prime, far and away best active woman golfer yani tseng can't do?

well, for starters, he can go -2 at the masters. after 4 rounds. yani tseng can probably go 20 over. if that. on the first 2 rounds. and miss the cut.

the old man pro still thrashes the best woman in her prime.

we have plenty of direct, man versus woman comparisons in track, swimming, tennis, golf, weightlifting, soccer, basketball, and ice hockey. we don't need hypotheticals to tell us that in another very competitive international sport, baseball, no woman will ever, ever, ever compete at the highest level.

Mr Lomez said...

Back in the mid 90's the daughter of White Sox GM Ron Schueler was drafted out of high-school as a pitcher in the late rounds. This was a PR move by the Sox for sure, but the daughter was in fact a competent, if not dominant, high-school pitcher in Northern California. There was talk of turning her into a knuckleballer but this never materialized. She ended up playing basketball at DePaul instead.

Anyway, this could happen. Like you said, it would have to be a perfect storm of circumstances, but a woman at the extreme right tail of the athleticism curve could pull it off, I think. (It's not true that your hands have to be gargantuan to throw a knuckleball--unlike throwing a split-finger, or a football for that matter.)

One other note here: for whatever stupid reason, girls play softball instead of baseball and so most young girls who are gifted at baseball related activities end up throwing around a grapefruit during their formative sports years. Girls being forced to play softball instead of baseball, on top of deterring a young lass from learning the art of the knuckler, makes no sense at all. Why haven't feminists raised a stink about this?

jody said...

tennis is also, by far, BY FAR, the highest paying women's sport, so using the "athletes go where the money is" principle, all the best women athletes play tennis. they would never bother slogging it out through years of minor league baseball where, according to some quick google checking, AAA players are paid about 3000 dollars a month. unless they are first round MLB picks who are considered major league prospects, then they get a signing bonus worth a few million. and no woman would be a first round pick.

women make literally, and this is not an exaggeration, 50 times as much money in WTA play as they do in WNBA play. LPGA play gets them 25 times as much as WNBA play. and the track & field diamond league also pays more than WNBA. so you have WTA, LPGA, diamond league, and WNBA, all above minor league baseball in pay. i don't know what professional women's soccer pays, but probably the same as minor league baseball. women's professional volleyball, i have no idea.

of course these are all sketchy assumptions. athletes do not simply "go for the money" or do quick economics and a back of the envelope salary calculation before deciding which sport to go into when they're 12 years old. nor do i think there is as much direct translation from swinging a tennis racquet to throwing a baseball, as we would have to assume in this example.

Anonymous said...

I remember watching Moyers in the 90s. He never could throw hard. He was always throwing off-speed pitches and seemed to have good pitch selection. He's a good example of brains over brawn.

Camlost said...

And Jamie Moyer has 7 kids.

Anonymous said...

One other note here: for whatever stupid reason, girls play softball instead of baseball and so most young girls who are gifted at baseball related activities end up throwing around a grapefruit during their formative sports years. Girls being forced to play softball instead of baseball, on top of deterring a young lass from learning the art of the knuckler, makes no sense at all. Why haven't feminists raised a stink about this?

A friend of mine was a fairly dominant fast–pitch player in high school. We talked about this a few times, and she said the motion was significantly harder for her, and she had tried to stick it out in Little League for a number of years. I wondered about this, but finally met someone who worked in biomechanics analysis for both women fast–pitchers and male baseball pitchers. He said that the female body was unsuited to baseball pitching mechanics, and even alterations tended not to work well. One big idea (which seems, a priori, the most plausible to me) was that the problem was throwing against the breast and the musculature designed to support it creating greater stress and damage.

Steve Sailer said...

The way it might happen is that a woman tennis player marries an older major league pitcher. They have lots of money and time after she retires from the circuit at, say, 27 (women's tennis is extremely youth-oriented), but they are both bored without an athletic challenge. So they come up with the idea that he'll teach her how to pitch, including all the inside baseball tricks that older pitchers who have lost their stuff get by on.

It's a highly unlikely scenario, but not unimaginable.

Anonymous said...

Kinda off-topic, but there were two every iSteve-ish pictures in the UK press today.

1) First, can you spot the juiced-up celebrity* in this picture?

2) Second, can you spot the dynastic cuckoo's egg** this picture?





*Story here.

**Story here.

Mr Lomez said...

"...the female body was unsuited to baseball pitching mechanics, and even alterations tended not to work well. One big idea (which seems, a priori, the most plausible to me) was that the problem was throwing against the breast and the musculature designed to support it creating greater stress and damage."

Interesting. That sounds reasonable. But why doesn't this apply to the rest of the team? Sometimes on a slow Saturday I'll get stuck watching the Lady Sun Devils square off against the Lady Aztecs, or whatever, and the fielders seem to be able to throw overhand just fine.

My hunch is that average women may have trouble throwing like men do (the pejorative "you throw like a girl" didn't appear out of nowhere), but for very athletic women--who tend to be leaner, more broad shouldered, and smaller cupped--the physiological impediments to throwing are mostly negligible.

ben tillman said...

Still, any kind of overhand throwing is asking a lot of a woman. For example, here's a short video of Annika Sorenstam, the best woman golfer ever, throwing out a 57-foot ceremonial first pitch at Shea Stadium.

I wonder what kind of effect results from the fact that women's arms aren't straight? Men's arms usually have roughly a 5-degree angle at the elbow, while women's arms are more in the 15-degree range.

Anonymous said...

"Plus women hate, hate, hate playing baseball with white betas."

Are you joking here? This "beta" stuff is getting out of hand. I doubt there are many "beta" males in the major leagues. Especially after years of shooting steroids.

Anonymous said...

Women aren't competitive with men in sports other sedentary sports like shooting and equestrian.

Surprisingly enough, women are not very competitive with men in shooting. That's why all Olympic shooting competitions are segregated. It's even more so for chess - the best of the best women players are "only" ordinary grand masters when they play against men. Which is the same for car driving - Danica Patrick is good but nowhere as good as top men. And is golf really so demanding in physical strength that no woman ever came close to the top?

JeremiahJohnbalaya said...

That freak from Baylor, Brittney Griner, could play forward for the Wizards. She's 6'8" and has more testosterone than most dudes.

Actually, i think the smart thing to do here is observe that this woman WILL NOT play in the NBA.

I played pick-up ball in college against NCAA women champions. I sometimes dream that I could have sat the bench of the men's team as a JV walk-on, but guys of my meager talent easily dominated the best woman. A few of them could beat me down the court (here's a hint, one who could, went on to win and then have to give up several Olympic sprinting gold medals). But that's it. I'd be really surprised if anything has changed in 20 years.

Steve Sailer said...

Jeremiah: If you had plausible dreams of walking on at that famous basketball program, you are pretty good.

How about weekend basketball games involving 20 something guys at my marketing research company: a young black woman who had played big time college basketball played point guard for one men's team and she was definitely one of the best players on the court.

Steve Sailer said...

When shooting in the Olympics was coed, a woman won a gold medal against male competition. I believe it was men who asked to segregate the sport after that, although I may be wrong. In general, the percent of men who think competitive shooting sounds like an appealing sport is no doubt much higher than among women.

Dutch Boy said...

Hoyt Wilhelm used to say that his retirement was prompted by his inability to react quickly enough to line drives at age 49 rather than any loss of his knuckleball prowess.

Peter said...

Pitchers also have to handle fielding and sometimes batting. A woman who can throw a knuckleball would still have to have at least basic fielding skills.

Peter said...

Pitchers also have to handle fielding and sometimes batting. A woman who can throw a knuckleball would still have to have at least basic fielding skills.

Peter said...

Some girls have competed against boys in high school wrestling. Not with any huge degree of success, but not as complete failures either. What has helped is that most of the girls are 17- and 18-year-olds competing in the very lowest weight classes, and in those classes the male wrestlers generally are barely pubescent freshmen.

C. Van Carter said...

World Pinball Player Rankings:

http://www.ifpapinball.com/rank.php

John Cunningham said...

I had to look up Pat Venditte, an ambidextrous pitcher in the Yankees organization. he is currently at AAA Wilkes-Barre, after 3 previous minor league seasons. An interesting story, I thought.

Anonymous said...


I played pick-up ball in college against NCAA women champions. I sometimes dream that I could have sat the bench of the men's team as a JV walk-on, but guys of my meager talent easily dominated the best woman. A few of them could beat me down the court (here's a hint, one who could, went on to win and then have to give up several Olympic sprinting gold medals). But that's it. I'd be really surprised if anything has changed in 20 years.



If you're who I think you are: Your nephew was out in the field today, eating clover.

Like a damned horse.

Anonymous said...

My parents both flew sailplanes and competed in soaring, a sport in which women should have no disadvantage, but the delta was still substantial. My father, an accountant, could easily outfly my mother under most any situation and she was a professional flight instructor on cabin class twins and later a Learjet corporate pilot. The situation in aerobatics is similar, although the delta is less as women being smaller tend to tolerate the high G relatively well (G-suits aren't worn.)

Women simply lack the competitive drive needed in all sports, aside from the physical differences. Auto racing is "learning" this now even though women have been driving race cars since before WWII and in SCCA road racing were a good percentage of the sport in the fifties and sixties. Their percentage decreased in the late 60s onward as road racing became a pro activity like NASCAR and open wheel circle track.

Anonymous said...

The knuckler requires hand size and strength. If you recall, Bouton talked in Ball Four about forever squeezing multiple baseballs to that end.

Specialists require special tools; in the case of a knuckleballer, it's the catcher. Tim Wakefield, who just retired from the Red Sox at age 46, needed a catcher who could handle the knuckler. Jason Varitek, one of the best defensive catchers in the game, never got the knack, and a roster spot had to be saved for someone whose prime attribute was not hitting, throwing or pitch calling, but just catching a knuckleball.

They don't, however, need an 80-mph fastball. Wakefield never threw harder than 75-76, but he threw two speeds of knuckler and he had a fair curve for a "show" pitch.

All this said, I've been an avid baseball fan since the 60s and have watched them all from Koufax forward, and no one made major league hitters look worse than Wakefield did when the knuckler was dancing. I mean swing and miss by a foot and a half bad. It's the one that spins and doesn't break that gets treated like batting practice.

Anonymous said...

Look to Nomar Garciaparra and Mia Hamm. All Star shortstop and arguably the greatest woman soccer player ever, they have 5-year old twin girls.

Anonymous said...

Jeremiah: If you had plausible dreams of walking on at that famous basketball program, you are pretty good.

He could have been - WOULD HAVE BEEN - on that damned team if only he had taken it seriously.

God damn it.

Anonymous said...

"Are you joking here? This "beta" stuff is getting out of hand. I doubt there are many "beta" males in the major leagues. Especially after years of shooting steroids."

I was kidding. It was my only chance to do a Whiskey impression and it was out of love because I enjoy his writing.

Anonymous said...

OK, I stand corrected about shooting. Good! It does seem that women do very well against men. E.g. two out of three latest NCAA rifle titles belong to all women team of TCU. Another evidence that I find very convincing is that there were many Soviet female during WWII. Soviets were rather practical in these matters and would not do it for PC. They really should desegregate Olympics in shooting.

Anonymous said...

Honestly Steve how silly. If a woman, why not a million small, weak men who are equal or better than say the Williams sisters in terms of upper body strength?

'Cause for every hypothetical women who *Could* pitch there are 100 real men who would love to succeed using the same technique.

Anonymous said...

Damn. I means "Soviet female SNIPERS during WWII", of course.

slumber_j said...

I never heard anyone comment on what to me was the most poetically obviously fact about Tim Wakefield: his surname seems to me so comically apt for a knuckleballer that it feels fictional. Think of vector fields and air currents. Did Tom Wolfe invent him or merely name him?

Anonymous said...

The thing about Moyer I find most interesting is that he reportedly doesn't even hit 80 mph on the radar gun anymore. That is seriously slow for a non-knuckleballer.

If you read profiles of MLB pitchers, virtually any of them whose fastballs sit much below 90 mph are referred to as 'crafty', i.e. getting by on slow junk. And Moyer is 10 mph below that . . . . Amazing!

Truth said...

The main reason they no longer like knuckleball pitchers, from what I understand, is that it is difficult to teach a catcher to CATCH it. Games with inexperienced catchers being flumoxed and getting 3-4 passed balls are not unusual.

My question is; why hasn't a guy with good stuff ever learned it as an auxiliary 3-4 times a game pitch?

Truth said...

Another problem with the women "women learning to throw the knuckleball" theory:

What happens when someone hits the ball to her? If she's in the NL what happens when she comes to the plate. can she field the drag bunt...beat a man to first base?

josh said...

I remember Jamie Moyer from his stint with the Cubs. To me,he looked like Jerry Lewis,as he was thin and kind of,you know,Lewis-y.I am happy he is still out there pitching. Apparently the Cubs Curse hasnt affected him too badly. I dont recall hearing about him serving one up in the last inning of the 7th game of the World Series,so...

played with eichelberger said...

there must be some flaw in this strategy, since no team has ever done it.

Yes, there is. Throwing a lot of changeups is the best way for a pitcher with a good fastball to lose it - it's happening to Tim Lincecum right now. A knuckleball, of course, is just a specialized changeup. If you're going to have a young player spend time on developing a knuckleball, better that it be a position player. Every year there are good minor league hitters who will never make the majors because they don't show power. These are the guys who should work on it.