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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.