Softball Notebook

The Softball Channel’s Fastpitch Blog

21  09 2017

The True Cost of Elite Travel Sports

Is the Faint Hope of a College Scholarship Worth It?

By Jessica Urban
TSC Contributor

Recently, HBO’s stellar Real Sports ran a piece about the rise in popularity of elite travel sports. The piece follows the Coe family, whose two children are heavily involved in travel baseball and travel track and field. The family estimates it spends 30 weekends a year traveling to out-of-state tournaments where the kids face off against elite talent from all over the country. The parents estimate they spend about $15,000 a year on travel and team costs for their children.

The son, who plays baseball, will sometimes play nine games in six days. This is the world of elite travel sports or, as the piece refers to it, Sports Tourism or Tournication (going to a tournament is the new “family vacation”).

This so-called “Sports Tourism” is a HUGE business, generating an estimated $9 billion dollars a year. Many towns across America have realized the potential of travel sports and have invested in facilities to draw elite teams for tournaments.

The piece examines one such Indiana town that has built a HUGE facility of over 60 outdoor soccer/softball/baseball fields and an indoor facility to host volleyball and basketball games. The town estimates it draws 1.7 million “Tournacation” visitors each summer, which generates $145 million dollars for local businesses like restaurants, hotels, and gas stations. 

It’s a no-brainer why hosting cities would want to get into the elite travel business, but what’s in it for these families? What does the Coe family hope to get out of spending $15,000 a year and 30 weekends a year on the road? 

The Coe family hopes what any family hopes for kids in elite sports: that their kids will hone their skills with top-level coaching; that they will play against top-level competition; and that they will be seen by top-level recruits. The ultimate goal is for their kids to earn college scholarships, a hopeful return on the family’s estimated total $150,000 investment in elite sports. (I will address this topic later).  

There are tens of thousands of families who have the same plan as the Coes. There must be, otherwise Sports Tourism wouldn’t be such a huge business. Overall participation in youth sports must be at an all time high, right? Wrong. The piece notes that participation is on the decline as many families are priced out of elite travel teams,and rec leagues are disappearing. The gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is quite stark in the world of youth sports.  

There are so many take-aways from this great piece of journalism. (As a side note, HBO’s Real Sports is always on-point, and many of its pieces can be seen for free on YouTube). 

Let me start by saying the Coe family spending $15k a year on sports with the hope of a full-ride scholarship is just plain delusional. According to CBS News, only 2% of high school athletes are offered “full-ride” scholarships. Of the non-“full-ride” scholarships, the average money gifted to college athletes is less than $11k a year.  That $11k is already less than the family’s yearly sports budget! 

Scholarships aside, the chances of even playing in college are pretty low as well. Let’s take baseball for example. According to NCAA’s numbers, the percentage of high school baseball players going on to play in college is 5.6%.

The chances of the college player then going on to play pro-ball is 10.5% (remember that in baseball, this includes playing in the minors). So the overall chance of a high school athlete going pro are 0.5%. That is quite low, and baseball is the highest of the major sports again because there is a robust minor league system. The chance of actually playing in the MLB is 0.015%.  (All of these numbers are compiled from stats on NCAA.org).

All in all, the odds are very stacked against the vast majority of high school kids getting scholarships and even playing in college. We can all conclude that the Coe family’s $15k a year could probably have been spent more wisely elsewhere if its ultimate goal was to get a “full-ride” scholarship.

Let’s take a closer look here. I am certain that the Coe family, as well as many other families who participate in elite travel sports, are well aware the odds are stacked against them, and that they will not see their desired “return on investment.” In fact, it should be common knowledge that full rides are few and far between. And if it’s not common knowledge, surely families can crunch the numbers, like you’d do for ANY OTHER investment, and see that it’s just not worth it. So what is really going on here? 

Call me cynical, but this new trend of competitive sports is not really about getting a scholarship: families’ participation in “elite” travel has become a new way for families to display their status. The mom featured in this piece even said if you don’t keep up with travel sports, then your kids will be left behind. Being able to spend $15k a year on your kids’ sports (knowing full well you probably won’t get a return on your investment) is a luxury, and just another way to show that you have “made it.” 

It is really sad to hear that participation in rec league sports is dwindling and families who can’t afford the new trend of travel ball are priced out of their kids experiencing sports. It’s even sadder to think about what this new trend is going to do to kids who CAN participate in elite sports. 

Put yourself into the shoes of one of the Coe kids. First of all, the time commitment is crazy: 30 weekends a year is spent on the road, and I’m sure weekday nights are spent at practice, private training or physical therapy, etc. This leaves so little room for the kids to pursue anything other than that one sport. How very sad. These kids are never going to get their childhood back!

Beyond the time commitment, think about the pressure these Coe kids, and the thousands of other kids like them, must be under. They know how much time and money their parents are investing with the stated hope that they will receive a college scholarship in return.

Almost 95% of kids don’t even play in college, and 98% of athletes don’t receive full scholarships. Are these kids meant to feel like failures if they don’t achieve their parents’ goal of a full ride? Can you imagine the guilt??! These parents are setting their kids up for failure! How unfair. 

On a larger scale, this rise in the elite travel sports mentality represents a dangerous shift in our thinking about the purpose of youth sports. If you put your kid in sports with the end goal of earning a scholarship, then you have missed the point. Playing sports is not about where you end up, but rather about the lessons you learn each day on the field/court/track, etc. 

When parents put their kids in sports, their “return on investment” is their kid learning teamwork, hard work, fairness, and resilience. This all sounds very corny, but THESE are the traits that will build the foundation of happiness and success, and isn’t that what all parents should want for their kids?! 

Unfortunately, our society puts value not on happiness, but on status, and families sometimes use their kids as a vehicle to achieve and display said status. Are travel sports really about getting your kid a scholarship or to the pros? For 99.9% of families, no it is not. 

These elite sports have become a sick new way to “keep up with the Joneses,” and it’s the kids who will ultimately suffer.  In this system, we teach kids that their value is tied to what team they are on, or how much money we spend on them, or what scholarships they can bring in. [Side note: I see this all the time in my line of work (education)–families tie their kids’ value to what letter grades they get, or what elite school they can get into.) This mentality is absolutely toxic.

As a society, we need to shift our focus and teach kids that true value lies in our empathy, our ability to “get back up” after we’ve fallen, to seek justice and fairness for all, and to put others before ourselves. THESE are the core lessons kids should be getting from sports. Our cultural obsession with clawing our way to the top is really just a race to the bottom. Sad.


08 2017

Is Slugging Percentage Relevant?

Power Hitting May Not Be as Important as You Think 

By Daniel Urban
TSC Analyst/Contributor

We all know that a home run is better than a base hit.  A double and triple are better than a base hit, too.  And players who can hit for extra bases or hit balls out of the park consistently are generally thought to be better and more valuable players than singles hitters.  But how much more valuable are they?

The stat “slugging percentage” is supposed to help quantify not only a player’s batting average, but how often they hit extra base hits.  You calculate slugging percentage by adding (1B + 2×2B + 3×3B + 4xHR)  and dividing by total at-bats.  So extra base hits help inflate a player’s slugging percentage more than just hitting singles.

For example, Kelly Kretschman of the USSSA Pride currently has a .489 batting average but a .804 slugging percentage because she hits a fair amount of extra base hits and home runs.  Seventeen of her 45 hits this season have been doubles or better. 

Her teammate Hallie WIlson has a .324 batting average and only a .380 slugging percentage, because only 5 of her 35 hits have been doubles or better.

Sabremetricians have long touted slugging percentage as a better way to measure the value of a player than batting average, because batting average does not take into account a player’s power numbers.  Should we ditch batting average and switch to slugging percentage? 

I expect that slugging percentage will have a much higher correlation to win percentage than mere batting average.  Teams with the highest power numbers should win more games, right?  

To test this theory, I compared the batting averages and slugging percentages of the top 100 of NCAA teams to their win percentage.  Correlations are measured on a scale of 0 to 1; 0 means no correlation and 1 means a perfect correlation.  What I found when I measured these numbers surprised me.

I expected a much higher correlation between slugging percentage and win percentage, but the truth is it was barely higher than the correlation between batting average and win percentage.  The correlation is 0.525 for batting average and 0.612 for slugging percentage.  The difference is only .087 of a percentage point, or a 16% difference. 

The data indicates that, while power is a little more important than just getting a hit, it is not as important as you might think.  The ability to make solid contact and find gaps in the defense is what is really important, not how many bases the hit results in.  

So batting average still has a prominent place among the stats we use to judge our best hitters.  It is not time to abandon batting average for slugging percentage quite yet. 

And for all you young hitters out there, stop swinging for the fences! Look at the data and discover that getting the ball in play is what counts—finding a place for it to drop on the field is basically as important as hitting the ball hard!


29  07 2017

Where Do All the Softball Players Go?

Not Enough Former Athletes Become Lifelong Fans

By KCSoftball
TSC Contributor

What happens to the former rec players that should be today’s softball fans? It all starts at about 3rd grade when a little girl asks mom if she can play softball for local rec teams. This little girl joins the rec league and gets tp play until she reaches 8th grade. She thinks now that rec ball is over, how am I going to get to continue to play softball, a game that I now love?
 
Oh, she thinks, next year I can play on one of my high school teams. So come spring this little girl goes out for the high school team, only to be told, “Sorry, we don’t have enough spots for you on one of our teams, but you can come out and watch the teams play!” Sadly, we have lost this future fan.
 
Come the next season, those girls luckly enough to have made the freshman team are told they must try out for the JV team. Over half are told, “Sorry, we don’t have a spot for you, but you can come out and watch our games!” More future fans lost!
 
Then up comes another season and those JV players are told to try out for the varsity, but sadly, most are told, “Sorry but we don’t have a spot for you on the varsity, but you can come out and watch our games!”  Oops, more future fans lost!
 
Sooner than expected the varsity players’ senior season comes to a close and the players think I love this game, maybe I can play in college. Those players check into colleges, only to find out, “Sorry, we don’t have a spot for you on the team!” Sadly, even more future fans lost!
 
For those lucky enough to get tp play college ball, sadly, their senior season is upon them all too fast. The player thinks I am very good at this game I love, I even made honorable mention All-American. So the player goes to the pro’s only to be told, “Sorry, we just don’t have enough teams with enough spots for you to play!” Again, more lost fans.
 
Most baseball rec leagues have enough spots for a player who doesn’t make his school teams to keep playing—sadly, I don’t see many rec leagues for those girls! Most are already lost to softball!
 
The only way we fans can change this is to speak up! Let our voices be heard. Make enough noise so those in charge, corporate America and the media hear us! Ladies, you have to take charge of softball’s future, make your voice heard! Tell America you are still a fan no matter what!


29  07 2017

Fight for Pro Supremacy

Chicago Bandits Sweep the Mighty USSSA Pride

By Daniel Urban
TSC Contributor/Analyst

The USSSA Pride have been an unstoppable juggernaut this season.  Prior to its recent series with the Bandits, the Pride was 29-6 and with a seven-game cushion at the top spot in the NPF standings.  But the Pride has looked unbeatable in several prior seasons, only to have its hopes dashed by late surging teams like the Chicago Bandits.
 
Those painful memories of past seasons came streaming back this week as the formerly imposing Pride lost back-to-make games against the Bandits in Chicago.  Could there be a chink appearing in the Pride’s armor late in the season again?
 
The Bandits went down early 0-1 but rallied in the 7th inning with a bunt, a double and a walk-off single by Danielle Zymkowitz to beat the Pride and complete the sweep.  The USSSA Pride put its best pitcher statistically over the past two seasons, Jordan Taylor, in the circle.  This loss was Taylor’s first since 2014!
 
But as interesting as the Pride’s pitching performance was, the Bandits was even more interesting.  Chicago started Australian national player Kaia Parnaby, who pitched a complete game with 1 run and 3 hits.  Parnaby had a quality start against the most potent offense in the NPF.  Her arm was crucial to the Bandits winning effort.
 
It sure will be interesting to see how the Australian players improve this season (looks like the pitching sure is improving!) and to see how the Bandits fare late in the season.  Especially against the #1 USSSA Pride.


17  07 2017

Aussies Invade America’s Pro League

Struggle to Excel in National Pro Fastpitch

By Daniel Urban
TSC Analyst/Contributor

This summer the Chicago Bandits of the National Pro Fastpitch league signed eight Australian players. The players are:

Janice Blackman (has not played)
Chelsea Forkin - Outfielder
Rachel Lack - Infielder
Stacey McManus - Infielder
Kaia Parnaby (has not played)
Samantha Poole - Outfielder
Ellen Roberts - Pitcher
Taylah Tsitsikronis - Catcher

So how are these imports faring so far this season?

The first item to note is that two of the players have not played at all: Janice Blackman and Kaia Parnaby. I am not sure where they could be—perhaps they had a conflict or decided not to make the trek for this season? Hopefully we see them sometime later this summer.

Only two of the eight players, Chelsea Forkin and Tayla Tsitsikoris, have received playing time commensurate with what you would call a “starter.” The other three non-pitchers (who have logged stats) have only played part-time at best and only have 21 at-bats between them.

Unfortunately the players who have been taking at-bats have been pretty poor so far. The highest batting average is owned by Stacey McManus with a .222. The lowest is Rachel Lack with a 0.00. McManus also has the lone home run of all of the Australian imports. The only other extra base hits are two doubles from Taylah Tsitsikronis. The Australians have a power outage problem!

The pitching has been of pretty poor quality too. Ellen Roberts has actually received the 3rd most innings of all Bandits pitchers (behind Haylie Wagner and Lacey Waldrop). But even with the 3rd most innings, Roberts is 1-3 and has allowed the 2nd-most hits of seven Bandits pitchers, and has the 5th worst ERA.

Of course the Australian players are new to the league, and I am very confident the NPF is the highest level of competition they have faced. I am rooting for these players and hope they turn things around by season’s end.


17  07 2017

California Dominates NCAA Softball Rosters

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

By Daniel Urban
TSC Analyst/Contributor

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?

To answer this question statistically, I analyzed 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!


22  06 2017

Oklahoma Does It Again!

Defeats Top-Ranked Florida for Second-Straight NCAA Title

By Daniel Urban
TSC Analyst/Contributor

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!


12  05 2017

Does Beaning Batters Lose Games?

Intentionally Hitting Batters May Not Affect Victory

By Daniel Urban
TSC Analyst/Contributor

Intentionally hitting batters has a special place among the unwritten rules of professional baseball.  If you slide too hard into the 2nd base, if you showboat after a big hit, or if you accidentally “plunk” the other team’s best player, the other team’s pitcher is guaranteed to retaliate by intentionally hitting you with a pitch. 
 
I cannot even imagine how much it must hurt to get hit with a 90-mph fastball, but unwritten rules in professional baseball regarding when to intentionally hit opposing players have been around for decades and are not going anywhere.  And they serve a valuable purpose: they keep players in line and help enforce the MLB players’ code of conduct.
 
These unwritten rules regarding intentionally hitting batters don’t really exist in softball.  Perhaps it’s because softball doesn’t have the same issues with showboating or sliding too hard, or perhaps it’s because in a typically low scoring “small ball”-type game, a team simply cannot afford to give up a baserunner—even if it means losing an enforcement tool.
 
But what if I told you plunking batters has no effect on win percentage?  Maybe then the “softball sorority” could rethink its stance on intentionally hitting batters, maybe even incorporate it into play.  Hit batters certainly add a new and exciting element to baseball.  Why shouldn’t it be part of softball too?
 
To determine the effect hitting batters has on win percentage, I constructed a correlation table of 2017 NCAA softball statistics pitting hit batters versus winning percentage.

A perfect correlation is scored as a 1.0.  If there is no correlation it is a 0.0.  A 0.5 correlation is in the middle.  My data shows a meager 0.05 correlation between these data sets, ie, virtually no correlation between the number of hit batters and the team’s win percentage.  So hitting a lot of batters has no impact on the number of games you win.
 
So softball is not so much of a small ball game that you cannot sacrifice a baserunner to enforce a players’ code of conduct.  If more players knew that plunking a batter won’t affect their win percentage, maybe they would be more likely to do it if warranted.
 
It’s time softball uncovered the benefits of enforcing a players’ code by intentionally hitting more batters!  The data supports this!


11  05 2017

James Madison—Playing with the ‘Big Boys’

Mickey Dean Builds an Elite Program at a Midsized School

By Daniel Urban
TSC Analyst/Contributor

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!


23  03 2017

College Strikeouts Drop by 30%

Are NCAA Pitchers Getting Worse?

By Daniel Urban
TSC Analyst/Contributor

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.


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