Oklahoma Does It Again!

Defeats Top-Ranked Florida for Second-Straight NCAA Title

By TSC Analyst/Contributor DANIEL URBAN

OKLAHOMA CITY - Ranked #1 through nearly the entire 2017 season and replete with first-class pitching and hitting, the Florida Gators were odds-on favorites to win it all this year.  The Gators were eager to comply, looking to avenge last year’s early exit in the Super Regional despite similar regular-season dominance.
Although they were defending NCAA champions, expectations were somewhat lower for Oklahoma. The Sooners looked like their postseason might end early, but they pulled off a furious comeback to make it into the Super Regionals.

Oklahoma was in one of the easier Regional pools this year.  The three other teams were Tulsa, North Dakota State, and Arkansas.  Arkansas is an SEC school, but Arkansas went 7-17 in conference and ranked 2nd to last in the conference in 2017.

 Maybe Oklahoma thought its Regional pool was too easy and overestimated it, because the Sooners were upset big-time in the first game, losing to North Dakota State 3-2.  It is very rare for a team that loses its first game in the Regional to move on to the Super Regional, and Oklahoma's back was definitely to the wall, but it found a way to win when it mattered.

Oklahoma battled back and defeated Arkansas 5-3 in the losers' bracket, then beat North Dakota State in a revenge game 10-2.  The Sooners were then faced with the formidable task of defeating unbeaten Tulsa twice in a row to advance.  Oklahoma won the first game 6-4, then came up big again to beat Tulsa 3-0.

The Sooners then advanced to the Super Regionals to face #7-seed Auburn.  Oklahoma ace Paige Parker set a new postseason-best by striking out every Auburn starter at least once in a 4-0 win in game one.  The remainder of the pitching staff—and in particular, first-year transfer Paige Lowary—returned the favor in game two with a 5-2 victory and a ticket to the 2017 Women’s College World Series (WCWS).

Eyebrows were raised as Alabama beat Florida in game one of their Super Regional matchup, but Florida quickly waded through the Tide, winning the next two games 2-0 and 2-1 to advance to the WCWS.
As expected, Florida trounced Texas A&M in game 1.  The Gators humiliated the Aggies 8-0 in a 5-inning mercy rule victory.  Florida sent ace pitcher 1-A Kelly Barnhill to the mound, and she blanked the Aggies over four innings and only allowed 3 hits while striking out 5.  Florida then sent ace pitcher 1-B Delanie Gourley to the mound for the final inning, and she retired 3 out of 4 batters to end the inning.

The Florida bats pounced early and churned 2 runs on 3 hits in the first inning.  Florida manufactured 2 more runs off 2 hits and a walk to go up 4-0 after 2 innings.  Florida then put up 1 additional run in the 3rd and 3 runs in the 4th.  After a 5th shutout inning, the game was over by mercy rule.

Florida was on a mission, and it was going to be very tough to beat as it added another trouncing to its resume.
LSU was fresh off of an upset victory over UCLA and had to be confident it could play with any team—until it met Florida.  Ace pitcher Kelly Barnhill delivered again for the Gators with a 2nd straight shutout victory.  Barnhill pitched a complete game 2-hitter with 8 strikeouts and 3 walks.

Florida's defense was excellent, but its offense was even better: Janelle Wheaton and Kayli Kvistad hit home runs and collectively drove in 4 runs.  Florida's offense put up 9 hits and 7 runs in 7 innings.  Very impressive.
In two WCWS games, Florida had outscored its opponents 15-0!  That is domination!

Florida then beat Washington 5-2.  The Gators were up 5-0 on Washington until the 7th inning, when the Huskies were able to put up 2 pity runs.  Florida used its 2nd ace pitcher Delaney Gourley to face Washington, and she delivered!  Gourley pitched 7 innings and only allowed 2 runs and 2 hits in the 7th inning.  She also struck out 10.  She was magnificent!

But the real story was Florida's continued offensive assault against other WCWS pitchers. Florida hitters put up 7 hits over 7 innings and manufactured 5 runs.  The top of the Florida lineup was especially impressive: it put up 5 of Florida's 7 hits and was responsible for 4 of Florida's 5 RBI.

If Florida hitters and pitchers continued to put up numbers like this, they would win the WCWS handily.
Meanwhile defending champ Oklahoma advanced past Baylor (6-3), Washington (3-1) and Oregon (4-2) to set the stage for a dream best-of-three final series against #1-seed Florida.

The word epic is rarely an understatement, but that perfectly describes what happened in game one as the Oklahoma Sooners won a 17-inning nailbiting roller coaster slug match.

Oklahoma was up 2-1 in the top of the 7th with 2 outs and 2 strikes, but Gator Sophia Reynoso hit a ball to the outfield that dropped just short of the Oklahoma fielder's mitt and allowed speedy Alesia Ocasio to score all the way from 1st base.  On to extra innings!

In the 12th inning Oklahoma's Fale Aviu hit a 2-run blast to put Oklahoma up 4-2.  After switching sides, Oklahoma was again up with 2 outs and ready to close the Gators out.  There were Gator baserunners at 1st and 2nd.  Then Gator Amanda Lorenz hit a shot to the gap that scored 2 Florida runs and again tied up the game.  Florida had saved themselves from defeat again!!

But despite the sensational comebacks, it all unraveled for Florida in the top of the 17th when Oklahoma freshmen Shay Knighten hit a towering 3-run bomb that put the Sooners up for good 7-4.

This was the longest game in WCWS finals history!! What a historic match!!

Oklahoma jumped out early in game two, putting up 4 runs in the first 2 innings.  Florida answered back with 3 runs in the 2nd and added a 3rd run in the 3rd inning to make the score 4-3.  The Sooners eventually edged out the Gators 5-4 to win it all.

Oklahoma had 4 pitchers pitch in the decisive 2nd game.  Paige Parker pitched the first 3 innings but was pulled after giving up 3 runs over the first 1.2 innings.  Freshman Mariah Lopez then carried the load for 2.1 innings.  Nicole Mendes entered the circle in the 5th inning, then handed the ball off to Paige Lowary who pitched 2 innings of shutout ball in the 6th and 7th to seal the victory.

Sophomore Shay Knighten was named the WCWS championship series most outstanding player.  She came up with big hits in both games to give the Sooners the lead that eventually won the game.  In game one Knighten hit a 3-run home run in the top of the 17th inning to put the Sooners ahead 7-4.  The Sooners went on to win 7-5 in the bottom of the 17th.

In game two Knighten hit a bases-clearing double that scored 2 runs and gave the Sooners a lead they held through the final inning to win the title.  All in all, Knighten hit .350 in 20 at-bats with 7 total hits, 2 doubles, a home run and 8 RBI.

The Sooners now have four national titles in softball.  Only Arizona and UCLA have more with 8 and 11, respectively.  Is playing in Oklahoma City too much of an advantage for the Sooners?  Maybe it's time to give another venue a chance!  Read more.




California Dominates NCAA Softball Rosters

Almost One-Third of Players on Top College Teams Hail from The Golden State 

By TSC Analyst/Contributor DANIEL URBAN

LOMBARD - As a fan of NCAA softball for over 10 years, I have visited the web pages of hundreds of college teams and looked through the rosters of dozens of teams.  Each time I look at a different NCAA team's roster, I get the feeling a significant number of players are from California--no matter what team I am looking at or where in the country it is from.  Am I just seeing things, or is there something to this?  I know California is a hotbed of softball talent, but does it really take up a significant number of roster spots on each NCAA team?  

Let's go to the data: 


For my sample I used the 16 teams that made the Super Regional in 2017.  I pulled the roster info for each team and found that out of 320 players, 102 or 32% were from California!  I was not expecting it to be that high.  I would have considered 10% to be high, but 32%!  Almost one in every three players on the top teams are from California.  And not only did California players make up almost 32% of the players, each of the top 16 teams from 2017 had at least one player from The Golden State. 

Based on my analysis, I must conclude that California makes up a disproportionately large percentage of NCAA softball rosters, and that California produces players that win at the highest level in the NCAA. 

I am surprised too that so many players from California are willing to travel so far away from home to schools all along the West Coast and to the central and southeast parts of the country to play ball.  The investment in coaches and facilities by conferences like the SEC must play a huge role in luring the talent away from California. 

It might be that the increasing parity we are seeing in college softball can be explained by the fact that California players are no longer limiting themselves to the Pac-12, but are fanning out geographically and bringing the benefits of their talent to more teams across the county!

If I was a college coach I would just go to California every off-season and recruit exclusively in The Golden State.  I would try to make an all-California roster, and I bet I would never lose a game!  Read more. 




College Strikeouts Drop by 30%

Are NCAA Pitchers Getting Worse?

By TSC Analyst/Contributor DANIEL URBAN

LOMBARD When I first started following pro softball seriously there were three super pitchers in the game: Jennie Finch, Cat Osterman, and Monica Abbott.  These three pitchers were absolutely electric and could singlehandedly shut down opposing offenses.  What made them so great was their ability to consistently strike out lots and lots of batters.  If batters never leave the box, they cannot score any runs!

Because softball is so popular in America and is only getting more popular, especially at the college level, I naturally thought that we would have a never-ending parade of super pitchers similar to Finch, Osterman and Abbott.  As soon as one moved on from college, another would just take her place.  And there have been many contenders in NCAA softball: names like Katie Burkhart, Danielle Lawrie, Dallas Escobedo, and Keilani Ricketts have come up, but none have really matched the level of Finch, Osterman, and Abbott.

So I have to wonder.  Is NCAA pitching getting worse?  I decided to pull some numbers and see if I could find any support for my hypothesis.  What I found at least partially confirmed my expectations.

I decided to measure (mostly out of convenience) both the strikeouts and ERA for the top 30 pitchers in the NCAA over the last 7 years.

2010 Average Strikeouts: 353

2011 Average Strikeouts: 338

2012 Average Strikeouts: 312

2013 Average Strikeouts: 299

2014 Average Strikeouts: 277

2015 Average Strikeouts: 285

2016 Average Strikeouts: 254

2010 Average ERA: 1.34

2011 Average ERA: 1.29

2012 Average ERA:  1.35

2013 Average ERA: 1.37

2014 Average ERA: 1.39

2015 Average ERA: 1.50

2016 Average ERA: 1.39

I was totally blown away at the rapid decline of strikeout totals amongst the nation's top pitchers.  Strikeouts have dropped 30% in 7 years!!  Cat Osterman threw 590 strikeouts her senior year. The closest anyone has come to that number was in 2010 at 556.  In what used to be a league dominated by strikeout-heavy power-pitchers, the strikeout numbers are WAY down.

But while strikeout numbers are down, average ERA amongst the top NCAA pitchers have remained relatively consistent.  So scoring has remained the same even as strikeouts have bottomed out.  Pitchers are not getting worse, but they are definitely throwing fewer strikeouts.

Perhaps batters are getting better at making contact? Or maybe pitchers are being told to pitch to contact more, relying on the defense to record the out?  Pitching to contact would certainly save wear and tear on a pitchers arm—they can exit the inning much earlier if they aren't trying to strike each batter out.  But it is risky to let the batter put the ball in play, even with a top defense behind you.

Whether on purpose or not, pitchers are allowing batters to make more contact and put more balls in play.  And so far the strategy has worked, as ERA has not increased significantly even as strikeouts have dropped.

So are pitchers getting worse?  No, but there are fewer and fewer pitchers who can be counted on to consistently strike out batters.  Because ERA has remained the same, you cannot say pitchers are getting worse, but they are finding different ways to get batters out rather than just "ringing them up."  Pitching is not getting worse, but it is changing. Read more.



James Madison—Playing with the 'Big Boys'

Mickey Dean Builds an Elite Program at a Midsized School

By TSC Analyst/Contributor DANIEL URBAN

LOMBARD James Madison softball is one of the best stories going in the softball world right now.

James Madison is a midsized school of 19,262 students in the mountains of north central Virginia.  James Madison is relatively new to the softball world—it has only had a Division 1 college program since 2002.  And the softball team from 2002-2012 was decently good with a respectable 283–252 record, appearing in the Colonial Athletic Association Championship Tournament twice.  But that is nothing compared to where the program has gone through since 2013.

Since then the program has reached new and elite heights, primarily due to its hiring of Mickey Dean as head coach.

Dean arrived on campus with an amazing list of credentials, including pitching coach for the Venezuelan National Team (2002-2008) and head coach for the National Pro Fastpitch Chicago Bandits (2004-2010), winning five NPF Regular Season Championships and the NPF Championship Series in 2008.  He was named NPF Manager of the Year three times, coaching one of the best-known pitchers in softball history, Jennie Finch, in the process.

Dean has helped turn the James Madison program from a middling backwater outpost to a consistently elite softball program.  During his tenure, Dean has led the program to an 185-48 record, including a 70-7 in-conference record and two Colonial Athletic Association conference championships—two in four years! 

2016 was an especially impressive year as Dean led the JMU Dukes to a 50-6 overall record, a CAA conference championship, an NCAA Regional title, an NCAA Super Regional appearance, and an overall 11th rank in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches poll.  The team also had two All-American Team selections in pitchers Jailyn Ford and Megan Good.  Mickey Dean was rewarded in 2016 with a contract extension through 2021. 

So far in 2017, James Madison is ranked 14th in the nation and has a 37-6 record.  James Madison has wins over much larger programs including Mizzou, Oklahoma State, South Florida, Wisconsin, Kansas, UCF, Maryland, and a split series against #7 ranked Auburn. There is a good reason why James Madison is ranked #11! 

It's nice to have some new blood amongst the elite softball programs.  And James Madison is such a cool "rags to riches " story.  James Madison's football team also won a national title in 2016.  From bringing in elite coaches like Mickey Dean to its  success in other sports, James Madison has made a massive investment in its sports programs, and it is fun to see it pay dividends!

James Madison is a great midsized-school underdog team to root for when the NCAA playoffs roll around at the end of May.  Go Dukes! Read more.



Does Defense Win Championships?

The Right Stats Prove the Importance of Big D

By TSC Analyst/Contributor DANIEL URBAN

LOMBARD  You don't have to be around the sporting world too long before hearing "offense wins games, defense wins championships."   And on its face, it seems plausible.  If you have a great defense, your team will be in every game and have a chance to win every game. 

But does the adage "defense wins championships" hold up to statistical analysis? 

To find out I pulled statistics from the NCAA softball statistics page.  I started with a list of the top 50 defensive teams based on fielding percentage from 2016.  Then I pulled a list of the top 50 winningest teams based on win percentage from 2016.  Of the top 50 fielding teams, 21 were also on the top winning percentage list. 

To measure how closely related fielding percentage is to win percentage, I used a mathematical formula to determine correlation.  Correlation measures the amount to which one number set increases as the other set increases, and decreases as the other set decreases. A perfect correlation is measured as a "1."  The smaller the correlation, the lower the number with a "0" equating to no correlation.

I expected the correlation between fielding percentage and win percentage to be a perfect "1" or close to it.  But I was surprised by what I saw. 

The final correlation between fielding % and win %?  0.411.

Based on this data set, there is only a mediocre correlation between fielding percentage and win percentage.  There is a positive correlation, but it isn't very strong.  If defense wins championships I would expect the correlation to be very strong.  Plus, I would expect that comparing a list of the top 50 fielding and top 50 win percentages would be a very high correlation.

Perhaps if I could expand the data for all teams rather than just the 50 best in fielding percentage and win percentage I might find a higher correlation.  Or perhaps fielding percentage is not a good way of measuring defense.  Perhaps the best way is by runs against or ERA. 

But based on this data, the answer as to whether defense really wins championships is: "eh, sort of."

However, there may be some flaws in my method.  Everyone knows teams with the best pitchers usually win the championships in NCAA softball, but fielding focuses on the overall defense much more than the pitcher, and a great pitcher can win games despite a mediocre defense because great pitchers strike batters out and prevent the ball from ever getting to the defense.

And fielding percentage can be very subjective—it relies on an umpire making a decision on whether a fielder should have made a play or not.  And that is not always easy to determine.

So how do I really prove defense wins championships?  I decided to correlate "total runs against" versus "win percentage." 

When using "total runs against" rather than "win percentage," the correlation jumps up to -0.55.  Don't be confused by the negative—it is negative because, as earned runs go down, win percentage goes up.  This is called a negative correlation.  A -0.55 correlation is much stronger than 0.41.  In fact, it is 25% stronger.  That is a huge jump!  And after reviewing my two attempts at quantifying defense, I am confident that "total runs against" is a much better method of measuring total defense because it incorporates everything a pitcher does rather than just the fielders, and it is a much more objective measure than fielding percentage. 

I am satisfied that I have a numerical value that evaluates how important defense is to winning.  But to be able to say that defense, rather than offense, wins championships, I need to run a similar test for offense to see if the correlation is stronger or weaker than runs against.

To evaluate the benefits of offense I compared "runs for" with "winning percentage" for the top teams. 

The correlation between offensive "runs for" and "winning percentage" is only 0.36, a full 35% less than the correlation between "runs against" and "win percentage" and even a few points lower than the correlation between "fielding percentage" and "win percentage."  In NCAA softball at least, the better your pitching and defense is, the more likely you are to win.

All you college programs out there, in case you didn't know it already, load up on pitching and defense and you are more likely to succeed!  It's better to offer a scholarship to a star pitcher rather than a star hitter.  Now go out there and find more defense!!! Read more.


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