Defense has become valuable asset
Defense is by definition reactionary. As softball continues to grow, it may also prove revolutionary.
On the eve of another NCAA tournament, the seemingly eternal struggle between pitching and hitting has shifted to a new front. Offense is surging, and pitching, if not in full flight, is at least making an orderly retreat under a barrage of hits.
Across the nation and around the bracket, it's the same story everywhere you look. From 2002 through 2006, eight teams from major conferences averaged at least six runs per game. As regionals get underway this season, 16 teams from those conferences are averaging at least six runs per game.
Hawaii broke the NCAA single-season record for home runs this season (141), a mark which had lasted all of a year, but the Rainbow Wahine could only tie Florida for the national lead in slugging percentage (.642).
Balls are flying over fences with eye-popping frequency, but they're also flying around within the confines of those fences with greater frequency. More hits mean more balls in play. And since the rules still require three outs before pitchers can return to the safety of the dugout, that means more work for defenses and more opportunity for innovation.
There may have been a time when a team seeking a national championship could sacrifice defense for offense, hiding suspect fielders behind pitchers who needed little help, but if it existed, it's gone.
"I think any time that you forsake the defense you're going to be in trouble because you're going to run into hitters and you're going to have a pitcher that's off a day," said Louisville coach Sandy Pearsall, whose team ranks 16th nationally in fielding percentage (.974). "I think if you really, really are looking at any of the top 10 [teams] right now, their defense is pretty solid. And their pitchers are getting hit; it's not like their pitchers are striking out, on a consistent basis, 17, 18 kids a game.
"OK, maybe [Danielle Lawrie] is at Washington -- let me take that back."
Pearsall was half-joking when she corrected herself, an attempt at the same sort of gallows humor coaches around the country employ when it comes to Washington's senior ace. In Lawrie, the Huskies have one of the only pitchers still capable of carrying a defense. And yet for as few defensive chances as fielders see in an average game behind Lawrie, Washington is also a prime example of a program with not only the athletic assets but the system and philosophy in place to use defense to its advantage.
Huskies coach Heather Tarr grew up playing baseball and slow-pitch softball in a time in the not-so-distant past when the state of Washington had limited fast-pitch opportunities for girls. Negatives of that predicament aside, those two developmental settings put a premium on defense -- she still maintains it would be better for young girls to start out throwing baseballs, rather than 11- or 12-inch softballs that are equivalent in 7-year-old hands to a volleyball in adult hands. Now in her sixth season as a head coach, and a proponent on the defensive side of both quantitative grading and evaluation and incorporating techniques born of both baseball and softball, she sees a fast-pitch landscape in which defensive instruction is still finding its own identity.
"I think the higher-level player has seen the sport at a higher level, and therefore they know that just running to the ball, catching it and then throwing it isn't really what it's all about," Tarr said. "It's about taking a good angle and a good approach to the ball to be able to transition the ball efficiently and effectively, where it's not so much how people used to think of softball as, 'Get in front of it, catch it and then throw it.' It's more of all one action now, and I think people are teaching that at some levels, so that it's not so robotic."
I haven't always been a great hitter, but defense has been kind of my place of comfort on the field, and it's something that has come more natural to me than hitting. I really take pride in my defense because I feel like that's one way I will always be able to help if I'm not contributing with my bat.” -- Washington third baseman Morgan Stuart
As it heads to Arizona for a regional, Hofstra is another example -- like postseason surprise North Dakota State last season -- of a team with the potential to use defense as a way to win games. Statistics like fielding percentage are flawed, favoring teams with high strikeout totals, obscuring range and missing countless other aspects of defense, but with limited statistical data it's at least a measure. And the Pride have finished in the top 50 in the nation in fielding percentage in each of the past five seasons, including fourth in 2008 and entering the NCAA tournament this season (.980). They've allowed just 13 unearned runs all season.
"I don't know that we've learned how to coach [defense] in our game," Hofstra coach Bill Edwards said. "I think we're learning how to coach it from an individual standpoint on the fundamentals of picking up a ground ball on the fundamentals of the throw to the fundamentals of a good team defensive system. So I think it's running the gamut where [in the past] it was all pitching and a lot of strikeouts, and then everybody got into the hitting aspect. I think now, it's starting to come around now to where people are learning how to coach defense."
And in that sense, defense has potential to act as the opposite of pitching, becoming a great leveler in the sport. There are only so many elite pitching recruits out there. Some number will slip through the cracks or develop late, but the sport's middle class will always be at a disadvantage. That doesn't have to be the case on defense. When North Dakota State beat Oklahoma 1-0 in 11 innings in regional play last season, pitcher Andi Padilla struck out just four Sooners. The Bison handled 29 chances without an error in the field.
"Defense is a lot easier to teach than offense, and I only say that because your nervous system has to react a lot quicker on offense than it does on defense," Tarr said. "So like [when a batter's reaction time is] four tenths of a second offensively, it's hard to change someone's neurology, whereas defensively -- yes, there's those reactionary plays at the corner and wherever, but there's a lot more you can do to affect the nervous system to be able to react how you want it to."
Hidden behind Lawrie, Tarr has some of the best defensive players in the nation, most notably center fielder Alyson McWherter and third baseman Morgan Stuart. Neither sits atop the batting statistics for the defending champions -- McWherter is almost exclusively a defensive player, a luxury provided by Lawrie's talents at the plate. But both are examples of the value the Huskies' place on not just scoring runs but preventing runs. And whether it's a team like the Huskies repeating in the Women's College World Series or a team like Hofstra shaking up the early rounds, that's a path to success too often left overgrown and untended.
"I actually really enjoy defense," Stuart said. "I haven't always been a great hitter, but defense has been kind of my place of comfort on the field, and it's something that has come more natural to me than hitting. I really take pride in my defense because I feel like that's one way I will always be able to help if I'm not contributing with my bat."
That help has never been in greater demand in softball, and never has it offered greater potential dividends.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.
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