I have written in the past about how many parents of travel ball and high school players view the outfield as a punishment or a sign that their coach believes their child somehow doesn’t measure up to her teammates. They will tell anyone who will listen that their daughter “deserves” to be in the infield – I guess because the cool kids play infield and the nerds play outfield.
Yet as the recent Womens College World Series (WCWS) demonstrated once again great outfield play is often the difference between winning and losing – as well as advancing or going home.
The obvious ones are the spectacular catches – going up over the wall to rob an opposing hitter of a home run. Those are dramatic and make for great candidates for endless SportsCenter Top 10 replays.
Yet those are also the rarities. Often the difference-makers are more the everyday plays or even the approaches to the position that the best teams adopt to ensure their success.
Here’s a good example from my own observations. As I was watching one of the teams warm up I looked at how their outfielders were throwing the ball back to the coach hitting fungoes.
It is common practice among colleges to recruit the best athletes then put them into positions where they are expected to use their athleticism. (The stated exceptions are pitchers and catchers, who are recruited specifically by position.)
As a result, many college players at all positions were once shortstops on their travel and/or high school teams. The best defensive players out of that group will actually play shortstop, and the rest will be spread around to other positions based on need or their ability to hit.
As I watched those outfielders it was clear that was the case for this team. All their throws were that quick, low arm slot, almost sidearm throw that shortstops make. That type of throw is great within a certain range, but after that range it can be a liability.
Sure enough it was during the game. I remember at least two balls hit to medium-deep left or left center where the outfielder picked up the ball and “shortstopped” the throw to third as a speedy runner went for the extra base.
Understand these weren’t balls to the fence. They dropped in front of the fielders.
As expected, the throws took two or three hops to get to third. By that time the runners had already safely slid in and stood up – it wasn’t even close.
A better, stronger outfield throw would have at least given them a chance to get the out. But it didn’t happen and the runners ended up scoring later.
Another example came during one of the Oklahoma State/Texas games. It was the play that was shown endlessly with the miscues that pretty much let Texas back into the game.
If you watch closely, when the throw goes to second after being cut off, the center fielder and the left fielder are nowhere near the line of the throw. When it goes awry, the center fielder has to chase the ball down to the outfield fence, which allows the runners to keep running.
Had she moved to the line of the throw earlier the damage may have been minimized and perhaps we would have seen an all-Oklahoma WCWS instead. We’ll never know.
Throughout the whole NCAA tournament we also saw examples of outfielders diving for balls when they didn’t need to only to see the ball skip past them for extra bases. We saw outfielders lose a ball in the lights or the sun because they didn’t shade their eyes properly or were using a closed-web infielder glove instead of an open web outfielder glove.
We saw balls drop between two outfielders or out fielders and infielders because the outies weren’t forceful enough in calling off the innies (which is what they should do, because they have priority). We even saw simple catches botched because outfielders were trying to make a throw before they caught the ball or just didn’t track the ball well enough.
These types of plays happen every day at levels of competition. And unlike an error in the infield, where most play is self-contained, problems in the outfield can quickly be amplified because there is no one behind them to help minimize the damage.
All of this points to the importance of having a well-trained outfield that is focused on their own position instead of why they’re not playing in the infield. Taking enough pride in outfield play to learn how to read the ball off the bat, re-learn to throw for more power and distance, and develop the type of situational awareness and focus required when the ball comes your way just a few times a game is invaluable to a team’s overall success.
So if you/your daughter is assigned to the outfield, don’t feel like the coach is saying you are “less than.” Instead, look on it as an opportunity to make a huge contribution to your team’s success and be the best outfielder you can be.
In other words, make sure you’re a difference-maker.
Last week I had the opportunity to fulfill just about every fastpitch softball fanatic’s dream – attending the Women’s College World Series (WCWS) in person. I was there to attend the National Fastpitch Coaches Association’s (NFCA) course 408 World Series Coach and Game Observation for its National Fastpitch Coaches College Master Coach program. (More on that on another day.)
As the name implies, the course consists of watching some games in-person in Oklahoma City, interspersed with classroom sessions that discuss the strategies in those and upcoming games along with the state of the game. In my class they also brought in coaches from four of the eight teams participating – Kirk Walker (UCLA), Mike White (and his staff, Texas), Kenny Gajewski (Oklahoma State), and Kate Drohan (Northwestern) – who talked about the previous day’s games and what they were expecting in their next games.
Pretty cool right? We also got a behind-the-scenes tour of the stadium, a look at the massive tent city that is the heart of ESPN’s coverage, and a chance to see the practice fields just behind the stadium. Plus the opportunity to actually walk on the field (including the dugouts) and sit behind the microphones in the media interview room.
By the way if all that sounds awesome you too can take advantage of it – if you are an NFCA member. And if you do decide to sign up, please list me as a referral!
Of course, once a coach always a coach. So after hanging out with our instructors (Carol Bruggeman, executive director of the NFCA and Larissa Anderson, head coach at Mizzou) along with 30+ knowledgeable classmates (including Hall of Famer and all-time great Dr. Dot Richardson, now head coach at Liberty University) I did come away with a number of thoughts about the games and the state of fastpitch softball in general.
So without further preamble, and in no particular order, here are a few thoughts worth sharing.
Even the Best Players Make Errors
I’ve said this on Facebook clips but it bears repeating: all of you youth coaches out there berating your players for mishandling a ground ball, dropping a fly ball, making a bad throw, or making some other type of error need to stop. In the two days (six games total) I was there I saw players at the highest level of the game do the same things.
Errors happen. If you want to use them as teachable moments there’s nothing wrong with that. But to just yell at a player for being “stupid,” or yank her out of the game in the middle of an inning after a single miscue isn’t being tough or demanding. It’s being shortsighted and possibly ego-driven.
The coaches at this level know that if players are always worried about the consequences of making a mistake they will never stretch themselves to become the players they can be. Instead they’ll play it safe and miss opportunities or the chance to develop skills that could win you games.
Errors happen. Help your players learn from them and get better.
Spinning Pitches Properly Is Becoming a Lost Art
The mantra of pitching coaches everywhere is “spin, spot, speed.” In other words, you need to spin movement pitches correctly to get them to move, throw them to the right location, and throw them very hard to be successful.
While the latter two seem to still be in effect, the spin component is a growing problem. There is no doubt that the faster a pitch approaches a hitter, the harder it is to hit.
But it seems that in the quest for more speed many in the game (including collegiate pitching coaches) have abandoned any concern about whether drop balls, curve balls, rise balls, etc. are spinning in the right direction. The ball used by the NCAA makes this abundantly clear.
How many times did you see a slow motion replay from the catcher’s point of view and see the black dot of the NCAA logo coming straight at you while the ball revolved around it? Probably hundreds.
No matter what the announcers are calling it on TV, the pitches that look like that have “bullet” spin. Bullets spin that way so they DON’T move off their targets.
The result is that pitches that spin that way aren’t curving or dropping or rising. They’re traveling on a straight line to the catcher.
Think about it a little more. How could three or four pitches (we’ll throw the “screwball” in there too) with the same spin move in different directions?
The short answer is they can’t. The laws of physics don’t allow it.
Every ball that ends up higher than it started isn’t a rise ball. Every ball that ends up further to the left or right isn’t a curve or a screw.
But until pitching coaches at all levels start holding pitchers accountable we’re probably going to see offensive numbers, including home runs, increase steadily. Because as tough as speed can be to hit (more for some than others), true movement makes it exponentially more difficult.
There Are Haves and Have-Nots
Yes, even at that level there are definite haves and have-nots. Obviously Oklahoma falls into the “haves” category.
As I watched them up close and personal I was amazed at what I saw. Head Coach Patty Gasso’s statement that they want to be amazing at every part of the game definitely was on display. A few of the other teams were pretty close behind.
But there were also other teams that, as in tournaments everywhere in every sport, had done all they could do to get there but just weren’t going to be able to match up to the best of the best.
That doesn’t mean they were bad by any means. But at the end of the day there was simply a quality difference up and down the lineup.
Keep that in mind the next time your team finds itself in over its head at a tournament. Sometimes you just have to be happy you made it that far and not worry about the outcomes.
Aggressive Hitters Do Better Than Careful Ones
This one may seem obvious, but apparently it’s not. Because as I sat in the stands it became quite apparent which teams were reactive and just trying to put the ball in play somehow versus those who went to the plate looking to do serious damage.
I’m not just talking about individuals, although there was certainly some of that. I’m talking more about team philosophies.
Arizona is a good example here. While Oklahoma might be the obvious illustrator of this principle to me Arizona is a better choice precisely because they didn’t make it to the championship game. They didn’t have the horses Oklahoma did, but they made up for it by taking a “no prisoners” approach at the plate.
Going after pitches with that mindset helped keep them in games far more than teams that were tentative. Go in with the intent of hitting the ball hard and there’s a great likelihood you will. Then you’ve at least given yourself a chance to win.
You Can’t Ride One Arm Anymore
The days of a Jennie Finch or a Cat Osterman or a Monica Abbott pitching every inning of every game are long gone. These days it takes a pitching staff to make it through a long season.
The same is true at the youth level. Yes, you can probably win more games in high school or travel ball riding one pitcher until her arm falls off.
But with the quality of hitters these days sooner or later that will catch up to you. Coaches need to be sure all their pitchers are ready to step up when needed or they’re likely to find themselves in trouble when it matters most.
Again, look at Oklahoma. When freshman sensation Jordy Bahl got injured it didn’t derail their season. They just went to Hope Trautwein and Nicole May and won a national championship.
Or look at Texas. When their starter struggled in the first inning of the first game of the championship series they didn’t hesitate to go to the bullpen. In fact, they did it a couple of times until they got out of the inning.
Coaches, you are never more than one turned ankle or injured forearm from losing your entire season if you rely on only one pitcher. Develop your staff and you’ll go farther in the long run.
College Teams Keep (and Use) a Lot of Stats
Not too long ago one of my students told me her team coach wasn’t moving her up in the lineup, even though she had the second-best slash line on the team, because she “doesn’t believe in stats.”
First of all, stats are a statement of fact, not ghosts. There’s nothing to “believe” in, they’re right there for everyone to see.
More importantly, though, from what I saw at the games and heard from the top coaches as well as many classmates, stats are the lifeblood of the modern game.
Colleges large and small chart everything. They want to know what pitch a particular pitcher throws in a given situation to a type of hitter. They want to know where hitters are likely to hit based on the pitcher so they can position their fielders.
They want to know if a coach likes to steal bases and on what count. I think they like to know what the opposing team has for breakfast on days when they win.
The more information they have the better decisions they can make, especially when it counts. While you may not have the resources to do all that charting (or to buy data from a service) you can certainly get an idea of who is performing on your team and on your opponents’ teams by checking stats on GameChanger or a similar app.
That way you don’t have to rely on instinct. You can take a more scientific, fact-based approach that will lead to better outcomes for the team.
Anyone (Almost) Can Beat Anyone
Texas came into the NCAA tournament unseeded. They beat a lot of much higher-seeded teams to get to the championship series.
Don’t let an opponent’s reputation or past record intimidate you. Go out and play the game.
There Are a Lot of Great, Dedicated Coaches Out There
We always hear about the obnoxious ones, the ego-driven coaches who scream at their players and throw tantrums and play sick mind games with them. I guess that’s what’s considered newsworthy.
But after spending a couple of days with 30+ coaches at various levels I can tell you there are a lot of great ones who are in it for the right reasons. My classmates in this course were great to talk to, and many of them appreciated having other softball nerds to talk with about the game (because their families and friends just roll their eyes when they start discussing whether it’s an opportune time to lay down a drag bunt).
The point here is do you research and don’t just settle for whoever is closest. Find the right coaches – head and assistants – and you’ll have a much better fastpitch softball experience.
That’s it for now. If I think of more I’ll share them in a subsequent post. And if you have any questions about the WCWS or the Master Coach program or anything else related to this topic be sure to put them in the comments below and I will answer them as best I can.