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.



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.



Pitching Superstars of Tomorrow 2017

Five Pitchers Poised to Light up Future Stat Sheets

By TSC Analyst/Contributor DANIEL URBAN 
LOMBARD  Which 2016 underclassmen will make headlines in the upcoming years?  There were some pretty exceptional numbers put up by freshman and sophomore pitchers in 2016, and they should be recognized.  So without further adieu, here are your pitching superstars of tomorrow 2017!

Alexis Osorio - Alabama - 19-7 record, 2.39 ERA, 273 strikeouts, 184 innings pitched, 1.48 strikeouts-per-inning.

In 2016 Alexis Osorio emerged as one of the top pitchers on the Alabama Crimson Tide, and before the year was over she established herself as one of the best pitchers in the nation.  At season-end Osorio ranked in the top 10 in the nation in strikeouts and led her team on a deep run in the Women's College World Series.  Osorio started the season as the #2 pitcher behind junior Sydney Littlejohn.  Littlejohn had a great season for the Tide and was expected to be the team's #1 pitcher, but with the numbers Osorio was posting throughout the 2016 season Osorio surpassed Littlejohn as the ace pitcher for Alabama. It was Osorio, not Littlejohn, that received the ball and was relied on in key innings in the 2016 post season.  Alabama made it to the WCWS in 2016 but was eliminated in 2 games after losses to Oklahoma and LSU.  But with both Osorio and Littlejohn returning in 2017, and with some healthy competition between them inspiring them to do their best, Alabama could have an even better shot at a national championship in 2017 as they did in 2016. 

Paige Parker - Oklahoma - 38-3 record, 1.64 ERA, 269 strikeouts, 252 innings pitched, 1.07 strikeouts-per-inning.

It's hard to call someone an up-and-coming pitcher when she has already excelled on the greatest stage in college softball and won a national championship, but Paige Parker fits the bill.  For as well as she did in 2016, Parker was an underclassmen and still has the ability to improve.  Parker was the undisputed ace pitcher of an Oklahoma team that surpassed all expectations and delivered the school's first softball national title since 2013.  The 2016 national title firmly established Oklahoma as one of the top softball programs in the nation.  And it was Paige Parker on the mound during the bulk of the playoffs, including Oklahoma's decisive victory in the WCWS national championship game.  There is a reason why Parker was so effective—in 2016 she ranked in the top ten in the nation in strikeouts.  if she can improve her level of performance even a little (or heck even just maintain it) during her remaining two years of eligibility, she could be remembered as one of the best Oklahoma pitchers of all time.  

Carley Hoover - LSU - 22-8 record, 2.27 ERA, 225 strikeouts, 194 innings pitched, 1.16 strikeouts-per-inning.

Hoover flew under the radar, for the most part, in 2016.  Hoover's teammate Allie Walljasper had a great season in 2015 and was expected to be the ace pitcher for the team in 2016.  But Hoover surpassed expectations and emerged as LSU's top pitcher by the end of 2016.  Hoover's strikeout-heavy pitching style was very successful, and helped lead LSU to a WCWS berth in 2016.  LSU was eliminated in the WCWS by eventual champion Oklahoma, but with pitchers like Hoover coming back as upperclassmen in 2017, LSU is going to be in the mix again.  LSU has perennially been one of the top teams in the highly competitive SEC, but players like Hoover will make the Tigers a contender for the national title again in 2017.  

Megan Good - James Madison University - 32-3 record, 0.94 ERA, 222 strikeouts, 215 innings pitched, 1.03 strikeouts-per-inning.

The success of James Madison University was the surprise of the 2016 season.  James Madison is a tiny school in northern Virginia, but they competed like a big time program in 2016.  During the regular season it defeated softball titans like Tennessee, Auburn (2016 national title runner up), Arizona, Ohio State, and Arizona State.  James Madison University also made it to the Super Regional and won its first game against LSU before losing the next two straight to end its season.  High caliber young pitchers like Megan Good were a major reason for JMU's success.  Good finished with an astounding 32-3 record and finished in the top 25 in the nation in strikeouts.  It's too early to tell if James Madison is a "one-off" versus a self-sustaining success, building a quality softball program in a small market like Louisiana-Lafayette.  But with continued excellent play by the likes of Megan Good, James Madison University has as good a chance as any.  

Meehra Nelson - Oregon State - 16-10 record, 2.93 ERA, 211 strikeouts, 174 innings pitched, 1.21 strikeouts-per-inning.

This entry to the list surprised me.  Oregon State is not a traditional softball powerhouse, so to see a young pitcher putting up numbers with the best in the nation was a shocker.  It also surprised me a bit to see top players still gravitating to Pac-12 schools when the SEC has been the one scoring all the recruiting victories lately.  But Meehra Nelson at Oregon State definitely deserves distinction.  In 2016 Nelson was in the top 30 in strikeouts nationally, and ranked in the top 25 in strikeouts-per-inning ratio. The Ducks made it to the Regionals in 2016, and while I'm sure they were devastated by their early exit (following loses to South Caroline Upstate and Jacksonville State), they still proved they could make it to the national stage.  If Nelson and the rest of the team can build off their 2016 performance, they could surprise with a deep run in 2017. 

There it is!  Remember that you heard these names here first when you see them lighting up stat sheets in 2017! Read more.




Hitting Superstars of Tomorrow 2017

A Hand-full of Collegiate Sluggers to Keep Your Eye On

By TSC Analyst/Contributor DANIEL URBAN

LOMBARD  It's that time again!  Time to crown our NCAA hitting superstars of tomorrow for 2017.  We have a very talented list this year featuring players from big and small schools from all over the country.  So without further adieu let's get on with it!

Jessica Warren - Florida State - INF - Sophomore: 20 home runs, .380 batting average, 71 runs, 71 hits, 75 RBI, .765 slugging %

The top player on our list this year is Jessica Warren, a super slugging sophomore from Florida State.  Warren was in the top 10 in the nation in 2016 with 20 home runs.  She is one of the major reasons the Seminoles made it to the final four in the 2016 WCWS.  Unfortunately for Warren, the Seminoles season ended with the WCWS Semifinals, but with continued offense from Warren the Seminoles have a great shot to make it back to the WCWS in 2017 and maybe can take it to the next level.  Florida State finished the season 55-10 last year, but there is no reason to think the Seminoles will skip a beat in 2017—especially with Warren powering the team's offense.

Aleah Craighton - University of Louisiana at Lafayette - OF - Sophomore: 18 home runs, .378 batting average, 56 runs, 56 hits, 56 RBI, .851 slugging %

The first half of the UL Lafayette "Bash Sisters," Craighton turned in a top-notch performance in 2016 by smashing 18 home runs and ranking in the top 17 in the nation in home runs as a sophomore.  Aleah's power numbers were a huge reason the Ragin' Cajuns finished 49-6 in 2016, one of the best records in the country.  Unfortunately, despite ranking in the top five in the nation going into the post-season, the team did not make it out of the Super Regionals.  However, its talented duo of young power hitters has what it takes to lead the team back to glory in 2017.

DJ Sanders - University of Louisiana at Lafayette - SS - Sophomore: 18 home runs, .316 batting average, 43 runs, 50 hits, 58 RBI, .772% slugging %

The second half of the UL Lafayette "Bash Sisters" is DJ Sanders.  Sanders ranked in the top 17 in the nation in home runs in 2016, and turned in a solid batting average and slugging percentage to boot.  Sanders's bat helped power the Ragin' Cajuns to a conference title and a post-season run spoiled only by a devastating loss to eventual champion Oklahoma.  But given what DJ Sanders accomplished as a sophomore, there is nothing but optimism for UL Lafayette in 2017.

Kristin Cuyos - Texas A&M - SS - Sophomore: 16 home runs, .309 batting average, 38 runs, 51 hits, 1 RBI, .661 slugging %

Our only representative from the SEC, this year's #4 NCAA hitting superstar of the future is shortstop Kristin Cuyos.  Cuyos turned in a superb season with 16 home runs and a top 28 finish in the nation in home runs.  Texas A&M actually finished 39-20 and 10th out of 13 teams in the SEC, but a strong finish at the SEC tournament led the Aggies to a Regional tournament berth.  Unfortunately Texas A&M eventually lost out to UL Lafayette in the Regional.  If Cuyos can continue to improve her numbers in her last two years at Texas A&M, the Aggies might have a chance to improve their standings in the SEC and maybe make a bigger splash in the post-season.

Libby Suggs - BYU - C - Freshman: 18 runs, .319 average, 30 runs, 52 hits, 58 RBI, .724 slugging %

Libby Suggs is the lone freshman on our list this year.  But oh my does she deserve it!  Suggs ranked in the top 18 in the nation this year in home runs, and she also turned in solid RBI and slugging percentage numbers too.  I counted Suggs's numbers down a bit and dropped her to #5 on the list because she doesn't play in a power conference or come from a top softball school that plays ranked opponents, so she does not see the caliber of pitching any of the others on the list faced.  But her bat did help power BYU to an NCAA Regional spot before the Cougars were bounced by Missouri.  BYU is not a traditional softball powerhouse school, but with young players like Suggs to rally around, its recruiting could improve and the team could be poised to be a top contender in the near future.

There you have it!  Your 2016 NCAA hitting superstars of the future!  Read more.



Sooners Sail to 2016 National Title

Paige Parker & Oklahoma Defeat Auburn in WCWS Finals

By TSC Analyst/Contributor DANIEL URBAN 
OKLAHOMA CITY  We have come to expect plenty of surprises during the NCAA Division I Softball Championship, and this year was no exception.  First and foremost, the #1-ranked Florida Gators—two-time defending champs and poised for a three-peat—were eliminated in the Super Regionals by Georgia.

It may sound hard to believe, but the Bulldogs defeated Florida in two straight games 3-0 and 3-2.  Georgia had a 12-12 record in conference this year and was the 15th seed in the Regional field this year, but it was hot at the right time and just systematically doled out the biggest upset of the 2016 season.

Florida looked unstoppable at many times in 2016, posting only 5 losses to 56 wins heading into the Super Regionals.  But all that didn't mean much to Georgia!

The Dogs won this series with stifling defense.  In game 1 Georgia's Chelsea Wilkenson pitched 7 innings of shutout ball with only 3 hits, 2 strikeouts and 0 earned runs.  In game 2 Wilkenson again took the circle and pitched 7 innings with 5 hits, 1 strikeout, and 2 earned runs. 

Wilkenson is not a power pitcher relying on the strikeout.  She pitches to contact and lets her defense get outs.  It turned out to be an unbeatable formula, with the Georgia offense putting up just enough to take both games.

Unreal!  The Dogs knew if they could beat Florida, they could beat anyone—and they couldn’t wait to see how they would fare at the big dance.

The 2016 Women’s College World Series features a star-studded lineup: #16 Georgia vs #8 Florida State, #4 Auburn vs #12 UCLA, #6 Alabama vs #3 Oklahoma and #10 LSU vs #2 Michigan.

In the first round Georgia defeated Florida State 5-4 to advance in the winners’ bracket, and Auburn defeated UCLA 10-3. 

Auburn looked very strong in its first matchup.  But UCLA got shallacked by Oregon in its first Super Regional Game and came back strong.  Maybe they could do it again.  As the lone Pac-12 representative in the WCWS, there was a lot of pressure riding on the Bruins—the pride of the Pac-12 was riding on their shoulders!

Oklahoma then beat Alabama 3-0.  Paige Parker pitched eight innings of shutout ball while only allowing 4 hits and striking out 7.  Alabama's Alexis Osorio pitched almost as well, allowing zero runs while striking out 10 batters in a complete game performance.  But Oklahoma freshman Shay Knighten belted a 3-run homer in the bottom of the 8th to secure the victory for Oklahoma.

Paige Parker's pitching and Oklahoma's potent offense were looking like a dynamite combination.  Possibly a national title winning combination.

Michigan beat LSU 2-0 to advance to the winners’ bracket along with Auburn, Georgia, and Oklahoma. 

The Wolverines’ opening game was all about junior pitcher Megan Betsa who pitched all 7 innings, striking out 9 and only allowing only 4 hits and 0 runs.  LSU could not figure her out, and now the Tigers found themselves in an elimination game against Alabama.

Florida State—a team I've seen previously mentioned as the weakest entry in the WCWS this year—staved off elimination and defeated UCLA.  With the loss the Bruins, unfortunately, earned the dubious distinction of being the first team sent home from the WCWS and the last hope for the Pac-12.

The Florida State vs UCLA game featured a lot of offense, with the Seminoles winning 8-4.  No pitcher for either team lasted the whole game, but the 11 hits and 7 earned runs let up by UCLA was too much to overcome. 

In winners’ bracket action, Auburn defeated Georgia 4-3 and Oklahoma defeated Michigan 7-5.

Auburn jumped out to an early 1-0 lead in the first inning, but Georgia took back the lead and expanded it to lead 3-1 by the 4th inning.  Auburn then countered with a sensational 3-run barrage and held on to win 4-3. 

Oklahoma also jumped out to an early lead 4-0 in the third inning before Michigan battled back to make the score 4-3 by the 4th inning.  Oklahoma put up 3 runs over the final 3 innings and held off a furious 2-run comeback by Michigan in the 7th inning to secure the victory.

One popular complaint of college softball over the past several years has been that it is a pitching- and defense-dominated game and the lack of offense makes it boring, but so far the games have been anything but boring.  The offense and scoring have made for a very exciting experience!

I have seen many WCWS tournaments where one pitcher gets hot and shuts down every team she faces.  Whichever team has that one pitcher wins the title.  But this year—and you could tell by the scores of the games and the number of pitching substitutions the teams were making—it seemed there was no one uber-dominant pitcher.  All teams were actually scoring runs!

Then came the Finals, and Paige Parker.

The sophomore pitching sensation effectively neutralized the powerful Auburn offense, leading Oklahoma to its second WCWS title in four years.

In game #1 Parker pitched 7 innings and allowed only 4 hits and 2 runs while striking out 1.  Oklahoma's offense then provided just enough muscle to push the Sooners over the top 3-2.

In Game #2 Auburn came back firing against Oklahoma's #2 and #3 pitchers in Kelsey Stevens and Jayden Chestnut.  Auburn hitters slugged 3 home runs and scored 11 runs off 13 hits.  Oklahoma's offense also played well, belting 1 home run and logging 7 runs off 10 hits, but its numbers were not enough to overcome Auburn's offensive onslaught.

But in game #3 Paige Parker was back in the circle with the team's title hopes on her back, and she delivered with gusto.  Parker again pitched all 7 innings and scattered 5 hits and 1 earned run over the course of the game while striking out 5.  Parker was magnificent, and she and the Sooners proved they deserved the title.

A power pitcher with a potent offense behind her: the Sooners fit the mold and made it happen.  The Oklahoma Sooners are your 2016 WCWS National Champions! Read more.



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