Friday, May 31, 2013

Day 1 Reflections (2013 WCWS)

Oklahoma was just as dominant over Michigan last night as my sabermetric statistical preview of the Women's College World Series suggested the Sooners would be. That makes me happy as a statistician, but sad as a Michigan alum! Keilani Ricketts pitched just as advertised, no-hitting the Wolverines in a 7-1 OU win (and the first WCWS no-hitter in six years). The most you could say for UM is that it managed to avoid being run-ruled.

As I wrote on Wednesday, "even though Florida is the No. 2 seed and Tennessee is No. 7, the Volunteers put up better numbers [during the season] than the Gators in all four [sabermetric] categories (although not necessarily by large margins)." As it turned out, the statistical information was a better predictor than the seeding, as the Volunteers won easily, 9-2.

Texas vs. Arizona State looked to be the most evenly matched contest, both in terms of seeding (No. 4 and 5, respectively) and the teams' sabermetric profiles. However, except for a brief ASU offensive outburst that ended Longhorn pitcher Blaire Luna's streak (over multiple games) of 12 straight no-hit innings, Texas was pretty dominant, winning 6-3.

The one close game on opening day featured Washington and Nebraska, as the Huskies won on an extra-inning walk-off homer, 4-3.

One trend I noticed across the games was all eight teams committed at least one error (Florida committed 2, all the other teams 1 each). The short distance between the bases almost certainly contributes to the error rate in softball, as infielders are going to feel pressure to throw the ball to first base in as little time as possible. Legendary college-basketball coach John Wooden's advice to "Be Quick, But Don't Hurry," may be applicable here.

Tonight, we have two winners' bracket games: Tennessee vs. Washington, and Oklahoma vs. Texas. OU took two of three from Texas during Big 12 conference play this season.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

New Feature! Softball Sabermetrics of WCWS Teams

As many readers are probably aware, the term "sabermetrics" refers to advanced statistical analysis of baseball, deriving from the initials of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). Statistical analyses of other sports such as basketball and football, now becoming more commonplace, are sometimes also referred to as being sabermetric in nature.

Why the need for sabermetrics? It is easy to identify the shortcomings of traditional statistics in baseball and softball. Take batting average, for example, which is a player's number of hits divided by his or her number of official at-bats. One problem is that batting average does not credit players for getting on base through avenues other than hits, such as walks. My favorite scene in the movie Moneyball is when the character of Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane, in a conference room filled with old-school scouts, asks, "Do I care if a player gets to first base by a single or by a walk?" (paraphrased). The young statistical hot-shot assistant, played by Jonah Hill, answers "You do not." For this reason, on-base percentage (which includes hits and walks) is considered superior to batting average.

Another limitation of batting average is that it merely counts up hits (before dividing by at-bats), without any distinction between singles, doubles, triples, and home runs. Slugging percentage, which weights each hit for number of bases (1 point for a single, 2 points for a double, etc.), is therefore also considered a better metric than batting average. As it turns out, simply adding on-base percentage and slugging percentage to yield a measure known as OPS (On-base Plus Slugging) provides an even better statistic yet, one that correlates better than other offensive metrics with teams' actual runs scored (the primary objective of the offense in baseball and softball).

With this brief introduction to sabermetrics as a background, I now present four sabermetric statistics at the team level for the eight participating schools in softball's Women's College World Series, which begins tomorrow. Using data from the full season, the following chart ranks the eight teams from best to worst on, from left to right, OPS; a pitching statistic known as WHIP (Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched); Strikeouts per 7 innings (analogous to baseball's statistic of strikeouts per 9 innings); and Defensive Efficiency, a measure of overall fielding that looks at the percentage of balls hit into play (grounders and fly balls that stay in the park) that the defensive team converts into outs.  Defensive Efficiency is discussed in the 2011 book The Extra 2% by Jonah Keri, which discusses how the Tampa Bay Rays used sabermetrics to complete an extreme makeover from perennial doormat to playoff contender. Here is my chart for the softball World Series...



Not surprisingly, top-seeded Oklahoma dominates the chart, ranking first among the World Series teams in three of the four categories. The Sooners' pitching, led by Keilani Ricketts and Michelle Gascoigne, gives up the fewest walks and hits (lowest WHIP) and strikes out the most batters, each by a large margin over the other WCWS teams. Ricketts's prowess both in the pitching circle and in hitting power led one sportswriter last year to label her the "Babe Ruth of College Softball." Earlier this spring, I caught a game during the Sooners' Big 12 series at Texas Tech; Gascoigne pitched a shut-out and Ricketts socked two homers. First-baseperson Lauren Chamberlain is another reason OU brings the top OPS into the World Series. Several teams rank above the Sooners in Defensive Efficiency, but the differences are not large.

No. 4-seed Texas and No. 5-seed Arizona State look to be Oklahoma's main competition, on paper at least. The Longhorns' strong points are pitching (led by Blaire Luna, who threw a no-hitter to clinch her team's spot in the World Series) and defense. ASU appears to be the most well-rounded team, ranking no lower than third in any category. Interestingly, even though Florida is the No. 2 seed and Tennessee is No. 7, the Volunteers put up better numbers than the Gators in all four categories (although not necessarily by large margins). Again, on paper, it doesn't look very optimistic for Michigan, Washington, or Nebraska. Michigan's OPS does rank in the top half of WCWS teams, however, thanks to senior second-baseperson Ashley Lane, who had clutch hits in both of UM's super-regional wins over Louisiana-Lafayette, and frosh shortstop Sierra Romero.

One reason for caution in interpreting the chart is that the teams didn't necessarily face the same strength of schedule during the season. For the respective pairs of teams in the same conference -- Oklahoma and Texas (Big 12); Florida and Tennessee (SEC); ASU and Washington (Pac 12); and Michigan and Nebraska (Big 10) -- their quality of opposition would have been nearly identical during conference play. However, even for conference mates, their non-league games earlier in the season and their NCAA tournament games may not have been against equally difficult opponents.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sunday Update (2013 Super-Regionals)

Florida has qualified for the Women's College World Series with its second straight one-run victory over Alabama-Birmingham (1-0 today, 4-3 yesterday).  You can scroll down to Thursday's entry on this blog to see my game-by-game super-regional chart.

Nebraska pitcher Tatum Edwards has homered in the bottom of the first to give her team a 1-0 lead over Oregon. Twin sister Taylor Edwards is the catcher for the Huskers, who lead the series 1-0... Oregon has tied the game 1-1 in the top of the second and has a threat going. However, Nebraska gets out of the inning with no more damage... Huskers string together two singles, Duck errors, to go up 3-1. UO now up in top of the fifth... Ducks close to within 3-2, as of top of sixth... Nebraska three outs away from Oklahoma City as Oregon comes up in top of seventh trailing 3-2... Duck lead-off hitter tries surprise bunt, Husker catcher "air-mails" throw to right-field wall. Unclear if a good throw would have gotten runner at first, but runner ends up on third, and scores on middle-infield ground out by next batter. Tied 3-3... Walk and a single give UO runners on first and second with one out, but Huskers complete rare ground-ball double-play to end threat... Oregon wins 4-3 in 11 innings, setting up a decisive Game 3...

...In Game 3, Nebraska and Oregon are tied 2-2 after an inning... Single runs in the third and sixth have given Nebraska a 4-2 lead... For the second time today, the Cornhuskers are three outs away from advancing to the WCWS. This time, however, Nebraska has a two-run cushion, whereas it was only one run in Game 2... UO leads off the bottom of the seventh with a sharp line-drive single to left... One out, as Nebraska gets force out at second on grounder... Another grounder leads to a 5-4-3 double-play... Huskers headed to OKC.

Texas and Florida State are scoreless after an inning and a half. The Longhorns took last night's series opener... A Texas-sized home-run blast by Karina Scott gives the Longhorns a 1-0 lead in the top of the fifth... A double to the wall and an FSU error give Texas a second run... Longhorns' lead up to 4-0 in top of the sixth... Texas pitcher Blaire Luna takes no-hitter into bottom of seventh, as Horns seek to close out FSU and make it to WCWS... One out...Two out... Strike-out swinging ends the game... Texas makes first WCWS since 2006 (first time of post-Cat Osterman era).

Arizona State tries to close out Kentucky later this afternoon.... The game is now well underway, with the Sun Devils batting in the top of the third, leading 2-1... ASU finishes off Kentucky 5-2 to advance to the World Series.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Saturday Update (2013 Super-Regionals)

Seven of the eight super-regional series are active today, all except the Washington-Missouri series that was captured by the Huskies last night. I will update this write-up throughout the day. To see game-by-game results at a glance, scroll down to Thursday's entry for my super-regional chart.

Oklahoma is the second team to make the Women's College World Series, defeating Texas A&M in run-rule fashion for the second straight day (10-2 yesterday, 8-0 today).

In other Saturday action...

Louisiana-Lafayette leads Michigan 3-0 in Game 2 of their series, as the Wolverines bat in the top of the sixth. Should the Ragin' Cajuns hold on, the series would go to a decisive Game 3 later today. ULL shortstop Nerissa Myers has just made a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch of a ball hit between short and left-field, preventing a Michigan hit... ULL finishes off Michigan 5-0. On to a deciding game...

...And in that deciding game, ULL and Michigan are scoreless after two complete. Louisiana-Lafayette takes a 1-0 lead in the top of the fourth...Two-out rally in the bottom of the fifth gives Wolverines a 2-1 lead... Michigan hangs on, becoming the third team to make the WCWS...See below for discussion of an unusual type of out made by ULL in its half of the seventh inning.

UAB leads Florida 1-0 early in Game 1 of that series... The game is now tied 1-1, with the Gators batting in the home half of the fourth inning... This game has seen UAB take leads of 2-1 and 3-2, but Florida has rallied to win 4-3 in the bottom of the seventh.

Alabama, trying to force a decisive game, leads Tennessee 3-0. The Vols are batting in the top of the third... Tennessee gets a run in the top of the third, so it's now 3-1 Bama... Tennessee adds two in the fourth, tying the game. A Vol runner is thrown out at the plate on a single, preventing Tennessee from taking the lead... The Vols now lead 4-3, batting in the top of the sixth... Defending champion Alabama is down to its final three outs, trailing Tennessee 5-3 in the bottom of the seventh...

The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen. Defending champ Alabama is out, and Tennessee become the fourth team to qualify for the Women's College World Series... 

Three series began under the lights Saturday. Nebraska (over Oregon), Texas (over Florida State), and Arizona State (over Kentucky) have all taken 1-0 leads in their respective series.

***

In Game 3 of the ULL-Michigan series, the Cajuns' second out in the top of the seventh occurred in an unusual manner. The batter, a slap hitter, hit a foul ball, but was ruled to have had both of her feet outside the batter's box when contacting the ball. The ESPN replay for the television audience appeared to confirm that the batter had indeed been out of the box. Looking at the online NCAA Softball Rules and Interpretations book, one finds in the definition section:

1.63 Illegally Batted Ball 
A pitch contacted by the batter... 
1.63.3 When one or both feet are on the ground and entirely outside the lines of the batter’s box at the time of bat-ball contact.

A further section of the rule book (11.17) describes the actions an umpire is to take in the event of an illegally batted ball:

EFFECT... The ball is dead. The batter shall be declared out immediately, regardless of whether the ball is fair or foul. Each base runner must return to the base legally occupied at the time of the pitch.

In all my years of watching softball, I had never seen a call like this.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Friday Update (2013 Super-Regionals)

FRIDAY EVENING UPDATE: Washington is the first team to earn a spot in this year's Women's College World Series, with a 1-0 victory over Missouri in Game 2 of the teams' super-regional.... Oklahoma (over Texas A&M) and Tennessee (over Alabama) have assumed 1-0 leads in their respective series... Florida State-Texas is the second series to be postponed a day due to rain.

FRIDAY AFTERNOON UPDATE: Wild one in Ann Arbor! Michigan was on the verge of closing out Game 1 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette, leading 2-0 in the top of the seventh with two outs for the Ragin' Cajuns. However, a single and home run send game to extra innings... ULL takes 3-2 lead in top of the eighth on another homer... Cajuns threaten to pad lead, but don't... Michigan gets lead-off batter on base in bottom of eighth via hit-by-pitch... ULL drops foul pop, giving batter another chance...  Runner to second on passed ball... Wolverines win on two-run homer.

***

Washington beat Missouri, 2-1, in extra innings, in what turned out to be the only action Thursday night. That's because the Texas A&M at Oklahoma game was rained out; the Aggies and Sooners will begin their series tonight, weather permitting.

Three other series get underway today: Florida State-Texas, Alabama-Tennessee, and Louisiana-Lafayette-Michigan.

Follow the results of all the super-regional series in the big chart in Thursday's entry (below).

Thursday, May 23, 2013

2013 Super-Regionals Get Underway Tonight

The NCAA super-regionals begin tonight. At the bottom of this write-up is a chart of the match-ups, on which I will list the winners of each game.

The SEC is guaranteed a team in the Women's College World Series (the winner of the Alabama vs. Tennessee super-regional), but it is also guaranteed that one of these perennial powers will not be in the WCWS. In fact, the SEC potentially could send five teams to the World Series (the Bama-Tennessee winner, plus Texas A&M, Florida, Kentucky, and Missouri), although some pretty dramatic upsets would have to occur for all these teams to advance.

This year is the first time since the introduction of the super-regional format in 2005 that neither UCLA nor Arizona has made it to this round. The Pac 12 still has a major presence with Oregon, Arizona State, and Washington still alive.

The Big 12 appears positioned to send two to the WCWS, with No. 1 seed Oklahoma facing former conference foe Texas A&M and No. 4 Texas hosting unseeded Florida State.

The switch to the Big 10 appears to have done Nebraska good or maybe it's just coincidence. Still, the Huskers are making their first-ever super-regional appearance. Likewise, the University of Alabama-Birmingham (from Conference USA).

Also from the Big 10, No. 8 seed Michigan takes on unseeded Louisiana-Lafayette. Wolverine frosh Sierra Romero, a slugging shortstop, has been making headlines all season.

USA Today offers a detailed preview of each series, whereas ESPN.com's Graham Hays looks at the Top 5 Questions heading into the supers.

Here's my chart. Team seeds, if applicable, are in parentheses; bold indicates the clinching of a series; and links within the chart are to game articles. Here's a link to the official NCAA bracket, which provides starting times and viewing information.

Teams Game 1 Game 2 Game 3
Texas A&M (16) at Oklahoma (1)*+ Oklahoma Oklahoma ---
Alabama-Birmingham at Florida (2)*** Florida Florida ---
Nebraska (14) at Oregon (3)*** Nebraska Oregon Nebraska
Florida State at Texas (4)**+ Texas Texas ---
Kentucky (12) at Arizona State (5)*** ASU ASU ---
Washington (11) at Missouri (6)* Washington Washington ---
Alabama (10) at Tennessee (7)** Tennessee Tennessee ---
Louisiana-Lafayette at Michigan (8)** Michigan ULL Michigan
*Game 1 Thursday, Games 2 and (if necessary) 3 on Friday.
**Game 1 Friday, Games 2 and (if necessary) 3 on Saturday.
***Game 1 Saturday, Games 2 and (if necessary) 3 on Sunday.
+Delayed one day due to rain-out.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

2013 NCAA Regionals -- Who's Advanced, Who's Still Alive, Who's Been Eliminated

SUNDAY NIGHT UPDATE

The regionals are now complete, with the match-ups set for next weekend's super-regionals. Winners of each regional are shown in the table below in bold.

Heading into the final day of a regional, there is always one team per region with a 2-0 record, one with a 2-1 record, and two teams eliminated. The team with the 2-0 record needs only one win to advance to the super-regionals, whereas the team entering the final day at 2-1 must beat the previously undefeated team twice. Five teams that entered Sunday's play with one loss (Hofstra, Virginia Tech, South Alabama, UCLA, and Baylor) won their first games against their respective opponents, but none could do it a second time. Thus, all the teams that entered the final day 2-0 ended up winning their respective regionals.

Two of the regionals had extremely tense finishes. After UCLA had defeated Alabama-Birmingham by a 4-1 score earlier in the day, UAB scored a dramatic win in the rematch, besting the Bruins 3-2 in 13 innings to advance. Florida State had the day's best comeback. FSU fell to South Alabama 3-0 in the teams' opener today. Then, in the rematch, the Seminoles rallied from a 6-1 deficit going into their half (the top) of the seventh, with five runs to tie the game. FSU then won in eight innings, 7-6.

All told, the tournament has gone according to form so far, with 11 of the top 12 seeds moving on, and 13 of the 16 seeds overall.

Region 2-0 2-1 Eliminated Eliminated
Norman OK Oklahoma (1) Arkansas Marist Fordham
Gainesville FL Florida (2) S. Florida Hampton Ga Southern
Eugene OR Oregon (3) Wisconsin N. Carolina BYU
Austin TX Texas (4) S. Carolina Army Houston
Tempe AZ Arizona St. (5) Georgia San Diego St. San Jose St.
Columbia MO Missouri (6) Hofstra* Stony Brook Oregon St.
Knoxville TN Tennessee (7) NC State JMU Longwood
Ann Arbor MI Michigan (8) Cal CMU Valpo
Baton Rouge LA LA-Lafayette LSU (9) NW State C. Conn.
Tuscaloosa AL Alabama (10) W. Kentucky J'ville St. SC Upstate
Seattle WA Washington (11) Hawai'i Minnesota Portland St.
Lexington KY Kentucky (12) Va Tech* Notre Dame Marshall
Mobile AL Florida St. S. Ala (13)* Miss. Valley Miss. St.
Lincoln NE Nebraska (14) Stanford Tulsa N. Iowa
Louisville KY UAB UCLA* IPFW Lou'ville (15)
Coll. Station TX Tex A&M (16) Baylor* Penn Arizona
Oregon region italicized, as it is one day ahead of the other regions.
Winners of each region are highlighted in bold.
*2-1 team has won the first game against the 2-0 team on Sunday, setting up a decisive rematch.

Friday, May 17, 2013

NCAA's Scoreboard Page to Follow Regionals

The NCAA website has a softball scoreboard page to follow the regionals. The bulk of the action gets underway today. The only exception is the Oregon regional, which began yesterday with the host Ducks beating BYU and North Carolina edging Wisconsin. All regionals are double-elimination.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

ESPN.com Previews Four Regionals

ESPN.com's Graham Hays provides in-depth previews of four regionals, those hosted by Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Michigan, and LSU. Television listings are given for those games that will be broadcast (ESPN3 refers to Internet broadcasts available at this site; it only works if your Internet provider is contracted with ESPN).

Sunday, May 12, 2013

2013 Geospatial NCAA Tournament Map

My annual maps of the NCAA regional groupings are shown below, based on the official tournament bracket. In all cases, the four teams sharing the same color and style (based on the host team's school colors) are in the same regional; the seeded team (with number in parentheses) will host. To increase readability, I've done something new this year. I've created two maps, shown below. You may click on the maps to enlarge them.

The top map shows relatively compact regionals, in which three or four of the teams in a given set are geographically close to each other. As an example of four nearby schools, Tennessee, North Carolina State, James Madison, and Longwood (the latter two from Virginia) are all shown in light orange, with light-blue outline and white letters. As an example of three nearby schools with a distant fourth school, LSU, Louisiana-Lafayette, and Northwestern State are all from the state of Louisiana, with Central Connecticut State joining in (all four schools shown in purple, with yellow letters).



The bottom map shows the more "far-flung" regionals. For example, as shown with black rectangles and yellow letters, the Missouri regional brings in Oregon State and two teams from Long Island, New York, Stony Brook and Hofstra. The Oregon regional (green rectangles with yellow letters) brings in BYU from nearby Utah, but also Wisconsin and North Carolina. Note the distinction between two regions with white rectangles: the Oklahoma region (with maroon outline and letters) and the Nebraska region (with black outline and red letters).



I have a few brief thoughts on the substance of the seedings and regional assignments. Texas's No. 4 seed is a little higher than the Longhorns were ranked in recent national polls. Texas has not done much in the tournament in the post-Cat Osterman era, so I'm skeptical that the Horns will perform at a level commensurate with their seeding. As a Michigan alumnus, I'm happy that the Wolverines are a top-8 seed, meaning they would host a super-regional if they advance past the initial round. However, Cal is a very tough team to face in the opening weekend, with star pitcher Jolene Henderson starting to return to form after an injury.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

LSU's Rachele Fico: Then and Now

ESPN.com's Graham Hays has an article today about senior LSU pitcher Rachele Fico and her relationship with her father, who has been fighting cancer for 10 years. I must admit that I follow team performance more than that of individual players, so I'm not up to date on a lot of names. Still, Fico's seemed familiar to me. As it turns out, I posted a brief item on her in 2009. At the time, she had pitched 22 perfect games in her high school career!