When it comes to women's baseball, Japan stands a notch above everyone else.
There's a good reason for this. Even the best women's baseball players everywhere else have to treat the sport as a hobby. But in Japan, the four-team Japan Women's Baseball League gives many of Japan's best a chance to play dozens more games a year than anyone else in the world.
That extra experience has paid off in international competitions. Japan has won the past five Women's World Cups, stretching back to 2008. And it's reflected in our ranking of the top women players in the world, where Japan is well-represented.
1. Ayami Sato, RHP (27)
There is little doubt who is the best women baseball player in the world. When Ayami Sato takes the mound, Japan is likely to win and Sato is likely to dominate.
Sato has won back-to-back MVP awards at the Women's World Cup in 2014 and 2016. She was also named the top starting pitcher at the 2010 World Cup.
In the gold medal game in 2016 she shut out Canada. In the gold medal game in the 2014 World Cup, she shut out the U.S. In the past four World Cups, she is 9-0, having posted a sub-1.00 ERA in three of the past four tournaments. Saito is equally dominant when pitching in the JWBL. She led the league in wins (13) and ERA (1.71) last year.
Sato succeeds by pitching backwards as she gets ahead in counts by locating her mid-60s breaking ball, setting up her mid-70s fastball. Sato's breaking ball is one of the best in women's baseball because of its break, depth and her ability to consistently throw it for strikes. Many of the best hitters come from softball backgrounds, so a quality breaking ball with downward tilt and break–a pitch unlike anything seen in fast-pitch softball–is generally more effective against top women's hitters than fastballs.
2. Sarah Hudek, LHP (20)
As a 17-year-old, Hudek was already capable of holding her own against the best women's players in the world, as she was named the best relief pitcher at the 2014 Women's World Cup. Hudek was who Team USA sent to the mound in the gold medal game against Japan–she allowed three runs in a loss to Saito and Japan. Hudek was also Team USA's starter in the gold medal game in the Pan Am Games in 2015. She did not participate in the 2016 Women's World Cup but is expected to return to the U.S. National team for the 2018 World Cup.
The daughter of former big league pitcher John Hudek, the younger Hudek is currently the hardest-throwing female pitcher in the world with a fastball that will break 80 mph. Currently an outfielder for Texas A&M's softball team, Hudek spent her freshman year on the baseball mound, pitching for the NJCAA Division I Bossier City Community College, where she went 2-1, 4.95 with 12 strikeouts and seven walks in 20 innings.
Hudek is an excellent athlete who is a viable middle of the order option as a right fielder when she's not pitching, but she cracks the Top 10 largely on the basis of her pitching prowess.
3. Ayako Rokakku, 3B, Japan (26)
Rokakku announced herself on the world stage by winning MVP honors at the 2010 Women's World Cup as an 18-year-old by hitting .611 in her first major international tournament. She's been a consistent contact hitter for Japan ever since, while also playing an excellent third base–she was voted the best defensive player at the 2012 World Cup. She's also shown herself a threat to steal on the basepaths, as she's stolen 10 bases in 10 tries in the past three World Cups while serving as Japan's leadoff hitter.
As a very well-rounded player, Rokakku is considered by many to the best women's position player in the world.
4. Yuki Kawabata, 2B, Japan (28)
Kawabata has hit a combined .542 over the past three World Cups while playing a little bit of everywhere around the infield. Kawabata plays a solid second base after spending time at shortstop and first base in the past, but it's her lefthanded bat that stands out as she's been a fixture in the middle of Japan's lineup for years.
Kawabata has struck out just three times in her last 58 World Cup at-bats while serving as a reliable cleanup hitter in the most recent World Cup.
5. Miya Shimizu, RHP, Japan (19)
While Sato has been Japan's ace for years, Japan introduced a new wave of young and talented pitchers at the past two World Cups. Shimizu wasn't on the Japanese team in 2014, but by 2016, she had pitched her way into a significant role. She didn't allow a run or walk a batter in 8.1 innings in the 2016 World Cup while striking out 10. She threw four scoreless innings to beat Australia to earn Japan a spot in the championship game.
Shimizu has a more effortful delivery than the other Japanese pitchers, but is does not affect her ability to locate both her 70 mph fastball and her 50-55 mph curveball.
6. Malaika Underwood, 1B, U.S. (36)
If this list had been put together 10 years ago, Underwood would have ranked much higher. Underwood has moved from second to first base as a concession to her age. But even as a 36-year-old, her consistent hitting makes her one of the more feared hitters in women's baseball. A college volleyball player, Underwood's swing isn't picturesque, as she sometimes cuts herself off and doesn't always use her lower half, but she makes tons of contact.
7. Amanda Asay, C/1B/RHP, Canada (29)
A hockey and softball player at Brown, Asay is the heart of Team Canada, which finished second at the 2016 World Cup. Asay pitched Canada into the championship game by allowing only one run in seven innings against Taiwan. As a pitcher, Asay pitches primarily off of her low-70s fastball, mixing in a 62-64 mph curveball at times.
But Asay stands out more as a position player. She was named to the 2006 World Cup all-tournament team after hitting .500 and has been a key part of Canada's lineup for more than a decade.
8. Stacy Piagno, RHP, U.S. (26)
Piagno has become somewhat famous as the first women to win a game in a men's professional league since Eri Yoshida was pitching for in the now-defunct independent North American Baseball League in 2012. Piagno is 1-0, 3.60 in 10 innings with the Sonoma Stompers this year.
On the international stage, Piagno pitched 3.2 scoreless innings to finish up the U.S.'s championship game win at the 2015 Pan Am Games. That came on the heels of a no-hitter against Puerto Rico. She was less effective in the 2016 World Cup.
Piagno throws harder than Japan's aces with a mid-70s fastball and a tighter, harder mid-60s breaking ball.
9. Nana Sasazuma, LHP, Japan (21)
On pretty much any other women's team in the world, Sasazuma would be vying to be the team's ace. She's a lefty with a 75 mph fastball and a solid low-to-mid 60s curveball she can locate. But Japan has enough quality arms that Sasazuma served as a starter/reliever who was matched up against lesser teams in the 2016 World Cup after serving in a larger role in 2014.
She's excelled in whatever she's been asked to do. In 2016 she struck out 11 in only 5.2 innings while allowing one hit and two walks to beat Taiwan and India. In 2014, she threw seven scoreless innings, including five scoreless in a 1-0 win over the U.S.
10. Mira Araki, LHP, Japan (21)
All of Japan's starters pitch backwards, trusting that they can toy with hitters because of their ability to locate curveballs with good depth, but Araki takes the curveball-heavy approach to new levels, as she'll go back-to-back-to-back with breaking balls before sneaking a 68-72 mph fastball by a hitter. Like most of the Japanese pitchers, Araki likes to hang on the rubber at her balance point, toying with hitters' timing.
It's worked quite well for the young lefty. Araki struck out 12 of the 22 batters she faced in the 2016 World Cup, allowing only two hits for an .091 average against.