Monthly Archives: August 2016

Defense can make a fastpitch pitcher look good – or bad

While it may same rather obvious on the surface, after watching the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) championship game on TV I thought it might be worthwhile to bring it up again. It, of course, being the effect defense has on making a fastpitch pitcher look good or bad.

(By the way, kudos to my hometown team, the Chicago Bandits, for taking the title for the second year in a row.)

Normally at the NPF level you expect to see a lot of dominant pitching. While the pitching was good in this game, I wouldn’t call it dominant. The definition of dominant being a lot of strikeouts or weak infield hits. Fastpitch defense can make a pitcher look good or bad

There were some of each, but there were also plenty of balls that got tagged pretty well; all three runs came off of solo home runs.

So in the absence of huge numbers of Ks, it becomes pretty obvious that the other 7 players who are not part of the battery had to step up to keep this a 2-1 game. If you watched the game you certainly saw that.

Which brings me to my point. The game ended 2-1, but the score could have easily been much higher were it not for some spectacular plays on both sides, both in the infield and outfield.

Those defenders made their pitchers look awfully good. And that’s ok, because I really believe the pitcher’s job isn’t to strike everyone out. That’s just fortunate when it happens. Instead, a pitcher’s job is to induce weak contacts that are easy to field.

In other words, the perfect inning isn’t 9 pitches for three Ks. It’s 3 pitches, all easy popups to 1st base so the first baseman can just pick up the ball and step on the bag if she drops it.

So contrast that defensive performance with others I’ve seen or heard about over the years, where the pitcher does her job. But instead of weak grounders or popups resulting in outs, they result in runners on base because of errors or lack of effort on the fielders’ part.

And what happens after a few of those? The coach calls time, heads out to the circle, and replaces the pitcher (who hasn’t made an error yet). It’s clearly not the pitcher’s fault, but I guess it’s easier to replace one pitcher than four defensive players.

So in the stats as well as in live action the pitcher ends up looking bad. Especially if those errors get marked as hits. (Anyone ever seen a box score that showed one error when you know there were at least 6? I sure have, especially in high school games.)

The thing is, having a porous defense doesn’t just have a short-term effect on the team, i.e., losing a game or a tournament. It also has a long-term effect. Because good pitchers don’t want to look bad, or have to work overtime every game to get three outs. So what happens? Good pitchers will leave, and tell other good pitchers why. Then it gets tough to get good pitchers, so the team has to settle for lesser pitchers, who give up more contacts that turn into even more baserunners. Then you’re in the death spiral.

Here’s another way to think of it. What coach would sign up for a tournament where the rules stated certain teams would be given 6 offensive outs per inning while theirs only got 3? You’d have to be crazy to agree to that. But that’s what happens when the team can’t play good defense behind their pitcher. And that makes it tough to win.

So while it’s easy to blame the pitcher, or give too much credit for that matter, the reality is the better your defense is the better your pitching will look. Just ask the world champion Bandits.

The definition of sportsmanship – and class

This isn’t a fastpitch softball story, but it’s still one I found worth sharing because it demonstrates everything great about sports and what they teach you. Full disclosure: I am friends with Abbey D’Agostino’s uncle Tim and Aunt Janet Boivin so the story has a little extra impact for me.

If you haven’t heard, this happened during the women’s 5000 meter race at the Olympics. Everyone was running in a pack when Nikki (no relation to Hillary) Hamblin of New Zealand tripped, and the USA’s Abbey D’Agostino fell over her.

Understand that Abbey has waited a long time for this opportunity. If I recall correctly she just missed the cut for the 2012 Olympics while she was still in college, so making the team and having the opportunity to go for the gold was the fulfillment of a dream.

After falling like that, many runners would have just gotten up and tried to make up the time. That’s what being a competitor is supposedly all about. But Abbey saw that Nikki was hurt, and instead of taking off she stopped to help Nikki up off the ground and start running again.

Then, in an interesting turn, after both ran a few meters Abbey went down again. (Later we would discover she tore her ACL and meniscus when she fell originally. Nikki stopped to help her up, and the two of them proceeded to help each other finish the race. (Shades of Cool Runnings, eh?)

The other thing to understand is they weren’t friends before. They didn’t know each other at all. But they are bound together for life now.

We see a lot of negative things out there in the world. At softball parks we see all kinds of bad behavior from players, coaches, parents and fans. But this story is a reminder, on the biggest stage of all for most sports, of what it’s really all about.

If you’d like to learn more, here’s one of the many stories that have come out of this incident, complete with an interview of both runners.

Hopefully Abbey will be back on the track sooner rather than later and will have another shot at a medal. But if she never runs competitively again, she’s set an amazing standard for all athletes. Watch for the Disney movie in about five years. 🙂

Softball back in for the 2020 Olympics

Just saw the news that softball (and baseball) have officially been voted back in for the 2020 Olympics. Not too surprised given where they will be held.

Japan is as fanatical about fastpitch softball as the U.S. – maybe more. And they have a gold medal to defend, despite the fact that it’s likely most of the players on that last team probably won’t be on the 2020 team.

I know a lot of people are really ecstatic about it. For me, I’m more “meh.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love watching the games on TV, especially the medal games. It’s exciting to see the best players in the world going head-to-head, and even though the Olympic rings have lost some of their luster it’s still a pretty big stage. And for me personally at least there’s now something interesting to watch.

But many of those who are so excited have a belief that having softball in the Olympics will drive participation and give female softball players something to dream about. For whatever it’s worth I disagree.

I don’t think young female softball players, as a whole, care that much about the national team. Just ask any you know who is on the national team right now. You’ll probably get a blank stare. Or ask who was ever on the Olympic team for the U.S. You might get a couple of good guesses, but beyond the high-visibility pitchers most probably won’t know.

When I’m doing lessons I will often ask students if they have heard of this top-level college player or that high-profile pro. Most have not. They just don’t care. They’re more focused on their own performance.

If participation overall is down I don’t think it’s because there was no Olympic team to aspire to. I would say cost is much more of a factor now. It used to be you could join a team and play all summer for around $500. Now it’s more like $1,500 to $2,000 on the low end, and $20,000+ on the high end for a bigtime exposure team that travels around the country.

That puts softball out of the reach of a lot of families, especially in the current economy. They’ll either find a cheaper sport, or they’ll find another activity that doesn’t cost them as much.

As far as the hopes and dreams go, let’s be honest. There are precious few spots on the Olympic roster to being with. You have to be a top-level college player (current or former) to have any hopes of making it (Crystal Bustos excepted).

It may be an incentive for a precious few. And good for them. But for most, reality will likely set in at a young age as they realize they’re not destined to become one of the greatest fastpitch softball players in the U.S.

I’m glad it’s back in, and I’m glad our sport will get more exposure. But is it a game changer? I don’t think so.

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