What to Expect in the Upcoming Softball Season
As the 2013 NCAA Division I Softball season approaches, we should expect another year of firsts, increased popularity and unpredictable results, but with the realization that, contrary to much wishful thinking, the PAC-12, SEC and Big XII will continue to dominate the national landscape. Additionally, pitching is not dead and home runs and offense are not on a meteoric rise.
2012 saw Alabama break the SEC NCAA Championship drought, winning the Title in three games. The Tide victory was the first non-PAC-12 win since Michigan’s championship in 2005. The final series was just the third time that two non-PAC 12 teams played for championship. The last time was 1986 when Cal State Fullerton beat Texas A&M, which was pay back for the 1983 championship where A&M came out on top, winning their first of two World Series.
In 2012 new stars burst on to the scene, including UTEP’s Camilla Carrera who led the country with 32 home runs after missing 2011 with a back injury and hitting just six long balls in 2010. Oklahoma’s freshman star Lauren Chamberlain, who hit 30 bombs in her rookie campaign, did not sneak up on those who had seen her play travel ball, but surprised fans with her unbelievable first college season. Olivia Galati, Hofstra’s first NFCA 1st Team All-American, led the nation with a 0.95 ERA and took her team one win away from a trip to OKC. South Florida’s Sara Nevins, who finished third nationally in ERA (1.12), pitched her team past Hofstra into the World Series for the first time.
These unexpected performances, and the drama that comes with them, have continued to push the popularity of the game. The speed and fast action of the sport makes it a nice fit for TV and the networks and advertisers have taken notice. ESPN will expand their coverage to over 50 games on their family of channels this spring. Also, look for more softball action on the PAC-12 Network, the Big Ten Network, the Longhorn Network (part of the ESPN clan) and others. An ongoing challenge for the stewards of the game is to keep the games appealing to the audience and big money network execs by keeping the contests moving and within discrete 2.5 hour blocks.
2013 should bring more of the same come late May and June. The Pac-12, SEC and Big 12 have ruled for a number of years and all the evidence says that it will continue. Even though Alabama won the Series and Oklahoma was their opponent, the composition of the top teams is no different than it has been. A look at the event from 2005 to the present shows that reports of the Pac-12’s demise and overall parity might be premature. Since 2009, seven of the eight clubs that have reached the College World Series come from the Pac-12, SEC and Big 12. In 2010 all eight came from those power house leagues, four from the Big 12. The Big Ten missed the series in 2008 and has not been back since 2009. The Pac-12 has averaged three teams a year in the last eight World Series. Arizona and Arizona State have played in six of those eight, though to be fair, UCLA and Arizona missed for two straight years. The SEC has had three teams in WCWS in 2012, 2010 and 2009, two in 2011, 2008, 2007 – 2005. Alabama has reached the series six times over that period, Florida and Tennessee, four each.
A quick check of final RPI rankings starting in 2005 actually shows that the number of teams from the Pac-12, SEC and Big 12 has increased over the past three years to at least 16 (18 in 2011) of the 20, up from 11 in 2007 and 2008. The Big Ten’s RPI decline mimics their disappearance from the Big Show, falling from an average of three teams in the RPI top 20 from 2005 to 2009 to two in 2010, one in 2011 and finally zero last year.
The shuffle of two quality teams (Missouri and Texas A&M) from the Big 12 to the SEC might have some unintended consequences. We will see. But what it will not do is effect the composition of the teams in the World Series or at the top of the RPI.
The concentration of more power teams in the SEC should provide some more great series for the fans to enjoy during the regular season, both in person and on TV. The race for the top eight in the SEC will be ferocious and extremely entertaining. The unbalanced schedule in the league does not appear to be particularly fair for all, but it also gives us some interesting non-conference conference action when Florida plays Missouri in Palm Springs and then visits Tuscaloosa just to keep the rivalry alive.
After the 2010 World Series game two final that ended 15-9, there seemed to be wide concern the game was morphing into something unrecognizable and not very appealing. Additionally, among college softball coaches the “lack of pitching” has been lamented regularly. But the data does not support a catastrophic shift to high scoring contests. In fact, the more rigorous bat testing standards implemented after the 2010 season and enhanced in 2011 have seemed to reverse the previous years’ increase in runs and home runs per game. Looking back at the top 25 teams in each statistical category from 2008 to 2010, batting average, home runs per game, runs per game and ERA were on a steady rise. Average among those top teams rose from .315 in 2008 to .322 in 2010. HR’s/game from 1.128 to 1.416 in the same period, runs/game went from 5.841 to 6.439 and ERA went from 1.34 to a high of 1.76.
Post 2010, the trends in all those categories were down in 2011 and again in 2012. Batting average has come down to .318, HR’s/game has fallen to 1.247, runs/game to 6.061 and ERA has fallen from its peak in 2010 to 1.62.
Though run scoring and home runs have not been on the rise over the past two seasons, the overall game continues to be captivating. We should expect more of the same in 2013. Look for Alabama and Jackie Traina, as well as Oklahoma and Ricketts to return to Oklahoma City in June and, if history is any guide, look for the other “normal cast of characters,” which should include three Pac-12 teams, two other SEC teams and a surprise team to be named later. The fun cannot begin soon enough!