Wins, losses, and All-American softball pitchers

Wins, losses, and All-American softball pitchers

In 2010 the Baseball Writers’ Association of America finally got it right in their Cy Young vote. Despite having only a 13-12 record, Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners was clearly the best pitcher in the American League. They realized this fact despite David Price having a 19-6 record and C.C. Sabathia going 21-7. Why Hernandez? Because he had the lowest run support of any pitcher in the major leagues that year yet led in most other pitching categories. Joe Smith, a reporter covering the Tampa Bay Rays for The St. Petersburg Times, put it best when he told the New York Times why he voted for Hernandez over his hometown Price: “Wins are a factor in this type of award, but not the main factor, because it’s one of the least controllable things a pitcher has.”

I hope voters for All-American softball pitchers will eventually look beyond pitcher won-loss records, but we’re not there yet. Case in point, look at last season’s D-I softball All-Americans:

Player School Record
Delanie Gourley Florida 19-4
Megan Good James Madison 32-3
Paige Parker Oklahoma 38-3
Jailyn Ford James Madison 18-3
Aleshia Ocasio Florida 22-2
Sara Groenewegen Minnesota 31-7
Kelsey Nunley Kentucky 22-6
Kylee Hanson Florida Atlantic 28-5
Alex Stewart Louisiana-Lafayette 29-6
Megan Betsa Michigan 28-5
Erica Nunn South Florida 27-12
Sydney Littlejohn Alabama 23-7
Nisa Ontiveros California 18-8
Cheridan Hawkins Oregon 24-4
Jessica Burroughs Florida St. 29-5
Rainey Gaffin Tennessee 27-9

This group averaged 25.9 wins, 5.6 losses. For good measure, Ocasio and Nunn were top 10 in saves with 6 saves each while Gaffin, Gourley, and Betsa had 5 saves. Obviously these are great pitchers with gaudy won-loss records and many had some saves to boot. But did anyone look at run support? Here were these pitchers’ offenses ranked by runs per game:

2. Michigan – 7.90 RPG
3. Louisiana-Lafayette – 7.89
4. Oregon – 7.60
5. Washington – 7.3
7. Tennessee – 7.22
10. Florida St. – 7.06
13. Oklahoma – 6.69
14. Minnesota – 6.67
23. UCLA – 6.21
25. Alabama – 6.11
27. Florida – 6.00
31. Louisville – 5.85
39. James Madison – 5.71
62. Florida Atlantic – 5.32
64. South Florida 5.26
114. Kentucky – 4.68
141. California – 4.40

So of 290 teams playing D-I college softball, 14 of the 16 All-American pitchers came from teams in the top 64 for run support, and all of the pitchers came from teams in the top half of scoring. The difference in run support in college softball is dramatic. Whereas Auburn finished first in the country averaging 7.94 runs per game, at the bottom of the scale was Saint Peter’s averaging just 1.95 runs per game. Even if she was the most talented pitcher in the country, no pitcher with the type of run support St. Peter’s had last year is earning All-American honors. Right?

In his new book Smart Baseball, author Keith Law writes, “In baseball, team victories matter, but the idea of a single player earning full credit for a win or blame for a loss exposes a deep ignorance of how the game actually plays out on the field…the entire thought process that led us to this point, where a starting pitcher gets that credit or blame, is both out of date and very, very stupid.”

So if not win-loss records, what about earned run average? Here are the All-Americans from last season and their ERAs:

Player School ERA
Delanie Gourley Florida 0.80
Megan Good James Madison 0.94
Paige Parker Oklahoma 1.64
Jailyn Ford James Madison 1.03
Aleshia Ocasio Florida 0.77
Sara Groenewegen Minnesota 2.03
Kelsey Nunley Kentucky 1.36
Kylee Hanson Florida Atlantic 0.76
Alex Stewart Louisiana-Lafayette 1.94
Megan Betsa Michigan 2.02
Erica Nunn South Florida 1.67
Sydney Littlejohn Alabama 2.43
Nisa Ontiveros California 2.05
Cheridan Hawkins Oregon 1.77
Jessica Burroughs Florida St. 1.86
Rainey Gaffin Tennessee 2.32

Again, all of these pitchers had good to great ERAs, although some might consider Littejohn’s and Gaffin’s ERAs as outliers for this group. But ERA is no longer a statistic for me. As a college coach I’ve regularly seen hits scored as errors and errors scored as hits. The most egregious scoring mistake was a triple hit to the wall over an outfielder’s head that was scored a three-base error. But if you think about it, Major League Baseball scorers struggle with rulings on a nightly basis and there are just 30 of those folks. With around 1,100 teams playing D-I, D-II, and D-III softball, finding consistency in how plays are scored is difficult if not impossible. For that reason I’d argue that rather than using earned run average, RA7 (Runs Allowed Per 7 Innings Pitched) would be a better metric. RA7 uses runs allowed rather than earned runs allowed, but is otherwise the same as ERA. In other words, all runs allowed are taken into account with RA7, not just those that don’t involve an error like ERA uses. RA9, baseball’s version of RA7, is described on as, “A pitcher’s job isn’t to prevent earned runs. It’s to prevent runs. That’s what this stat analyzes. It’s not a perfect evaluation tool for how well a pitcher did his job. But it’s a perfect evaluation tool for how well his job was ultimately done.”

So let’s take a look at RA7 for last year and where the All-Americans rank:

Rank Player RA7
1 Kylee Hanson, Fla. Atlantic 0.89
2 Aleshia Ocasio, Florida 0.91
3 Delanie Gourley, Florida 1.11
4 Megan Good, James Madison 1.30
7 Jailyn Ford, James Madison 1.49
10 Kelsey Nunley, Kentucky 1.63
13 Paige Parker, Oklahoma 1.92
24 Jessica Burroughs, Florida St. 2.21
25 Cheridan Hawkins, Oregon 2.21
29 Erica Nunn, South Fla. 2.28
34 Megan Betsa, Michigan 2.33
46 Nisa Ontiveros, California 2.51
50 Sara Groenewegen, Minnesota 2.54
51 Alex Stewart, UL Lafayette 2.55
72 Sydney Littlejohn, Alabama 2.76
144 Rainey Gaffin, Tennessee 3.81

According to RA7, Gaffin is definitely the outlier.

So who should have taken her place? How about Whitney Gillespie of Jacksonville State. Gillespie ranked fifth in the country with an RA7 of 1.45. Her ERA was top notch as well at 1.13. And her record of 16-4 with 9 shutouts and 4 saves should have put her in the mix for All American. But her record didn’t compare to Gaffin’s record of 27-9. Nevermind that Tennessee was seventh in scoring in the country with 7.22 runs per game while Jacksonville State was 78th with 5.10 runs per game.

I could continue this argument further to include stats such as FIP (2.81 for Gillespie compared with 2.94 for Gaffin) or BABIP (.204 for Gillespie compared with .281 for Gaffin), but softball’s All-American voters evidently don’t look to such statistics.

This is an example of the difference between baseball and softball award voters. Gillespie is softball’s version of Felix Hernandez, except Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young award in 2010 and Gillespie wasn’t named an All American in 2016.