24-carat thoughts that ran through my mind — such as it is — while I was watching the 2015 Women's College World Series. In no particular order:
1) There don't seem to be as many slap hitters now as was the case a few years ago. Teams are belting more home runs these days, so it could just be that the emphasis is now on power. As it is, I go back and forth on the subject of the slappers. At times I recognize that they're adapting to the dimensions of their sport and operating efficiently with a priority given to reaching base as often as possible. The batting averages of the best proponents of this style — virtually all are left-handed batters with speed (think Natasha Watley and Kayla Braud) — bear that out. Even so, I see too many at-bats where the slappers take half swings and don't challenge the defense at all — meekly popping the ball up, tapping a routine grounder, or striking out on a pitch out of their reach. In addition, slap hitters who are moving up in the box throughout an at-bat are practically inviting the umpire to call a pitch that is a foot or more off the plate a strike. A high percentage of the most egregious calls I've seen in recent years have been to the detriment of southpaw “moving targets” who appear to discombobulate the game officials. In order to be a genuine asset as a slap hitter, a player must be: able to find holes in the defense; a superb bunter who can disguise the intent to bunt until the last second; and quick enough to beat out a majority of the decent laydowns. The very best slap hitters, of course, mix things up by occasionally lacing line drives to all fields. Caitlin Lowe and Haylie McCleney spring to mind. Yet I am even sometimes tempted to inquire of them if they are positive that swinging away more often wouldn't be an even better option for players blessed with speed, decent power, tremendous bat control, and drawn-in infields. Among regular hitters, the bunting leaves a lot to be desired. Every player on every softball and baseball team should learn how to bunt. It's a fundamental skill that is deficient at all levels of both sports.
2) The quality of defense being played in this postseason tournament is outstanding. The fielders are sure-handed; their reflexes are incredibly sharp; and there are live and accurate arms all over the diamond.
3) So many pitchers in this competition have developed “to die for” changeups that are a treat for the eyes/cameras, but a cruel joke on the dazed and confused hitters trying to reconcile this optical illusion of a pitch with the steady diet of heat and movement with which they already tangle. My one gripe against the performers in the circle is that some step up on the pitching rubber but then seemingly take forever to start their delivery. That's not fair to the hitters. I've seen one or two occasions where the home plate umpire penalized the pitcher for “delay of game” or whatever handle that violation goes by, but it likely should be called more often. That might eliminate the problem altogether.
4) Not that I'm attempting to force my values on anyone else, but batting gloves are the handiwork (get it?) of the devil. Those demons are downright diabolical. I don't see how anyone can hit properly while wearing them. Kudos to the likes of Lexi Overstreet, Tiffany Howard, Annie Aldrete, and Kasey Cooper for eschewing the use of gloves and not buying into the mass hypnosis that prevails on baseball and softball fields the world over. One among many reasons for ceasing to participate in the batting glove madness is that if you're not wearing them, there's at least an 80 percent chance you won't have to readjust them before every single pitch!
5) Perhaps the weakest aspect of the college softball game is situational hitting. It's lacking and on the road to awful. Sure, I'll give the pitching and defense credit for hunkering down in clutch scenarios, but bases loaded and nobody out seems to yield zero runs more often than the one or more runs that ought to be the norm. And that's just one situation. When a ball only needs to be put into play somewhere, there are strikeouts aplenty. When anything on the ground will score a run, popups to the infield abound. When a fly ball to the outfield will secure a win, double play grounders are everywhere. One saving grace is that the state of the game in this regard is no worse in college softball than it is in college baseball. In fact, with light-hitting batsmen swinging from their heels and striking out at the same rate as genuine power hitters of the past, this is a plague on Major League Baseball as well. Pretend this isn't a huge problem if you want, but it's part of the lost art of mastering fundamentals that has become a hallmark of otherwise admirable modern diamond play.
6) The University of Florida's 2014 squad is the best softball defense I have ever seen. The 2015 Gators are more or less equally great. That was not an unexpected development, as most of the players were the same in both seasons. Florida has won the last two national titles with a fine offense that I would characterize as slightly below elite (as demonstrated by their alarming lack of success with runners in scoring position in these playoffs). However, their dominant pitching and stellar defense along with that potent attack combined to capture well-deserved back-to-back championships.
7) Baseball has always been my favorite sport. More recently, however, I check in and kinda/sorta enjoy the Men's College World Series when it's convenient for me to watch, but I go out of my way to take in as much of the Women's College World Series as possible. I was delighted earlier this year when my brother informed me that during coverage of the men's Big Ten conference baseball tournament final between Michigan and my beloved Maryland Terrapins, one of the announcers declared that as much as he likes the men's sport — he'd rather watch the women play because the games are quicker and more dynamic. I wholeheartedly concur with that assessment.
8) The sportsmanship exhibited throughout the WCWS is refreshing. The players have obviously been instructed not to argue with the umpires. As frustrating as it must be to be called out on a pitch nowhere near the strike zone, the players almost never register their displeasure even when we know it must be there. All disputes are within the exclusive purview of a team's head coach. This sometimes lets the umpires off the hook a bit, but it's a trade-off I'm happy to endorse. Also keeping morale up is the funny goings-on in the dugouts featuring chants, songs, props, silly faces, and the like. It's all ever so infectious!
9) Carol Hutchins is my favorite college softball coach. She is so entertaining to watch. If the sound on my TV was out and I somehow could see Hutch but not the field, I reckon I'd know what was going on courtesy of her facial expressions, gestures, and body language. In addition, two things happen when Coach Hutchins speaks: A) wisdom is dispensed; and B) I listen. Aside from being a fabulous coach whose record speaks for itself, everything Hutch says strikes me as a heaping helping of useful information that I should probably write down.
10) I'd be curious to know how these Player of the Year awards are decided. In what I think must be the official selection process, ten players are listed as being POY candidates. A while later, three finalists are identified. Finally, the winner is announced. In 2015, the finalists were Cheridan Hawkins, Lauren Haeger, and Sierra Romero. You can always make a strong case for Romero, but the honor rightfully went to Haeger. It was kind of a no-brainer. Lauren outpitched Cheridan in the circle, though not by all that much. The clincher? Hawkins normally doesn't bat and Haeger is in the middle of a strong lineup and one of the best home run hitters in the country. But that result got me thinking back to the 2014 award. The finalists were Ally Carda, Sierra Romero, and Lacey Waldrop. Again, a convincing argument could be made for Romero, the game's most feared hitter over the past two seasons. Waldrop won and I had no problem with that. I had seen many of her games and — although she is not a classic power pitcher — she had a magical season and a dizzying array of effective pitches that put and kept hitters off balance. (And that ever-present smile!) Yet I can't help wondering why the award didn't go to the same type of player in both 2014 and 2015. Lacey had a better campaign in the circle than Ally did, but Waldrop didn't bat and Carda hit third for the powerful UCLA offense and had a terrific season at the plate. Could Waldrop have been the superior pitcher by enough to offset Carda's excellent pitching/hitting contribution to her team? Doubtful — which doesn't necessarily mean that the honor went to the wrong player. Perhaps there is something in the POY voting guidelines that addresses this? In any case, Waldrop was a deserving recipient. She had a truly special campaign.
11) I'm not able to watch every minute of every game in the postseason, of course, but I am puzzled about why the announcers seldom bother to clue the viewers in on some of the sport's rules and policies. For example, large team meetings take place on the field at irregular intervals throughout any given game. I'm not just talking about pitching, lineup, and pinch running changes — but also informal strategy planning or whatever. How many of these chat fests are permitted? If you don't know the exact answer, could you “ballpark” it for me?! In the WCWS, the most such meetings I've ever witnessed in a game is 42. As the four highest numbers of powwows were 42, 42, 42, & 41, I assume the teams are “limited” to 42 such skull sessions per contest. These odd gatherings are pretty much the only things that slow down the proceedings to any degree. I try to be productive during those breaks in the action.
12) While watching the WCWS with a couple of friends several years ago, I made the mistake of asking why so many hitters were showing bunt yet swinging away on pitch after pitch after pitch. I wasn't satisfied with either answer and asked three more individuals in the next day or so. By then I had five different motives! To this day, I don't know or care what the reason is for doing that — I'm sure it's not to fake a bunt — but the important thing is that it's hurting more hitters than it's helping. If you get the bat back in time, fine. No harm, no foul. Unfortunately, numerous hitters make the adjustment too late in some of their at-bats. At the moment when they need to be set, the wrists of many players are still moving back. I can easily see this as it's happening. The result is a boatload of popups to the infield and numerous other lame swings. In a few cases, the adjustment is being made so late that the batter is paralyzed and can't pull the trigger on an extremely hittable pitch. I say all this with absolutely no fear of contradiction. It seems likely most coaches are aware of the risks and rewards (if any) associated with this ill-conceived ritual. Maybe that's why fewer hitters are employing this “misstep in waiting” than they were a few seasons back.
13) The format for the WCWS is endlessly fascinating. The 64 teams chosen to compete are divided into 16 mini double elimination tournaments. Only 16 schools are nationally seeded. Those 16 ballclubs host that first round of play. It's not clear whether the 48 non-seeded teams are ranked from 17 through 64, but I suspect not. It appears that setting up a number of regional matchups is more the order of the day. One team and one team only emerges from each of the mini tourneys. One or more of the 16 seeded squads usually fails to advance. In this competition, only the two lowest seeds bit the dust. Following that first round, the 16 remaining teams battle it out via 8 “best two out of three” tilts, with the matchups being set according to the overall bracket. Round three consists of the surviving 8 teams competing in a brand new double elimination tournament to determine which two schools will vie for the title in the final “best of three” championship series. This format is exciting and fair. Seeded teams get home field advantage early on, which makes the regular season meaningful. Best of all is that — in all four rounds — a squad cannot be eliminated until it has been bested twice. So there's no crying “fluke” when a powerhouse fails to move on. It's quite a clever setup.
14) The current rules do not mandate that batters attempt to get out of the way of pitches that subsequently hit them. That would be fine if hitters didn't lean out over the plate, but they do. (Yes, I'm aware those calls can go against the batter, but they seldom do.) The result is offensive players getting on base cheaply. Some teams catch onto shifting tendencies in their sport quicker than others. So it is no shocker that defending champion Florida was way ahead of the curve on this issue in 2015. The Gators were hit far more often than any other team in the regular season and that carried into the postseason. My notes are difficult to read, but in the championship game, there were either 9 or 39 batters hit by pitches and that took away from the game, if only a tiny bit. A change needs to be made before next season. Otherwise, dozens of other teams will become as adept at being hit by pitches as Florida and the product on the field could turn into a joke and/or a loss of credibility.
15) Baserunning is a mixed bag (pun intended). There's the occasional error in judgment, as well as a smattering of less forgivable mental mistakes, but nothing consistently bothersome. With multiple pinch runners available and less than stellar bunting among the non-slappers, more attempted steals might be beneficial.
16) Some of the schools use former stars on staff to coach first base in the national tournament. A few examples are the incomparable Lisa Fernandez at UCLA, recent standout Madison Shipman at Tennessee, and the legendary Caitlin Lowe at Arizona. The fun for me in watching the first base coaches on all postseason teams is seeing which ones seem hyper aware of when the camera is on them. It's entertaining to view them through this prism. I'm just saying.
17) Is it easy enough to tell exactly when the pitcher releases the ball so that baserunners can get a fair jump? Also, is it obvious to an umpire when a runner leaves the base too early? I sometimes think I see runners jumping the gun, but the games are shot in a way that makes it difficult for viewers to make that determination. Do umpires just assume they miss a certain percentage of these calls and only enforce the rule for flagrant violations? Part of what I'm wondering is why there aren't more stolen bases. It seems to me that there are plenty of speedsters capable of swiping bags — unless they dare not start moving until well after the pitch is released. With several pinch runners available each game, teams ought to be pilfering more bases. If steals were increased, teams wouldn't have to rely on bunting as much as they now do.
18) The stadiums that are being built on college campuses are wonderful and a sign that softball as a sport is thriving. It's a trend I definitely enjoy tracking.
19) Have I actually seen some “check swing” calls being made by a second base umpire? If so, it doesn't strike me (no pun intended) as the way to go. That official doesn't have a decent view at all. Then again, this call is often so tough that you can't even blame the umps for missing on a number of those rulings. I wish there were a better way to make such distinctions. A machine of some sort might one day be the answer. Overall, the umpires in the WCWS hustle and have commendable attitudes, but they all have trouble establishing a consistent strike zone that has a chance to stay in place for an entire game. I've noticed one unfortunate new wrinkle this postseason. We've all seen umps in the past do “makeup” calls. If they deem a pitch that's clearly in the strike zone to be a ball, they'll call the next one that's close a strike. In this tournament, however, I've witnessed game officials “doubling down” on their mistakes — by which I mean two nearly identical bad calls that go against the pitcher or the hitter in the same at-bat. It's part of the game that needs to improve.
20) On a single telecast, I believe I heard four different second basemen referred to as 1st Team All-Americans. As it turned out, one of those players (Alex Hugo) had been identified as a 2nd Team All-American, but that still seemingly left some explaining to do. It appears as if Emily Carosone beat out Sierra Romero and Kelsey Stewart as the 1st Team All-American second sacker. That shocked me, but a look at Carosone's numbers (arguably against better pitching than Romero faced) suggests that maybe you could throw a blanket over all three of these excellent middle infielders. I guess it didn't matter anyway because Romero and Stewart were both named 1st Team All-Americans, with “At-Large/2B” appearing beside their names. Because most teams often or always use a Designated Player in their lineup, there is an All-American opening at that spot that can be filled by any offensive player. That hitter can play any position or even no position at all. And because 1st Team All-American is a roster and not just a lineup, there is also room for a few more offensive players. So perhaps we should be thankful that there aren't six or seven second basemen listed as 1st Team All-Americans on this hypothetical team! Even so, I won't apologize for jumping up to do a little research when I suspected our dream team might be too flush up the middle.
21) There are four coaches I tend to think of all at once and for positive reasons only: Florida's Tim Walton, Oregon's Mike White, Alabama's Patrick Murphy, and Auburn's Clint Myers. All are outstanding field generals, but what I especially like about this foursome is that they seem to set exactly the right tone with their teams. Whatever the proper mix of being laid back and intense is, they have implemented it to perfection. They're unfailingly polite and upbeat and are candid and forthcoming during in-game interviews. They simply hit all the right notes with everybody. Having said that, there was a week during this tournament when all four of them — separately! — laid into the umpires with a fair amount of vitriol. I don't think I had seen more than a glimpse of that from any of them previously. Am I putting them down for stepping out of character or ratcheting up their default temperaments? No way! The members of that coaching quartet were in the right on all four occasions.
22) Do I understand correctly that Florida and Auburn never played each other during the 2015 regular season? That doesn't seem right. It's a shame conferences have swelled to the point where two football teams ostensibly in the same league are never scheduled to meet and where basketball teams supposedly in the same conference are unable to arrange for home and away games against league rivals. But I figured baseball and softball could rise above such shenanigans. To me, if Team A and Team B do not compete on the field, court, pitch, or whatever — I don't see how they can claim to be in the same league. With over 50 games available to be scheduled per team, these two schools couldn't fit in a doubleheader somewhere? Better yet, map out the conference schedules first and then see how many dates you have open for teams not in your league. Are there other SEC teams that didn't play each other in 2015? If so, is this a ploy to limit the number of losses SEC teams incur prior to postseason tournaments? If so, the league needn't bother. The SEC's success in the national tournament in recent years is a testament to the outstanding quality of play therein. The league will not lack for bids or high seedings in any upcoming events. So please schedule the games that scream to be played.
23) I mentioned earlier about how I wish the game announcers would fill the viewers in on such issues as how many team meetings are allowed on the field per contest. I have a couple more queries along those same lines. How is it decided who is the home team in a given game? Often the answer is obvious, but sometimes it isn't. I also noticed that a bracket switch was made late in the tournament with regard to one or more elimination games. For what reason was that done? If I'm not mistaken, the men's baseball tournament declined to make a similar switch at the same juncture. What's the deal? I found ESPN's coverage of the complex playoff system to be excellent overall. As for the talking heads themselves: Adam Amin speaks a whole lot like Bob Costas. Happily, he also seems to be as prepared and detail-oriented as his soundalike. If you're watching a game and think that something needs to be brought up, Amin will broach that topic. His enthusiasm for the sport is also very much on display. He has been a revelation. Add Amanda Scarborough's trenchant analysis and you have a terrific team behind the mikes. I remember when Beth Mowins and Pam Ward used to sound far more alike than they do now! Mowins' understated yet comprehensive play-by-play is an ideal match with veteran analysts Jessica Mendoza and Michele Smith. Considering how long they've been interpreting in-game developments, it's impressive that Mendoza and Smith always seem to find new points to make. (I do sometimes wonder whether they like or hate each other!) Holly Rowe, Danielle Lawrie, and Laura Rutledge also did fine work in the postseason. While I can understand why some find Cheri Kempf to be a bit strident, I view her as someone who gets things done and is a tireless advocate for both college and pro softball. Kempf knows the sport from all angles and Pam Ward got the best out of her in a couple of studio discussions. Then there's the case of Curt Schilling joining the broadcast team for the three games between Florida and Michigan for the national title. Although Schilling's presence on the telecast was more awkward than successful, it wasn't a disaster. At least partially due to his daughter's impending collegiate softball career, we know Schilling likes, respects, and admires the sport. In any case, Curt was generous in his praise of the women who compete at such a high level. While Schilling later admitted that he had bullied his way into a role as special game analyst, isn't that better than the dismissive attitude we might expect to find from some of the ESPN baseball insiders past and present? Every new fan helps to grow the sport. Schilling didn't add anything especially insightful to the telecasts, but that's largely because Mowins, Mendoza, and Smith had that ground covered. And when Mendoza ended up as part of the Men's College World Series coverage, that made the late addition of Schilling to the WCWS team go down even easier. My only other minor concerns about the broadcasts were as follows: a) Amin made one miscue when he asserted that Madison Shipman had gone from being the SEC Player of the Year in one season to being the National Pro Fastpitch Player of the Year in the next campaign. Actually, Shipman was the Rookie of the Year in NPF. Andrea Duran, Shipman's partner on the left side of the USSSA infield, won the POY honor and she is as fine an all-around player as there is in the sport. b) There was a crucial bad call at first base in a WCWS game where the umpire doubled up a runner who had scampered off first base on a line drive that was caught. Replays showed that the runner was back with time to spare. The analyst proceeded to chide the baserunner for making a false initial move toward second base rather than fault the umpire for blowing an easy call and taking a team out of a possible big inning. c) Finally, on bad call pitches and plays that are not in doubt, it would be nice to hear “that pitch was 8 inches off the plate” or “the runner was clearly out” more often than the standard “that was close,” which means nothing. If you have the technology to identify awful calls, do it. Even so, the coverage was splendid for the most part.
24) Having coached dozens of teams in the past at numerous levels, any second-guessing I engage in must be prefaced with the following guideline: “A coach knows his or her team far better than anyone else and so is in the best position to make in-game decisions.” In addition, we must keep in mind that players sometimes miss signs or improvise. As a result, nothing I say here is intended to point an accusing finger at anyone. In Michigan's showdown against UCLA, the game announcers correctly made a big deal out of the fact that Sierra Romero — the sport's most feared hitter — laid down a bunt with runners on first and second and nobody out in an early inning even though this was already no pitcher's duel where any one run was all that precious. You can make an argument either way. For me, the litmus test in that situation is what would my reaction be if mine were the team on defense? All things being equal, I would be thrilled to have Romero sacrifice herself to move the two runners up a base. She laid down a decent bunt, moved the runners along, and one of them (I believe) scored later in the inning. An analogous scenario I found equally intriguing — but which drew no comment from the game announcers — was when UCLA's cleanup hitter came to the plate in the third inning with Ally Carda on first base and nobody out. The Bruins were down a run in what was destined to be a high-scoring affair. If memory serves, said number four batter in the order was the hottest hitter in the tournament at that time. Shockingly, she laid one down. I was mystified by the notion of a team sacrificing its premiere hitter to move a fast runner up one base so early in the game. No rally ensued. And I believe the same scenario with the same team members played out similarly a little later in the game. An injury, perhaps? Here are a variety of reasons why many teams should bunt less than they do now: A) Moving a runner up isn't automatic or anywhere close to that. B) When a slap hitter isn't batting, the bunting in the college game is mediocre. C) It has been shown that having a runner on first base with no outs is a better position to be in than having a runner on second base with one out. D) Sometimes the decision to bunt is made too early, by which I mean it doesn't take into account factors like the pitcher's inability to get the ball over the plate or to command her pitches. “Small ball” offenses sometimes let a struggling pitcher off the hook. Make her throw a strike before you turn to the bunt. (While attending a game in person once, I saw two hitters in the same lineup sacrifice bunt on 3-0 counts. I almost had a tizzy!) E) When I coached, I was loath to give up any of our offense's 27 outs. With only 21 outs in college softball, I would be even less willing to kick away such valuable assets. F) When you have better hitters giving themselves up so that lesser hitters can drive runners in — well, that's unorthodox for a reason. G) Trying to steal second base might occasionally be a less risky option than attempting to bunt the runner over — all the more so if the player has good wheels. H) There are enough wild pitches and passed balls so that baserunners might end up advancing that way at no cost or risk. I) Maybe the most underrated reason for opting for something other than a bunt is because giving up that out greatly lessens the possibility of a big inning. As the saying goes: “play for one run/ lose by one run.” Anyway, after bowing to Michigan by a score of 10 to 4, UCLA had to come back the next day to face Auburn in a “loser goes home” contest. It was an amazing game, with the Bruins scoring 5 runs in an early inning and AU fighting back with 6 runs in their half of the same frame. Ally Carda had thrown 117 pitches against the Wolverines and would throw 205 against the Tigers. At some point, she just had nothing more to give. Half of her pitches were bouncing before they got to the plate. She was running on fumes and a temporarily dead arm. Incredibly, however, she kept UCLA in the game inning after inning and even took Auburn to an extra frame. I believe she also reached base on several plate appearances in clutch situations. Carda gave up 10 earned runs that night and walked a dozen batters, but it was as courageous and uplifting a performance as I have ever witnessed. I've never been more proud of anyone I was rooting for in a game. If Ally Carda didn't wear batting gloves, she'd be perfect!
In summation, I have written the above as an avid fan of women's college softball. When I end up spending this much time analyzing anything, though, I'm bound to discover both pros and cons as I did here. I hope readers will respect the fact that my positive — yet balanced — appraisal was not faultfinding of anyone by name and offered only mild and constructive criticism otherwise. College softball is in great shape, but improvements are always possible and should be encouraged.
I'm hoping that the takeaways from this opinion piece will include the following: Try to hit without batting gloves. Make sure you pull the bat back in time to take a proper swing. Learn to bunt expertly, but opt for more big innings. Yes, I was kidding about the 42 meetings and the 39 batters hit by pitches, but both totals — whatever they really were — are higher than they should be.
I trust that feedback is welcomed — or at least tolerated — in the college softball world and further that the sentiments herein stand in mute testimony to my high regard for this sport. Even so, any and all pushback will be cheerfully accepted, read, digested, considered, and re-analyzed. Bring everything you've got and then bring a little bit more — you'll need it. And please know you'll be throwing popcorn at a battleship! I don't take anything personally.
|Tim Pollins attended the University of Maryland where he majored in English Literature and Philosophy. His writing has appeared in newspapers across the country, including The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, The Chicago Tribune, and The Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as in magazines and literary journals throughout the world. Baseball was his first love, but he now prefers to watch fast-pitch softball because the sport is so dynamic.|
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