Can Statcast Project a Female Position Player?

Most think the first female baseball player will be a pitcher, but what about the first female position player? (via CNU Softball)

In March of 2018, FanGraphs’ legal expert, Sheryl Ring, posed the question as to whether professional baseball could legally exclude women, exploring it in her customary comprehensive style. Ever since then, I’ve been asking myself what I consider a related question: What would a LeBron James-class female athlete be like? At what level of baseball could she compete? Could she be an average player? Better? What positions could she play?

A “LeBron James-class athlete,” according to this author, is an athlete who is simultaneously the fastest, strongest and most athletic without any trade-offs. In other words, Mike Trout with Aaron Judge/Giancarlo Stanton exit velos and Byron Buxton speed. Thanks to Statcast, we now can quantify what such an athlete would look like in terms of Sprint Speed and Exit Velocities. We’ll essentially take the assumption that from a skills (pitch recognition, route running, optimizing launch angle…) standpoint, there should be no difference between men and women. The only measurable difference would be with respect to physical tools such as size, strength and speed.

This discussion should be solely an analytical one. However, whenever any subject related to gender is broached, it tends to morph into a political debate. If you’re curious as to my political leanings, find me on Twitter, where I talk mostly about Canadian politics. I am not here attempting to right a social injustice; rather, I am here to deliver to you a dispassionate analytical viewpoint on the subject in a world inundated with hyperbolic rhetoric. My aim here is to provide you with salient data and allow you, the reader, to arrive at your own conclusions, should you disagree with mine.

There is no question the average man is faster and stronger than the average woman. However, I doubt the average man could return a serve against Bianca Andreescu, nor would the average man survive a minute in the UFC octagon with Cris “Cyborg” Justino, nor Amanda Nunes. We are not dealing with average people at this level. We are looking at the outliers of all outliers, the truly exceptional individuals who possess abilities the average human (male or female) can not come close to replicating.

We’ll take a look at some real-world numbers and leverage Statcast data to see if we can find a realistic ceiling for our athlete, ideally with a specific baseball player we can point to.

The Effect of Population Size on Extreme Outliers

The average Chinese man is shorter than the average American man by about three inches. Despite this, Yao Ming was the tallest NBA player during his time playing for the Houston Rockets. While this is purely anecdotal, it underscores the notion that the larger the sample size, the more extreme your most extreme individuals will be.

The real question is, how to quantify the effect of population size? How do we estimate how much faster the fastest athlete would be if the population was 10 times as large? For that matter, how do we even measure the population size, or its standard deviation? There are so many assumptions, it would render almost any model open for extreme interpretation and/or manipulation. Generally speaking, I am leery of models that are not easily understood by the average fan, or at the very least the average Hardball Times reader. I’m especially wary of using models in which small changes in assumptions can lead to large changes in results.

In lieu of a statistical model that could be tweaked to produce pretty much any answer, let’s look at a real-world example, specifically comparing the U.S. to Canada. We’re going to compare the measurable athletic performance of American athletes as compared to Canadian athletes. In many ways, Canada is a nice (pun intended) proxy for American demographics. Both countries are wealthy, former British colonies and magnets for international migration. More importantly, generally speaking, the countries share similar interests in athletics.

We will rely on two assumptions. Our first is the population size of female athletes competing at a level that could lead to a professional athletic career is less than 10% of the equivalent male population size for the major team sports. This is based on the theory that economics drive participation — that devoting your life to an athletic goal is a significant risk. Said risk becomes more palatable when the corresponding reward grows.

Hockey is the biggest sport in Canada (for now). There are numerous high-level teams here, easily over 100 teams between the CHL, AHL and NHL. This doesn’t even include American teams, which would push this number closer to 200. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League had precisely six teams before closing its doors earlier this year. Despite Canada being one of the more progressive countries in the world, the population of professional female hockey players in Canada was significantly less than 10% of the equivalent male population prior to 2019. Currently, it stands at 0%.

Basketball is arguably the closest to baseball in terms of number of teams, with 56 professional basketball teams between the NBA and the NBA G League, compared to 12 WNBA teams. However, in terms of revenue, it’s not even close. The total amount of money paid out to WNBA athletes was roughly $12 million. That’s about the salary of one average NBA player. More specifically, the NBA spends roughly $3 billion on its athletes, without accounting for the other billions in potential endorsements the top athletes also get.

Soccer is very popular across the Americas. Currently, CONCACAF (FIFA’s branch in the Americas) lists 210 ranked men’s teams. That compares to nine teams in the National Women’s Soccer League.

Based on this, I am comfortable asserting that for all major team sports, there is significantly less than 10% of the economic opportunity for women than there is for men. This may play out differently in individual sports such as tennis, golf, and martial arts; however, it stands to reason the economic opportunity is also indicative of the level of participation and the intensity of said participation.

Our second key assumption is that Canada is demographically and environmentally similar to the U.S. Canada has roughly 10% of the population of the U.S. and generally competes in the same sports and athletics.

Following MLB from Down Under
How to keep up with the baseball action back home from the other side of the planet.

We’ll look at elite sprinters to set a baseline for the population-size effect on speed, based on the spread between the top American sprinters and the top Canadian sprinters of all time. We’ve chosen the 100-meter sprint, since it is an event Canada has historically done well in on the world stage, including setting a long-since-broken world record. We’ll also take a look at more esoteric events such as shot put, javelin throw and discus throw to get a measure of the effect on exit velocities.

Quantifying the Boost in Speed Due to Population Size

Canada has a rich history in the 100-meter sprint, including at one point being the home country of the world’s fastest man, Donavan Bailey. Twenty-two years ago, Bailey, Bruny Surin, Glenroy Gilbert, and Robert Esmie won gold for Canada at the 4×100-meter relay. Andre De Grasse became a national sensation when he held his own against Usain Bolt at the most recent Olympics. However, despite this rich history, the top American athletes still outshine the top Canadian athletes by a significant margin. The aforementioned Bailey, who is still the fastest Canadian ever, has been eclipsed by four Americans (Tyson Gay, Justin Gatlin, Maurice Greene, and Christian Coleman). If we compare the fastest American to the fastest Canadian, we get about a 1.5% boost in speed. If we compare the average of the top eight in each country, we get a boost of about 1.4%. Let’s conclude that in terms of raw speed, the population size effect would be at least 1.4%.

Quantifying the Boost in Raw Power Due to Population Size

We’ll turn to IAAF competitions to estimate this as well. Generally speaking, IAAF-governed events are strictly regulated, are adjusted for weather effects, and offer a platform for all countries to compete, even if those countries don’t have any athletes with a realistic chance at winning a medal. We’ll be selecting the IAAF events shot put, discus throw and javelin throw as our allegories for “how far can a human launch an arbitrary object?” We get the following differential between the top Americans and top Canadians:

Shot put: 5.7%
Javelin throw: 7.5%
Discus throw: 6.8%

One could argue these athletic events have so few people competing in them as to render the above results largely meaningless. It is this author’s opinion that this underscores the premise of how population sizes can have drastic impacts on the top athletes produced by said population. If we start with a small population, the new outliers gained by expanding the population size will be that much more extreme in comparison.

One could also argue these are poor allegories for baseball power in that they are completely different motions and mechanics. It is this author’s opinion that the physical tools required to launch an object as far as possible are generally the same, differing mechanics notwithstanding. I have little doubt, had Stanton or Judge trained their whole lives to hit golf balls instead of baseballs, they likely would outhit all of the major hitters in the PGA.

Let’s conclude and assess the population size impact on pure power to be roughly 6.5%.

How fast would our first female athlete be?

Speed should be straightforward to quantify thanks to the Statcast Sprint Speed metric and IAAF sprint speed comparisons for both genders.

Before we begin, let’s take a short aside and compare the legendary Bolt’s sprint speed to major league sprint speeds. We’ll ignore for the moment equipment, surface, and training differences. In 2009, Usain Bolt posted a mind-boggling time of 9.58 seconds in the 100-meter dash. Here’s how that broke down in 20-meter (65.6 foot) increments.

Usain Bolt’s Speed
Distance Time Speed (Ft/Sec)
  0 to 20 2.89 22.7
 20 to 40 1.75 37.5
 40 to 60 1.67 39.3
 60 to 80 1.61 40.8
80 to 100 1.66 39.5
SOURCE: IAAF

For comparison, under major league conditions, Tim Locastro topped the major leagues in 2019 with a sprint speed of 30.8 feet per second. Bolt’s top speed was 10 feet per second faster than that. Based on the chart above, Bolt’s time to first base would have been an insane 3.5 seconds. Though we’re comparing apples to avocados, it does give you a glimpse of just how fast the fastest sprinters are going.

The quickest time ever recorded by a woman in the 100-meter sprint was an amazing 10.49 seconds by Florence Griffith-Joyner. As per the IAAF, there are at least 1,700 men who have posted a 100-meter sprint time of 10.30 or faster. We can conclude that our athlete would likely not be Byron Buxton, nor would she be Billy Hamilton.

Per IAAF numbers, the 10 fastest men in 100-meter history posted an average time of 9.74 seconds, or 33.68 feet/second average speed on their sprints. The 10 fastest women of all time posted an average time of 10.72 seconds, or 30.69 feet/second average speed. Thus, before we take into consideration the effect population size has on our outliers, we can say the fastest woman would top out about 91.1% of the fastest man.

In our analysis of the population-size effect, we estimated we would see an increase of at least 1.4% speed if our population of female sprinters was equivalent to that of men. Using Locastro as the benchmark, our athlete could be as fast as 30.8*.911*1.014 = 28.45 ft/sec. If we change the benchmark to the average of the 10 fastest in the majors (30.1 feet/sec), we would get a 27.81 ft/sec sprint speed. If we throw out the 1.4% population size adjustment, we would get 27.4 feet/second.

A sprint speed of 28.4 feet/second would be equivalent to Albert Almora, Bo Bichette and Wil Myers.

A sprint speed of 27.8 feet/second would be equivalent to Jose Ramirez, Yoan Moncada and Lorenzo Cain.

A sprint speed of 27.4 feet/second would be equivalent to Marcell Ozuna, Jason Heyward and Juan Soto.

It is this author’s opinion that the 1.4% adjustment is actually low. Whatever the actual adjustment should be for population size, it definitively should be non-zero. Here are the average sprint speeds by major league positions.

Average Sprint Speed by Position
Pos Avg Sprint Speed
1B 25.9
2B 27.3
3B 26.7
C 25.5
CF 28.6
DH 26.0
LF 27.6
RF 27.6
SS 27.8
SOURCE: Statcast

We can safely conclude that our athlete would have, at the very least, enough speed to play second base, based on our conservative estimate, and more than enough speed to play any outfield position. While the fastest center fielders clearly would be faster, at 28.4 ft/sec, she would be as fast as George Springer, A.J. Pollock, Cain and Jackie Bradley Jr.

How Strong Would Our First Female Major League Player Be?

Finding an objective measure for strength is not as simple as finding one for speed. However, we do have a number of sports we can use to compare the top men to the top women.

Tennis serve speed: 83% as fast.
Golf driving distance: 82% as far.
Weightlifting: roughly 80% as heavy.

It’s intriguing that the tennis and golf driving metrics are consistent with each other. These were two sports I feel translate well to baseball. Shot put and discus throws have different weights for men and women, making them useless for comparisons. Weightlifting was tough to do as a direct comparison since the weight classes often are slightly mismatched. Interestingly, we see the population-size effect here. It probably safe to assume the ratio of women to men playing tennis is higher than the ratio of women to men as competitive weightlifters, though I don’t have any hard numbers to back that assertion.

We estimated if we expanded our pool of competitive female athletes by a factor of 10, we would see the hardest serves and the farthest drives by women be at least 6.5% greater. Again, you may disagree with this adjustment; however, some adjustment is required. Let’s take the 83% from tennis, as that’s probably the sport with the largest economic incentives for women. The prize money at Grand Slam events pay out equally to men and women.

If we use Judge’s 95.9 mph average exit velocity as our benchmark and include our 6.5% population-size adjustment, we arrive at 84.8 mph. If we take the average of the top 10 and include the adjustment, we get 82.6 mph. If we assume only a 3% adjustment, we get 79.9 mph.

If we use Aroldis Chapman’s or Jordan Hicks’ throwing velocities as a benchmark, we easily could see a woman hit 87 (with a 3% adjustment) to 90 mph (6.5% adjustment), which clearly would be enough arm to pitch, let alone play a major league position.

A few exit velocity reference points:

84.7 mph average exit velo would be equivalent to David Fletcher, Jose Iglesias and Mallex Smith.

82.6 mph would be equivalent to Yangervis Solarte, Delino DeShields Jr. and Locastro.

79.9 mph would be equivalent to Hamilton, Roman Quinn and Bubba Starling.

Conclusion

In 2019, Kevin Newman had an average sprint speed of 28.5 mph and an average exit velocity of 84.7 mph, making him our ideal analog. We could delve into another 2,000 words about launch angles and making efficient use of exit velo. However, it is far simpler just to point to Newman. If every girl today believed she had the potential to be at least an above-average player in baseball, there is no doubt in this author’s mind that one day we’d see one of them grow into a major league position player. She would be at least as good as 2019 Kevin Newman, in terms of physical tools, and much, much better if she plays like Jose Altuve.

References & Resources


Eli Ben-Porat is a Senior Manager of Reporting & Analytics for Rogers Communications. The views and opinions expressed herein are his own. He builds data visualizations in Tableau, and builds baseball data in Rust. Follow him on Twitter @EliBenPorat, however you may be subjected to (polite) Canadian politics.
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aweb
Member
aweb

Do the pentathletes and decathletes share enough events to be useful? I think a major problem here is that the hypothetical woman is performing as the outer physical limits, which in usual MLB performance lends itself to other problems, like bad control or too many strikeouts. Pitching, knuckleball possibilities aside, seems like a pipe dream. Fringy MLB velocity, but at the absolute limit of effort, seems like it is unlikely to translate to good enough control to be an effective junk-baller, which is where 87-90mph puts you. Hitting poses a similar issue, as the lack of exit velocity and power… Read more »

burning_phoneix
Member
burning_phoneix

I always recalled that female reaction times were approx 10ms slower on average than male reaction times. For hitting a 100mph fastball that would mean the ball is 1.5 feet closer to homeplate. For a 90mph fastball it would be 1.3 feet.

ryanredsox
Member
ryanredsox

The only problem I see with this analysis is that it doesn’t consider how a baseball player with such below average tools (87-90 mph fastball and 84.8 exit velocity) has to be an extreme outlier in the soft skills (command, off speed pitches, barrel control, hand eye coordination). There are literally thousands of baseball players who could throw 87-90mph right now, there are real reasons only a hand full of them are at the major league level. I think it’s highly unlikely to ever see a female MLB player, because she would have to be an extreme outlier in speed,… Read more »

Barry
Member
Barry

Good point. But what you call soft skills are actually hard skills. A “soft” skill usually suggests personality, people skills, that kind of thing. You refer to real hard skills such as location, changing speeds, etc.

jfree
Member
jfree

Nice presentation. What I’ve wondered for a couple decades now (since the formal ban ended) is why some team hasn’t drafted 10 or so women using the draft slots that they have no intention of signing anyway. It may well be that the physical gap is large enough that a women player will never make it to MLB. But that’s not where any draftee is sent. They are sent to rookie ball and low-A – and are expected to spend year(s) plugging away at those lower levels with no expectation for most that they will ever make it to MLB… Read more »

JSJohnSmithAnon
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JSJohnSmithAnon

Because there are currently ~0 women who could be an average player at even those levels, and you wouldn’t be able to project them to get physically stronger/faster. So it would be a pure publicity stunt.

SucramRenrut
Member
Member
SucramRenrut

Why wouldn’t you be able to project them to get stronger, faster, or generally improve? They would be getting better coaching and training just like any number of physically young HS draftees.

jfree
Member
jfree

Well since you claim to know these things, exactly how ‘average’ is a male draftee who doesn’t sign and who you never expected to sign when you drafted them?

Tinker to Taylor to Soldier to Spy
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Tinker to Taylor to Soldier to Spy

I had the chance to meet the family of Kelsie Whitmore when she was playing for the independent league Sonoma Stompers. They said that she didn’t actually want to be playing for a mens’ team — what she wanted was the opportunity to play in a womens’ league (like the WNBA or the AAGPBL) for equal publicity and pay as male athletes. It’s possible that MLB teams have approached female athletes about being drafted, and the female athletes themselves have been lukewarm on the idea. I doubt it — Whitmore did play for the Stompers, after all — but it… Read more »

AlexTheGreat
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AlexTheGreat

Why didn’t you take numbers from actual women’s baseball and then try and extrapolate that based on population size? Tying strength based events to throwing speed is an extremely spurious leap imo.

For instance Brittany Hepburn threw a 76.4mph pitch and Megan Baltzell had a top exit velocity of 94.3 mph at the Women’s Baseball World Cup in 2018.

JSJohnSmithAnon
Member
JSJohnSmithAnon

Baltzell actually got up to (at least) 97.97mph. I’m 99% sure they were using very hot composite bats though, so not really comparable.

aweb
Member
aweb

Not looking at the actual results of top-end women’s baseball seems like an oversight. Looking at the results from that tournament, which obviously draws from a very select group of players, it doesn’t appear that offensive and pitching/defensive capabilities are at a great imbalance at the upper ends of women’s baseball. Looking at just round 2 to remove any of the complete mismatch games, there were 85 runs scored in 15 games, so not quite 3 per game, per team (Japan, who won very easily, gave up 4 runs in 59 innings. Sheesh). I think this is important, because it… Read more »

Tinker to Taylor to Soldier to Spy
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Tinker to Taylor to Soldier to Spy

On the other hand, none of these professional female players has ever had the attention of a major league development staff trying to help them unlock their power, and many play baseball part-time. It’s very possible that with more practice and reps, they *could* hit for more power. We simply don’t know, one way or the other, how much of that gap is due to physical ability compared to situational environment.

TKDC
Member
Member
TKDC

This was very interesting. The issue of incentives is often overlooked. Why would a supreme athlete try to be the next Kevin Newman instead of the next Serena Williams?

Also, while I appreciate this article because it adds something new and is thoughtful, we as a society may be better served trying to appreciate female athletes in their own right as opposed to comparing them to male athletes.

Tinker to Taylor to Soldier to Spy
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Tinker to Taylor to Soldier to Spy

THIS. I mentioned this in another comment, but I got a chance to talk with some of Kelsie Whitmore’s family when she was playing for the independent league Sonoma Stompers. She didn’t actually want to play in a men’s professional league, but in a women’s one, where her talents would be recognized and given its due. The challenge is how to make that profitable and popular when even the WNBA has a dubious track record in that regard.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

The method is extremely rigorous here, and I believe the outcome, with one caveat: This player is going to be at least as good as Kevin Newman’s projection, not Kevin Newman’s 2019. Kevin Newman’s performance in 2019 looks like a bit of a fluke based on his minor league numbers, and there’s a big difference between 1.3 wins and 2.4.

roydjt
Member
Member
roydjt

So you’re basically telling me that Kevin Newman plays ball like a girl.

JSJohnSmithAnon
Member
JSJohnSmithAnon

You make the completely unrealistic conclusion that a woman could be an MLB position player and still get roasted by SJWs on Twitter, what a world!

Bip
Member
Member
Bip

The estimates for sprint speed and exit velocity make sense to me. So, let’s assume it’s possible for a female athlete to have 28.5 spring speed or 84.7 exit velo. However, it seems like a fallacy to me to assume that, because each of those is separately possible, that it is also possible for one athlete to have both those attributes. After all, in MLB, the top exit velo hitters are a totally separate population from the top sprinters, and there seems to be physical reason for this, if you look at the players at the top of each category.

jacob2
Member
jacob2

I think it’s quite plausible that with equal access, we’d see a woman reach the majors…but the institution of softball will prevent that. The entire talent base is diverted to another sport.

frank
Member
frank

Softball is perhaps the biggest impediment to some women playing at the MLB level, because it narrows the hardball population pool so much.

Greg Simons
Editor

I’m happy to see the comments are primarily related to discussion of physical/anatomical capabilities and limitations and are not devolving into misogynistic garbage that likely would be prevalent on some other sites.

Tinker to Taylor to Soldier to Spy
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Tinker to Taylor to Soldier to Spy

One thing I’ve wondered is whether Catcher might be the ideal position for a first female MLB player to break in at. It relies more on intelligence compared to physical strength than some other positions, and if the results of this study are anywhere close to correct, is the easiest place for a Kevin Newman-level bat to profile every day. Since women are (on average) socialized to care more about people’s personalities than men, it wouldn’t surprise me if female players tended to be more adept at handling pitching staffs than male ones. And since catchers don’t play close to… Read more »

Yehoshua Friedman
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Yehoshua Friedman

So far that sounds good, but the throw down do second would be hard to get there fast enough. The other element which exists at any position but is perhaps hardest at catcher is physical contact. The lighter muscle and bone structure would be harder on a woman with a runner sliding into the plate or running the bases herself. Middle infielders would suffer on the double play. I’m certainly happy to entertain the thoughts of equality which would probably be best played out in a women’s pro league, but head-on physical competition with men, I just don’t see it.

Barry
Member
Barry

The absolute very best of the best woman (wonder woman) would theoretically be average according to the author, but it feels to me that that conclusion is overly optimistic and hopeful. An average male runner, thrower, power hitter etc. would still be overall significantly stronger than a female able to achieve those average metrics. That overall male strength is an asset not accounted for here other then in particular measures. E.g., a 162 game grind – to name only one variable – would impact the hypothetical wonder woman (and this woman would have to be the very best of the… Read more »