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A Few Post-Olympic Thoughts

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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.

Making adjustments part of the fastpitch game plan

Fastpitch game plans are good, but when they stop working you have to make adjustments

Establishing a game plan is an important part of approaching fastpitch softball games strategically. Especially when you have the opportunity to scout your opponent.

For pitchers, you want to match your strengths to the hitters’ weaknesses. For defense, you want to play to the tendencies. For hitters, you want to get a feel for what’s coming so you  can jump on it when you see it.

Yet all too often I see game plans that look like they were written on stone tablets, dictated by a coach in the form of a burning bush. In other words, the game plan a team starts with is the one they stay with for the entire game.

The problem is, smart coaches on the other side are always looking to figure out what your game plan is so they can adjust theirs. If you just stay with the stone tablets, the game can turn on your pretty quickly.

For example, a coach who notices your hitter are very aggressive at the plate will want to throw more first-pitch changeups. Get you to the pull the ball foul, or swing through the pitch for an easy first strike.

You then have two options. You can continue to go to the plate looking for heat on the first pitch. Or you can recognize what’s happening and sit on the change. Then it’s up to the other team to stick stubbornly to their plan or make an adjustment.

Pitchers may have worked all week on a great sequence of pitches. But if you’re starting every hitter with a rise, or a curve, or a whatever, it probably won’t take them more than 2-3 innings to figure out there’s a pattern to your throwing. Once you see they’re onto you, it’s time to change it up  – perhaps literally with a changeup, or a drop, or a screw. Anything to get them to either swing at the wrong pitch or take it for a strike.

The less comfortable hitters are at the plate, the better it is for pitchers.

This mentality also applies to general strategy. Coaches who sac bunt whenever they get a runner on first are pretty easy to defend. In fact, with one team I coached, where I had a very athletic third baseman, I told her if she caught a bunt in the air for an out I would give her an ice cream upgrade, i.e. when the team went for ice cream cones I’d buy her whatever she wanted. Danged if she didn’t win that challenge too. But it was worth it.

The idea of making adjustments shouldn’t be foreign, especially if you watch football. They talk about halftime adjustments all the time. The winning team usually makes them, getting rid of the plays that aren’t working and changing their defenses to match what the offense is trying to do. The losing team usually doesn’t. And guess which coaching staff lasts longer?

The greatest game plan in the world is worthless if it’s not working – or if it stops working during the game. It’s not something you can pre-program for 7 innings.

Yes, know what you want to do going in, but don’t fall so in love with it that you can’t make changes when you need them. Recognize when the plan’s not working anymore and try something else.

If you can’t do it, maybe designate another coach or even a bench player to be that voice that says “Hey, time to change things up.” Then listen. You may just find yourself on the winning side at the end.

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?

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