Friday, April 27, 2007

Softball -- covering games


Softball is not just baseball played with a bigger ball. There are more than a few differences.

Obviously, the ball is much larger. As a result, the field dimensions are also significantly different. The outfield fences are not as deep since a larger ball does not carry as far, and the bases are 60 feet apart, thirty feet closer than for a baseball field.

The game is also played much more quickly than the three-plus hour games featured in the major leagues. Softball games go two fewer innings, ending after seven in college and international competition. Plus, the game moves at a faster pace. Pitchers do not spend time worrying about runners who cannot leave a base until the ball leaves the hand of the pitcher. So pitchers can just concentrate on batters.

Bunting is used much more frequently in softball. Unlike in baseball, where designated hitters and aluminum bats lead to high-scoring games and big innings, softball teams typically try to score a run at a time. Check out how often a team bunts when a player reaches base.

Softball also features the ‘lefty slapper,’ a batter who combines blazing speed with great bat control. The slapper can drop a bunt down the lines, slap a hit past a drawn-in third baseman, or hit from a regular stance. (Check out how frequently a third baseman plays in to defend against drag and sacrifice bunts. It’s scary to see a fielder so close to a batter, but it works very effectively.)

“We don’t always rely on the three-run homer like many baseball teams,” says Kelley Green, softball coach at Lock Haven College, the 2006 NCAA Divison II champs. “You will have more sacrifice bunts in softball than baseball to move runners into scoring position. Last year, my team led the conference is home runs, sacrifice bunts and stolen bases so I pride myself in building teams who have many different strengths.”

Softball also features a designated player (as opposed to a designated hitter) who is allowed to go in and play any defensive position. Softball also has a Flex player, who bats 10th and who can play defense or hit for the designated player. Plus, starters can re-enter the game once. “Many of the fundamentals are similar, but the philosophies can differ,” says Green.

Pitching is also vastly different. In baseball, teams require a rotation of three to four pitchers, who need much more time for recovery. Baseball pitchers rarely go beyond 100 pitches in a single game. In softball, that is not uncommon. Nor is it uncommon for a pitcher to go on consecutive days, if needed.

The underhanded motion does not put as much strain on the shoulders and arms. Although pitchers still need to make sure they do not overwork, the windmill delivery does not usually induce as much soreness. But this motion results in pitches that are just as fast.

The New York Daily News recently posted a story that breaks down the three parts of a softball pitcher’s rotation – the wind-up, windmill and release. Three top high school players explain the mechanics involved in firing a softball at speeds up to 60 mph. That might not sound like much, but consider that a softball mound is just 43 feet from the plate, nearly 20 feet closer than in baseball. So these pitches seem more like 80 mph. College and international pitchers can fire away at even higher speeds with their own slingshot motions.

"In baseball, your arm really isn't moving normally," Mike Pallisco, coach of Jamaica (N.Y.) High, told the Daily News. "In softball, your arm is moving naturally."

As with anything, you need to fully understand a sport before you can properly cover it. You can learn much by reading the NCAA’s rulebook that can be downloaded as a PDF by clicking here. You can watch some practices and speak to coaches and players for background information. Obviously, the more you cover games, the more you will learn. If you do not know something, don’t be afraid to ask someone.

Softball and baseball are similar in many ways. But they also have their differences. Here are a few rules you might also want to know:
■ Softball has a new 10-second rule where a pitcher must be prepared to pitch quickly. Here is the NCAA’s rule: “The amended rule specifies that the pitcher and the batter are both responsible to be in position 10 seconds after the pitcher receives the ball (in the pitching circle) from the catcher. Once all players are in position — whether that is four seconds or seven seconds later, or 10 seconds later — the pitcher has five more seconds to start the pitching motion."
■ The NCAA restricted bats a few years ago, citing safety reasons. “The newer composite bats were so light and quick that the ball was coming off very fast, and we thought they posed a dangerous situation,” said Lynn Oberbillig, a member of the NCAA softball rules committee. Right now, the NCAA is still testing even the approved bats to ensure that all bats within a brand are the same.
■ Right now, the NCAA is evaluating what is tentatively called the ‘mercy rule,’ says Oberbillig, who is also the athletic director at Smith College in Massachusetts. Under this proposed rule, games would be halted if a home team is ahead by 8 runs after 4 1/2 innings, or after 5 innings if the visiting team is ahead. The rules committee is awaiting response from its membership.

Here are some other things to consider when you cover a softball game.

LEAD ELEMENTS
Elements to put in the first several paragraphs.
■ Team names/nicknames
■ Score
■ Date
■ Team records
■ Location (specific name of fields, stadiums)
■ Game’s significance. Does the game clinch playoff berth or eliminate the team from the postseason? Is this a conference or district victory? Does this advance the team in a tournament?
■ What’s the 'big picture?' What does this game mean to the teams involved? How does it affect them? Why is the game important?
■ Look for a story. Do not automatically focus on a scoring play or some key stat.
■ For precedes, do not lead with the fact two teams are going to play one another; instead, find an angle that is more interesting. What’s the history between the teams? What’s the significance of this game (For instance, does it impact the conference or district standings?) Find something about the upcoming game to introduce the fact the two teams will be playing. Perhaps, this is the first game of a conference schedule.

THINGS TO FOCUS ON
■ How teams scored. Each inning write a few sentences describing how each team scored so you will have this when you write the gamer later. (Make sure you also keep a good account in a scorebook.)
■ Runners each team leaves on base. You will see the stat ‘LOB’ in many box scores. Some box scores now break down LOB for each individual player. This number can be perceived at least two ways. On the one hand, a team with many runners left on base (say, 10 or 12) must have hit pretty well to get so many players on base. Even teams that score eight or 10 runs will leave higher numbers of runner on base. On the other hand, a team may have hit poorly in clutch situations. You’ll notice this when a team has left many runners on base but has scored far fewer runs (perhaps two or three). In addition, look for specific examples from the game to illustrate this, perhaps by focusing on an at-bats where a hitter failed to drive in runners already in scoring position (second or third base) with fewer than two outs.
■ Sacrifice bunts. Determine when (and how often) a team uses the sacrifice bunt in a game. In softball, you will usually see more bunting and slapping than in baseball. (Look for trends during the season, if this is your beat.)
■ Be a stats geek. Go through box scores to analyze stats. Look for trends in hitting and pitching stats for individuals and teams. For example, you might find that a team has left more than 10 runners on base over the past six games, or that the team has averaged 2.1 runs per game during the past two weeks. (Ask high school coaches, or their team managers, if you can review their scorebooks before games. That means arriving to the game much earlier, when the teams are warming up.) You might also notice that a pitcher has not walked a batter in his past three games or that a hitter has gone nine-for-12 in his past four games.
■ Hitting streaks. As you look through stats, check for hitting streaks such as those listed above, so you can ask questions afterwards that focus on why players are doing so well. Also, check for streaks where players are struggling. Check to see if a player has gone hitless in his last nine at-bats or if he has managed just two hits in his last 19 at-bats. It is particularly interesting when excellent players struggle (in a long season, every hitter struggles at some point). Do not be unfairly harsh on players when this happens, but citing stats that reveal a hitting drought is not a problem.
■ Pitching streaks. Check to see how a pitcher has performed during the past several games or weeks. In softball, pitchers will throw many more innings than their counterparts in baseball. Has this pitcher won or lost a number of games in a row? Has this pitcher struck out 10-plus hitters a game or walked four-plus a game? Also, see how many unearned runs this pitcher has allowed recently (or for the season). Errors cause pitchers to work harder, and, as a result, to often allow more runs to score. You can also check for other stats, such as ERA and number of pitches per game. You can also check into how many runs this pitcher typically allows in the first few innings against the last few innings, or how a pitcher does after 80 or 90 pitches. These are more detailed stats that will be harder to get at the Little League or high school levels unless you are charting every game. But as you get to the higher levels, these stats are out there – typically compiled by sports information or the major-league clubs. Make sure you speak to pitching coaches, catchers and managers to get more insights into these stats. Stats alone do not always tell the story. A pitcher might be throwing through injuries or may have lost his mechanics. Ask these questions to determine the reasons for pitchers’ performances.
■ Key plays. These plays are not always as obvious as a game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth or a grand slam in the sixth inning. Look for the less obvious plays as well, such as a hard slide in the fourth where a runner broke up a double play that, in turn, allowed the inning to continue and a run to score in a game determined by a single run. Or look for a batter who fought off a tough pitcher for a 10-pitch walk late in the game that forced the starting pitcher out of a game and allowed his team to score against the reliever. Or look for a successful hit-and-run that confused the defense and allowed an easy grounder to short to roll into left field – and sending a runner in for the decisive score. Learn the game by speaking with veteran coaches and players, by reading reports on games by regular baseball beat writers, by listening to baseball announcers, and by reading the rules book, among other things.
■ Ground balls vs. fly balls. Determine how many outs a pitcher records from fly balls compared to ground outs. Pitchers and managers prefer ground outs. They can lead to more double-plays and are less likely to go for home runs. You’ll also find these outs reflect the types of pitches thrown. A sinker ball pitcher is more likely to get many more ground outs than a pitcher who relies on a fastball. Of course, any pitcher can hang a curveball that floats to the plate softly with nary a break. That’s a nightmare for all pitchers. Determine when this happens as well. The more you watch and listen, the better you will get at analyzing the game.
■ Isolate a moment. Look for the turning point in the game.
■ Mini-streaks during games. Did a pitcher retire nine batters in a row across four middle innings, or retire the final eight batters? Did a team score a run in five straight innings, or connect for eight straight hits? Look for these ministreaks as well. They might not be the lead, but they are interesting to note elsewhere in the story, especially if you can connect the streak to the bigger story.
■ Play by play. Start by focusing on the key plays. After that, you should usually focus on scoring in the later innings before the first few innings, the same way you would focus more on the final quarter of a football game or a basketball game. That’s when the game is much more tense and likely to shift in one team’s favorite, if the game is relatively close. For games that are blowouts, focus more on key plays.
■ Injuries – were any key players hurt or did any player recently return from an injury. (Read stories on the teams and check with coaches to determine this.)

THINGS TO KNOW
■ Stealing is allowed so long as batters do not lead off. They can leave base as soon as the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand,
■ Like in baseball, pitching is an art. They do not just fire fastball after fastball. Even Nolan Ryan got shellacked when he tried that. Softball pitchers throw rise curves and flat curves, rise balls, screw balls, change-ups and two kinds of drop balls that are like nasty sliders. There are very few saves in softball since starters usually go the distance. Teams usually stick with their top pitcher, even at the end of the game, instead of relying on their No. 2 pitcher. Most softball teams retain three pitchers on staff unlike baseball rosters that are filled with about four to five starters along with some middle and late relievers. Softball pitchers can throw many more innings and can pitch every day, if needed.
■ Scoring is typically low, especially between two top-rated teams. That’s why you will see much more bunting, slap hitting and stealing to manufacture runs. You can focus on these key plays. Softball has evolved more into a power game on some levels, where many runs are scored. But, like in baseball, fewer runs are typically scored when the top teams face off.
■ The softball mound is 43 feet away from the plate. That’s three feet farther back than in the 1980s. This change was prompted by those who wanted more scoring in games. Most youth and high school mounds are still at 40 feet.
■ Bases are 60 feet apart, which is 30 feet closer than in baseball -- probably because it is more difficult to throw the bigger ball as hard or as far.
■ Use earned-run average in first reference. You can use ERA in subsequent references.
Double plays are less common in softball than baseball, mostly because runners can cover the shorter distances faster. Check out this story to learn more about the challenges of turning two in softball.
■ Use RBI in first reference. Still, find other ways to cite them. For example, you can also write that a player “drove in three runs,” not just that “he had three RBI.”
■ Batters go 2-for-3, not two for three.
■ You can put records in parentheses, especially when they also reflect conference or district marks. For example, you would write that Eastern Illinois (18-10, 12-2 in the Ohio Valley Conference) is one game away from earning an NCAA bid. If you have mentioned that the game is a conference or district game, you do not need to cite that information in the parentheses. For example: Lake Brantley (15-3, 9-1) drilled four home runs to rout Lyman (14-4, 8-2) in a key district game.

CLICHES TO AVOID
■ These are games, not “contests.” That’s true for any sporting event. Pie eating? Now that’s a contest (and a tasty one at that.)
■ Runs are not “plated,” they are scored.
■ Check the Associated Press Stylebook for the spelling of key words, such as home run (being two words) and left-hander. The section is in the back of the stylebook, entitled SPORTS GUIDELINES. Keep it with you at all games.
■ Yes, we call softball players ‘man,’ when it refers to positions, as in first baseman. These terms could change in time, but there are no replacement terms right now.
■ Avoid leads and angles where you refer to players as 'girls' or as 'demure.' These young women are trained athletes. Treat them as such.

QUESTIONS TO ASK PLAYERS AFTER THE GAME
As you review the following questions, make sure you realize your approach is as important as the questions you ask
■ Ask players what they were thinking (during a key point in the game)?
■ Ask players to comment on the opposing pitcher.
■ Ask players and coaches to react to key plays
■ Ask managers/coaches to explain reasons for recent trends. (Do you know what has caused your pitcher to struggle recently? Do you know what has caused your shortstop to go on a hitting streak lately?)
■ Ask how the team has played recently.
■ Ask catchers about their pitchers – specifically about ball movement, mechanics and location.

photo/Jay Grabiec

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