Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Fixing Softball

Some sports, like swimming and golfing and nearly all track and field events, feature an athlete competing against himself. You put up the best score or time possible and hope it is good enough to be the best.

But in many other sports, like boxing and tennis and nearly all team sports, you compete against another team or athlete, and react to their actions. In those cases, the entertainment value rests largely on the maintenance of a balance of power.

For example, baseball has been played professionally for over a century, and generally speaking balance has been maintained between run prevention (pitching and fielding) and run creation (hitting and running). Pitchers have occasionally gotten the upper hand (like in the 60’s) and hitters have occasionally gotten the upper hand (recently), but the sport tends to do little tweaks like lowering the mound or cracking down on steroids when these things get out of hand.

In Stephen Jay Gould’s book Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, he shows how, even as .400 hitters have disappeared from baseball, the league batting average has remained an almost constant .272. That is balance.

So, too, in football. As defensive players get bigger and stronger and more lethal, and as defensive schemes get more complicated, the NFL makes little tweaks to the rules to keep the offense up to speed. (And yes, in both baseball and football, the rules-makers tend to, if anything, give an edge to the scorers, as that’s what people like to see).

And some times, the balance is threatened by advances in equipment. The ability of male tennis players to crush 150 mile per hour serves with larger racquets forced the governing bodies to tweak their rules to allow for longer volleys.

This is a rather longwinded way of saying that in some sports the balance has been lost, making the game boring, saddled with odd rules to address the balance problem, or both. Welcome to Women’s Softball.

The Hurler’s Dominance

This is the part of the article where I intended to present you with statistics demonstrating how pitchers utterly and completely dominate softball, and then attempt some sort of explanation as to why this is so. So I began googling around for statistics and found a piece by Rob Neyer, a baseball writer at whose altar I worship. So I will liberally quote from his piece, The Softer They Come: Why is it So Hard to Hit a Softball:

Ted Williams was fond of saying that the toughest thing in sports is hitting a round ball with a round bat. Williams was right, just not as precise as he could have been. The toughest thing in sports is to hit a round ball with a round bat when the round ball is thrown underhand from 40 feet away...In the 2000 Olympics, the gold-medal-winning U.S. softball team allowed only seven runs and 24 hits in 10 games.

This year, Team USA won again and was even more dominant. In nine games, the Americans allowed one run and 18 hits... But it's usually not just Team USA's opponents who struggle to score. In 2000, in their six games against China, Japan, and Australia—arguably the Americans' toughest competition—the U.S. team scored only six runs...Though the Americans did much better this time around with 51 runs in nine games, when great players face off, softball is clearly a pitcher's game. In this year's Olympics, there were 19 games that didn't include weak sisters Greece and Italy. In those games, an average of 3.8 runs were scored per seven innings.

Why is it so hard to hit a softball? Distance, time, and uncertainty. In international competition, the pitcher's plate (or "rubber," as baseball fans know it) is only 43 feet from home plate. What's more, thanks to liberal rules, softball pitchers release the ball from even closer than that, slightly less than 40 feet—about 20 feet closer than a baseball pitcher. Top softball pitchers like Jennie Finch can throw roughly 70 miles per hour, the equivalent of a low-90s fastball thrown from 60 feet away. There are, of course, many hundreds of human beings who can hit a low-90s fastball. But most of them play professional baseball, and nearly all of them are men. And anyway, fast-pitch pitchers don't just throw fastballs. They keep the batters guessing with rise balls, drop balls, curves, and in-shoots. Pitchers with speed and a varied repertoire—like current U.S. Olympians Finch, Lisa Fernandez, and Cat Osterman—make life almost impossible for even the best hitters.

In softball, there are no famous hitters, only famous pitchers.

I couldn’t say it better myself.

The FixLuckily, I’m here to offer my free advice. The powers that be in softball have come up with one fix, a silly one, to address its problems. Realizing that low-scoring games could go on for weeks and weeks as overmatched hitters helplessly flail at lightning fast rise balls, they actually begin extra innings with a runner on second. Yes, you read that right: as the players take the field to begin a half inning, there’s a guy (well, a gal actually) at second. This is an abomination.

There’s a much easier fix, and I offer it now in all its elegant simplity: move the mound back.

Sadly, my advice comes too late: softball is not returning as an Olympic event. For the fascinating backstory, click here.

Other Stories in the Volunteer Commissioner series:

Note: This is part of the Volunteer Commissioner series, in which I graciously fix problems in various sports. The others posts in the series are:
Fixing Softball (Women's softball)
The Loser's Out Manifesto (Pick-up basketball)
The Beautiful Game's Flaw (soccer)
The Slowest Game (lacrosse). 
Swimming is Boring (Swimming)
The Winter Classic (Baseball)

You’re welcome. Unfortunately, swimming is unfixable.]

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