Center of the Revolution: Florida State Becomes Softball’s Pitching LaboratoryTop Stories
On the way to winning the 2006 national championship, Arizona’s Alicia Hollowell pitched all 43 innings that her team played in the Women’s College World Series. The workload included both ends of a semifinal doubleheader against Tennessee and Monica Abbott in Oklahoma City, where temperatures held steady in the 90s and peaked at 94 degrees.
A year later, Taryne Mowatt earned national acclaim for a feat of endurance that exceeded even old-school standards when Hollowell’s successor led the Wildcats to back-to-back titles and earned an ESPY by throwing more than 1,000 pitches in seven days. By contrast, few batted an eye at Hollowell’s workload, either during the World Series or in completing 36 of the 39 games she started that season. She was just playing her role in the softball universe, albeit playing it better than most.
In fact, across 65 games and 434 innings that season, Arizona coach Mike Candrea made nine in-game pitching changes—the equivalent of one every two or three weeks.
In a three-game series at Oklahoma State earlier this season, Florida State coach Lonni Alameda made seven pitching changes in 19 innings.
Softball is changing. That’s hardly news. Listen to just about any broadcast and you will probably hear a discussion about the changing face of pitching. It may well come while announcers wait for a reliever to warm up. The game isn’t on the verge of changing. It hasn’t finished changing. It’s in the act of changing. We’re living through the transition, like the people who watched a horse race an early steam engine—and win. The old ways still abound, reminding some of a game and pace they preferred. The horse, or workhorse in this case, still wins sometimes. But barring outside intervention, there’s no going back.
Using the example of the Pac-12, the conference with the most consistent standard of excellence in college softball’s NCAA era, the numbers tell the story.
|Year||Complete Games||Relief Appearances||League ERA|
Despite having at her disposal one of the best facsimiles of an old-school ace in Kathryn Sandercock, few coaches have more eagerly embraced innovation than Alameda. She isn’t trying to be a disruptor, to borrow the shallow and self-reverential parlance of Silicon Valley. She’s just willing to consider that there might be a better way to play, and better tools with which to measure, a game reshaped by offensive advancements over the past 20 years.
Watch the Seminoles these days and you see a national title contender. You also get a glimpse of where softball is going.
“Pitching didn’t have to change too much [for many years] because the offense wasn’t really there,” Alameda told D1Softball last year. “You could have pitchers go deep into seasons and throw 25 or 30 complete games. The offensive production wasn’t there. Whether that’s changing because of smarts, video, pitching machines—offense has really gone to a different level. Now, we have to figure out how to combat that on the pitching side.
“I don’t think we had to change too much until the game made us change.”
Everything Old Is New Again
Innovation is rarely entirely new. The first visible sign of a pitching recalibration, moving away from the folkloric aces like Hollowell, Abbott or Cat Osterman, was hardly new at all. From the UCLA trio of Lisa Longaker, Lisa Fernandez and Heather Compton more than 30 years ago to Jennifer Stewart and Lana Moran each pitching more than 200 innings during Oklahoma’s first championship run in 2000, teams have long divvied up starts between two and occasionally even three starters.
Two things began to change at an accelerated rate a little more than a decade ago, soon after Mowatt’s feat. The first involved what we saw each June in the World Series—and it’s what happens in Oklahoma City that shapes so much of our perception of softball.
As mentioned, at a time when a team could play 74 games, Stewart and Moran each topped 200 innings for Oklahoma in 2000. But Stewart pitched 23 of 28 innings in the World Series. UCLA’s Keira Goerl pitched all 33 innings en route to a title in 2004. The next year, even as the format lengthened with the addition of the best-of-three championship series, UCLA’s Jelly Selden pitched all 45 innings as the Bruins eventually fell to Michigan in the title series—countered by Jennie Ritter in all three games in that final series.
No matter how many pitchers got a team to Oklahoma City, one pitcher brought home the title.
At least symbolically, that changed when Patty Gasso started Michelle Gascoigne in the second game of the 2013 title series, continuing a division of labor with Keilani Ricketts first established in the regular season. Since then, whether Florida’s Tim Walton splitting starts in the title series the following season or Gasso saving Paige Parker for Game 3 in 2016, without an All-American option like Gascoigne for Game 2, the lone arm is an endangered species in Oklahoma City.
Alameda, too, has relied on multiple arms far too long for it to qualify as progressive. From Monica Perry and Lacey Waldrop to Kylee Hanson and Meghan King to King and Sandercock, Florida State has almost always featured at least a duo in the circle.
But the biggest change in softball, with Florida State one of the leading laboratories, isn’t the division of labor over the course of a season. It isn’t how many starters a team has but how rarely they finish.
Now the pitching coach at Loyola Marymount, after also working with USA Softball and Athletes Unlimited, Christian Conrad was an undergraduate assistant at Oregon before moving on to Florida State as a volunteer assistant coach. While in Eugene with Mike White, one of the most respected pitching minds in the sport, Conrad saw that model honed to near-perfection with the starting trio of Maggie Balint, Miranda Elish and Megan Kleist. But while progressive in some respects, that staff still adhered to familiar norms. The three starters completed 36 of 62 starts in 2017—not quite Longaker, Fernandez and Compton, but not all that far removed.
“At Oregon, I would say it was more we were trying to develop you into the perfect pitcher, and then that, in turn, is going to win us ballgames,” Conrad said. “Whereas at Florida State, they’re selling out to what makes someone really, really good, embracing that role and how can you play off the other people in our bullpen to win softball games.
“Both [methods] were very effective, but it was a very different way to approach softball.”
The Seeds of Real Revolution
According to NCAA records, Division I teams combined for a 1.43 ERA in 1982. Two decades later, after moving the pitching distance to 43 feet in 1988 and introducing the more visible yellow ball in 1993, that ERA had climbed to 2.58 and home runs per game from 0.15 to 0.38.
By 2015, the peak of the offensive explosion, the Division I ERA was 4.13 and games featured an average of 0.77 home runs. Both remain all-time highs, but offense has hardly cooled.
Before 2010, the home run figure had never climbed higher than 0.60 home runs per game. It has dropped below that mark just once since.
Before 2010, ERA had never climbed higher than 3.40. It has dropped below that mark just once since.
“College softball has had no interest in helping pitching over the last 20 years,” ruefully noted Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson, another leading innovator in rediscovering and rethinking the role of two-way players in maximizing pitching flexibility. “And I’m not actually a pitcher. I’m a hitting person who became a pitching coach, so I feel like I can talk about this a little bit.”
From bats to video technology to the proprietary and even mass-market statistical and scouting analysis available to teams, innovation has been kinder to hitters than pitchers. The spiral-bound scorebooks of yesteryear are long gone, replaced by the latest Yakkertech or Rapsodo wizardry (i.e. data). The strike zone, some would argue, has never been smaller—the letters-to-knees zone defined by the rules regularly squeezed like luggage in an airplane overhead bin.
And as Lawson noted, in this particular moment, the extension of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic has filled lineups with older, more experienced, more mature hitters than ever before.
Arguably the biggest advance in pitching, or at least the most visible, is the increased velocity that lights up radar guns and get splashed on screen after every pitch. But even Abbott and Yukiko Ueno couldn’t live on velocity alone. And no one today is Abbott or Ueno.
“Pitch speeds are going up dramatically, but I’m not so sure the cut on the ball and the ability to mix speeds and pitches has increased at the same rate as the velocity,” Lawson said. “So now you’ve got all these super teams, with these unbelievable coaches armed with the newest technology, going against pitchers who throw the ball significantly harder. And the ball goes really far when they square up.”
Once upon a time, a pitcher’s legend really could precede her. Heck, as recently as 2008, Virginia Tech ace Angela Tincher could shut down the greatest lineup in the sport, ending Team USA’s long domestic winning streak because they barely knew who she was, let alone had a detailed scouting report on the rise ball that ruled Hall of Fame Stadium that drizzly March day.
Truly one of a kind, Tincher might have been too good to hit even with advance warning. But pitchers these days need a portfolio.
“If you only have one elite pitch, you can maybe get through the lineup one time,” said Florida State assistant Kaleigh Rafter, a former Canadian Olympian. “But hitters are so good at taking your best pitch away and forcing you to go to No. 2 or No. 3. If those aren’t also elite pitches, you’re putting yourself in situations where you don’t have much to beat hitters.
“In the past, you probably could have gotten two times through with one elite pitch, especially if it was a changeup.”
The other way to get that, of course, is by using more pitchers. For a handful of aces who start with one or two world-class pitches and add to their repertoires over time, that still means heavy workloads and the complete games. There’s still room for Montana Fouts, Megan Faraimo, Kelly Maxwell, Valerie Cagle or Sandercock. It’s still also the rule for many mid-majors, who may have to operate with smaller rosters or simply can’t recruit enough Division I-caliber arms to build out a bullpen. But for programs like Florida State, you can approximate one great pitcher with three pitchers who can get through a lineup one time.
“The big thing is you own what you do,” Alameda said. “Kat’s got a really good drop ball, an elite level drop ball. She knows that. She can own it. She can go out there and pitch it. But then we needed to add more to her game. She needed a rise ball, she needed a changeup, Just one elite pitch isn’t going to get you through seven innings. You’ve got to grow the pitching staff and what they do. Some pitchers can have three pitches. Some pitchers may only have one pitch.”
Out of Many, One
Once sparsely populated backwaters, softball bullpens are now bustling innovation hubs.
Florida State’s Makenna Reid is among the nation’s more impressive freshmen. The Oregon native arrived with impeccable credentials and hasn’t disappointed. In just her second weekend, she dazzled against two-time reigning SEC champion Arkansas, befuddling batter after batter with a rise ball. Two months in, she’s still stymying batters. And she still hasn’t started a game. Only two Division I pitchers have thrown more innings this season without a start.
It’s not that Florida State wants to turn Reid into Mariano Rivera. She will eventually start. Watch her pitch now, and it’s clear to see that she projects as the next in the line of great Seminoles aces. But even as a freshman, she’s already a championship-caliber pitcher for a few innings at a time.
|Kenzie Brown||Arizona St.||21/3||58.2||25.3||3.73|
|Karsen Ochs||S. Carolina||22/4||42.1||18.4||3.62|
|Emily Leavitt||Texas A&M||23/6||62||26.7||3.33|
|Dee Dee Hernandez||SDSU||17/1||45.1||16.8||3.69|
|Donnie Gobourne||S, Caorlina||19/4||52.1||44.1||1.54|
|Kenley Hawk||Miss St.||15/2||40.1||21.2||3.96|
Such is life for the Seminoles. Alameda has used seven pitchers this season, each making at least seven appearances. She’s also used five starters through 36 games, with Sandercock, Ali DuBois, Mack Leonard and Allison Royalty each starting at least seven games.
Sandercock is the only Seminoles pitcher who has thrown a complete game, and it’s perhaps one of the more underrated measure of her excellence that she has 13 complete games over the past two seasons for a team that otherwise has just three complete games. This season, the Seminoles have combined for 61 relief appearances—the same number as the combined relief appearances by ACC rivals Clemson, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech.
Indeed, Sandercock has finished more games as a reliever—closer, stopper or whatever label you choose—than she has as a starter.
It’s not just her. Look around the nation and some of the top contenders are making “ace” a more and more flexible role. For some, having your best pitcher available for high-leverage innings in as many games as possible may trump writing her name on the lineup card from the outset. Take a look at some notable aces who have double-digit relief appearances (Chenise Delce narrowly misses that cut-off).
“How do you get 21 outs and how do you match up your pitching staff for those 21 outs,” Alameda said last year about one half of the puzzle of managing a pitching staff. “Do you need a drop ball, do you need a rise ball, do you need a strikeout?”
Settling on the answer begins long before the coach leaves the dugout to make a change. Long before the season begins. It’s a staff intended to be the sum of its parts. Sandercock is a bit of a unicorn, but Reid’s lefty rise is a completely different look than Dubois’ righty change of pace—both distinct from Royalty. Each of them has an identifiable strength that is more the velocity.
Conrad wasn’t part of assembling or working with most of the current staff, his time in Tallahassee overlapping only with Sandercock’s freshman year. But as another of the game’s young innovators, shaped in part by his time with the Seminoles, he eloquently explains a shift in philosophy many programs are making in roster construction. If you can recruit a Fouts, Faraimo or Sandercock, fantastic. But if in-game strategy is moving toward the day when most pitchers rarely pitch more than two times through a lineup, it makes sense to recruit that way.
“If you’re not selling out to the elite movement profile, you’re never going to get an effective bullpen,” Conrad said. “You can go out and get a girl who throws 65 or 66, but if she doesn’t have a unique movement pattern to her profile, it doesn’t really matter. When it comes to the data, if someone has an elite plus pitch, that’s more intriguing, and that’s something that shows up in overall movement and spin rate.
“The biggest thing is you want someone who is unique, in whatever way that is.”
Alameda said solving the riddle of 21 outs is one part of the challenge. The other element is managing those arms over 60 games and ensuring they’re ready for whatever comes their way in May and June. More arms creates a more variable than running out one pitcher every time.
Facing Oklahoma in the 2021 national championship series, Alameda turned to Emma Wilson when Danielle Wilson ran into trouble early in the decisive third game. A night earlier, the redshirt freshman had faced her first batter in more than a month. She had scarcely pitched any high-leverage innings all season. All things considered, facing the heart of the Oklahoma order, she persevered admirably. But the Sooners pushed across three runs and never looked back.
In terms of available options, workloads and even pitch profile, Wilson made sense. But by her own admission, Alameda hadn’t prepared the young pitcher for that moment. When you see the Seminoles mixing and matching every which way this season (Sandercock, Reid, Wilson and Leonard all have saves this season), not all of it has to do with that particular game.
“I’ve spent some time trying to educate myself on data and metrics,” Alameda said. “I definitely think that’s where our game is going in a lot of areas. It’s trying to really understand the strengths of our pitching staff and where I need to develop them.
“When you get to postseason, you’ve got to have a lot of arms and a lot of options, so if you don’t put them in a lot of situations to get uncomfortable, they’re not going to have growth.”
The Human Element
In some sense, Alameda seems an unlikely face of this movement. She’s gaining acclaim for her innovative approach to pitching, but the Hall of Famer is still best known as perhaps the ultimate culture guru working in the game today. Florida State is all about family. It’s all about relationships, personal development and the intangibles that analytics struggle to quantify.
Perhaps that also makes her the ideal innovator. With her connections in Major League Baseball, she’s been able to spend time over the years around those teams. She noted, in particular, she was intrigued by the deeply data-driven methods that have helped the Tampa Bay Rays remain competitive for so long despite so many budgetary limitations. It is reminiscent of Joe Maddon, a baseball lifer raised in the old school game whose ability to manage the people behind the data led to such success with the Rays and eventually others.
“They’re trying to figure out how to do their academics and social life,” Alameda said of communicating data to her players. “So when is it too much information? When is it too much for me? I’m still trying to figure that piece out, honestly. But I can see our softball world jumping into a lot of that stuff, so I’m just trying to educate myself.”
Similarly, Alameda has long made use of redshirt or development years for young pitchers—Jessica Burroughs and Meghan King just two examples of All-Americans who began their time in Tallahassee by redshirting. The culture kept them there, willing to wait their turn. For now, with portal additions like Royalty and Dubois and a highly-touted freshman like Reid, the same formula seems to work.
They would pitch more elsewhere. They would throw more complete games elsewhere, the way they have their whole lives in travel ball. But they want to be part of Florida State.
That may eventually prove the toughest element for other programs to replicate.
“I don’t think you recruit kids to this level to be happy sitting on the bench or not having the opportunity to throw that pitch—you want that ego,” Alameda said. “But you’ve got to be really good at your management skills and people skills and what you’re trying to develop. I think we’re pretty lucky here because our pitchers have always been good at understanding they want to be the one, but they’re also going to support what the team needs.”
Brave New World
For some fans, the new world doesn’t seem entirely welcoming. As I got to know the sport, I loved that it still offered larger-than-life figures with the ball in their hand. The Bunyan-esque feats of baseball pitchers like Walter Johnson and Satchel Paige had long since faded into legend by the time I began following that sport. But softball’s aces still ruled the realm well into this century. Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman still played the roles once occupied by Joan Joyce and Bertha Tickey. Taryne Mowatt’s week in Oklahoma City was still possible.
I’m wary of trading narrative for efficiency. I find box scores a little less magical these days and still thrill to stumble across the occasional throwback with aces dueling for 12 or 13 innings.
What’s certain is that we aren’t going back. And it’s entirely fair to see that as proof of the sport’s continued growth and maturation. There is a market for innovation.
“I think it’s a better product because I enjoy the strategy portion of the game,” Conrad said. “I also think it will force more people to have to become better coaches, quite frankly. Sometimes it’s a lot of throw the ace and see what happens, whereas now it’s actual strategy of, in this moment, how are we going to beat this team? I think that’s way more exciting.”
The steam engine may still occasionally lose. A workhorse may rule a few more postseasons. But progress isn’t slowing down.
Down in Tallahassee, they keep working on ever faster steam engines.
“There’s a lot that goes into it,” Alameda said. “We’re only scratching the surface of it right now.”
(Correction: This article originally stated Sandercock started Game 1 of the 2021 WCWS championship series. Watson started Game 1, and Sandercock earned a save in relief.)