To those of you who normally skip the baseball posts, please stick around. Despite early appearances, this is not really a baseball post.
Those of you who don’t follow baseball may be unaware that one of the events preceding a professional baseball game is a ceremonial first pitch. The ceremonial pitcher rarely has any connection to baseball, or even athletics in any form, so generally nobody is surprised if the pitch falls short or goes doesn’t go anywhere near the plate. In fact, a bad throw has become so much an expected part of the process that it’s passed into popular culture. Sports-themed comic strip “Tank McNamara” recently ran a weeklong series of cartoons based on the premise of a “Ceremonial-First-Pitch Training Camp” (the series starts here if you’re curious). In 2009, The Huffington Post ran a poll to identify the worst first pitch ever. And, of course, posters to YouTube routinely post their candidates for the title of “worst ever”.
Here are a few of the nominees, just so you get a sense of what we’re talking about:
Need more? Try this video for a collection of 22 horrible first pitches:
What’s going wrong? Simple: they throw like girls.
Wait, wait, don’t throw those rotten tomatos at me. It’s not that I’m worried about getting hurt. If you throw them like girls, you’re more likely to hit each other than you are me, and it’ll be an ugly mess that somebody will have to clean up.
Seriously though, “throwing like a girl” is a recognized syndrome, studied by serious people. People other than baseball players, I mean. According to an article in the Washington Post, “Janet Hyde, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has studied the gender gap across a broad spectrum of skills…[she] found what she defined as a “very large” difference in only two skills: throwing velocity and throwing distance.”
The same article cites Jenny Allard, coach of the Harvard women’s softball team and Jerry Thomas, dean of the College of Education at the University of North Texas in Denton on the difference between men’s and women’s throwing styles as being primarily one of how they rotate their bodies when throwing: women rotate their hips and shoulders together, while men rotate them separately: hips first, then shoulders. The result is that men get a larger amount of rotation-induced velocity on their throws.
A secondary difference is that women generate most of the throwing motion in the forearm, while men use a whipping action with the whole arm and wrist.
While there is speculation that at least some of the difference is biological, there is strong evidence that “throwing like a boy” can be taught. Thomas studied Australian aboriginal children, who grow up in a culture where both sexes hunt and are taught to throw from childhood. He found that the gap between girls’ and boys’ throwing skills was significantly smaller than in other cultures.
Speaking anecdotally, I can confirm that when girls play in Little League baseball teams and learn to throw “correctly”, they can have the most feared arms on their teams.
As final proof that body rotation is key to a strong, accurate throw, I leave you with Korean gymnast Shin Soo-ji’s ceremonial first pitch. I’d love to see Miguel Cabrera, the current MLB batting leader, hit against her. Note that even though the actual throw comes primarily from the forearm, she still generates sufficient speed and accuracy to cover the distance to the plate. The throw is a bit high and outside, but no worse than some pitches I’ve seen from professional ballplayers (Shin claims to have thrown 80% strikes in practice.) If she puts in some practice time getting her whole arm into her pitches, she might actually have a career as a short reliever.