Pitcher Jamie Moyer Wins At 49
April 18, 2012, 10:32 PM
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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.