Category Archives: Team offense

A Few Post-Olympic Thoughts

Photo by Anthony on

Last week I wrote about some things to watch for as fastpitch softball made its return to the Olympic stage. If you haven’t read it already you may want to follow the link above and give it a look as it is both insightful and brilliant. Or at least marginally interesting.

Now that the tournament is finished I thought it might be a good idea to see what takeaways we might draw from what actually occurred while it was going on. There are definitely some lessons to be learned.

SPOILER ALERT: This post will refer to outcomes, so if you’re one of the few softball fanatics who have not watched the games and are trying to keep yourself from learning who won until you do, you may want to do that first – or explore other posts here on the blog.

Nice to see softball back in the Olympics

Let’s start with the obvious. After a 13 year absence it was great to see fastpitch softball back in the Olympics in any form.

The Olympic games draw a LOT of eyes and are considered to be a major international event. Yes, you have the Pan Am Games and the World Cup of Softball, but those are essentially “in the family” events. IOW, only softball people are interested in them.

The Olympics, on the other hand, allow people who have no real interest in softball to randomly stumble across them. This is also helped by the fact that they appear on a major network (in this case NBC), even though in reality the games were on offshoot networks rather than NBC proper.

Plus the Olympics have built-prestige of their own despite all the problems and scandals of recent years. It’s great for popularizing the sport and exposing it to new potential fans. Lots of good things about it.

That said…

The tournament format was awful

Really? Five pool play games and then you go straight to the Gold and Bronze Medal games?

I would expect more from a local rec league tournament.

Anyone who knows anything about this sport knows a game can turn on a single hit, a bad bounce, a single throwing error, an umpire’s call, etc. At the highest level the margins are even more razor-thin.

Take the U.S. v Australia game. It was won by one fortunate, well-timed hit by the U.S. It could have easily gone the other way.

We also know teams can bounce back from a bad or unfortunate game to come back and take it all.

It should have been a double elimination tournament. I’m sure there were financial reasons it wasn’t, but the format they had made it look like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) just caved to pressure and let it in with the minimal effort possible. Softball was the red-headed stepchild of these Olympics.

This is further evidenced by the fact that half of the pool play occurred BEFORE the opening ceremonies, which most people consider to be the beginning of the Olympics. Which means they were less likely to stumble into the games on TV.

If you wanted to “prove” that not enough people are interested in softball to include it in the future, this was the way to do it.

The U.S. Team’s Offensive Plan Was Poor

If the goal was to prove that softball is an international sport and the U.S. doesn’t dominate it anymore, then mission accomplished. If the goal was to put together a team and a game plan to keep U.S. scoring to the minimum required to get into the Gold Medal game, then well done.

Yes, I realize the pitching is the best in the world (at least in theory), and great pitching beats great hitting. But other teams didn’t seem to have as much trouble scoring runs against each other.

Yet the U.S. managed a measly nine (9) runs in six (count ’em 6) games, and no more than two (2) in any single game. That’s pathetic.

I’m guessing part of that strategy was to support dominating pitchers with the best defense they could, then count on being able to scratch a couple of runs together to win 1-0 or 2-1. So forget worrying about finding big hitters and just get defensive stars.

The problem with that is it’s not 1996 anymore. Softball players work harder these days at hitting overall, and the bat technology is way better than when the Louisville burgundy bottle bat was THE bat to have. You wouldn’t use that in practice now.

A game can turn on a single swing, and if you get behind by a couple of runs early it can be tough to come back if you don’t have players who can hit the gaps for extra bases. As the U.S. found out in the Gold Medal game.

Then there was the offensive philosophy, which was incredibly predictable. As soon as the U.S. got a runner on first, the next hitter up was required to sacrifice bunt. Every. Stinking. Time.

That meant that a hitter like Jamie Reed, who tripled in the first inning of the Gold Medal game against the worlds best pitcher, spent most of the tournament laying down bunts instead of trying to drive runs in.

Even a fly ball to the fence could have advanced the runner on first as effectively as a bunt, with the added benefit that it might hit the fence or go over, resulting in a better offensive position.

I haven’t seen the stats, but to the best of my recollection the number of runs that were manufactured by sacrifice bunts was zero. In the meantime, the U.S. gave up a whole bunch of outs that might have come in handy later in the game.

Yes, I am prejudiced against the sac bunt anyway, and have been for a long time. It’s a waste in most cases. This just proved the point.

The other downside of being so predictable was that opposing teams, Japan in particular, could just sit on it and use it to their advantage. Like by pulling the corners in and pulling off a double play against a sac bunt.

Keep in mind the U.S. win against Japan in pool play came off a home run. They needed more of that.

Especially since, according to the announcers, Japan has spent the last few years trying to put MORE offensive firepower into their game. If Japan is your Gold Standard (no pun intended) the U.S. may want to look for players who can bang the ball – and then let them do it.

The defense was unreal

In my last post I talked about watching the speed of the game. These games did not disappoint.

The defense across the board was incredible. So many great plays by so many players on all teams. That is an aspect everyone got right.

The whole thing looked like an old timer’s game

Perhaps the oddest thing about these Olympics were how old many of the players were. Especially in the circle.

Monica and Cat for the U.S. are both mid- to late-30s. Yukiko Ueno is 39. Team Canada had several recognizable names from the past. All of them played in the last Olympic games.

It’s almost as if the people in charge felt they owed it to these players to let them play in one more Olympics. Not that they didn’t perform – they did.

But in a sports culture obsessed with youth it’s hard to believe there weren’t younger players who could have done just as well. Have we done such a poor job of training the next generation that the last generation had to step in? Or were they just trying to go with glory names from the past?

The problem with that is you lose the younger audience who didn’t grow up watching Cat and Monica and the others dominate the sport. I think a lot of younger fans want to see the names they’ve been watching in the Women’s College World Series – players they know and can relate to.

In my very informal survey of my students, most did not watch the Olympics. They had little interest. If you can’t get current players to watch the game played at that level how are you going to grow softball as a spectator sport?

From a marketing standpoint it’s time to leave the past behind and start focusing on the future. We apparently have eight years to get it right. Let’s do it.

It was essentially an American tournament

For those who still complain about U.S. dominance of the sport, they do have a point. Despite the different names on the jerseys, many of the players – especially for Italy, Canada and Mexico – were either U.S. citizens or played college ball in the U.S.

I think that was less true for Australia, but I believe they had a few too.

About the only team that wasn’t made in America essentially was Team Japan.

It’s great that more deserving players get an opportunity to play in the Olympics by going with teams representing their heritage instead of where they were born and/or raised. But if softball is going to become a permanent part of the Olympics we need more locally raised players for these teams.

Especially the European teams, because their Olympic Committees hold a lot of sway over how the Olympics are run.

Hopefully softball can generate enough publicity to get girls in these countries interested in playing softball at a high level against each other as well as against U.S. players. I guess we’ll see.

So there you have it – a few of my observations. Now it’s your turn.

Did you watch? If so, what did you think? Leave your observations in the comments below.

Playing the softball time game

Let me start out by saying I’ve made it pretty clear in the past that I am NOT a fan of time limits in fastpitch softball. The game was designed to be played across seven innings, no matter how long that takes.

Yogi Berra’s statement “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” doesn’t make as much sense if you’re playing against a clock, because there is a definite point when it’s over. But then again Fastpitch softball shouldn't have a time limit, but when it does don't game the system.Yogi never had to make sense to be quotable.

In any case, whether we like it or not time limits have become the norm at nearly every summer tournament. The desire to get as many teams to play as many games as possible on a finite number of fields drives that. Maybe it’s greed, maybe it’s the “bigger is better” syndrome, but whatever it is as long as that’s the prevailing sentiment among those who are running tournaments you’re going to see time limits.

With that comes a new set of challenges for coaches. For example, if you’re dedicated to all of your players playing at least half the game, that’s fairly easy to accomplish when you know you have seven innings. Not so much when you have 1:15 no new inning with 1:30 drop dead. You have to keep an eye not only on the innings but on the clock, and may have to make substitutions at times you don’t want to.

The drop dead time limit can also change the strategy as far as whether you want to be the home or visiting team. If your team starts off hot at the plate but tends to fade in the field later in the game, you may want to take visitor if given the choice. You get to start out hitting, and if your team is booting the ball around in the bottom of the last inning it may not make a difference. In fact, if you’ve blow a lead you may even want to have them not get outs so the inning isn’t completed and the game defaults back to the previous inning when you were ahead.

And that brings us to today’s sermon topic, which is the games some coaches play when facing a time limit. The above being just one of the more egregious examples.

Some might call it being strategic. Others might call it short-sighted, since it’s kind of legalized cheating – you’re playing within the rules of the game, but not the spirit.

Not that I was always a saint about it, but after experiencing time limits a few times I quickly came to the philosophy that if you’re not good enough to win the game outright, you’re not good enough to win it.

As my buddy and assistant coach Rich Youngman once pointed out to me, what does it tell your team if you have to play these games? That you don’t have confidence in them to be the better team and win it outright, so you’re resorting to tricks?

Here are some examples. Your team is on defense, clinging to a one-run lead. You don’t want to go into a new inning because you know the heart of your opponent’s order is coming up, along with the bottom of yours. So you call a timeout to talk to the pitcher and gather the rest of your team in for your talk, which apparently becomes a manifesto. Tick tick tick.

Or you’re the home team on offense and don’t want a new inning to start. So you tell your team to walk slowly to batter’s box, and be sure to take a few practice swings between each pitch. If time is still moving too slowly you call a batter over for a conference. I even heard an instance of a coach telling a player to tie her shoe when it was already tied.

There are all kinds of ways to run a couple of extra minutes off the clock. Even an argument with an umpire can take up some precious time. A fake injury that doesn’t take too long to deal with can run some time off without stopping the clock too. Fielders taking a little extra time to throw the ball around after a strikeout, and maybe even throw it away on purpose or let a ball go by so they have to chase it down qualify as well.

This is not to say every strategy for killing time is bad. If you want to tell your players to take pitches until they get a strike on them, I’d consider that smart. Maybe you get a walk, but maybe you put your hitter in a hole that speeds up the at bat. That’s legit.

More borderline ethical is telling a hitter to strike out on purpose to kill an inning. I wouldn’t do it, but if it results in an extra inning being played you’re potentially not affecting the outcome of the game as much – both teams still have an equal chance to do something in that inning.

It’s the ones where you’re preventing the game from being played that get to me. If you’re there to play fastpitch softball, then play fastpitch softball. Man up, or woman up, and have confidence that the best team will win. Without the need for gimmicks. The lesson that will teach will mean a whole lot more to your kids than a $10 plastic trophy or medal.

Strategy for winning the international tie breaker

One of the staples of fastpitch softball tournaments is the international tie breaker, or ITB. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a way of trying to get to a winner faster in a tie game. After seven innings, or the time limit expires if you’re playing with one of those, each team starts the inning with a runner on second base. The runner on second is the last out from the previous inning. Each team gets three outs to try to score as many runs as they can in their half-inning. If one score more than the other, they win. It’s sort of like the soccer shoot-out for those of you watching the World Cup, or a shoot-out in hockey. While I said “as many runs as you can,” in most instances you’re trying to get one run. Most games that go to the ITB are not double-digit slugfests. They’re usually low-scoring affairs, which is why you start with a runner on second. Softball strategy 101 says the team at bat should sacrifice bunt the runner to third, and then take two outs to try to bring her home. That’s what most teams do. But I have a strategy that, if you have the right pieces in place, can help you get that runner at least to third with no outs. It depends on two things. The first is a runner with decent speed – enough to make it a challenge for the shortstop to cover on a steal. The second is a hitter with the ability to slug bunt, i.e., show bunt then pull back and slap the ball hard on the ground. Here’s how you take advantage of them. If you can get the hitter to a favorable count such as 2-0 where the pitcher really needs to throw a strike, have your runner on second steal third, and your hitter execute a slug bunt. When you do this, you’re starting out by giving the defensive team what they expect – a bunt. Third base will likely be playing up for the bunt, which means the shortstop must cover third on a steal. When your runner takes off, the shortstop will likely start moving to cover third on the throw from the catcher. You may also get the second baseman moving to cover first if the first baseman is also playing close. That opens up some space. After showing bunt and pulling back, the hitter attempts to slap the ball on the ground, either to where the shortstop or second baseman normally plays. There are several possible good outcomes. One is if the shortstop or second baseman did start moving to their respective corners and the hitter gets the ball on the ground, it will roll through the area they vacated, perhaps to the outfield grass. Since your runner was already stealing, she may be far enough along to keep going and score. And you have a runner on first with no outs. What about if the hitter swings and misses? No problem. Perhaps the act of pulling back gets the shortstop to freeze long enough to allow your runner to get to third unchallenged. Even if she keeps going it’s still a tough play at third. A poor throw or a miss and your runner is either safe at third or headed home. Again, you also have a runner at first with no outs. And that runner will likely be standing on second after the next pitch, because the defense can’t afford to let the runner on third score. If the hitter goes for the slug and hits it directly to a fielder, the runner on second is still likely to get to third cleanly, although the batter may be out depending on her speed. In that case you’re no worse off than if you’d sacrifice bunted. Any of those outcomes will make you look like an offensive genius. About the only thing that can go wrong is if your hitter pops up instead of putting the ball on the ground. In that case the batter is out and the runner who was on second will probably get doubled off. Then everyone thinks you’re an idiot. Still, the odds are in your favor. With the summer tournament season heating up, you’re likely to face an ITB sooner or later. Keep this strategy in mind and you just may improve your odds of winning. Now it’s your turn? What other non-standard strategies do you employ on the ITB?

Softball practice game

Tonight for our last practice before our next fastpitch softball tournament we decided to do something a little different. After warmups and throwing we played a game that worked on both defense and hand-eye coordination for hitters. It also exposed the girls to a skill most of them rarely practice.

We divided the team up into four groups of three players each. Nine went onto the field, and the other three were up to bat. But instead of live pitching — which pitchers often have trouble doing with their own team — we had the girls fungo the ball instead. (For those who don’t know the term, fungoing is throwing the ball up and hitting it yourself.)

The overall objective was to introduce some unpredictability into the game for the defense. Although the girls struggled with fungoing at first, as they got the hang of it they started looking for holes and placing the ball. That made it tougher on the defense, challenging them, because unlike coaches hitting balls they really didn’t know where it was going to go.

If the hitters got on base they continued as baserunners. That automatically set up situations for the defense to handle, and put pressure on them to perform. About the only thing we couldn’t work on were steals since the hitter controlled the ball. We kept score, and three outs brought in the next team of three.

Why not go with live pitching? We’ve done that before. But it takes longer and less action occurs. In addition, it’s tougher to move the ball around the field. Fungoing keeps the game moving, creating more situations for the defense to handle and more opportunities for the offense.

If you’re looking for a way to spice up practice, get some quality work in, and introduce some competition give the fungo game a try.

Now it’s your turn. How do you get some competition going in practice?

The 43 ft. HS distance appears to be having the desired effect

Back when the National Federation announced it was moving the high school pitching distance to 43 ft., the main reason cited by most pundits was they wanted to get more offense in the game. At 40 ft. the pitchers were dominating, and it was believed that moving the pitching rubber back three feet might change that. While the change doesn’t go into effect officially until the 2011 season, many states adopted it immediately, including Illinois, where I live.

Now that we’re a couple of weeks into the season it looks like the move is having the desired effect. Where normally pitchers are ahead of the hitters in the early part of the season, I’ve been seeing a lot of double-digit scores in games in the Chicago suburbs. Certainly a lot more than in the past.

What’s really been interesting is it seems to have had the most profound effect on the “power” pitchers — the girls who relied primarily on their speed to get them by. It doesn’t seem to have affected the ones who can top 60 mph regularly, but they are few and far between. For those in the mid-to-upper 50s, however, it’s made a big difference.

I can think of one in particular. She has been a stud on varsity since she was a freshman. She was highly touted in the newspapers, and always racked up great numbers for strikeouts and ERA. I never quite understood how, since I saw little movement on her ball and while she threw hard she didn’t throw that hard. Apparently, though, she threw hard enough to dominate at 40 ft.

Now, maybe she has something else going on too and this is just a coincidence. But as I look in the box scores and summaries in the local paper, her numbers have inflated considerably. She is giving up 10-12 runs per game, and maybe striking out one or two hitters most of the time. It’s not all errors either. I see double-digit hits and maybe a couple of errors in the box score. She just doesn’t seem to be as effective now that she’s a senior.

That seems odd to me. If anything, you’d think she’d be better now than her freshman year. Again, maybe there’s an injury or something going on. But my guess is it’s the distance. She just can’t blow it by the hitters as easily as she used to.

What’s really unfortunate for the team is they have one of those coaches who never bothered to develop anyone else. If her team played 250 innings, she pitched 250 innings. Now, when she could use a little help, there’s no one there to help her. If the other team catches on to her, she has to stand there and take the beating. You would figure a change of pace of any sort ought to at least slow things down for a bit. But they don’t have that option, so there have been a lot of lopsided scores.

This seems pretty consistent throughout our area. Scores are rising, ERAs are rising, and strikeout numbers are falling. The fans are definitely seeing more offense (except from the really poor hitting teams), and more players are involved throughout the game. Time will tell if this is a good thing. In the meantime, pitchers start working more on your movement. You’re going to need it.

Getting a better jump on steals

Have you ever sat in the dugout watching a team loaded with kids with world class speed and wished your team could run that fast? You think boy, if we could run like that we’d be stealing bases all the time.

You actually don’t need that kind of speed to steal bases. We confirmed that this weekend when we tested out something my pal Rich and I learned at the NFCA Coaches College.

My team is not exactly gifted with speed. As a result, we tended not to attempt many steals. We’d either have to bunt, hit or wait for a wild pitch to advance a runner. But at the Coaches College, they suggested videoing your team while they tried to get off the base on a steal. (Obviously you do this during practice.) We did it, and even told our girls to try leaving early. Then we watched the video on my computer.

What we (and they found) was not only weren’t they on time, they were actually very late. It was no wonder we weren’t very successful. So now that they understood the timing, we worked on getting a better jump. Sure enough, this past weekend we were successful on roughly 7 of 9 steal attempts. The nine attempts probably was more than we tried all last year. It was an amazing turn around.

If you have access to a video camera, give it a try. You may find it opens a whole new level of offense for you. You don’t need to be fast. You just need to get going at the right time.

Where can I buy the Book?

Someone please tell me where I can find a copy of the book that says when you get a runner on first you have to bunt her over to second. I have been searching online, especially, but they don’t seem to have it.

I’m assuming there is a book. Every coach I’ve been watching lately seems to do it automatically. Doesn’t matter what the score is, what inning it is, or whether there are no outs or one out. They can’t all be coming to that same conclusion by themselves. There has to be a book that has this requirement in there.

Or could it be they simply don’t have any other ideas. Here’s a suggestion. Let the kids hit now and then. Fake bunt and slap. Fake a slap and steal the base. You increase your chances of scoring a runner from second if you don’t make an out to get her there. It gives you an extra out for something good to happen.

I’m just sayin’.

Team USA’s take on the ITB

Stayed up way too late last night to watch the first medal round game for Team USA versus Japan. I didn’t get to bed until 2:00 AM, which was worth it then but a little rough this morning.

One thing I found interesting was the approach to the ITB that Coach Candrea took — mostly because it was similar in philosophy to what I’ve done in them (although not always with that level of success; have to be careful with that kind of comparison).

Of course, the conventional wisdom says the team on offense should bunt the runner on second to third, then take two shots at bringing her home. The Japanese team certainly followed it, at least in the bottom of the eighth when the score was tied.

Team USA, however, had a different plan. Rather than expend the out and play for one run, Coach Candrea elected to keep the extra out and play for more than one run. After not having it work out in the eighth, he put his faith in the top of the order and had them swing away. He wound up with four runs instead of one, which in a game that had gone eight innings with a 0-0 score was a huge mountain to climb.

No question about it — you have to have the bats to do it. Not to mention the nerve, especially if it doesn’t work since you’ll be facing a host of fans and parents who will want to know why you didn’t play it safe and bunt. But if you can pull it off, it’s quite a feat.

The point is don’t always get yourself stuck in the rut or feel you always have to follow the “book.” No guts, no glory.

NOTE: This post was edited for accuracy. I’d kind of let the eighth and ninth blend together. Told you I was tired!

Great article in the NFCA Fastpitch Delivery newspaper

Saw an article this morning in the current issue of the NFCA’s Fastpitch Delivery newspaper. It’s one of their great member benefits.

Anyway, the article was on generating offense and was written by Jay Miller, a well-known offensive guru. He was talking about what a shame it is that so many coaches at all levels are so conservative and risk-averse, because they leave so many chances to win on the table. I think I liked it most because it espouses a similar philosophy to what my organization teaches.

One of the first things he talked about was teaching runners to be aggressive, and to think aggressively. They are two different things. Runners being aggressive often depend on the coach for the final word. Runners who think aggressively understand that the point of getting on base is to get back home. Don’t take one base when you can get two, and don’t take two when you can get three.

Another point was to make sure you pressure the defense all the time. Aggressive baserunning puts a lot of pressure on the defense. They have to make perfect throws and catches every time, which can be tough to do. If you sit back and run station-to-station, or don’t take chances, you let them off easy.

There are many great hints in the article. But there’s also a caveat. When you take more chances, you’re going to get more runners thrown out too. You have to be willing to take that risk in order to reap the reward. Not everyone can handle it. But if you’re tired of losing games by one run, think about getting aggressive. You never know what can happen.

Bunts, outs and strategy

Of all the offensive strategies in the game of fastpitch softball, none is more time-honored than using the bunt as a means of advancing a runner into scoring position. In fact, you could say that offensive strategy #1 goes like this: get your leadoff hitter on base, then have the next hitter sacrifice bunt her over to second.
That’s the way it’s always been. And for many that’s the way it continues to be. Yet there is a question as to whether it really makes sense to automatically lay down the bunt when you get a runner on base with no outs, no matter the quality of the opposing team or where you are in the lineup. 

Major League Baseball once did a study on the chances of scoring a runner from first base with no outs v. from second base with one out. It came from the study of 50 years worth of statistics. (MLB and the people who follow it intensely love to make with the stats.) According to Cindy Bristow’s must-have book Softball Strategies, Coverages, Signals & Charts, the chances of a runner scoring from first with no outs are 43%. The chances of scoring that same runner from second with one out are 45%. Is it really worth giving up an out automatically to increase your chances of scoring by 2%? It’s a good strategy sometimes — like when you’re in a tight, low-scoring game where you need to play for one run, when your team’s hitters are being dominated by the other team’s pitcher, or  you’re in the part of your lineup where rallies go to die.

But it may not be such a good idea when you’re early in the game and you know you can hit the opponent’s pitcher. Why not play for a big inning by letting hitter #2 swing away? She may advance the runner a lot further than second, and you still have all three outs left to try to get her home. Even if she only gets to second, the chances of scoring go up to 60% with no outs. If she makes it to third, you stand a 70% chance of getting her in. I’d say 70% looks a lot better than 45% — and 60 feet away looks better than 120 feet. After all, from third all you need is a wild pitch to score.

I’ve even seen some teams waste two outs trying to bunt a runner to third. Let’s look at the stats there. Again, with a runner on first and no outs your chances of scoring that runner are 43%. If you expend an out to bunt her to second and then another to bunt her to third, your situation is two outs and a runner on third. Your chances of scoring now have actually gone down. Statistically, you have a 32% chance of scoring — 11% less than when you started. How does that make sense? Unless your team is so horrible at swinging the bat that they have no chance of putting the ball in play, you are better off trying to hit that runner around and in.

If you follow softball 101 and bunt her to second, you’re still better off swinging the bat and using a hit to advance her to third. The chances of scoring a runner from third with one out are 54%. That’s a slight advantage over the “house” for you gamblers. Does it really make sense to give up 22% to get that runner to third? I don’t think so. Half of 54% is 27%, so you’re basically cutting your chances of scoring almost in half by sac bunting the runner to third. Who in their right minds wants to cut their chances of scoring in half? Yes, you might get lucky with a wild pitch now and then. But the higher a level you play, the less likely you are to get that luck. In the meantime, you’ve given up a lot of outs — and potential runs — for no reason.

Bunting is a great technique for advancing runners when used intelligently. I’ve done it myself lots of times. But it can also be a liability. Do the math. Make your bunts more strategic and you’ll generate a lot more offense.

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