This week, the Universities of Florida and Michigan went toe-to-toe in the Women’s College World Series final in Oklahoma City, with the teams splitting the first two games and Florida winning the rubber match on Wednesday. This marked the second straight softball championship for the Gators, and showcased the National Player of the Year, Florida’s Lauren Haeger, against the NPOY runner-up, Michigan’s Sierra Romero. I watched intently as the games went on, and I found myself confused about many rules–namely the re-entry rule–and at a loss regarding the core of the game’s mechanics. It was off-putting; it was foreign.
It was awesome.
I now consider myself a convert to the church of softball, as it were. And here’s why.
The game of softball is incredibly interesting. As a baseball fan first, it occupies a paradoxical place in my brain. It is simultaneously familiar while being starkly alien. It’s routine, but completely unique.
Since the play starts with the pitcher, it’s only natural for us to start there as well. Softball pitchers are bewildering. I could never hit one that was any good, it’s just not a motion I am used to seeing. Additionally, with the motion and delivery underhanded, a pitcher’s arsenal is completely different from that of a baseball pitcher.
For instance, a standard baseball pitcher has a variant of a fastball, slider/curve, and change up–additionally, as announcers have gotten lazier and less observant, the words to describe are “fastball,” “breaking ball,” and “off speed.” Regardless of movement, if the ball is thrown hard, it is a fastball. If it is thrown at a medium clip and moves a lot, it’s a breaking ball. And, if it goes slow, it’s an off speed pitch. This is what I know. This is comfortable. I was happy.
Then, I watched Lauren Haeger, and I had no idea what was happening. There were pitches that were coming in at 60-someodd miles per hour that were breaking hard, rising up (actually possible in softball), and diving down. Speed didn’t matter, only spin and release. I haven’t done the math, but the amount of situational pitches that a batter must be ready for in softball is immensely greater. Speed is a constant in baseball, it’s not in softball. Getting a hit as a softball player is like nailing Jell-o to the wall. Long story short, softball pitching is fascinating and is more nuanced than anything baseball has to offer. It’s not fair to compare them because they’re so different. Softball pitchers are unbelievable, with the ability to control speed and break of the pitches more than baseball pitchers. The underarm delivery is less straining on the arm, so ace pitchers can go almost every day. Softball doesn’t have a rotation; it lives and dies with the star pitcher.
Next, the hitting. It’s important to consider hitting with the knowledge that softball hitting occurs against the pitching listed above. Taking that out of it, softball and baseball share many of the same aspects about hitting. However, with softball fields having shrunken dimensions, hitting is completely different. Routine ground balls to short or third in baseball lead to outs most of the time, but in softball it’s entirely possible these same types of hits result in infield singles. Additionally, fast softball players perform a technique called “slapping” which is a technical swing best described as a swinging drag bunt. When a player slaps, she tends to get a running start in the box and pokes the ball to an empty spot on the defense. This technique is effective to both get on base, and advance runners on. With these added elements, softball hitting has a drama peculiar to it. With more close plays, more can go wrong, and there’s a better chance of getting a baserunner on slow ground balls. It’s spectacular. In baseball, you know what’s going to happen when a ball is nibbled to short; but in softball, there’s the added element of uncertainty which increases the excitement. Additionally, the smaller dimensions and increased probability of getting on base leads to strategic elements not present in baseball.
Speaking strategy, softball has it in spades. It has all the inherent stratagems of baseball–like squeezing, stealing, the hit and run, the double switch, etc–but there’s even more to it. Softball allows starters to re-enter after being substituted; also, the rules provide for a flex player to be permanently paired with the sports Designated Player. Let’s look at an example of these two situations.
Say the catcher is slow–as most catchers are–but still manages to hit a lead off double in a tie game. In baseball, the offense would be stuck with a slow ass player on base with three outs to try to score him. However, in softball, a team may pinch run for the catcher in this same circumstance. Then, at the conclusion of the inning, the catcher may re-enter to continue her defensive responsibilities. This allows for incredible small ball opportunities when you don’t have to sacrifice a starter on a substitution. Now, the pinch runner is in and out and may not sub again, but this is a perk of being a starter–play better.
As for the Designated Player, the situation is a little more complicated. Consider the catcher, dubbed player A1–yes, I know I’m picking on the poor catcher. Say the catcher just can’t hit. In baseball, that means you get DFA. In softball, it’s no big deal. Before the game, the team pairs A1 with Designated Player A2. In so doing, A1 is permitted by Rule to play defense every inning, while A2 is free to hit in the lineup in A1’s place, wherever that may be. Additionally, these two players can switch freely throughout the game, the key being that the DP cannot field and bat in the same inning.
This makes softball unbelievably flexible in places where baseball is otherwise extremely rigid. The additional substitution options makes the strategy more dynamic. Also, another key component of softball comes in the length of the game, 7 innings. The shorter game changes the when and why for strategic decisions. In baseball, more innings means more opportunities; softball’s structure makes every play more meaningful. It charges the game with additional excitement and energy. This energy hooks you.
Softball is the most important female sport in college athletics. Additionally, it is the most original sport played by women, despite resembling baseball. The game is as different as it is original. Moreover, it rivals football in the opportunity it creates for the widest range of athletes to succeed. Softball has no prototypes, unlike other women’s and men’s sports. Basketball requires tall bodies, track requires fast and lean bodies, soccer requires bodies that can run all day. Athleticism isn’t limited to these narrow criteria. Softball requires excellence and athleticism, whatever that looks like.
The sport is only growing in popularity and with these conference networks, softball is being watched more than ever before. The game is absolutely fascinating and incredibly dramatic. I’m a convert hook, line, and sinker.
I cannot wait for it to be back on TV.