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Women’s baseball deserves your attention

Women’s baseball is superior to MLB in many ways.

Oly W Baseball

Plenty of reasons to love women’s baseball

There is a prevalent opinion that MLB is broken and needs to be fixed. As Joe Sheehan pointed out in his May 24 newsletter (subscription highly recommended), we’re seeing record highs in Three True Outcomes (TTO: Ks / BBs / HRs) and runs scored via home runs (35.1 and 44.6 percent). At the same time, the percentage of singles per plate appearance (13.6) is at an all-time low. Many people don’t mind this flavor of baseball, while others find it disconcerting. However, all of us could use a reminder that MLB is not the only flavor of baseball available.

If you consider increasing TTO and excessive home runs a problem (and perhaps even if you don’t), women’s baseball is vastly superior to men’s. There are very few statistics available, but the 2018 USA Baseball Women’s National Team numbers reveal a much more pleasing style of play. With a TTO percentage of just 29.1, more than two thirds of all plate appearances end with a ball in play. It’s hard to tell what percentage of runs are scored on dingers, but they average 0.4 per game as opposed to MLB’s 2.7. Women also strike out much less than men: 13.7 percent compared to MLB’s 22.9.

Given that we all love baseball for slightly different reasons, maybe you’re enticed by star power. Nearly everyone appreciates the Mike Trouts and Max Scherzers— athletes so vastly superior that they seem beyond human. As it happens, the ballplayers at the pinnacle of women’s baseball are even farther beyond their competition.

Playing against international competition for Team USA in 2018, lefty-hitting catcher Megan Baltzell slashed .500/.606/.885. No, these numbers are not a joke; she’s a legitimate lefty backstop with a 1.491 OPS! Her stats are not to be dismissed by small sample size, either. In her softball career at Longwood University, she batted .402 with 76 home runs and 67 stolen bases (!) in 231 games. Apparently, she amalgamates the best qualities of Barry Bonds, Joe Mauer and Ichiro Suzuki.

Stacy Piagno has revived another relic from a bygone era of MLB: the complete game. In the 2018 tournament, she finished both of her starts and made a relief appearance. She struck out 12, walked two, and allowed four earned runs in 15 innings (women’s baseball games are often seven innings). Along with infielder Kelsie Whitmore, she made the news a few years ago by signing with the Sonoma Stompers, a men’s team in the independent Pacific Association. More impressively, she tossed a no-hitter against Puerto Rico in the 2015 Pan American Games.

However, the best brand of women’s baseball can be found in Japan. The four-team Japanese Women’s Baseball League (JWBL) is the only women’s professional baseball league in the world. Professionalism has ancillary benefits as well; the Japanese national team hasn’t lost a game in international competition since 2012! They are led by Ayami Sato and her unhittable curveball:

Where to find women’s baseball

There’s only one immense problem with women’s baseball: opportunity. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (yes, the one from A League of Their Own) commenced in the throes of World War II and lasted through 1954. Since then, there have been scarce chances for women and non-men to play the game beyond Little League.

Once they reach teenage years women are pushed into softball, which has it’s own merits, but remains a different sport altogether. The rules, dimensions, and of course the ball are all different than baseball, though similar skills are needed for both (depending on position). There exists more room for growth in softball than baseball, though not to the same extent as the men’s game. Athletes can play softball in college, and there is a pro league: National Pro Fastpitch. However, the league has troubles of its own.

Women’s baseball does exist. In addition to national teams and the JWBL, there are non-profit leagues like the Eastern Women’s Baseball Conference in the Baltimore-DC area and the Ontario Women’s Baseball League. Several organizations do outstanding work to grow women’s baseball, such as Dr. Justine Siegal’s Baseball for All and the International Women’s Baseball Center. Additionally, there will be a Women in Baseball panel at the the upcoming SABR Convention in San Diego at the end of June.

All the ingredients for a successful, entertaining product are in place. The brand of baseball played by women is exactly the kind of game for which MLB aspires. There are elite players with drool-worthy stats. There are even tournaments, leagues, teams, and organizations that provide opportunities to let these athletes shine (though not NEARLY enough).

So what’s missing?

Why hasn’t women’s baseball grown to match the financial and cultural juggernaut of MLB, or even the WNBA?

The lacking puzzle piece is awareness. In Jeva Lange’s article for The Week, titled America’s Shameful Indifference to Women’s Baseball, she illustrates how the 2018 Women’s Baseball World Cup was held in a backwater Florida suburb. It’s inexcusable that a top-level international competition couldn’t utilize one of the hundreds of professional quality stadiums across America.

The tournament was exciting, emotional, and a reaffirmation that women have always belonged in baseball. It was also a resounding reminder that the powers that be in American baseball do not care about women’s participation in the sport.

-Jeva Lange, “America’s Shameful Indifference to Women’s Baseball”

Lack of media coverage is the most reprehensible reason why you’ve probably never heard about most women’s baseball competitions. There’s no excuse for ESPN, Fox Sports, NBCSN, and other sports networks to ignore women’s baseball. It’s even more absurd that MLB Network— the only national network in the country devoted entirely to baseball— hasn’t caught on.

Nearly every sport in the country played at a high caliber can find national airtime on some network or satellite (including the Little League World Series; they would rather broadcast children than women), yet they’ve shown no interest in airing this particular style of high-level baseball. Once again, Japan has succeeded where American media fails:

The JWBL has a lot to do with the country’s dominance. The women in the league play much more often at a higher competitive level than just about anyone else in the world. Oscar Lopez, the head of communications for the World Baseball Softball Confederation, the organization that puts on the WBWC, says that the Japanese team has “a lot of support [from baseball fans] and also a lot of commercial support, sponsors, which may or not be an advantage to other nations.”

He points out that this year, Forbes ranked the JWBL 16th among “the most powerful women in international sports.” The average attendance at JWBL games is roughly 1,200, but on the high end, games can attract upward of 5,000 spectators, JWBL spokesperson Kana Kawabata told HuffPost via email.

-Jessica Luther, “What Does Japan Know About Women’s Baseball that the US Doesn’t?”

As a result of the media largely shunning women’s baseball, the game has struggled to gain respect and attention. The 2019 Pan American Games dropped just one sport from the tournament: women’s baseball. While their male counterparts sign nine-figure contracts, the best female ballplayers have to find other lines of work, only practicing and playing (if they’re lucky) on weekends for no money. It’s discriminatory and distinctly unAmerican, but the game is ready to grow nonetheless. All that’s missing is your attention.

About the featured image: Yes, it’s softball and not baseball. Neither of the image providers we must use have a single photo of women’s baseball, which is emblematic of the biggest problem.

Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at Tweets @depstein1983