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Lessons Learned from the Women’s College World Series

 

Well, that was quite a Women’s College World Series (WCWS) wasn’t it? Lots of fastpitch softball drama (the good kind) from the Regional games all the way up to Championship Series.

Show of hands: how many stayed up until the bottom of the 17th on Monday? I know I did, and I paid for it the rest of the week with interrupted sleep patterns.

As I did the lessons the last few weeks I also asked my students if they were watching the games. Some were, some weren’t. That’s too bad for the ones who weren’t because there’s lots to be learned from watching the game played at such a high level.

With that in mind, here are a few of my own observations and takeaways coming out of a very fun series.

Catchers need to block

Not just sometimes but every time. I saw several balls get by catchers in crucial situations because they tried to glove a ball and couldn’t quite do it. When pitches are coming in at 65+ mph and hit shinguards, they tend to bounce far away. And usually in odd directions.

Get that ball centered on your body – judging where it’s going, not where it is – get on your knees and get over the ball.

Good framing helps

There were definitely strikes called that could have gone either way. (And some, of course, that should have gone the other way, but that’s a different topic.) Catchers framing pitches well can sometimes – sometimes – make the difference.

More bullet spin than you’d expect

When the TV would show the slow motion replays of certain pitches, I was surprised to see just how many pitches had bullet spin rather than directional spin. Bullet spin is not generally desirable in fastpitch softball pitching

(For those who aren’t familiar with the term, bullet spin is when the ball is spinning like a clock face as it’s coming toward you, and you can see the “button” on the front. Bullets spin this way so they don’t move off their direct targets when fired. Good for bullets, bad for pitchers because nothing is easier to hit than a ball that doesn’t change direction.)

I know announcing from the press box is tougher than it looks – I’ve done it – but it was rather funny when a commentator would talk about so-and-so’s tight spin on her rise ball, or how the pitcher just threw a late breaking curve ball, and as he/she is saying it you can clearly see the ball with bullet spin.

Rise balls don’t really rise, but if they were going to they’d have to be spinning backwards. Curve balls would have to have side spin on them. And so forth. A ball with bullet spin isn’t going to break – early, late, or otherwise.

It pays to work on baserunning

I saw some really amazing plays where heads-up baserunning definitely gave the team on offense an advantage.

I saw a runner on first take second on a changeup. I saw runners alerting watching as a throw from the outfield was directed toward a base they weren’t going for, giving them a chance to advance unexpectedly. I saw runners sliding away from possible tags to avoid being out.

Then there was the other stuff. I saw runners going from first to second on a ground ball allow themselves to be tagged so the defense could make a double play. I saw runners over-estimating their speed when they were the only play in town and making an out instead of giving their team a base runner. I saw runners run in front of a fielder going for a ground ball instead of behind and getting called out for interference.

Getting runners on base is really the key to success. The more the merrier. But they don’t really matter until they reach one base: home. The more you can do to get them there, the more runs you’ll score and the more likely you are to win ballgames.

Putting the fast in fastpitch

By the time the Championship Series came around we had the opportunity to see some incredible pitching.

It’s hard to imagine thinking of a pitcher who throws in the mid-’60s as “slower,” but when the others are consistently in the 70s – even up to 75! – that kind of is the case.

What was interesting was that 70 mph pitch speeds didn’t make for 1-0 games. Even the 17 inning barn burner wound up with a double-digit run total. But the ability to throw flat-out harder than everyone else does make a difference, especially in crucial situations where a team really, really needs an out.

I think we saw that even at that level, it’s tough not to be enamored of the pitchers who can flat-out bring it.

It takes a pitching staff

It seems that gone are the days when you could just ride one big arm for the entire tournament. Even if she threw 200 pitches the day before.

Both Oklahoma and Florida got to the big dance using two pitchers, and on Tuesday night Florida pulled in a third and Oklahoma used four!

Has the pitching gotten worse, or the pitchers gotten softer? Not from where I sit. The hitters have simply gotten better. They say hitting is about timing and pitching is about disrupting timing. No better way to disrupt a group of hitters and keep them from getting comfortable in the batter’s box than by showing them different looks, speeds, and styles.

Great defense still makes a difference

Maybe more than ever. There were so many great defensive plays throughout the last few weeks that you could easily make a lengthy highlight reel just on that.

The key for the winners in different games wasn’t the spectacular stuff, though. A lot of it came down to making the plays they were supposed to make. You do that, and the rest is icing on the cake.

Great coaches care about their players

It’s unfortunate that at every level – even D1 college – there are coaches who care more about their records and looking good in front of whoever than they do about their players. Those coaches tend to view their players like the do the field or the equipment – pieces that are there to be used as-needed to fulfill the coach’s goals.

That’s not what you saw with the teams who made it to the final 8. Or especially the Championship Series. From the outside at least, both Patty Gasso and Tim Walton seem to genuinely care about their players, and build relationships with them. Not just the stars but also the role players.

I can’t remember who said it, but there is a quote from a coach who said something to the effect of “We all know the same X’s and O’s. It’s what you do with the players on your team that makes the difference.”

While knowing the game and recruiting great talent areimportant, many teams have smart coaches and great talent. There’s a reason Oklahoma and Florida have dominated the WCWS the last few years.

Umpires are human

Yup, saw some bad pitch calls and blown calls on plays at various bases. But while they may be the topic of conversation, those are the minority. That’s a tough job, and there are bound to be mistakes.

I occasionally make mistakes in my job too. I try not to but it happens. Get over it.

Seeing that umpires may blow a call should be that much more incentive to do more so that a blown call doesn’t cost you the game. In high school and college, games last seven innings. (In travel ball usually fewer due to time limits.) Within the allotted 21 outs there is ample time to hit, field, run bases, etc. in a way that will help your team win. Focus on that.

Look at it this way: if your team is leading 10-1 and an umpire blows a play at the plate, calling an opponent safe instead of out, no one is likely to get too worked up about it. Put yourself in that position and the rest takes care of itself.

Those were some of the things I saw. How about you? What stood out to you? What did you see that you haven’t before, or that made you cringe? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

 

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Smart baserunning pays off in fastpitch softball

This post was prompted by a play I saw yesterday on TV during the Oklahoma/Auburn game. It points out both the need for fastpitch softball baserunners to be smart on the bases, and how even the highest level players can make bad decisions.

Fastpitch softball players should never run into a tag. Ever.Oklahoma was up to bat, trailing by two or three runs, with a runner on first. The hitter hits a hard ground ball that goes straight to the second baseman, who is just a few steps from second base. What should the runner going from first to second have done? And what do you think she did?

Let’s answer the second question first. She ran a straight path between the bases, directly in front of the second baseman, who promptly tagged her and threw to first for the double play. I just cringed watching that.

One of the cardinal rules of baseball and softball baserunning is that you never, ever, run into a tag. Make the fielder work for it – she might miss.

In this situation it becomes doubly important because, of course, it leads to a double play.

So what should the runner have done instead? She had several options. One was to dive head-first to try to get under the tag. Or feet first. Or do a tuck-and-roll.

She may have been close enough to get to the bag if the fielder missed. But even if she wasn’t, she might have taken the second baseman by surprise and had enough time to scramble forward to the base. She would either have been safe or would have drawn the throw to protect the batter/runner and avoid the DP.

Another option would have been to stop short and make the second baseman chase her to get the tag, or stop and throw to second. Either of those choices would have once again protected the batter/runner by eating time. While she’s running, the batter/runner is as well.

A third option would have been to divert behind the second baseman, out of arm’s reach, so the second baseman would have to turn away from first to chase her, which – everyone say it with me now – would have protected the batter/runner and avoided the double play.

This last one is the option I would teach baserunners when I was coaching teams. Go beyond and make the second baseman chase you. If necessary, run into the outfield yelling “Woob woob woob” like Curly of the Three Stooges. If you can see you’re going to be out anyway, make sure you’re protecting the batter/runner, and maybe have a little fun while you’re doing it.

No need to worry about the “baseline” either. That’s a very misunderstood concept. There isn’t a single baseline you have to stick to as a runner. You establish your baseline as you run from base to base. So if you’re diverting behind to avoid interfering with the fielder’s ability to field the ball (and that’s the story you’re sticking to) a new baseline is established, which gives you some leeway. Not to the outfield, exactly, but at least some wiggle room. Running to the outfield is only for when you’re sure you will be out anyway.

There are probably more good choices as well. If you have one, please share it in the comments. But there is only one bad option in my experience: running into the tag so your batter/runner can be doubled up at first.

As I’ve always said you don’t have to be the fastest player to be a great baserunner. You just have to be the smartest.The earlier you learn your responsibilities on the bases, the more value you’ll bring to your team and the more success it will have.

By the way, I imagine Coach Gasso will be running some baserunning drills at the next practice to make sure her players remember not to run into a tag the next time. Even those who play for the top D1 seed right now have things to learn.

The basics of smart baserunning

Baserunning is probably one of the most under-coached elements of fastpitch softball. That’s a shame, because smart baserunning can turn the tide during a ballgame and generate more wins.Smart baserunning can make the difference between winning and losing.

And bad baserunning can lose ballgames by not taking advantage of opportunities to advance when they’re there. Nothing sadder than a runner stranded at third who should’ve scored on the previous play but didn’t. Especially if the original mistake happened upstream.

Coaches really need to make a point of working on and teaching smart baserunning. But it’s not all up to the coaches. Players can do themselves a lot of good – and increase their value to the team – if they take it upon themselves to learn all they can about how to gain every little advantage.

Here are a few tips to help you teach better skills (if you’re a coach) or acquire better skills (if you’re a player).

You don’t have to be fast, just smart.

It certainly helps to have 2.7 speed from home to first. But some of the best baserunners I’ve coached and seen had average speed. But what they were was smart. When they were on first, they would look to see whether the shortstop was covering second after each pitch, or even paying attention if the ball wasn’t put in play. They knew they didn’t have the speed to steal the base outright, but they knew they could pull off a delayed steal pretty easily. Knowing what to do and when is a huge advantage on the bases.

Have an aggressive mindset

The other night I was watching a high school game when one of my students got jammed on a ball and hit a little duck snort out behind first base. Instead of doing what most players would do, which is to trot it out and hope it falls in, she took off like she’d hit a ball to the fence. Sure enough, no one got to it and she ended up on second base instead of first.

You see that in the college game a lot. They go hard on every hit, and they keep going until someone tells them to stop.

Always remember that the goal isn’t to get to the next base. It’s to get home. That’s the only way to score. The faster you do that the better off your team is. That goes double when you’re facing a great pitcher where you don’t expect many hits, by the way. Find a way to get home.

Tagging at third

Okay, now for some specific situations. Each of the next three has to do with whether you can gain advantage through your actions. For example, if you’re on third with less than two outs and there is a ball hit to the outfield that might be caught, don’t stand a few feet off the base to wait and see if it is. Tag up immediately and automatically so you’re ready to go home immediately as soon as the ball is touched.

(You don’t have to wait for a catch, by the way. As soon as it touches the fielder you’re good to go, a rule in place to prevent the outfielder from juggling the ball all the way to the infield to hold the runners.)

Here’s where you want to look at the advantage versus disadvantage. If you’re off the bag and there is a catch you have to go back. That may be just enough time to get the ball in and hold you.

If you’re off the bag and there’s no catch, the extra few feet you gained by being off don’t matter. You would have scored anyway.

But if you’re on the bag, you can go immediately when it’s touched, full steam toward home. It’s your best chance of scoring.

Tag or not at second

Here again you have to look at the possibilities. On a softball field with a 200 foot fence, and assuming the players can throw far enough to get the ball in, on a fly ball you want to go as far off the bag as you can and still get back. That may or may not be halfway, incidentally.

The “halfway” rule is myth. Players have different speeds, and outfielders have different arms. Get as far as you can in case the ball is dropped so you can advance. But be sure you can get back if it’s caught.

There’s no need to tag on a ball to left because the throw is short enough that you’ll likely be thrown out if you make the attempt. Again, unless the players are really young or the left fielder has an exceptionally poor arm.

For a ball hit to deep center or right, however, you do want to tag. If you’re off the base and the ball is caught you’ll have to come back, which will probably prevent you from advancing. If you’re tagging, however, you can take off right away and will at least get to third, putting you 60 feet closer to scoring.

Now, if you are off the bag and the ball is hit toward the right field line there is a chance you could score from second if the ball isn’t caught. But the odds are low on a routine fly with even average outfielders. The smarter play is to tag and ensure you’ll get at least one base.

Of course, on an obvious gapper you won’t tag – you’ll probably just go. But be careful. I’ve seen some pretty spectacular catches result in double plays!

Leading off first

This one is really under-coached. If you’re on first and there’s a fly ball to the outfield, you again want to go as far as you can and still get back. If the hit is to left field, especially if there’s a runner on ahead of you, that may mean getting pretty close to second.

If the ball is caught you’re probably not going anywhere so no need to tag. Also with runners ahead of you the opponent is not likely to pay much attention to you. And if it’s not caught you already have a head start on one base, and maybe too.

The same concept applies to center and right, but you won’t be going as far. Get as far as you can and still get back, even if that’s just a few feet away. If the ball isn’t caught you’ll need to advance to the next base so every little bit helps.

Pop-ups

This one is pretty easy. The closer you are to where the pop-up is hit, the closer you should be to the base. If it’s behind second and you’re on second, for example, you pretty much want to stand right on the base. There’s no advantage to being a few feet off, but there’s a huge risk if you get doubled off.

Ground balls

Whenever there’s a ground ball it’s critical to avoid contact with any player making a play. If you’re not sure where the ball is, run behind where the nearest fielder is. If you’re hit by the ball when you’re behind the fielder you’re safe (as long as no one else had a play). If you’re hit by the ground ball when you’re in front of the fielders you’re automatically out.

Never, ever run into a tag

Ok, so things didn’t quite go as planned and the ball got to the base ahead of you. The worst thing you can do is just slide in and let the fielder tag you, especially if there isn’t another runner behind you.

Stop and reverse fields to get into a rundown. Maybe they’ll make a mistake and you’ll be safe. Or try a slide-by, where you go well to the side of the fielder and then catch the base with your hand. I once saw an opposing runner stop dead right before our catcher was going to tag her and then completely leap over the catcher. She was safe. It was a spectacularly athletic play that not everyone can do. But if you can do it, go for it.

One last point. If you’re running between first and second and the second baseman fields a ground ball, don’t just let her tag you and make the double play. Run behind her and try to get her to chase you – even if that means running toward the outfield. Sure, you’ll be out, but you were going to be out anyway. What you’re trying to do is protect the batter so she can reach first safely.

Ok, now it’s your turn. What did I miss? What are some of your favorite baserunning strategies? And have you ever seen any moves that made you just shake your head and say “cool?”

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