How the game of softball has changed in recent years

Kellie Fox takes a rip - Jason Bartel

The days of the dominant pitcher are over in the game of college softball

Remember the old days in college softball where it seemed like every game was a 1-0 pitchers' duel?

Those days are long gone.

Just take a quick look at the Tucson Regional this past weekend. There were exactly 100 runs scored in the seven games played at Hillenbrand.

Back in 2004, when current Arizona pitching coach Alicia Hollowell was in the circle for the Wildcats, Tucson hosted a regional in the old format. Same stadium, different technology. And there were 123 runs scored in 15 games. And before the final day, it was 92 total runs in the first 13 games of the weekend.

"It's kind of crazy (to see that)," Hollowell said.

Some more weird stat changes. In 2001, just eight teams finished the season with a batting average above .300. In 2013, that number jumped to 44 teams.

Softball_average_medium

This season there are currently 56 teams hitting above .300. Arizona only trails Notre Dame in batting average. The Wildcats are hitting .355 as a team. The Irish sit at .357.

Of the 16 teams that are remaining in the Super Regionals, only Florida State and Baylor failed to score at least eight runs in one of their games last weekend. In the 2004 Women's College World Series, eight runs were scored by a team in one game (UCLA vs. Stanford). In the 2001 WCWS, the highest number of runs was six (UCLA), and there were seven shutouts in the 13 total games played.

It's widely-known that college baseball has lost all of it's offense in the last few years due to equipment changes. And now softball has gone in the exact opposite direction, which isn't lost on Arizona head coach Mike Candrea.

"At the beginning of my career when we had a white ball with high seams and 40 foot distance, the hitters had no chance," Candrea said. "So if you had a one-run lead, it was pretty safe. But the way the game's changed now, it's become an offensive game. Basically we've done the opposite of what baseball's done. Baseball's toned their offense down to the point where there's hardly any offense. But here, it's a culmination of a lot of things."

The obvious change is the ball, changing from white to yellow, and having lower seams. But what are some of the other factors at play?

"I think a lot of it is the technology that's been introduced into the game," Hollowell said of the equipment changes. "From bats getting hotter to a lot more video being used."

"The core of the ball is a lot livelier," she continued. "The bats are a lot hotter. It's been a lot of change that the pitchers have had to make where people don't understand why it's like the good old days when we used the white ball with the high seams. What people do now would be a weak fly-out to the outfield."

With that change in technology comes unintended consequences, like the current stadiums not being built to handle the new bats and balls.

"Whether our stadiums are built right now for a different game is one thing I see," Candrea added. "I feel strongly that we need to look at moving our fences back, because there are a lot of balls that are going out that are a little bit cheap."

"And so the game has changed." -Mike Candrea

But really, it comes down to the overall improvement in coaching and the athletic ability of the girls.

"I think the hitters have progressed," coach Candrea continued. "When I first got in the game, kids had no concept of hitting. Whereas these kids have grown up with better information, better instruction, they understand the skill. And so on a pitcher's side, it's made the game tougher. You gotta hit your spots. You gotta be able to throw an offspeed pitch to keep people off-balance."

"You get people that are more informed," Alicia Hollowell added. "There's more instruction going on, people learning, developing at a younger age. So you do see that. When you go out and watch the young kids, they have skills that they didn't have before. You find people that are really studying the game and are a lot more knowledgeable. People are making adjustments a lot faster so it's become a much more offensive game."

"(The offense catching up) has been huge," added Arizona pitcher Shelby Babcock. "They've caught up a lot. I would say it's more of an offensive game with the new bats and everything, and the batters are just getting so good that you definitely have to tweak a lot when pitching."

These new skills that the batters possess, and the depth of the lineups has really put the onus on the pitcher to be precise with each and every pitch.

"Having more movement and having a changeup has been a big deal," Babcock continued. "It's been a little difficult to get more movement (with the new ball), but I've worked on it so hard that I've been able to get it."

Pitching at Arizona has given Babcock and others the experience they need to face high-octane offenses, because the Wildcats themselves are one. 100 home runs in the regular season; up to 106 for the season through Regional play. That's the fourth-most home runs for a single season in the history of the program.

"I've pitched to my own team this whole season, so being able to pitch against a team that's a powerhouse is going to be big for our confidence."

But the vast majority of pitchers remaining have had to face high-octane offenses in practice. Of the 16 teams left, only Minnesota and Kentucky are outside the top-50 nationally in batting average this year, and are the only teams remaining not hitting .300 as a team.

That's crazy. And that just goes to show how different college softball is now than it was "back in the good old days". I'm not sure how I feel about it yet because I did enjoy the games where you would have two star pitchers dueling against each other, and one slip-up would be the difference. But now, more players are involved. The lineups are deeper.

No longer can a pitcher relax when they start getting towards the bottom of the order. Each and every player can do damage now.

The times have changed, but I think softball is reaching the point where it's getting out of hand. Hopefully they don't go with sweeping, drastic changes like baseball did and kill off runs all together. But something should probably change slightly. And change soon before every pitch turns into a home run and games start taking three hours.

But for now, we get long, drawn-out slug-offs to crown a National Champion in 2014.

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