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Nicholl commentary -- Tiger softball a consistent program

5/13/2014

Every team enters a season with expectations. This spring, the Fort Hays State University softball squad had a unique set of circumstances with a rare roster construction. I have never found, at any level, a team quite like the Tigers. They graduated their top player, first-team All-American pitcher Maddie Holub, and returned everyone else from a 47-12 team, easily the best in school history.

Could a team full of returners replace the best player in program history?

While most people, fans and media can agree on a team's expectation level -- i.e. more is generally expected from KU basketball than KU football -- the Tiger softball team had wildly different expectation levels.

During the past several months, people generally fell into one of two categories.

1. Fort Hays should be better because they returned everyone else.

2. Fort Hays should be significantly worse because Holub graduated. She was the "star," and when softball teams lose their ace, they drop back.

The coaches picked Fort Hays to finish third in the preseason MIAA poll. The Tigers were ranked outside of the top-25 in the preseason, but after a strong start, jumped as high as No. 13 in the poll.

Throughout the season, coach Erin Kinberger mentioned several times how much her team felt pressure from themselves and outside sources because of the expectations. The team had nearly two weeks off around Easter and Kinberger said it was a good "decompression" moment for Fort Hays.

Last Monday, the Tiger season came to a close when FHSU didn't make the NCAA Division II tournament.

Fort Hays finished fourth in the MIAA with a 29-20 record and narrowly missed the tournament field.

By winning percentage, it marks as the sixth-best season in FHSU history. Fort Hays came close to replacing Holub's production, but couldn't quite match the standard set by last season's MIAA Pitcher and Player of the Year.

Offense

One can't look at just batting average, homers and RBIs to extract Holub's offensive value. The best way is to look at a formula called Runs Created that takes into account every offensive outcome and shows how many runs a team and player should produce, called run expectancy.

Because the 2013 season had 59 games and the '14 spring had 49 games, runs created per plate appearance is the best way to determine offensive output across the years (there was 1,857 team plate appearances last season, 1,509 this year).

Last year, Holub accounted for 27 percent of the team's offense, or .374 runs created for plate appearance, an astronomical number.

The rest of the returners, outfielders Bianca Adame, Amanda Vaupel and infielders Danie Brinkmann, Jenna Lang, Tori Beltz, Courtney Dobson and Kellsi Olsen, pitcher Paxton Duran, catcher Callie Wright, along with the bench combined for 1.46 runs created per plate appearance in 2013 (catcher/outfielder Amy Dunn was counted as a bench player both years because she started only 36 games in two seasons).

This season, Dobson, Olsen and Wright especially improved, while Beltz and Lang became reserves. The returners averaged 1.29 runs created per plate appearance.

Three new players, outfielders Rilee Krier, Samantha Villarreal and third baseman Kylie Strand, basically needed to replace Holub's production. Led by an all-MIAA honorable mention year from Villarreal, the trio averaged .341 runs per plate appearance, just under Holub's .374.

Overall, the team averaged .155 runs created per plate appearance last year, and .132 runs created per plate appearance this year.

As well, the Tigers had some problems hitting with runners in scoring position this spring.

Teams that hit well in clutch situations usually produce more runs that they are supposed to. Last year, FHSU outperformed their run expectancy by 26 runs. This year, it was 18 - eight runs that likely could have led to a regional berth.

Pitching

A softball ace controls the game perhaps like no other sport. The best way to extract Holub's value is not through earned-run average, which relies on the defense. It's through Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP, a statistic that delivers a ERA without defensive involvement. Last season, Holub, mainly because of 354 strikeouts, delivered a 0.49 FIP, actually lower than her season ERA of 1.03.

Duran finished with a 3.14 FIP last season, close to her actual ERA of 3.09.

This season, plenty of credit goes to Duran emerging as a second team all-MIAA pitcher. She finished with a 2.87 FIP ERA (3.20 overall). First-year transfer Kelsey Kimminau had a 3.14 FIP (3.16 ERA). Returning relievers Jordan Jones (3.10 FIP, 2.85 ERA) and Katlyn Kern (2.49 FIP, 2.56 ERA) had solid seasons. In short, the Tigers had the deepest pitching staff of any MIAA team.

Defense

Even with a virtually intact defense, Fort Hays was slightly worse than last season in the field. FHSU had a .970 fielding percentage and turned 70.9 percent of balls in play into outs in 2013. When Holub was on the mound, that number was actually slightly lower at 70.3 percent.

This season, the Tigers had a .967 fielding percentage and turned 66.1 percent of balls in play into outs.

Overall

FHSU, even with the improvements by some players, couldn't match Holub's season, but its depth didn't allow for a big dropoff. Four teams, including Fort Hays, lost an All-American pitcher from last season. Colorado Mines went from 40-7-1 to 20-25. Columbus State (Ga.) and Molloy (N.Y.) College had similar records to Fort Hays. Columbus State dropped from 40-20 to 31-20. Molloy went from 53-14 to 30-22-1.

But Kinberger, now 107-51 as Tiger head coach, has built the program into a consistent team. While Fort Hays has to replace school career record holders in Wright (putouts), Brinkmann (walks), Adame (steals) and a three-year starter in Olsen, FHSU brings back most of their lineup, including Duran, Kimminau and Vaupel, a three-time all-conference pick. 2014 MIAA champion Emporia State, with a non-senior heavy roster, and Fort Hays should be the leading conference contenders next season.