Mo’ne Davis, the ace of the Taney Dragons in the Little League World Series, spoke fluently about “release points” and the art of confronting batters who were uncomfortable hitting the ball to the opposite field. It was advanced stuff for any pitcher, let alone one who was 13 years old.
Davis, having captured much of the nation’s attention in recent days with her blazing fastball and her waist-length braids, was preparing to take the mound Wednesday night for her Philadelphia-based team against a team from Las Vegas, which won, 8-1, to advance to Saturday’s U.S. championship game.
Davis had already pitched one shutout in the tournament. She throws with a fluid motion — and she throws hard, her fastball topping out at more than 70 mph. For Little League hitters who face her from just 46 feet, her heater is the equivalent of a pitch with a velocity in the low 90s on a larger, big-league diamond. The ball is a blur as it leaves her right hand.
“She’s pretty special,” said Dr. Jeremy Ng, a sports and performance medicine physician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Her specialness is clearly formed by mental and physical gifts. But one of her advantages may come as something of a surprise: her sex.
Players in the tournament range from ages 11 to 13, a time of enormous change — namely the onset of adolescence and all the physical transformations that follow. But not all change is equal, and girls generally get a two-year head start on their growth spurts.
Consider, for example, that the average 12-year-old girl is slightly taller and weighs more than the average 12-year-old boy, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For Davis, who turned 13 two months ago, her physical gifts are apparent every time she delivers a pitch. At 5 feet 4 inches, Davis is more than 3 inches taller than the average 12-year-old boy. In fact, her height would put her in the 50th percentile of 18-year-old women. Being tall and lean for her age allows her to generate additional velocity on her pitches.
Davis also appears to have good flexibility in her shoulder, a likely product of throwing overhand from an early age.
Dr. Ted Ganley, the sports medicine director at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said the repetitive motion of throwing a baseball can cause a structural change in the shoulder as it develops, allowing for greater rotational flexibility. This is especially important for pitchers: The greater the angle of rotation, the greater the force with which the ball can be thrown.
Davis has worked hard at her craft, and it shows.
Last Friday, Davis threw a complete-game shutout in a 4-0 victory over a team from South Nashville, Tennessee. She struck out eight while allowing just two hits.
She was not whiffing little kids from down the street. She was dominant against one of the top teams in the world, its lineup consisting entirely of boys.
“That’s what makes what she’s doing even more remarkable,” Ng said. “She’s facing many boys who have had a similar developmental advantage. And she’s striking them out.”
So if Davis is capable of throwing 70 mph now, what is to prevent her from throwing 90 mph in a few years?
Dr. Mininder S. Kocher, the associate director of sports medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, said it was unlikely but not impossible. “You just need one outlier,” he said.
One obstacle could be that Davis has already developed physically. Kocher, who has not examined Davis, said she was “likely near skeletal maturity” given her size and age. In other words, she will probably not get too much taller, whereas many 12-year-old boys are prepubescent and have yet to begin their growth spurts.
And while the differences in strength between 12-year-old boys and girls is slim, those differences become much more pronounced during and after puberty. Girls, Ng said, often begin puberty at around 11 or 12; for most boys, it begins two years later but lasts twice as long, which helps give them 1 1/2 times as much lean body mass as girls.
Puberty for boys means an increased production in testosterone. For boys and girls who are ages 10 and 11, the amount of testosterone available for use in their bodies is roughly the same, according to the Tietz Clinical Guide for Laboratory Tests. But for 17- and 18-year-olds, it is nearly 80 times higher for boys. All that testosterone results in longer and larger bones, and a higher ratio of muscle mass to body weight — all key components to athletic performance.
“It’s not really about what she isn’t going to be able to do,” Ng said, referring to Davis. “It’s what the boys start doing.”
When Victoria Ruelas, 37, played in the Little League World Series in 1989, she was one of the stars of her team from San Pedro, California. Like Davis, she was 5-4 and bashed several home runs as the team made its run in regional play to South Williamsport. But she slumped once she got there, collecting one hit in three games. She can still recall specific at-bats: her only base hit (a shot up the middle), a flyout to center, getting hit by a pitch against Venezuela and that team’s unusual display of sportsmanship.
“They came over to shake my hand,” she said. “I thought that was different. They didn’t do that in California.”
Ruelas continued to play baseball through middle school but she never grew taller than 5-4 and became more of a contact hitter. She eventually recognized that if she wanted a college scholarship, she would need to transition to softball. She played for three seasons at San Jose State before joining a women’s professional baseball league as a senior.
A mother of three, Ruelas now lives in Clarksville, Tennessee. She still finds time to put on her spikes and dig into the batter’s box.
“I’m not going to say I don’t crank one every now and then,” she said.
History suggests that Davis may be nearer the end of her baseball career than the beginning. Only 1,259 girls played high school baseball nationwide in 2013, compared with 474,791 boys, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
There are no baseball teams solely for girls. And those who seek to play varsity competition sometimes face resentment for taking a male player’s roster spot — not to mention the hidebound notion that baseball is for boys, not girls.
Alicia Hunolt, who played in the Little League World Series in 1999 for the team from the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, experienced that firsthand as the starting second baseman for her middle school team in the eighth grade. Before one game, she said, an opposing coach refused to let his team play against her.
“There was a social element of not being accepted as I got older,” Hunolt said. “And the guys started to develop more and more, and I knew I wouldn’t really have a chance to compete.”
Hunolt went on to play softball at Auburn.
This week, USA Baseball is holding tryouts for its national women’s team, which will compete next month in Japan at an eight-team World Cup. Cuts from a field of 40 women — ranging in age from 16 to 40 — were scheduled to be made Thursday. The team’s top pitchers are capable of throwing fastballs in the low 80s, manager Jonathan Pollard said.
“I love the exposure that Mo’ne has brought to the game,” Pollard said. “But we have 40 Mo’nes in this group. I wish there was a camera on what we were doing so people could be like, ‘Wow.’ Not just to bring attention to what we’re doing, but so we can be a visual goal for young girls. So when they think their only option is to pursue softball, they know we’re out there.”
It is impossible to project the future of any young athlete. Chances of future stardom are slim. Less than 4 percent of female high school basketball players participate in college, according to the NCAA. Bodies change with puberty. And with teenagers, so do interests.
Even Davis, despite her talent on the diamond, has expressed an interest in playing college basketball — perhaps, she said, at the University of Connecticut.
But Ganley, the sports medicine director at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, is not ruling anything out. After all, you don’t need to throw 90 to make the majors, or even the Hall of Fame. Consider Greg Maddux, who threw in the 80s and relied on guile. Velocity isn’t everything.
“Maybe,” Ganley said, “she’s the one.”