Statistics paint softball super regional road map

The statistical record of a season is valuable in projecting which players and teams are most likely to be in position to make big plays and excel in those special moments, writes Graham Hays.

Updated: May 26, 2006, 4:37 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

Pitching and defense win championships. Well, unless it's heart and desire. Or perhaps it's experience and savvy.

Intangibles, and the clichés we associate with them, will undoubtedly play a role in determining the outcome of this weekend's eight NCAA softball super regionals. Part of the excitement in any postseason comes from the unexpected stories that individual players create -- role players suddenly seizing the spotlight or stars bowing to the weight of immense expectations. But not everything comes out of left field, so to speak.

AP PhotoEmily Turner is backed up by a lineup of LSU sluggers.
The past -- and its statistical residue -- is a road map for the future, even if it's a map that promises no greater accuracy than the ones on which cartographers filled in unknown areas with dragons.

And it still beats traipsing into the wilderness without any sense of direction.

The statistical record of a season is valuable in projecting which players and teams are most likely to be in position to make big plays and excel in those special moments. As opposed to the intangibles, which are almost entirely subjective, numbers are unimpeachable evidence of what has happened, and useful tools in predicting what may happen.

How do we really measure if Alabama has more heart than Stanford or whether Michigan's experience trumps Tennessee's desire? Both are impossible to quantify. On the other hand, it's rather easy to prove that, based on the amount of chances both team's fielders get in an average game, there will be far more pressure on Stanford's defense than Alabama's defense in Tuscaloosa this weekend.

So if we want to know which of the 16 remaining teams has the strongest foundation for a championship, we might as well start by examining the bricks and mortar.

Before getting too comfortable with our pocket protectors and TI-81s, it's important to note the difficulties inherent with comparing statistics in softball. Namely, not only are we comparing statistics generated against different opponents, we're doing so in a sport in which it's universally accepted that geographic parity is still a work in progress. In other words, while Oregon State may rank behind UMass in a category, the Beavers put up those numbers against noticeably tougher competition.

This doesn't invalidate statistical comparison; it just means we need to exercise some common sense in considering the context.

Pitchers are the biggest stars at this point in the season, so let's start with the old line about pitching and defense. Few teams without at least one dominant pitcher remain in the bracket. And dominance at this level is most frequently defined by strikeouts.

Here are the percentages of each team's total outs this season that were recorded by strikeout.

Team Percentage of outs by K
Texas 64
Arizona 54
Michigan 51
Tennessee 50
Washington 48
Northwestern 47
Arizona State 46
Cal 46
Alabama 45
UCLA 41
LSU 37
Massachusetts 33
Oregon State 29
Florida State 28
South Florida 27
Stanford 25

Those numbers are skewed slightly because they take into account the contributions of all pitchers on a roster, even though a team's No. 1 pitcher generally shoulders an even larger load in the postseason than she does in the regular season. But as suggested by Texas separating itself from the field by such a wide margin, thanks to Cat Osterman's uniquely dominating numbers, it's still a fair representation of a team's overall tendencies in the circle.

Ben Rider/Arizona AthleticsAlicia Hollowell always gives her team a good chance to win.
Strikeouts aren't merely noteworthy because they're glamorous and fun to watch; strikeouts are safe outs. Any time a ball is put in play, the chance for an error or a poor decision exists. And any time a ball is put in play with runners on base, the possibility exists to advance the runners even if an out is recorded.

Look back at the list of national champions, and it's clear that even if the winning team didn't have the best pitcher in the field, it generally had someone who could take the pressure off the defense by getting a lot of outs on her own.

But what about defense?

In the postseason, even the most dominant aces are likely to strike out batters at a lesser rate than their regular season averages, if only because the quality of hitters improves. And since runs are at a premium in postseason games, unreliable defenses are a harbinger of early exits (just ask Georgia after last weekend's disaster in the field).

It's easy to look at total errors, or even errors per game, but that doesn't tell the full story. Spinning off fielding percentage, let's consider the errors that teams made in relation to the total outs they recorded in the field.

For example, Texas recorded only 36 percent of its outs in the field this season while making 41 errors. Northwestern made 60 errors in two fewer games than the Longhorns, but recorded 53 percent of its outs in the field. So though the Longhorns had significantly fewer total errors, they averaged 10.8 outs per error, while Northwestern averaged a comparable 10.3 outs per error.

In other words, when Osterman did allow opponents to get a bat on the ball, her defense was more prone than the of most other defenses to make mistakes.

Here are the outs per error for each team, along with total errors on the season.

Team Outs per error Errors
Stanford 25.6 34
Tennessee 20.0 30
Oregon State 18.6 42
Michigan 17.9 33
Alabama 17.3 39
Arizona 17.3 30
Cal 15.5 42
UCLA 14.8 44
LSU 14.4 57
Washington 13.2 48
Arizona State 12.0 59
South Florida 11.0 97
Texas 10.8 41
Florida State 10.3 101
Northwestern 10.2 60
Massachusetts 7.8 90

Once again, it's important to consider the context. UMass has reason to worry about defense this weekend in Evanston, Ill., but as ESPN.com's Mary Buckheit frequently points out, teams like the Minutewomen also play more of their games in poor weather and on fields that may not have the maintenance budgets of bigger programs.

Stanford may not have an ace, but it has the defense to make it work. The Cardinal average slightly more than 16 outs in the field per game, making it all the more impressive that they average just two errors every three games.

But looking at both sets of numbers, three teams jump out with the best mix of dominant pitching and reliable fielding.

Arizona, Michigan and Tennessee are three of the four teams to record at least half of their outs by strikeout, and those same three are among a group of just six teams who manage at least 17 outs per error (suggesting once again that this weekend's super regional in Knoxville, Tenn., may well be as good as anything we'll see in Oklahoma City).

Of course, without offense, pitching and defense would just lead to some really long scoreless games. And from the UCLA teams of Natasha Watley and Tairia Mims to Michigan last year with Jessica Merchant and Samantha Findlay, recent history suggests a potent lineup is almost a requirement for a championship.

After all, Osterman is as good a pitcher as the game has ever seen, and she's still awaiting her first trip to the title game, let alone a championship parade.

The need to put runners in position to score is why you'll hear plenty about "creating" runs against ace pitchers. But without denigrating small-ball tactics, the sabermetrics revolution that is now par for the course in baseball may have more relevance in modern fast-pitch softball than some traditionalists would like to admit. Findlay's memorable dinger against UCLA last season gave the Wolverines not only a lead but also a comfortable three-run cushion to work with in the bottom of the 10th inning. Instead of playing for one run with runners on first and second and one out, Michigan trusted its hitters by letting Jessica Merchant and Findlay swing away.

The scarcity of scoring and the distances involved (making scoring from second on a single anything but a given) mean the sacrifice bunt -- even from players in the middle of the order -- will always have a place of primary importance. But power and plate discipline can't be ignored. And drawing walks, while about as exciting as a pitching change, generates runners and deprives the opponent of easy outs on strikeouts or weak contact on balls out of the strike zone.

Here are the walks per game for each team, along with that team's walk-to-strikeout ratio and rank in runs per game (among the 16 teams left in the field).

Team Walks per game, Walk-to-strikeout ratio Rank
Arizona State 3.4, 0.53 T-9th
Northwestern 3.4, 0.55 T-9th
Arizona 3.3, 0.51 4th
UCLA 3.2, 0.68 T-5th
Alabama 3.1, 0.72 3rd
UMass 3.1, 0.79 2nd
Michigan 2.9, 0.52 11th
Tennessee 2.9, 0.68 1st
Cal 2.8, 0.50 T-7th
LSU 2.8, 0.87 T-5th
Washington 2.7, 0.39 15th
Stanford 2.4, 0.47 12th
South Florida 2.4, 0.48 14th
Texas 2.4, 0.50 16th
Florida State 2.1, 0.48 13th
Oregon State 1.8, 0.35 T-7th

Arizona State, Northwestern and Arizona draw walks with the most frequency, but the next three teams -- UCLA, Alabama and UMass -- have been best able to mix plate discipline and aggressive approaches that don't sacrifice contact.

But while there is a correlation between plate discipline and scoring runs, it's not perfect. Not surprisingly, since someone has to drive in those runners, OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) turns out to be a more complete indicator of offensive proficiency (rankings are of the 16 teams left in the field).

Team OPS Rank
Tennessee .911 1st
UMass .909 2nd
Arizona .880 4th
UCLA .864 T-5th
Alabama .855 3rd
LSU .847 T-5th
Oregon State .807 T-7th
Northwestern .792 T-9th
Cal .790 T-7th
Stanford .782 12th
Arizona State .773 T-9th
Florida State .773 13th
Michigan .764 11th
South Florida .762 14th
Washington .746 15th
Texas .744 16th

The real offensive juggernauts get people on base with regularity. And while those teams have the ability to manufacture runs, they also have the slugging percentages to suggest they can score more than one run at a time.

That's the big picture. But other than making balancing your checkbook seem like a breeze, how do all these numbers help us understand this weekend's games?

With apologies to UCLA (and it's a razor-thin margin), Arizona is the most statistically impressive team in the bracket, but the Wildcats have their hands full with LSU. The Tigers are one of the most complete offensive teams outside the Pac-10, a requirement for any team hoping to challenge Arizona's Alicia Hollowell and Taryne Mowatt. And while Emily Turner's strikeout totals don't compare with either Hollowell or Mowatt, the LSU ace can get herself out of trouble.

No team's hitters averaged fewer strikeouts per game than the Tigers (and only UMass was even close in the category), and it's not a lineup of slap hitters, after posting 47 home runs and a .465 slugging percentage.

Texas clearly hasn't solved its offensive deficiencies, even if the Longhorns have shown more power this season with 42 home runs (seven teams remaining in the tournament have fewer home runs). But as much trouble as they face versus emerging Washington ace Danielle Lawrie, the Huskies may be a good fit for the Longhorns in the sense that they are free swingers who aren't especially likely to capitalize on the baserunners they get.

The Tennessee paradox should be on display this weekend. The Lady Vols are statistical giants, but they piled up a lot of numbers against a weaker nonconference schedule than most of the bracket's other survivors.

Stanford will need its steady fielding, because Alabama won't help out a Cardinal pitching staff that lacks a clear ace. And while the Cardinal are probably the victims of their conference strength when it comes to overall offensive production, there is no getting around their paltry power numbers. Between Stephanie VanBrakle and the underrated Chrissy Owens in the circle for the Tide, the Cardinal will need the instant offense of the long ball to come up with two wins.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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