This story, which I first read on Fangraphs, fascinates me:
Who would willingly throw a knuckleball in high school when scouts are looking for fastballs and curveballs? Well, for a 15-year-old native of Plant City, Florida, knuckleballs have been the key pitch to a young successful repertoire — ever since Joe Niekro taught the fluttering pitch to her.
Chelsea Baker has thrown a knuckler for eight years — that is one year longer than R.A. Dickey — and has earned no little fame in the process, going so far as earning an ESPN E:60 segment in 2010.
Since her incredible 2010 season — her two-perfect-games season — the fervor around Baker has reduced from unrealistic expectations to under-appreciated talent. Baker, 13 in the E:60 special, is now heading towards her age-16 season, her first high school season, and she is riding a streak of five consecutive all-star selections. She is also mulling a professional contract in Japan. The contract would have her play in the three-team Girls Professional Baseball League (GPBL), where the top sluggers lead the league with 1 homer through 150 PA.
The allure of baseball in Japan must be great for the likes of Baker. She is perhaps the best young female baseball player in the nation. If she does well in high school, she will likely do well in the GPBL, where she already has the beginnings of celebrity status. She could also get paid to play baseball. Few women get that chance. But, she will also lose her collegiate eligibility. If she stays in America, she will have to find a college willing to take a risk on a female pitcher and a knuckleballer all in one go. She will have to break through silent walls of doubt and confirmation bias just to earn playing time.
Watch video from a few years ago here. She throws a 70s mph fastball
Of all the major male professional sports leagues, MLB is probably the only one where the opportunity exists for a female athlete to earn a spot on a team. Football, basketball, and hockey are probably too physical for even an extraordinary female athlete to break in. But baseball? I think its possible. And if it were a possibility, you would expect a knuckleball-throwing pitcher to be the one to do it.
The story is amazing, and I’ll let the link speak for itself. The question that I’m interesting is is how does she do it? If Baker and her family decided right now that her goal was to play Major League Baseball, what path would she aim for? As far as I can tell, she has three options: A conventional college path, a conventional high school / minor leagues path, and an unconventional Japan / independent league path.
College is probably not an option for her. I imagine that the NCAA has very strict rules about the sex of students playing their sports, and would not be willing to waive them for an extraordinary talent. I’m sure that there are many female baseball players out there who are capable of displacing some male players beyond just Baker, and the NCAA won’t have any of that. If you’re Chelsea Baker this isn’t not something you can individually change. That’s too bad, because it would probably be her best path to proving herself as a potential future MLB player.
The conventional minor league 18-year old draft route would require a team to take a chance on her. Dan Duquette sounds interested, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some other team were willing to take a flyer out for publicity alone. This obviously will depend on how well she performs in a high level high school league, and whether or not she can get into the big showcases. Once she gets into the minor leagues, she’ll have to prove her self at every single step, both to baseball people making decisions about her future and to herself.
The alternate option is signing with a professional team in either Japan or an independent league. An offer reported to be on the table would guarantee her a spot on an all-female professional baseball team in Japan. Personally, I don’t think she should settle for this. Baker has got every reason to believe that she has a legitimate shot at playing professional baseball against men. She should challenge herself and do it.
The independent leagues remain and option. Eri Yoshida, another female knuckleballer, recent tried this route in the United States, but ultimately wasn’t good enough to go farther.
If I were her, I’d go the minor league route. While it might be alluring to sign with an independent league team in Japan, her odds of major league success increase with the professional coaching and development assistance that only MLB organizations can offer. Independent teams are nice, but ultimately not as nurturing. Either way, I’m excited to follow Baker as she works her way up through high school ball.
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