Michigan softball team stands in a circle with their arms around each other’s shoulders.
The implications of analytics for the Michigan softball team. Madeline Hinkley/Daily.  Buy this photo.

Whether you love or hate it, today’s landscape of softball is inundated by statistics. Some coaches take the Moneyball approach, basing almost every decision on numbers while others do away with this notion, putting faith into their raw judgment and what meets the eye.

But regardless of your opinion on the role of numbers to the game, two things are true:

These analytics can show a team’s  trends over the course of the season, but they also can’t capture everything and at times can be misleading. 

The best approach to maximize the value of analytics is a combination of both — a familiarity with impactful data combined with an understanding of what might be driving outliers. 

At the plate

The obvious starting point when it comes to analytics is the offensive production which is fairly easy to quantify with batting average. As a team, the Wolverines bat .287 with a .361 on base percentage (OBP). 

On the surface, these numbers seem respectable — especially for a Michigan team that has never been best known for its hitting. But in reality, a .287 average is sub par for the Wolverines, and discounting the shortened 2020 season, it amounts to their worst offensive season since 2012. 

The regression at the plate plays a huge role in Michigan’s struggles, and what’s weighing the numbers down is the Wolverines inconsistency. Some games they dominate, but in others the bats go completely silent.

Individually, however, Michigan has one runaway leader: graduate outfielder Kristina Burkhardt. She boasts a .388 average   .58 higher than the next highest, held by junior outfielder Audrey LeClair’s .330. She leads the team with 59 hits, 21 more than senior catcher Hannah Carson’s second best 38. And to boot, she has the most stolen bases, the highest OBP and slugging. 

Burkhardt’s average encapsulates her well. Her numbers aren’t built by streaks or weighed down by slumps, they’re the product of steadfast consistency. So when the numbers say she’ll get a hit 39% of the time, expect her to get a hit 39% of the time. She sticks to her average better than almost anyone.

LeClair, for her part, has progressed steadily throughout the season. But because her style mimics Burkhardt’s, her success is often overlooked. She consistently produces, but does so without power, being only one of two regular starters without a home run and rarely steals the show.

Three other batters, Carson, senior outfielder Lexie Blair and graduate second basemen Melina Livingston all bat over .300 as well. The three rank among the team’s best power hitters with at least three home runs a piece. However, that doesn’t say much. Michigan’s 31 home runs ranks eighth in the Big Ten.

The Wolverines really only have two batters with definite power: sophomore second baseman Sierra Kersten and sophomore catcher Keke Tholl. Both average a home run in about 7% of their plate appearances. Neither Tholl nor Kersten consistently start though as their power doesn’t translate to consistent hits.

For some Michigan batters, it’s clear that statistics don’t tell the full story. 

Freshman outfielder Ellie Sieler and fifth-year third baseman Taylor Bump on paper appear to be two of the Wolverines’ least productive batters. But the story of their numbers is defined  by early season slumps. In the last couple of weeks, Bump and Sieler have unloaded, saving games with big hits in clutch moments for Michigan.

In the circle

As a program, the Wolverines dominance in Big Ten competition generally starts with their pitching. Last year, the duo of then-junior rightie Alex Storako and then-senior leftie Meghan Beaubien had the  two lowest earned run averages in the conference with 1.05 and 1.24 ERAs respectively. 

This year, Storako’s ERA has risen slightly to 1.67, but even with this year’s setback, she still ranks second in the conference. Beaubien’s ERA on the other hand took a considerable jump to 2.39 — the worst mark of her career. In spite of that, though, it  still ranks as the seventh best in the conference. 

Beaubien has the same problem many of the Michigan hitters face: inconsistency. Some days she shines, other days she collapses and Michigan coach Carol Hutchins has caught on to this. Beaubien now has a much shorter leash than Storako, evidenced by the fact that she has pitched 77 fewer innings.

The pitching data makes one thing apparent — Michigan’s problems aren’t rooted in the circle. 

As a whole, the Wolverines pitching staff has the lowest opponent ERA in the conference by .38. They have the most shutouts, the fewest hits allowed and the lowest opponent batting average. 

The data may show that Michigan’s pitching has regressed, but at the same time the data also shows that the Wolverines’ biggest flaw is at the plate. The pitching is still dominant, their batters just struggle to keep up.

In the field

Fielding is the one aspect of the game where the analytics fall apart.

According to the data, six players are tied as Michigan’s best defensive player — but none of them are truly its biggest defensive strengths.

Sieler and fellow freshman shortstop Ella McVey are clearly the Wolverines biggest assets in the field. Both are athletic and fast, and in games, that translates to success. In the outfield, Sieler’s skills prevent runs. She frequently makes impressive catches on well hit balls that should fall.

At shortstop, McVey generates similar value. More often than not, grounded balls that should zip through the gap end up in her glove in unbelievable fashion. McVey — who struggles at the plate — likely remains in the lineup because of her glove. She’s ninth in the order for a reason, but she makes up for it in the field.

Michigan really only has one sub par fielder, and that’s at second base with Livingston. She isn’t a total liability, but she’s the opposite of McVey. Balls that seem playable are fairly frequently bobbled and this is reflected in the numbers, as her .942 fielding percentage is the worst of all consistent fielders. But once again in contrast to McVey, Livingston is in the lineup to hit, not field, and her clutch performances and high average keep her starting. 

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The key takeaway from all of this data is that despite numerous games where Michigan runs up the score, hitting is its problem.

Inconsistency at the plate — not in the circle — is what’s keeping the Wolverines from having the season they’re used to. With the Big Ten Tournament approaching their bats need to heat up at the right time.